“The answer is in his eyes when he dares to look at me again, and even though I still see his pleading apology in them, all I feel is pain.”
When I said it would be a day to remember, this is definitely not what I imagined.
Because when I arrive at my grandmother’s house, I see both my parents’ and my brother’s car parked in the driveway. A sigh escapes my throat; I was really hoping to spend a day alone with Grams, although I can’t deny that I love spending time with Mom and Dad.
It has been a little tense with Max ever since Pops’s death. I don’t know what his issue is, but he has been avoiding me like the plague. He was more surprised than the others when I said I’d move back home for a few weeks. My brothers were thankful for that; it meant that I could spend time with my mom and we helped each other through everything.
But Max somehow behaved differently after that. Maybe he feels guilty for saying those things back then, although I told him countless times that I forgive him for that. He was grieving, and Max being Max, he just acted on impulse. It doesn’t make it better, but I at least know where he was coming from.
“Grams?” I call out into the garden when I hear some voices from that direction.
“Oh, you can stay there, sweetie. We’ll drive right away. Max said the penguin show is on at noon! We need to see that,” she says while walking around the corner of the house and into my sight.
My parents follow right after, and all three of them give me a quick hug. Dad ruffles my hair like I was two years old, and I quickly pull away before both my mom and I roll our eyes at him.
“Don’t gang up on me now,” he says, and I give him a gentle shove.
“You know they always do,” Max’s voice makes me turn around, and he shoots me a quick wave as he loads three baskets full of food into the trunk.
“Should I have packed a suitcase? There’s no way we’re eating all of that,” I comment, pointing at the baskets that now disappear in my parents’ Jeep.
Dad laughs and pulls me into his side, whispering into my ear, “I already asked that question. These two said you can never be prepared enough.”
I can’t help but laugh at his words, Mom and Grams ignore us though, they just get into my parents’ car. Dad shoots me another wink before getting into the driver’s seat, and before I know it we’re all on our way to the zoo.
It’s close to noon by the time we find the penguin enclosure, and Max just excuses himself to the restroom while we are still standing in line, patiently waiting.
“He has changed, hasn’t he?” my grandmother asks, and I look at her with a raised brow. “Who?”
“Max. Something has changed that day...” Grams says, obviously still having issues with talking about the day her life changed so drastically.
My mom suddenly turns around, furrowing her brows as she looks at the two of us, “Yeah, he has. I thought it was just me who saw it.”
My father shoots me a look, one that asks if I want to talk about this. We haven’t told them exactly what happened, what Max said to me that day. It wasn’t necessary, and as I said, I know he was just grieving.
“Maybe he just still hasn’t come to terms with it all...” I suggest, giving Grams’s hand a tight squeeze.
“Maybe...” she says, “I know I never will.” Her level but emotional voice makes me feel in awe of her. She’s always so in control of herself. Even after Pops’s death she stayed strong, even though we all told her to let go if she needed to.
“Wait, is that Max?” my mother suddenly asks, and we all look in the direction she’s nodding to.
My blood turns ice-cold the second I see what she’s talking about. Because not only do I see Max, I also see Lincoln, and they seem to be in somewhat of an argument. How the hell would that happen? They don’t even know each other... At least they’re not supposed to.
“That man looks familiar,” Dad says, and that makes me snap my head back at him. What the hell is going on?
“Familiar?” I ask, trying to swallow the emotion in my throat.
“Yeah, I can’t place it though...” he furrows his brows. My father usually knows everything about everyone, and if he says that Lincoln looks familiar, then I don’t want to know what information he has on him.
“Noah...” my mom suddenly nudges her husband, a worried look on her face when she nods back at Max.
I follow their glance, and now I know why she sounds so worried. Max looks like he’s ready to kill Lincoln, squaring up to full height in front of him. I narrow my eyes to focus my vision and understand what the hell is going on, but then I notice that Lincoln has blood on his face. It’s not much, but it’s there.
“What the...” I immediately walk toward them, my parents and grandmother on my heels when I watch the two men like a hawk. I see their mouths moving, but I can’t hear what they’re saying with everyone else walking in my way.
“You can’t lie to her all the time!” I finally hear Lincoln speaking and I slow my step, approaching them while wanting to hear what exactly is going on.
“I swear to god, you tell my sister about this and I will...”
“You will what?!” I can’t keep my mouth shut when he threatens Lincoln. What the hell is going on here?!
Max turns around, and the look on his face tells me he didn’t expect us to see this interaction. His wide eyes take me in for a second, and I’m sure I must look like a deer in headlights because he suddenly turns back around, facing Lincoln before whispering something I can’t hear, but Lincoln immediately interrupts him, “I will say more than just a thing if you don’t. Your choice. Do you tell her, or should I?”
My brother just looks from Lincoln to me, undecided about what to do. At that moment do I notice the fresh bruise on Lincoln’s jaw, he has a busted lip and the red imprint of what I assume was my brother’s fist is visible right beneath it.
Without thinking twice I move toward him, the sudden urge to make sure he’s doing okay invades my sanity. He looks surprised for a second when I position myself between him and Max, gently taking his jaw in my hand, studying him.
“Did he do that?” I ask, but Lincoln just sighs, his fingers wrapping around my wrist before he gives my hand a squeeze. He looks exhausted as hell, honestly. Much worse than when I saw him yesterday.
“No, it isn’t...” I say, but immediately get interrupted by my father’s voice.
“Can someone tell me what the hell is going on here?!” he asks, and the tone in his voice makes me spin around. Dad looks unimpressed as hell as he stares at Lincoln and me, but that honestly is the least of my concerns right now.
My attention is solely on Max, who just looks at me with wide eyes. “Mia, I...”
“Just explain. What the hell is going on? How do you know each other?!”
“How do you know that man?!” my father asks, but my mother immediately pulls him back, giving him one of those looks that could kill.
I shoot him a quick smile, hoping he understands that I will explain my part in all of this later, and he just sighs as he runs a hand through his hair. My mother and grandmother look at us wide-eyed, though, obviously as curious as I am about what the hell is going on here.
“I mean it. I’ll tell her,” Lincoln says while positioning himself right next to me. There’s something in his eyes. Something dangerous, something furious and utterly livid, only awaking the second he looks at my brother.
Max suddenly sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose before he speaks, “Can we do this at home?”
“No,” I instantly blurt out, “We’re doing this now. What the fuck is going on?!”
“Fuck...” Max mutters, starting to pace up and down in front of me.
“Max, you better open your goddamn mouth right now,” my father suddenly chimes in, and I internally thank him for his support, although I’m pretty sure it won’t last long, considering I will have to tell him what I hid from my family back then.
“I told him to go,” Max says, and that just lets my blood run even colder than before when I look at him.
Having actual trouble to grasp what exactly he just said, I ask, “You... What?”
“The day he left...” he mutters, running a hand through his hair before he continues, “The day he left I paid him a visit. I told him to go. I wanted to protect you, I wanted to...”
“Wait a second. You visited him? And what did you say? When did you visit him?” My cold blood turns into scorching furious fire now, my mind working on overdrive to make sense of this situation.
The way Max looks at me scares me, honestly. Because he looks so damn guilty that I’m afraid to hear the answers to all of my questions. “After our fight...” he sighs, “I drove off after our fight. I found him at that hospital he still works at, and I told him to leave. I mean, I basically threatened him, in a way. I had to. He was no good for you, Mia. I mean, hell, you invited a suicidal stranger into your home, how the fuck was that supposed to end well...”
I just stand there, looking at my big brother, the one who I forgave for so much shit he pulled on me. His temper, his obsessive need to protect me which ended in more than one impulsive fight, I excused it all. The weight of his words has me floating in this trance, all I can do is look at him, my mind utterly blank.
“Wait, what?!” my father asks, his voice echoing in the surrounding space, “Mia lived with that guy?! What the... Oh my god,” his eyes turn wide, “That’s where I saw his face. He was in the file Luca gave to me, the one you asked him to run a background check on.”
“You did what?!” Mom now chimes in as well, her voice filled with rage while I’m still just looking at Max, my mind still blank from hot, calculated rage.
“She hid this from us! I mean, I had to do something, didn’t I?!”
“What the hell are you talking about?!” my father seems as confused as the rest of us, but my mother once again shows how smart she is when she says, “Oh my god. It’s you. You’re the man she was in love with.”
Her words make me turn to look at her, and I guess she sees it in my eyes that her words are true because she immediately turns back to Max. “And you told him to leave her?! On the day her grandfather died?!”
“No, Max. I knew your head wasn’t in the right place lately, but I didn’t think you would ever do something so incredibly stupid, disrespectful and goddamn chauvinistic! This is not how we raised you! What the hell were you thinking?!” the anger in her voice is so audible, one might think her words were straight fireballs shot at my brother.
“I just wanted to...”
“You wanted what?!” my grandmother speaks up, “You saw how heartbroken she was. How heartbroken we all were. What you did was not to protect your sister, it was simply to ensure she’d have time for your family, not caring that she needed someone, too. That’s not what we do, Max...”
I’m brought out of my trance by Lincoln’s hand sliding in my own, and I look up at him for a second, his kind and apologetic eyes meeting mine while I listen to my brother trying to find any words that would get him out of this.
“Dad, you know...”
“Oh no, you don’t come to me now, son. The look on your face tells me you know you screwed up. I know we’re all protective of the women in this family, but this, this wasn’t protection. I taught you to take care of your sister, not give her heartbreak when she’s already heartbroken. You hurt her, and I swear to god you will spend every day for the rest of your life to make up for it.”
“If she even lets you...” my mother adds, still fuming with rage.
“I didn’t think it’d be that bad...” Max admits, and that just makes me look at him, averting my gaze from Lincoln, who already takes a step toward my brother. I pull him back though, he doesn’t need to injure his hand by losing control.
“You didn’t think it’d be that bad?!” I’m the one who takes a step forward now, letting my hand glide out of Link’s. “Who the fuck do you think you are, taking control over my own goddamn life! Bad or not, you have no right to decide anything for me! You are not god, for fuck’s sake!”
“And you’re not Mother Teresa...” Max mutters, and that’s all it takes. It’s that exact moment that I lose it. My mind is blank, all I see is red, and I don’t even think twice before I throw my fist right into his face, striking his jaw.
He staggers backward, and I instantly feel a hand on my wrist, but I shake it off before throwing my fist again, this time hitting him straight on the nose.
“Mia!” both Mom and Dad call out, but I hear my grandmother say something and they suddenly stop, which gives me the green light to throw again, but I’m suddenly pulled backward, crashing into a broad chest.
“Let me go!” I kick to get out of his hold, but Lincoln holds me tight while he speaks, “Mia, calm down...”
“No!” I scream while ducking and escaping his grip, my fists ready to go when I stride toward Max, who just stands there with his hand on top of his nose, blood trickling through his fingers.
I just look at him for a second, a wave of sorrow crashing right into my heart, and I suddenly reel back a step, the pain physically wounding my heart. I never wanted to see my brother injured. I never wanted to be the one who hurt him. Family is everything to me, and that he betrayed me, lied to me, and just took my autonomy like that... It shatters me to my core. “Why?” I ask. I need to know what exactly he was thinking.
The answer is in his eyes when he dares to look at me again, and even though I still see his pleading apology in them, all I feel is pain.
“We needed you...” he admits, the shame visible on his face.
“And I needed him!” I yell, holding on to Link’s hand when it finds mine behind my back. “Have you ever considered that I am not invincible, Max? I may act like it, but I’m not. I’m a human being, too. Unlike you - I mean, who does something like that? Not only to me but also to Lincoln, I mean what the actual fuck is wrong with you? Exploiting his mental health like that for your own gain?! I’m done. I swear, I can’t even look at you right now.”
“That’s why I didn’t want him to tell...”
“I swear to god, Max,” my mother interrupts him, “I will be next in line to punch you if you don’t shut the hell up right now. I’m sure Mom wouldn’t be opposed to the idea, either.”
Grams shakes her head, “Oh, no. Sounds great, I’m in.”
I feel my father’s eyes on me, and I’m almost afraid to look, I don’t want him to hate me for not telling him about this. But when I look at him there is only one emotion prominent in his eyes: Sympathy.
And so I don’t hesitate when he steps toward me and wraps me in a tight hug, releasing Link’s hand from mine in the process. “We’re having a talk about this tomorrow. I’m sorry he did that, I really didn’t know, I promise...”
He squeezes me again, and I just nod my head, knowing that his words are true. My dad might be overprotective, but he’d never do something like this.
“And you,” he says as he breaks the hug, pointing his finger at Lincoln, “You will be there tomorrow. I want to know everything. Especially because this is obviously not over...” he sighs, looking between Lincoln and me.
“Of course,” Link nods his head, “I’ll be there.”
Dad just shoots him a stern look before he turns around, grabbing Max by the neck while saying, “And you’re coming with me, now. Can’t believe you’d pull a stunt like this...” he pulls Max with him, who just exclaims, “Pa! I’m not a kid anymore...”
“Aren’t you? You’re certainly acting like one.”
Max groans when our father tightens his grip, shooting me one last look before he walks toward the exit.
Both Mom and Grams look at me and Lincoln now, their eyes sparkling with sympathy when Grams suddenly speaks, “Well, he is handsome.”
“He is, right?!” Mom agrees, and despite all the rage and fury running through my veins, I can’t help but laugh, a tear escaping my eye as I do.
I wipe it away quickly, shaking my head at the two.
“Okay, I guess you two should... Talk. Call me tomorrow, okay? We can have dinner together,” Mom says, and I nod my head while giving her a quick hug.
“Can I come?” Grams asks as she joins the hug, and now I just roll my eyes. “What?” she exclaims, “I want to see how your father interrogates the poor man.”
“Mom, you’re scaring him away. Give them a second,” my mother laughs.
Grams raises her arms in defense after we break the hug, but despite the comedic element of this moment, I see it in their eyes. They’re as shocked about this as I am.
“I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Okay, sweetheart. See you tomorrow,” Mom says, turning to look at Lincoln, “Take care of my daughter.”
“I will,” he immediately replies, nodding his head at the two of them before they walk away.
And as I watch them walk away, as I take the first deep breath for what feels like hours, the weight of this situation crashes down on me. The impact of Max’s actions is far more extensive than I realized. It’s not only the pain he caused, it’s the insecurities that crept into my brain for the first time in my life, the feeling of being not strong enough, of not being invincible. All because he put his own needs above my own.
“Mia...” Link’s voice brings me out of my reverie, and I suddenly remember where we are, what I was doing, and my hand hurts like a bitch when I turn to look at him.
“I guess we should talk.”