The Baker's house is clean, and cozy— so much different from the house I grew up in.
Their house is warm, inviting, like maybe I'm more than welcome to stay here for as long as I feel like. It's the kind of feeling I've never quite felt before, maybe I did at my best friend's house when he was alive, but that's a distant memory I can't quite recall anymore.
This isn't just a house, this is a home.
Mabel avoids my gaze as she makes her way towards the stairs, arms wrapped protectively around herself as she bows her head. I think I really screwed up this time, think it'd probably be better if I turned around with my brothers, and walked across the yard to my house. But Adam Baker pats me on the shoulder like he would with a friend, and gestures for us to walk further inside.
I clear my throat when Mabel disappears upstairs, feel vulnerable when my brothers leave my side to sit in the living room, Peaches sauntering behind them.
"Don't just stand there, son," Mr. Baker laughs half heartedly from where he stands in the kitchen, turning on the oven burner. "Why don't you come help me with dinner?"
The warmth of his words, the welcoming smile that spreads on his aging face, it all makes me realize that the people who occupy this house are what make it so inviting, not the expensive furniture, and the clean carpet.
"I– uh, I'm not really that great at cooking," I speak hesitantly, toe off my shoes before walking into the kitchen. "I only really know how to cook Ramen Noodles, and even then I'm not cooking them, just heating them up."
I'm rambling, I know I am, but I'm so nervous as I stand beside him at the counter that I'm worried he might be able to hear the racing of my heart in my chest. But Adam Baker smiles reassuringly, opens a cabinet near his feet to dig for a pot.
I blow out a nervous breath, and he motions towards the stairs with a jerk of his stubbled chin.
"You alright, son?" He asks, but doesn't bother to wait for my answer before he begins talking again. "Maybe you might want to clean up a bit in the upstairs bathroom, you've got a bit of truck oil on your hands."
My cheeks redden with embarrassment, it's absolutely ridiculous, but they do. I don't move from where I stand in the kitchen, my hands clammy with nerves, and my heart two beats from falling out of my ass.
Adam's eyebrows flick up, awaiting an answer.
He's still an attractive man for his age, dark hair peppered with gray, and gray stubble sprouting along his jaw, and chin. There's bags under his eyes, like maybe he can't catch up to the sleep that has been running from him, and I think maybe Adam Baker feels more than he lets on— than he lets his beloved daughter see.
Mr. Baker's laugh startles me out of my skin.
"Relax, I'm not going to lecture you. You're a grown man, you'll waste your money on whatever you want, am I right?" He says, pours water into the pot he's placed on the heated stove. "But in case you didn't get the hint, I believe you should go talk with Mabel upstairs before dinner."
I nod my head numbly, clear my throat in hopes it'll rid of the tightness there, but it doesn't.
I nod again.
"Mr. Baker," I start, stuff my hands into my pockets to look less awkward standing here in this man's kitchen with my fuming brothers sitting silently in the living room, and a girl upstairs with angry words she can't wait to throw at me.
I have made such a mess of things.
"I'm really sorry about all of that," I lean against the counter for support as I stare at him, watch him dump raw noodles into the boiling water. "I'm really sorry Mabel got involved, and I'll pay you back, I swear."
Adam smiles small with a shake of his head.
"Go talk to Mabel first, and then we'll talk."
My nod is anything but confident as I turn to rush out of the kitchen with more anxiety than I'd like to admit. Chance glares over his phone from where he sits stiffly on the overstuffed couch, and I attempt to flash him an apologetic smile— fail to show any teeth as I hurry towards the staircase that could lead to my inevitable doom. My fingers bump against the railing, wood slick against my palm as I walk up, noting the way the wood doesn't creak when I put all my weight into each step.
This house, this home, is sturdy, and polished— makes you want to wrap up in a knitted blanket in the rocking chair closest to the fireplace, and watch the snow shake from the oak tree from the fogged bay window. Mabel Baker was given a life of normality and warmth and bandaids over scraped knees and I hated her guts for it.
But now, I realize, I've always been envious.
Mabel is sitting on the edge of her bathtub when I reach the top of the stairs, and my heart thunders in my chest at the sight of her like that— like my mother. I know that it's my fault when she wipes her pink nose on the back of her hand, and sniffles against the sleeve of her sweater. I can't help but think that maybe if I wasn't so careless then Mabel wouldn't be Olivia Winchester, and I wouldn't be Jonathan leaving bruises on easily hidden skin.
I don't want to be Jonathan.
"Mabel?" I coax, push the bathroom door open a little wider so I don't have to stare into the mirror's reflection to see her.
She's instantly wiping her eyes, scrambling to fix herself so she can pretend to be fine for my benefit. Mabel untucks a dark strand of hair from her ear, quickly trying to hide the bruise blossoming on her flushed cheeks. She doesn't meet my gaze when I walk in, doesn't even move from where she's cemented to the edge of the bathtub— wet washcloth balled up in her fists.
"What?" She says, doesn't have a bite to her tone like she usually does— sounds too worn down to even want to bother with me.
I swallow, grab the polished doorknob to keep myself from looking absolutely stupid as I stand in front of her. I've never felt more like a coward than I do now, standing in front of the only person that's ever been willing to stay— standing in front of her after I brought her into my mess. It hurts to realize that she's not going to look at me, and it hurts to realize that I'm the reason she won't meet my eye.
Me, always me.
Always fucking things up, and never knowing how to fix it.
"Listen, Mabel, I—" I don't know what to say without sounding like a complete ass, think maybe I should just leave her alone— give her some space. But mom always sat waiting, with her tears and broken bones, for Jonathan to come in, and apologize. "Mabel, I'm really sorry."
The girl laughs like she finds my apology funny, rubs her head with a grimace as if the sound of my voice rubs her the wrong way, and tosses the wet rag into the empty tub behind her before resting her chin in the palm of her hand.
"Sorry?" She retorts, and I almost flinch, almost. "Okay, yeah, it's fine, Hayes, don't you even worry your pretty little head about it."
I stare at her, not knowing how to respond to the venom on her tongue. Maybe I should leave her be, let her cool off for a while before I come back, and try again. She's glaring at me now, and I know I really did screw up this time— don't think my words would come close to fixing it. I'm tired, getting pissed off over the fact that she's always so quick to get defensive, even when I'm being sincere.
"I said I was sorry," I reply pathetically, feel like a young boy under his father's disappointed gaze. "I know I'm not, like, the apology expert, or some shit, but I mean it— I am sorry."
Mabel rolls her eyes, jolts up to turn the faucet of the bathroom sink, and water pours out. She scrubs her hands with the bar of soap before shoving them under the boiling stream, glares at me in the mirror as she washes her hands. I don't know how she's not flinching away from the water, can see the steam wafting up towards her angry face, and fogging up the bathroom mirror at the edges. I have to look away from her, or I might cave— might just close the door behind me, and leave her in here to brood in silence.
But I'd be no better than Jonathan Winchester if I left her to cry as she cleaned herself up from a beating that was my fault.
"Yeah, I heard you the first time," she snaps, turns the water off before she reaches for the hand towel draped over the metal rod screwed into the wall above the toilet. "Don't need you to repeat yourself, I just want you to get out."
At least that should be it, but no, I'm so focused on myself, on not being like my piece of shit father, that I reach out to grab her arm— to get her to just look at me.
She whirls around, yanking her arm away from my hand as if I'm nothing but a honey bee on a humid afternoon in the middle of June, and I've just stung her because she's stepped too close to my flower. But Mabel is nothing but a viper, filled to the brim with venom and rage and hate.
"Don't touch me," Mabel hisses, shoves herself back against the sink like I've just taken a swing at her. "I heard your apology, but I am tired and I have a headache and I just want you to get the fuck out."
Her fangs sink deep, hurt me more than I thought it would as I nod.
Nod, and shut the bathroom door on my way out.
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