Chapter 38: Keep Pretending
Prancing around in Mummy’s high heels and clinging on to Daddy’s briefcase. Gripping it tightly, as if you are holding your whole world between your fingertips and if you let go, that world you knew so well would come crumbling down.
The steady ground beneath your feet would move, and your familiar surroundings would shift and change into something new, the old ones gently fading out into nothing.
The people you used to see every day and know so well, would become strangers. And the buildings you once passed had been knocked down and demolished long before you had even noticed they were gone.
The point is, life can change within the blink of an eye.
And soon that briefcase that held within it the contents of all your hopes and dreams, turns into a hand. A hand of another person. And truly then, will you be holding your whole world between your fingertips.
In which Kirsten finally says hello to someone she never got to say goodbye to.
It took us five houses until we found his.
Something told me that he was here. It was one of those sub-conscious feelings that you can’t really explain.
I could smell fresh paint whilst I stared at the door knob, waiting for the inevitable. He was in there, I knew it. We were about to meet again for the first time in years.
My whole body tensed as I spent what felt like a lifetime waiting for the door to swing open.
When it did our eyes met immediately. His were green like mine, but darker. I noticed the stubble on his chin and how short his hair was now. He might as well of been bald.
“Hello, sorry to bother you. We are looking for a Mr Green?” Miles recited what he’d said at every house, before looking between us in realisation.
His mouth tipped open as he looked at me, gobsmacked.
I noticed the way his eyes brightened and his breathing pulled in suddenly, for so long that I almost worried he’d forgotten how to. His hands clasped, unclasped. He let out a long sigh.
“Kirsten ...?” He said my name like it was foreign, as if his mouth wasn’t used to the shape of the word.
My chest tightened at the sound of his voice, one thousand memories suddenly flooding back. The sound of his footsteps when he came home from work, his laugher dancing with Mums on movie nights before they kissed each other goodnight. The times he’d used to come home on Sunday’s with a brand new book in his hands and give it to me.
I remembered what he said when he passed it to me, the biggest smile plastered on my face. “Never stop pretending princess.”
I couldn’t stop the sobs as they overtook me, racking my chest and causing me to fall in on myself. I felt Miles tense immediately by my side, going to reach out before deciding against it.
Every breath was painful and my eyes stung, throat raw. The tears barely had the chance to dry on my cheeks before more fell down, over and over again until I lost grasp on the time that had passed. I didn’t know what to do. Was I supposed to feel happy? Angry? Should I hug him and tell him how much I’ve missed him, or do I resent him from walking out on me for a woman who wasn’t Mum?
I felt a pair of strong arms wrap around me, the warmth of someone else guiding me into the house. I didn’t know whether it was him or Miles, but I didn’t really care.
My back was now propped up against something soft, probably a pillow, and I could hear a tap running in the distance. I felt the weight of someone else sit beside me and a hand make its way into mine.
“Have a drink.” A rough voice cut through the air, and I lifted up my eyes to meet his.
They were glossy with tears, and there was a strained look on his face. He handed me a glass of water and I lifted it up to my mouth, welcoming the cold feeling that washed down my throat and wet my lips. My breathing shook as I passed it back to him, a shaky gasp catching in my chest. I probably looked pathetic.
He stood awkwardly, shifting from one foot to the other.
I blinked away the tears in my eyes before looking around at where I was. The smell of mint filled the room, as my eyes trailed over the plush sofas and abstract paintings on the walls. All of the furniture was made of pine, and a large flatscreen TV hung on the wall.
Pushing my shoes into the carpet, I wondered where Dad had managed to find all of this money. It was nothing like my house, which was simple and small. This was like being in a hotel.
It was the only word I could manage as I tried to take in everything around me.
I glanced back over at my Dad. He looked small standing in here. It was as if he was being swallowed up by all of the extravagance and over-the-top decor. This wasn’t my Dad. There had to be a woman living here.
I was waiting for the moment the kids ran around the corner, all crayons and freckled cheeks. They’d say “Who’s this Daddy?” and he’d pretend that he didn’t know because he didn’t want his past ruining what he had now.
Then his wife would skirt into the room, nails perfectly manicured and hair silky smooth. She’d have a way about her, a warm nature that made everyone want to be friends with her. She would be the perfect wife and mother, baking cookies before bedtime and putting notes in her children’s lunchboxes. Kissing you goodbye and dancing around the kitchen on Friday nights. Her cheeks would be rosy and she’d always be happy, reading bedtime stories and singing lullabies when you couldn’t sleep. She’d never lie, never make you feel like you were anything less than beautiful.
The perfect little family living in the perfect village.
But that moment never came.
The house was quiet, and he was the only one in it.
“Kirsten-” his voice broke like he was about to burst into tears, “I don’t want you to be sorry for anything.”
He sat the opposite side of me, placing his hand on mine. I flinched, almost pulling away but deciding against it. I couldn’t remember the last time my dad had looked me in the eye and held my hand. The last time we’d even had a conversation. It was comforting but it wasn’t something I was used to. I didn’t think I could ever get used to it again.
Part of me wished we could go back to the old days, when everything was normal and we were playing happy families. When my parents were still in love and Nala had never kissed a boy. The times when all that mattered was fairy lights and a good book, dinner time and a movie. The idea of it all made the tears in my eyes resurface.
“How did you find me?” He hadn’t let go of my hand, but there was something in voice that I couldn’t pinpoint. Fear?
“I remembered the name of this road from one of those phone calls you and Mum used to have. I-uh, I felt like I needed to see you. So we just knocked on all of the doors.” I choked on the words, suddenly feeling like I wanted the ground to swallow me whole. I seemed so desperate.
This was awkward. So awkward.
He flinched when I mentioned Mum, eyes suddenly seeming more vacant.
“I see ...” He murmured.
I swallowed hard, becoming aware of how hot my hand was against his. I wanted to let go.
He must’ve read my mind because he pulled back, sighing and placing a hand to his head.
Maybe he was going to tell me to leave. What if he didn’t want to see me? I’d never thought about that.
I fidgeted and looked at Miles. He was sat, legs wide apart and hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. When he caught me looking he smiled gently. I had to bite back a laugh at how casually he was sitting, almost on the verge of seeming rude. It was as if he lived here.
I wondered how he could stay so calm in these kind of situations.
“How’ve you been?” There was confidence in his tone now, a wanting to change the topic of conversation.
“Honestly, not great.” I admitted, feeling a sudden surge of hope.
It was nice to talk to him like this, it was great to be here, almost as much as it was terrifying. Some part of me thought that maybe we could get through this, maybe I hadn’t lost him completely after all.
I wanted to tell him. I wanted to tell him everything.
“I feel like we could do with a catch up.” He smiled, but the smile seemed forced.
“Yeah, just a little.” I tried to laugh but it sounded empty.
“We can always start with him.” My dad nodded towards Miles, who was still lost in his own world staring at the ceiling.
I tapped my knee against his, jolting him back to reality.
“Oh, sorry,” He stammered, “Hi, what’s up.” He smiled brightly, face scrunching up.
“It’s nice to meet you ...” He paused and reached across me, offering his hand to Miles.
Miles took it, shaking forcfully.
“Miles. My name is Miles. And it’s nice to meet you too, Mr Green.”
I was surprised by how polite he sounded and I tried not to smile.
“How did you two meet?” Dad had taken on the role of concerned parent now, pushing for more information.
I wanted to tell him he had no right to do that since he wasn’t part of my life anymore, before I shook the thought away almost as quickly as it came, feeling guilty.
I began to realise that if lived a normal life, this moment would be really important. My father meeting my ... boyfriend? I didn’t know what to call him. He hadn’t actually asked me to be his girlfriend and I wasn’t sure how it worked. But for now he’d just be my Miles, I decided.
“In the library.” He said simply, shooting a glance in my direction.
Dad’s eyes lit up and he turned to me, “You still read?”
“I never stopped.” I twirled a strand of lose hair around in my finger.
It wasn’t just my mum that I’d inherited my love for books from, it was my dad too. It was one of the reason they had fallen in love in the first place, because they were both bookworms.
He stood up suddenly, face pale.
“I’ll be right back.” And with that he walked out of the room and padded up the stairs.
I glanced at Miles nervously, wondering why he’d disappeared all of a sudden. Miles shrugged before leaning in to me and whispering, “This place is crazy.”
He didn’t seem worried, so I decided not to be either.
“Yeah, I know. I don’t understand how he could afford all of this.”
“Neither, but you better hope you inherit his money.”
I found the comment a little insensitive, but I pushed away any feeling when my Dad returned back in the room, this time holding a large cardboard box.
He dumped it down onto the floor, the weight of it making a thump.
“I’ve been saving these ...” He seemed lost with his thoughts as he unfolded the top of the box, pushing it towards me.
My jaw dropped as I realised was inside.
“I tried to send them every Sunday, but your mum told the post office to send them straight back after a while.” Sadness coated his voice.
A spiteful burst of anger lit up like a flame in me, body rigid.
“I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry she did that, I didn’t even know.”
A tear rolled down my cheek as I picked up one of the many books that lay untouched inside the box. I flicked the pages beneath my thumb, breathing in the new smell that I’d always loved but could never explain. Fresh print, oak, ink. It allowed a wave of nostalgia to wash through me.
“I assume she told you.” He rolled back onto his heels, watching as I examined each of the books carefully. I wondered how many shelves all of this would fill, heart swelling. Part of me wanted to block everything out and start reading them now.
But then reality struck, and my brain processed the words he’d just spoken.
“Told me what?” I scowled, fists closing in at the thought of anything else the woman who’d raised me could have kept a secret.
“About Nala and the baby. About her being the reason Nala left, because of the affair.” He said it in ways that would confuse someone who didn’t know the full story. Broken parts of a complex plot filled with lies and betrayal. Part of me wished I’d never found out.
“Oh yeah. Well I know, but she wasn’t the one who told me.” I exhaled in relief at the fact that there were no other lies hiding in the darkness, waiting to pounce on me and flip my life on it’s head for the second time.
“Then who did?” He asked, picking up one of the books himself and flipping it over to read the blurb.
I’d almost forgotten Miles was with us as I’d now moved from the sofa to the carpet, cross-legged and surrounded by books. Dad was good at multi-tasking when it came to reading, and so was I.
“Nala.” I didn’t feel the need to say anything more than that.
“You found Nala?!” He almost shouted, eyes widening, “How Kirsten?”
“I asked Mum for her number and phoned Nala to find out where she lived. Mum wasn’t happy about it, but she gave me the right one which counts for something I guess.”
He didn’t say anything, just slowly placed the book back in the box and stared blankly at the wall.
A feeling of dread settled like a stone at the bottom of my stomach.
“Dad, please don’t tell me you haven’t seen her since ...?”
He shook his head. Then he shook it again.
I didn’t think this could get any worse, everything that had happened in the past two days. I’d never learnt so much about my life in such a short space of time. I’d never lost and gained this much in what felt like seconds.
Miles was listening now, and I could feel the tension in the room get thicker.
“She cut me off Kirsten. Your mother cut me off from everything,” He spat. “And I know it was my mistake that caused it, but it was no excuse to erase me out of both my daughters lives for good.”
I could tell he wasn’t finished so I sat there waiting, waiting for his words to tear me apart more than they already had. I hated him for cheating on mum, but at the same time it was nothing like the resentment I was feeling for her. Everyone makes mistakes. But hers were unforgivable.
“I ended things with Melanie, Vixen’s mother, when I found out about Nala. It was wrong, everything about it was wrong. Obviously, Nala wasn’t to of known, but if Melanie and I had continued in our relationship, Nala and Vixen would’ve had to end there’s.”
It took me a few seconds to realise. Vixen would’ve been Nala’s step-brother.
I couldn’t imagine how Nala must of felt when she found out that Dad was having an affair with Melanie, I was too blind to connect the dots. It must’ve been around the time that Nala fell pregnant with his baby.
“And when Nala fell pregnant, well it was irreversible then. I had no choice.”
In that moment I noticed how old Dad looked. Wrinkles stood out on his forehead and hands and there were dark circles under his eyes. His hair had been grey for as long as I could remember, but now it seemed almost white.
I asked him the question we both wanted to avoid.
“Were you in love with her?”
He paused, eyes losing their light and voice breaking, “Yes. I was in love with her.”
We settled into an uncomfortable silence, the tension in the room so strong that I imagined a knife slicing through it. And then I imagined having to sacrifice what he had, having to say goodbye to Miles for someone else.
It made my heart ache.
“In life, you have to sacrifice things you love for people you love. It’s just that for me I was giving up someone I love for someone else who shared that same love. It’s just that you have to figure out what is more important. And for me that was Nala.”
Miles lent forwards, listening intently. He reached out and rubbed his hand at the base of my back slowly, tracing circles with his fingers. I relaxed under his touch.
“Did she understand?”
“Yes. She’d do anything for Vixen. It was her decision to make too.”
“Did you love her more than Mum?” I realised he was probably thinking I wanted him to say no, but at this point I didn’t care. I was just happy to have my Dad sat in front of me.
“Yes. And I know it’s bad but I just couldn’t pretend there were no feelings there. It was the hardest decision I have ever made.” He admitted.
“You don’t need to explain.” I smiled gently, trying to reassure him, “I’m not mad at you Dad. Not anymore. I understand.”
Within a second I was wrapped up in his arms. He breathed into my hair, tears streaming down his face. He tightened his arms around me, kissing the top of my head.
“Seeing you is the best thing that has happened to me in years. Thank you for finding me.”
I hugged him back, happiness warming me. I didn’t want him to let go, not now or ever. The familiar feeling of his shirt on my cheek reminded me of better days, and I forgot how much I missed having my dad in my life. Part of me wanted to ask him why he never said goodbye when he left, but deep down I already knew the answer, and I thought that enough was enough for now.
After awhile he pulled away, and we sat amongst countless books talking and laughing and catching up on everything we’d missed since he walked out that fateful day. I told him about the journal I found in the library, the fugitive roaming in The Valley, about Austin and Alice leaving and about the day I met Miles. I explained how we were on a road trip, and how I’d never felt so free in my life. The only thing I left out was the part about running away.
He told me about joining Tinder and the strange dates he’d been on, how he doesn’t think he’ll ever find anyone like Melanie again. He said how grown up I was and how much I’d changed, what a beautiful young woman I’d become.
He told me that he’d started writing books, and how he was close to getting a publishing deal. I don’t think I’ve ever admired him as much as I did in that moment. He took me into his study and I gawked at his laptop and flipped through his manuscript. I gave him my email and he promised to send it to me when he’d finished editing. The only part he left out was how he was managing to pay for this house.
By the time we’d made it to the door it was dark, and I found myself wishing we could stay.
“You’re always welcome.” He finished putting his number into my phone and handed it back to me. “Just give me a call and I’ll be here.”
“Okay.” I beamed, overwhelmed by happiness.
“And you,” He looked at Miles, “Look after her.”
“I will,” Miles promised, “And thank you for having me.”
I was going to make sure that I thanked him a thousand times over later. He’d been so patient today, so calm and supportive. He didn’t complain once, didn’t interrupt any moments me and my dad shared. He just sat silently, joining in one some of the conversations and laughing at my dads jokes.
I decided I would do everything I could not to lose Miles. He wasn’t like anyone I’d ever met before.
“He’s a keeper.” My Dad said, almost as if he’d read my mind.
I nodded, threading my fingers through his. Miles kissed me on the head lightly before pulling the keys of the truck out of his pocket.
“I’ll meet you in the truck.” He thanked my dad again before making his way.
I watched him walk off into the distance and listened to the click of the doors unlocking across the street. His hair caught in the wind as he walked, the moonlight sharpening his features.
Dad pulled me into one last hug before handing me the box of books. I hugged them close to my chest, feeling contempt.
“Keep pretending princess.” Was the last thing he said before the door closed.
For the first time in my life I’d said goodbye, knowing that there was going to be another hello.
I made my way over to the truck, mind clearer than it had been in weeks.
The windows were rolled down and Miles was sitting with the radio turned up full blast, engine revving. His head hung out of the window, hands on the steering wheel.
“C’mon Sunshine!” He shouted, “There’s a sky full of stars waiting for us.”