“I feel Max’s eyes on me when I light the cigarette, watching the embers take what’s rightfully theirs, the fiery red glow ironically symbolizing the raging fire in my veins.”
“Max?” I step through the doorway, Lincoln’s hand firmly tucked in mine when my brother finally notices me.
Both Mom and Dad stand there, looking furious as hell, while Max honestly looks defeated, like he’s lost hope. “Hey, lil sis...”
“What are you doing here?” I ask, but I see it in his eyes in a matter of seconds. He looks broken, somehow, and for the first time he doesn’t shield it, he doesn’t hide his pain. “Should we go outside to talk?” I ask, offering him a straw I know I’d need for a talk like that.
He nods his head, but Dad instantly speaks up, “No way. No more secrets. You’ll talk here, now.”
“Dad...” Both Finn and I shoot a pleading look at our father, hoping he’ll understand. Because as much I get it, as frustrated as he probably is, this is a sensitive topic. Much more sensitive than I anticipated, and I for once just want a minute alone with my brother. I don’t even remember the last time we did that.
“Fine. But we’ll have one hell of a family meeting after this. Remember that,” Dad throws all of us pointed looks, and I instantly know he’s serious about it. Rightfully so.
I give Link’s hand another squeeze before I look up at him, but he just kisses my temple and shoots me a smile, letting me know he’s here if I need him.
Max’s eyes find mine again, and I nod to the backyard, not knowing if Riley is still sitting by the porch and I definitely want to avoid that collision now.
He steps toward the terrace door and I close it behind us, following him to the wooden swing set that’s been here since we were kids.
We both take our seats, and for just a minute the heavy silence between us feels thick enough to choke on, Max is drawing circles in the sand while I study the rope of the swing, letting the fabric scratch my skin until my brother finally asks, “Has she talked to you?”
I nod my head and the question makes me look up at him, my mother’s eyes meeting mine in an instant. Suddenly, for the first time in years, I see my brother again, the boy that played hide and seek with me, that hid in the stairwell to watch Santa bring us our presents, only to realize that it was our mom all along.
He’s not the bull of a man right now. He’s just my brother.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
He sighs, directing his gaze back to the ground when he runs his hands over his face. “I don’t know... I don’t know anything anymore, somehow...”
“What do you mean by that?” He looks so utterly confused by himself that I know he probably can’t give me a straight answer, but I can try to find one.
“It’s just... She drives me crazy. I think I’ve actually gone mad.”
I smile at his admission, knowing how hard it must be for him to say those things, and seeing that it’s true as well. “Love tends to do that,” I whisper, a sad smile on my lips.
He looks at me again, and I immediately see that guilt in his eyes again, they look almost glassy when he spins the swing so he can look at me properly. “I’m sorry. Really. I apologize.”
I nod my head, unable to keep his gaze. This hole in my chest is still too prominent to be glued together by a simple apology. “I know you are. But you know, it’s so much, I don’t even know what you’re sorry for, right now.”
“Everything,” he almost chokes out the word as he grabs my hand, his large fingers wrapping around my own, making me look back up at him. “I don’t... I don’t know how this all happened. I just didn’t want to lose my sister.”
“But you did,” I say, “Even before I knew about your talk with Link... You distanced yourself from me, you barely existed in my life for the past two years.”
Max shakes his head, running his free hand through his hair, the other still holding on tightly, almost like he’s scared to let go.
“Did you think you’d lose me if you told me about Riley?” I ask, pointing right at the issue that bothers me the most. The fact that both of them didn’t feel like they could talk to me.
And the way he looks at me tells he can’t give me an answer to that, either. “I felt like a lot of people had a hell of a lot of demands suddenly. Pops got sick, and I knew I had to help Mom out. We both know she acts tough, but she’s different when it comes to all of us... And I wasn’t the only one who knew about it and didn’t tell you, back then. Pops wanted to keep it quiet, too. You know how he was...”
The memory once again hits me straight in the heart, and I can see how hard it is for Max to talk about it, too.
“That doesn’t excuse that you didn’t tell me, though...”
“No, it doesn’t,” he agrees, studying my fingers when he speaks again, “People expected shit, though. The trio had enough stuff to deal with; college wasn’t easy on them. And I mean Finn... He’s becoming a doctor, he didn’t have much time, either. I was just the economics student with enough time on my hands to take care of our family matters.”
“No one expected you to do that. You know Mom wouldn’t have wanted you to take all of that on your shoulders.”
“I know, I know, but I mean... I wanted to. When Ri left me it felt like someone ripped my heart out. I’ve never felt something like that. I didn’t know how to deal with it, and I just... I needed a distraction.”
His words shoot straight into my heart, and I feel for my brother, for the pain he endured. God knows I’ve been through it, myself. “Does anyone know?” I ask, needing to know if there was anyone who could’ve helped him through that.
He shakes his head, and I can’t help the tears now, the thought that he had to go through all of that on his own, that he had to hide his pain, just pains me to the core. “You were all alone... God, Max, why didn’t you say anything?”
“She asked me not to. And then we got to that point of no return, where it felt too late to tell you, because the damage would’ve been too great, and I just... I didn’t know what to do. I just didn’t.”
“And so you decided to make my life worse by keeping me out of the loop again? You felt the need to make Lincoln leave so I felt as miserable as you? I just... I don’t get it. I don’t understand why you would want me to go through something like that.”
I slip my hand out of his grasp, this sudden pain running straight to my veins again. Truth is, this is a lot to process, and I don’t know how to feel. I can’t help but reach into my bag, pulling out the cigarette box I haven’t touched in a while. I feel Max’s eyes on me when I light it, watching the embers take what’s rightfully theirs, the fiery red glow ironically symbolizing the raging fire in my veins.
Max releases a shaky breath, his gaze directed at the cigarette in my hand. “I don’t know how much Ri told you, but when I came to see her, when I wanted to make things right, she said some shit that I couldn’t deal with. Shit I honestly don’t want to repeat, but she made me feel like I lost you, like I didn’t know what you were doing because I was so focused on her.”
“She said that?” I ask with wide eyes, the fury I feel for my so-called best friend reaching another high.
“Basically, yeah. But it’s not her fault, Mia.”
“What? You can’t come to her defence now, Max. We both know what she did...”
He shakes his head, “I’m not saying what she did was okay. It wasn’t. But it wasn’t her fault that I hurt you like that... The time I spent away from all of you made me realize that. Fuck, when I saw how Mom looked at me...”
I almost think I see a tear falling from his lashes when he takes a deep breath, and I can only guess how he must feel. Max and Mom were always close. I guess being the firstborn just has that effect on you, and I know how much Mom was hurt by the fact that he’d do something like that.
He can’t even look at me, his eyes set on the cigarette between my fingers. I follow his glance, watching how the ashes hit the ground, how temptation meets stone-hard reality, when he speaks again.
“I wanted to come see you that one day because I noticed that you pulled back from all of us, and I wanted to know why. But when I got to your apartment I saw Lincoln walking up the stairs, and George then told me that he’s living with you, and when he said that, I just... I felt like I lost control over everything, I just didn’t understand why you wouldn’t tell me. I went to Riley, thinking she must have known about this, but that blew up right in my face as well...”
“And then Pops was sick, and you were so angry at me when you found out, and I felt like everyone was against me, suddenly. Even Finn turned his back on me after our fight, I mean, my own fucking twin... And I just... Fuck, I didn’t know what to think, I just knew I felt alone and that I wanted my sister back, and it felt like Lincoln was the one who kept you from me.”
“That’s bullshit,” I say, averting my gaze from the glowing stick in my hand to look right at my brother, hoping to get my point across. As much as I understand his line of thought now, he needs to know how wrong it was.
“Fuck, Mia, I know that now...” He sighs, studying his fingers when he says, “I thought he was bad for you, that he’s the reason you were so angry at me, because he took so much out of you that you couldn’t understand me anymore.” Max must see that I’m about to chime in, because he lifts his hand and shakes his head. “It’s bullshit, I know... I thought he made you miserable, but I saw you guys at the carnival yesterday, and it hit me like a fucking avalanche, just how much of an asshole I’ve been. Because you’re happy now, and you could’ve had all of that ages ago if I didn’t act like a mad moron...”
The silence hangs heavily between us for a moment as I let his words sink in, as I watch the burning sensation in my hand slowly reaching its end. And I try to put myself in Max’s shoes, try to understand... I know my brother. I know how he thinks, feels, acts. I understand it, all of it. Through his eyes, all of his actions made sense, even if they were rash and extreme.
“I can only say it again, I’m so sorry, Mia. So fucking sorry. No apology in this world can make up for the shit I pulled, I know that. I just... I want my sister back. I want my family back.”
The despair in his voice makes me tear up again, and I feel his eyes on me when I wipe my cheeks, trying to figure out how to deal with this. “You need to apologize to Lincoln.”
He frantically nods his head, the hope in his eyes almost breaking my heart when he reaches for my hand again, giving it another squeeze. “Of course. I will...”
“I can’t just... I can’t just go back to the way things were, Max. I forgive, but I don’t forget. It’s not just the things you did, but the things you said so convincingly, like you actually believed them... The fact that you could say and do those things still shakes me, and I don’t even know what exactly you said to Link, back then. You should be glad he’s keeping a lid on that.”
Max nods his head, and I see in his eyes just how sorry he is, how miserable he is right now, too. I’m trying my hardest to find that forgiveness in my heart, to let things go back to the way they were before everything collapsed on us, before I lost the trust in my brother, in my own flesh and blood.
“I promise not to keep anything from you anymore... We were all so close years ago, I want to have that back.”
“You can’t though,” I say with a sad smile, “We’ve grown up. We’ve changed. We all need to accept that and find a new way of being close, of being the family we want to be.”
He nods his head, “Yeah, we do...”
I can feel the heat of the approaching embers on my fingers and quickly bend down, killing the rest of the fire in the sand beneath my feet. “You really have to stop doing that. One day Dad will find out and kill all of us.”
His words make me smile and I lean back up, disposing the butt in the portable ashtray I carry around before I look at him again, slowly trying to find the right way to behave around him now. “Yeah... I don’t do it as much anymore, but today was... A lot.”
I see the sympathy in his eyes when he nods again, his hand giving mine a supportive squeeze. And I can’t deny that it helps, because as much as I still hurt from the things he’s done, as much as I feel absolutely empty and raging at the same time right now, I missed my brother. “I still don’t get it though. You’re just throwing money down the drain, you don’t even take a drag...”
“That’s the sort of wisdom you’re not old enough for, yet, big brother.”
“I’m years ahead of you,” he answers with a raised brow.
“On paper, maybe. But not in here.” I tap my temple, eliciting a smile from Max. It’s a smile I haven’t seen for a while now, a smile I forgot, somehow. That fact alone pains me so deeply, that I have to physically swallow the lump in my throat again. Never in my life did I think I could forget what my brother’s smile looks like. This genuine, happy, smile...
He squeezes my hand again, probably realizing that something’s going through my mind right now. “We’ll figure it out. We’ll be okay,” I say when I turn back to look at him, and he just shoots me another smile, a more hesitant one now.
“Yeah, you say that now. Wait until we get back in there...” He nods to the house.
“It’ll be okay,” I repeat my words while looking at the terrace door, knowing that Link is right behind it, waiting for me, ready to catch me.