The band and I gather around a table and order some drinks and food in celebration of our meeting with the competition evaluators. They told us we were the only group with a completed song and they were impressed. “So what should we do for the next song?” Asks Chance.
“I’m actually having Alia take the lead on that. Song and lyrics.” Replies Jay.
“Not without guidance.” I say.
“I think you’re going to do great.” Adds Dakota.
“What about the third song?” Asks Vance.
“I haven’t thought that far ahead.” I admit.
“Let’s focus on the second song, then we’ll worry about.” Jay takes a swig of his beer, a smile on his face. The bell door rings and I instinctively look up. My blood runs cold, and I feel frozen in place. “What’s wrong?” Jay follows my gaze to look at the man who’s adjusting his black-rimmed glasses.
“It’s Brian.” I say quietly. “Looks like Mommy dearest has finally realized that I’m not in England.” I slide out of my chair and walk over to Brian. He hasn’t seen me in over two years, so it takes him a moment to realize that it’s me. “I’m shocked. I gave it a month before she realized I was home. And here we are, nearly two months later.”
“It’s nice to see you again too.”
“I don’t have the patience for formalities. What does she want, Brian?” I cross my arms and wait for the blow.
“She’s willing to let you stay on account that you transfer to another college.” That’s more than I expected from her, but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s still trying to control my life. I look over my shoulder and see four pairs of eyes watching us intently.
“Why?” I ask, my attention back on Brian.
“We know about the fight outside this bar. A drunk attacked you and that compromises your safety.”
“We both know she doesn’t care about my safety. What is this really about?” Brian sighs, knowing I’m in no mood for this bullshit. The one thing I’m happy to have taken after my mom is her attitude.
“She knows about Jay and doesn’t want you around him.”
“Why?” I ask through gritted teeth.
“He’s a danger to your safety.” I drop my arms to my sides, my hands in fists. This is the most ludicrous thing I have ever heard.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I yell. “You think Jay is a danger to me? Is she delusional? Because if I remember correctly, and I do, Jay has done nothing but keep me safe from the moment I met him.” I feel two presences on either side of me, giving me the strength to keep talking. “She didn’t give two shits about me when someone was holding a gun to my head. Don’t give me that bullshit, Brian. This isn’t about my safety.” He gives me a sympathetic look but doesn’t reply. “You tell her I am not leaving.”
“You know that’s not how it works.”
“We’re not going to let you bully her into leaving again.” Vance speaks up from my right. I finally glance to my left and see Jay standing there.
“If you don’t go, you know what she’ll do. She’s not afraid to make their lives miserable.” Says Brian, pulling my attention back to him.
“Let her.” Says Jay. “But when she does, she’ll lose her control over Alia. Somehow I don’t think she will risk that.”
“Please, Brian.” I beg. “I’m finding my happiness once more. Don’t rip it away from me again. I won’t survive.” Brian's eyes darken at that last word. He looks to Vance, then Jay, and finally back at me.
“I never forgave your mother for what she did to you.” I can feel Vance and Jay stiffen.
“You still stood by and watched.” I know Brian isn’t the enemy or even the bad guy, but he was complacent and still does her bidding.
“I’m sorry, Alia. I wish I knew how to keep her away from you.”
“Buy me time until December. If we win this competition and my name is out in the world, she’ll pull back her reigns.”
“And if you lose?”
“I’ll figure it out. Can you give me until December?”
“I’ll buy you that time, but you have to keep your head down until then, okay?” I nod my head. “Jay, Vance, I expect you to make sure nothing happens to her. Trouble seems to follow Alia.”
“Oh, we know.” Says Vance.
“Not even my fault.”
“Keep your head down, Alia.”
“I will.” Brian leaves the bar and I let out a deep sigh.
“What did your mom do to you?” Asks Jay.
“Nothing. We just had a rough month in hiding.” I go for the table, but Jay holds his arm out to stop me.
“I know when you’re lying.”
“It’s not something I want to talk about.” I say, looking up at him, hoping he can see how much I don’t want to relive it. I want to keep it buried.
“Okay.” He says reluctantly, then I turn to Vance.
“Don’t think about asking Min. She doesn’t know.”
“Because – it’s the one thing I knew I would never tell anyone.”
“But you’ve told someone?” Assess Jay.
“Letty. And I’ll never speak about it again.” I see the worry on their faces – wondering what happened that was so bad I wouldn’t talk about it. I think they’re finally beginning to see and understand that I didn’t leave North Isles and lived a carefree life in Westbrook. I was broken before I even returned home. Jay nods his head and we make our way back to the table where Chance and Dakota sit, wondering what the hell just happened. I tell them an overview of who Brian is and that my mom is very controlling, and they seem to understand and not push for more details. I apologize for our celebration being dumped on, but Chance is quick to change the subject and cheers the table up. I feel Jay’s eyes on me as if trying to read my mind on what really happened during that first month that I was gone.
═════════════════ ∘◦ ❉ ◦∘ ══════════════════
The band is on stage, tuning their instruments as I impatiently wait near the door. “You literally just saw them last weekend.” Says Jay over the microphone.
“One weekend after three years is not enough!” I retort. There’s a smile on his face as he plays a riff on his guitar, trying to annoy me. I don’t have time to roll my eyes because the auditorium doors open and Letty, Emmett, and Micah finally walk in. Letty gives me a big hug, just as excited as I have been about seeing her. “See! It’s not just me!” I yell over to Jay who just rolls his eyes. Micah gives me a hug, then walks down to the stage where Min is sitting.
“Before I ask what that’s about.” She says, looking from Jay to me. “Emmett has something to say to you.” Letty pushes him towards me. “Go on.”
“It would go easier if I wasn’t worried about you slapping me for saying the wrong thing.” He says to her.
“Letty, why don’t you join Micah and Min so Emmett and I can speak?”
“Fine.” She does the ‘I’m watching you’ movement with her hand then walks down.
“Whatever she’s making you say, you don’t have to. I understand that not everyone is going to forgive me right off the bat.”
“Actually, I wanted to apologize.”
“For not reaching out to you sooner. For not telling Letty about you right away. For being mad about all the wrong reasons. Letty brought me up to speed on everything, and I realize you were in an impossible situation. How can I be mad at you for sacrificing your happiness so we could live our lives the way we dreamed? I am sorry that you had to sacrifice so much for us. It’s unfair. But seeing you here, happy, and thriving. It’s a relief. And I want you to know that no matter what, I’m here for you just like I was three years ago. It’s about time our family got back together.” My eyes water at Emmett’s last sentence, not realizing how badly I wanted them to accept me back. Micah and Letty were a given, even if I was worried they wouldn’t. Jay I thought would be harder, although there may still be some convincing there. Vance and Emmett have been wild cards. This feels too good to be true. “You’re such a baby.” He pulls me into a hug, squeezing me tightly.
“Thank you, Emmett. It means the world to me.” I say as we break away.
“I do have one last question.”
“It was you, wasn’t it? The donations to the shelter?”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” I say as I turn around and walk down to the stage.
“Don’t lie, it had to be you. Right after the interviews came out, we received a donation.”
“It could have been anyone.”
“What could have been anyone?” Asks Letty.
“The shelter's donation – that we continue to receive.”
“Oh yeah, that’s Alia.”
“Min! It was supposed to be a secret.”
“I don’t see why it has to be a secret anymore.”
“Are we going to play you a song or are we just going to stand around all night?” Asks Jay over the microphone.
“Give him a microphone and suddenly he’s the boss.” Says Letty. “We’re sitting, calm down.” We all sit in the middle of the auditorium as the band gets ready. My heart is pumping, ready for our friends to finally hear the song we have worked so hard on. Jay does his flashy guitar intro accompanied by a little bass from Chase, then the drums and the piano kicks in. The song slows down a tempo as Jay sings, putting his all into this even though the performance is just for us. He doesn’t hold back, he gives all that he would to any kind of audience. As the song quickens to the chorus, I see the excitement in their eyes as Vance comes in heavy with the drums and Jay lets out a heavy and somewhat raspy note that leads into the chorus. Two minutes later, the song ends, goosebumps pricking my skin. I have heard this song multiple times over the last two weeks but here, with my friends – family, it feels extraordinary. “That was amazing!” Says Letty as we all stand up and clap. “You did that?”
“It was a joint effort. It’s barely the same song I gave them.” I reply.
“Don’t let her lie to you. Alia has contributed a lot to this song.” Says Chance. We all gather around the stage so the feedback can come in. I can feel the energy radiating off the band and how happy they are that everyone enjoyed their song. I elbow Letty in the side and motion up to the top of the seats she nods her head and walks up. Min and Micah look at me and I nod up as well. Soon we’re all sitting together on the top row while everyone else is still raving about the song and trying to decide where to go to eat. “Doesn’t this feel like old times?” Says Micah.
“It feels weird.” I agree.
“Am I missing something?” Asks Min.
“Our school was super poor, and we all had a free period together, which meant me and Alia sitting in the auditorium like this and Micah inviting himself.” Explains Letty.
“I did not invite myself. Alia was happy to have me sit with you.”
“And I repeatedly told you to bother her in the free period I didn’t share with you.”
“I see things haven’t changed.” I say.
“Not at all.” Min laughs. “So what did you want us up here for?”
“Before our girls’ night, I needed to tell you all something.”
“I don’t like the sound of this.” Letty sits straight up in her seat.
“I got a visit from Brian…”
“When?” They all say.
“Thursday. It was after our evaluation. Jay and Vance were there, but the fact that he showed up doesn’t sit well with me.”
“What did he say?” Asks Micah. I go over everything that was said, excluding the part where Brian apologized for being complacent during that horrendously long month.
“You think he’ll keep her at bay?” Asks Letty.
“I think so. He hasn’t been a fan of my mother for a while. I don’t know why he still works for her.”
“Probably good money.” Suggests Min.
Letty crosses her arms as her brows furrow. “Say he keeps her at bay. What happens if you don’t win this competition?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it yet. I don’t even want to think about.”
“Well, we don’t have to find a solution just yet.” Says Micah.
“I’m sorry I waited so long to tell you guys. I figured it was an in-person conversation.”
“No, it definitely was. Thank you for telling us though.” Letty bumps her shoulder against mine, a smile on her face to show that tonight isn’t a night for worry.
“We’re going out to eat, are you joining us or not?” Asks Emmett.
“Micah is, but we’re having a girl’s night.” I reply.
“Hey, I want to hang out with you, not them.” He replies.
“Micah, I’m sorry, but last I checked you don’t identify as a woman.”
“Nope, that would be wrong.” Says Letty. “Unless you’re serious.”
“No…” He says as he reluctantly stands up. “Have fun without me.”
“Poor baby has to hang out with his manly friends.” Says Letty, making a pouty face. We all get up from our seats, say our goodbyes, then get into my car and drive over to the apartment. Once inside, Letty puts her stuff down by the couch clears her throat and says to Min, “Hi, I’m Letty. Alia tells me that my personality comes off a little strong, so I apologize.” Min looks from Letty to me, confused. I shrug my shoulders; not sure what Letty is up to. “I’m trying to start over since I wasn’t very nice in the beginning.”
“It comes off weird.” I say.
“Fine, I’ll go back to the boy’s house.” She replies.
“Go ahead and send Micah over.”
“Now you’re being plain mean.”
“Well.” She says mockingly.
“I now see why her and Micah bicker so much, they’re basically the same person.” Min laughs as Letty just rolls her eyes.
“Don’t compare me to that child. I have more grace than him.”
“Not much.” I walk over to the couch and lay down. “Who’s ordering the pizza?”
“Seriously, if we keep eating pizza A, we’re going to get fat.”
“A? That’s what you call her?” Letty sits on the arm of the chair and crosses her arms.
“Yeah? What do you call her?”
“Lils. It’s cuter. And original.”
“Where the hell do you even get Lils from??”
“Because her name is Ah-Li-a. I took the Li and added ‘l’ and ‘s’. It’s not that hard to figure out.”
“A is shorter.”
“And overdone. Uncreative. Dull. Boring.”
“Stop it.” I sit up and glare at them. “I can have more than one nickname.”
“Mines better.” Whispers Letty as she falls into the chair.
“Mine makes more sense.” There’s a smile on both of their faces, reassuring me that their babble isn’t serious.