Early Sunday morning, I drive over to Jay and Vance’s house to pick up Micah and Letty. When I park, they quickly come out, smiles on their faces. Micah comes to my side and opens my door. “Get out, I’m driving.”
“You know I have to drive back either way?” I step out of my car as Letty gets in the back seat.
“Yeah, but the less you have to drive, the better.” I roll my eyes but walk over to the passenger side, happy that I don’t have to drive. After we all get situated and Micah pulls up the address on his phone, we’re off. “So what should we expect?” Asks Letty.
“In terms of?”
“Oh.” I laugh. “I don’t know. It’s big. Boring. Lonely.”
“Beautiful descriptors.” I look in the review mirror quick enough to see her eye roll.
“I don’t know. It’s bigger than any of the houses in North Isles. But it’s not homey. I moved all my belongings out of there years ago. There’s not an ounce of me left in that house. You would never have known I grew up there.”
“I’m sorry… I forget how awful your mother truly is. She didn’t even give you a nice childhood?”
“She did what she could.” Letty remains silent, and I’m thankful. There are no good memories to conjure up from that place. Nothing good came out of that house. Not even me.
The trip takes almost two hours. Micah livened up the car ride by telling us about his boyfriend. One that he wants us to meet soon. I love seeing how happy he is, and I can tell that he feels strongly about this guy. When we pull up the driveway, I look at Micah and see his expression. Pure awe. I look back at Letty, whose mouth is agape. “I know you said this place wasn’t homely. But wow…” I laugh, knowing this will be the only good memory I will have of this place. Having the two of them here. Micah puts the car in park, but none of us make a move to get out. I look from him then to Letty and smile. “I love you guys.”
“You make it sound like you’re going into battle.” Replies Letty.
“It’s always a battle with her.”
“You got this. Show her the badass Alia we have always known.” I smile at Micah, wishing he knew how much his words mean to me. How much life they give me. He turns off the car and we all exit. My heart rate increasing each step towards the front door. Before I can knock, the door opens and Brian is standing there. “Backup?” He asks, barely looking at my friends.
“Moral support. Will you get them something to drink and some snacks while I talk to her?”
“We’re not going with you?” Letty asks disappointingly.
“It’s best if I talk to her alone.”
“We’re only here for moral support.” Micah says to Letty.
“Support.” He cuts her off, his voice firm, and she remains silent. They follow Brian to the kitchen while I find my way to my mother’s office. I find her office door opened. Before I enter, I take a deep breath, pulling for that courage I have when I’m not around her. I am strong. I am a badass. I can talk to her without feeling like I’m eight all over again. She sits at her desk, glasses at the edge of her nose, eyebrows pinched and her eyes quickly going over the words in front of her. Sensing my presence, she looks up at me. There’s nothing in her eyes. No hint of a smile at my return. Nothing as she looks back down at her work. “It’s nice to see that I didn’t have to come drag you back. I’ll reach out to your college tomorrow to see what kind of deal we can work out, then I’ll have you on a plane back to England by next week.”
“I’m not going.” She stops mid-turn of the page and slowly looks up at me. Her cold eyes sweep over me and suddenly I’m eight again. Being dragged out of this house to the car where she would dump me on the side of the road. I keep my face emotionless even as that memory threatens to break me.
“In all the years that you have known me, when have you ever been given a choice?”
“I want to bargain with you.”
“You really want to play a game like that? With me?”
“I think this bargain will play well into our favors.”
“I’ll consider it.”
“If the band and I win this competition, I don’t go to England. You stay out of my life for good. You leave my friends alone and you never threaten them again. But if we lose. I’ll go to England for the rest of my life. I’ll never step foot in the United States again. I’ll maintain my relationship with everyone but give it a few years. They’ll grow tired of the long-distance. We’ll grow apart and we’ll never have to wonder ‘what if’ again. It will be a natural separation and the thorn in your side will be gone. I’ll be gone.” She crosses her arms and leans back into her chair, contemplating the deal I’ve laid before her.
“I had something planned for you tomorrow. I still want you to go. As long as you go, I’ll accept your deal.”
“What are you wanting me to do?”
“Go to Rustic’s Café at noon. You’ll meet someone there.”
“You’ll know when you see them.”
“That’s all I have to do?”
“That’s all. I’ll know if you’ve met them or not. After that, we’ll see how talented your band truly is. If you lose, you leave at the end of the year. Understood?”
“Understood.” I turn my back to her and am about to walk out when she says, “I hope you know how much you’re willing to give up for trash like them.”
“And I wish you were worthy of the kind of love that they have shown me. Maybe you wouldn’t be so heartless.” I force myself out of her office and down the hall. Worried that in any minute she’ll come running down the hall and yanking me by the hair, screaming how horrible of a daughter I am. But the only footsteps I hear are my own.
I enter the kitchen to find Letty and Micah sitting at the bar and Brian laughing – LAUGHING – at something that was said. I’ve never seen this man so much as smile, and yet my friends have him laughing. “You do have a soul.” I say once I reach them. Micah and Letty quickly look at me, waiting for me to tell them what happened. But I look down and see that they only have water in front of them. “Out of all the things that are in this house, you give them water?” I say to Brian.
“It’s what they wanted.” I roll my eyes and open the fridge and pull out a soda. Letty holds out her hand, as does Micah.
“Really guys?” I hand Letty the one I had, then grab one for Micah and then me.
“We were nervous, okay? It’s kind of intimidating.” Says Letty.
“How did it go with your mother?” Asks Brian.
“I didn’t tremble at her glare if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Am I going to be spending the next few days getting you back to England or not?”
“You are not. I’ll be here until the competition.”
“And after?” Asks Micah.
“I’ll figure it out then. The good news is I’m staying.” There’s a look of relief on Letty and Micah’s face, but Brian’s eyes are on me. He knows nothing is ever that easy. “What do you know about Rustic’s tomorrow?” I ask him.
“What do you mean?”
“She wants me to meet someone there tomorrow. It was her only stipulation.”
“She hasn’t told me anything.” Answers Brian.
“Do you want us to go with you tomorrow?” Letty asks too eagerly.
“No, don’t you two have classes?”
“We can skip.”
“No, you can’t.” Says Micah sternly.
“Letty, have you been skipping your classes?”
“Not all of them! Just the 8 am class.”
“Letty, you’re almost done. Stop skipping. Stop hitting snooze.”
“Says the person who doesn’t have any 8 am classes. Do you know how hard it is to hear a lecture that early?”
“Just keep that in mind when you’re teaching algebra at 8 am and all your students are falling asleep.”
“She has you there on that one.” Says Micah. I glance over my shoulder to see Brian smiling. What has gotten into him? I’ve never seen him have so much emotion on his face. But as he looks between Letty and Micah, I know he can see why I adore them so much. Why I fight for them.
“You ready to get back on the road?” I ask.
“I guess.” Says Letty reluctantly. “I hate car rides so much.”
“At least you haven’t had to drive today.”
“Poor Emmett has to drive all by himself too.” Adds Micah.
“Oh, he’ll be okay.” Letty nudges Micah in the arm and we all stand.
“Alia, can I speak to you alone for a second?” Asks Brain. I look to Micah and Letty and nod my head at them as they go to the front door.
“What is it?”
“What kind of deal did you make with your mother?”
“The only kind that she would accept.”
“More reward than risk for her?”
“I’m sorry it’s come to this.”
“It is what it is. I’ll see you in December.”
“You don’t think you’ll win your side of the bargain?”
“Even if I did, she has every opportunity to ruin my life in any way she sees fit. I know my silly bargain won’t keep her from that. I just needed time. Plus. I don’t know if I want to stay…”
“You’re still in love with that boy.”
“More than I can withstand. And he’s better off without me in his life to mess it up. The older I get, the more I realize that I’m just like her.”
“You’re not.” He says sternly. “I know your mother and Alia you are not like her one bit.”
“Thanks Brian, but I don’t think that’s true… I’ll see you soon.”
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I make my way into Rustic’s Café, making sure no one I knew was inside. Happy that it is fairly empty, I walk inside and quickly find who I’m there to meet. Even if his expensive suit didn’t give him away, I’d remember Jay’s dad anywhere. He looks down at his watch impatiently and I want to keep him waiting longer but afraid if I do – he’ll leave. I take a deep breath, then walk across the café to where he’s sitting. “I’m assuming that you are the person I’m meeting.” I say, taking a seat across from him.
“Alia, it’s been a long time.”
“Not long enough.” He ignores my comment. “So, you and my mother speak?”
“Are you the one who keeps telling her that Jay is trash and I should stay away from him?”
“I don’t have to tell her what she already knows.”
“I’m not here to get into a fight with a child.”
“Why are you here then? Other than to waste my time.” He pushes the envelope that’s been sitting in front of him over to me. “What’s this?” I don’t touch it. Not wanting to be tainted by it.
“I keep an eye out on Jay. I know every girl he has ever dated. Every place he has ever visited. Every job he has ever had. I make sure he doesn’t continue to taint my name. But in that envelope are the photos you’re going to want to see. It’ll make you realize how little he cares about you. How he would never truly let you back into his life after what you’ve done. Not how you want to be back in it at least.”
“You don’t know a single thing about Jay.”
“I know more than you. Go ahead. Open it.” I pick up the envelope, it’s heavier than I expected and when I open it, I see why. It’s full of pictures. The first one is of Jay and a girl. They’re holding hands and smiling. The date stamped at the bottom puts it a year after I left. I go to the next. And I watch Jay’s dating life over the years unfold before me. It sucks, seeing him happy with these girls, but it’s nothing to steer me away from him. I’ve had my own flings over the years. But as I near the end of the stack, the months get closer to the present. I come to a halt at the picture dated last month. The girl is a beautiful and tall blond. I recognize her, I recognize that seductive smile… My heart drops. Jay smiles at Emma. An actual smile. There’s no hatred there. I flip to the next picture – Emma has her hands on his shirt, pulling him to her. I flip to the next and see it. Her lips mere inches from his. I look down at the date and see that it was the beginning of October and suddenly I feel foolish. Jay started to forgive me because his first love came back. He didn’t hate me or have any anger towards me because he simply didn’t care anymore. I was never the girl that got away. “Consider it message sent.” I say as I put the pictures back in the envelope and hand them over.
“Keep them.” He says. “As a reminder.” I want to wipe that smug smile off his face. But instead, I take the envelope and storm out of the café.