The Italian sauvignon blanc I had positioned to my right offered tantalising caresses in the form of fruity flavours, though such sophistication was wasted on me. Paired with salt and vinegar crisps, I resembled that of a University student hellbent on ruining my diet and felt much like one too. Still, I was adamant in my need to pretend this evening’s meal was gourmet and for a while it seemed to be working…until it suddenly left a sour taste in my mouth.
“Alister Branning raises thousands for charity.”
“Alister Branning has his client’s best interests at heart.”
“Alister Branning…CAN SUCK MY DICK!”
I was conducting the mother of all background checks–per Spencer’s request– but was disappointed in my findings thus far. Alister struck me as the type to have a sketchy history, yet nothing was showing up.
As far as Google was concerned, he could do no wrong. Being such an active member of society and a ‘constant giver’ had Alister painted as a saint. Fucking infuriating. Still, I kept my cool. I’d get nowhere if I let my emotions intervene and couldn’t afford to get sloppy. Alister craved control and right now, he had it. For mine and Spencer’s plan to work, it was important he kept thinking that. The element of surprise was our biggest advantage and we had to remember that. However hard it was.
Sam’s voice filtered in through my front door, followed soon by a small tap.
“Just a sec!”
I quickly abandoned my search to answer him, grateful for a change to my evening plans. My pathetic attempt at an investigation was proving rather tiresome and with crisps my only energy source, I was slowly losing the will to live.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” I teased, opening the door to his smiling face.
“Fancy a game of scrabble?”
“Sure. Why not?”
Within seconds, the game was set up and ready for us to use. Again, my kitchen table was being used at his disposal and underwent a thorough transformation. Long gone were the bunch of flowers I kept in the centre, replaced instead by a notebook intended to keep our score. Sam was a lover of Scrabble and often challenged me to an intense round or two, however now, I suspected he had other motives for his unexpected arrival.
“I came to apologise.”
There it is!
“Apology accepted,” I smiled, offering him hospitality by passing him a can of Coke.
He raised his right brow and shot me a surprised glance. “That was quick. I had an entire speech planned out,” he admitted, cracking open the drink and taking a tentative sip.
I mirrored his actions with my wine and proceeded to stare him down, allowing him the pleasure of continuing.
“Fine. Let’s hear it…”
“Nothing excuses mine and Dad’s actions,” he began, offering sincerity. “Accusing Spencer of hitting you was low. I’m sorry.”
“He’d never hurt me, Sam,” I insisted, sure to add emphasis.
“I know that now. I just got carried away,” he sheepishly admitted. “I had Karen telling me you were asking her all these questions and when I found out you and Spencer split up, I got the wrong end of the stick. We all did.”
This explanation was justifiable. Had the shoe been on the other foot, I couldn’t deny perhaps jumping to the same conclusion. It did seem odd that I would show up at Karen’s and ask her specific questions regarding her past. They still didn’t have an answer as to why that was and for the time being, it would remain that way. Spencer didn’t want anyone interfering and I respected that. It just seemed like the right thing to do for now. Domestic abuse was a serious matter and for those involved, an extremely emotional time. I may not have been Isy’s number one fan but that didn’t mean I wanted her personal life broadcasted for all to see. She deserved support and protection, just as much as the next guy. She didn’t strike me as the type to refuse help but none of that mattered if the help wasn’t offered. I had to establish how Spencer planned on reaching out.
“Let’s just forget it ever happened,” I offered, settling down in front of the Scrabble board.
I picked six random counters from the bag and underwent a silent laugh when my stack displayed an F, U, C, K, E and a D.
“You won’t get angry if I ask you something, will you?” he asked, taking up his position opposite.
He took that to mean proceed. “How did Spencer take the news about Charlotte?”
“Better than expected. He was sympathetic and understanding. He’s adamant it changes nothing.”
“But it does?” he questioned, examining my reaction carefully.
“Well, yeah. Alister is using my actions as his defence. He’s stating I’m an unfit parent.”
“Hence the split?
“Correct,” I replied, rearranging my letters. “I feel responsible, so I’m taking action.”
At this, Sam offered up a dramatic eye roll.
“This isn’t your fault, Jessie”
“Maybe not but I’m not exactly adding to our chances, am I?”
He couldn’t disagree. Instead, he took to arranging his own counters and leisurely sipped from his drink. Sam was as laidback as they came and often, I envied his ability to offer zero fucks to a situation. Poised and elegant, he always could handle pressure well. Until it became personal. I’d seen him enraged to the point of lashing out and never wanted to witness that side of him again. The way he threatened to beat the shit out of Spencer for mistreating me was proof he still held on to some of that hot-headedness. He was strong, protective and–when he wanted to be– intimidating. But underneath all that bravado was a very sensitive man. He was awfully in tune with his feelings and often struggled to keep them all in check. Not that he ever let anyone in. I worried about him sometimes. He always seemed so happy on the outside and whether or not that was reflective on the inside was always a mystery. He handled Mum’s illness the same way he handled most things. With humour. His tendency to make a joke out of every situation was every inch the disguise and meant he never had to admit to feeling sad. It was a comping mechanism of course, but not always the best option in my opinion. I felt as though he’d benefit from opening up but didn’t want to push him. Being with Bethany seemed to be helping but it didn’t diminish my unease completely. He was so concerned with being protective that he often forgot to protect himself. For him, the idea of seeking help translated into weakness and whilst I had once been like that myself, I had since come around to the idea. Communication was a key aspect in anyone’s life and I of all people knew that now. Too bad Sam didn’t.
“Spencer struggles with self-esteem,” I revealed, feeling the need to explain his insecurities. “He didn’t want to split. Not at first.”
“But he’s so confident?” he expressed, before adding, “What changed his mind?”
“Leila,” I replied, keeping certain reasons out of the equation. “Getting her back is his number one priority. I eventually made him see sense,”
I started the game off by spelling out DECK and offered him a sarcastic smile.
“So, why does he struggle with self-esteem?”
“His blindness mostly,” I replied, sipping more wine. “Being told you can no longer take care of your child because you can’t see is a massive kick in the balls.”
“Hmm,” he agreed. “And prick’s like Alister don’t help. What he said on Christmas was disgusting. I almost went for him myself but you beat me to it.”
“Oops…” I mocked, gifting my brother a cheeky smirk.
We both averted our attention to the game, concentrating hard on the points up for grabs. Once again, our competitiveness was out and ready to claim victory. Equal contenders meant never letting the other win by default. Even in situations like this, Sam would never throw the game and that was what I loved most about him. He didn’t treat me any differently. I could trust him and whether that be with a game of Scrabble or my life, I knew I could count on him.
“His ex-wife cheated on him, didn’t she?” he eventually asked, using my K to spell out KNIVES.
The little fucker beat my ten points by two.
“Yes. With Alister.”
“That’s fucked up,” he shared, adding more tiles to his stack.
“He’s already been fucked over by one woman. I can’t let my past mistakes ruin him.”
“This is different, Jessica,” he insisted, briefly flicking his eyes to mine. “You’re nothing like his ex. You’re not deliberately screwing him over.”
“Just unintentionally,” I sighed. “I swear, if I mess this up for him-”
“You won’t. Not if you stick to the plan,” he insisted, shocking me with his support. “Six months is nothing when you look at the bigger picture. And I’m here to help. I’ll supply wine and Scrabble on an endless loop.”
I laughed. “Thanks.”
“Any time, Jessie. And don’t let any fucker make you feel ashamed about what you did. Charlotte was loved by her adoptive parents and you did that. You gave her the best possible chance in life.”
His determination filled me with my own source of confidence and for that, I was extremely grateful. I wasn’t ashamed of my actions but rather reluctant to share. Having a child at seventeen was not part of my plan but it happened. The option for an abortion had been presented earlier on in my pregnancy but I declined. I was to blame for my carelessness and was adamant in taking responsibility. So I did. I gave birth to her and could never regret doing so because she was the very definition of perfect. Cute button nose, huge brown eyes and an air of innocence about her that I’d never before witnessed had me instantly in love. Handing her over to her parents was difficult, yet so easy at the same time. I knew it was the right decision, that she would be well loved. That was all I wanted. For her to be loved. And she was. Still is.
I broke away from my trance. “Hmm?”
Sam peered at me from his position opposite, gesturing towards the board. “It’s your turn.”
So it was.
Thanks to my evening consumption of wine, I miraculously reunited with sleep and got a least four hours in before my phone so rudely interrupted. Heavy eyes betrayed my ability to see and I eventually located the persistent ringing by reaching across my dresser, almost knocking over my glass of water in the process.
In my sleepy haze, I’d failed to check who was calling.
It was Dad.
“This better be good, old man.”
My insult was met with nothing but silence, filling me with deep panic. Dad never did shy away from my ‘old man’ jokes and always fought his own when under attack from such a thing. Not now.
The knot in my stomach tightened into an aggressive contraction, rendering me completely crippled. I could sense something was wrong, yet still pleaded with anything and everything for my intuition to be incorrect. A quick glance to the clock told me we were slap bang in the middle of the night, meaning he must’ve had a damn good reason to be calling.
“Dad, you’re scaring me.”
“It’s your mum, petal.”
“I’m so sorry.”