The drive from the airport takes me almost an hour, but the excitement I felt made the drive seem longer. Two long years in England have finally come to an end. After graduating from High School, my mom let me attend a university of my choosing. She said it was the only thing I could choose as my major was still going to be in business. I didn’t mind so much because I chose a college as far away from her as I could get, and I chose a damn good school. The people there were nothing like the people in Westbrook. They reminded me so much of North Isles that I kind of felt like I was at home again. My roommate was a girl named Min. Her carefree spirit reminded me so much of Letty that I knew I wanted to be her friend. We became the best of friends by the end of our first month of college. We decided to get an apartment together once the year was over. As the second semester began, my love for music grew. We regularly went to the college bar, The Oakly, and fell in love with all the local bands that played there. On the weekends I often dragged Min to see street performers, and it was at one of these when the realization hit. I finally knew what my dream was. I invested money into a small set up to produce music. It was a little choppy at first, but Min encouraged me to keep going. I reached out to other people who produced music and received plenty of tips on how to get better. But I made the mistake of telling my mom what I wanted to do with my life. Hoping that she would understand for once and be okay with it. She wasn’t. And I was sent to England to start my sophomore year of college. It was my punishment for expressing a desire to do anything more than what she wanted. It was her way to further tell me I had no control over my life. And I conceded. Min and I kept in touch and we visited each other when we could but a long distance friendship was hard.
England was hard.
I let myself close up. I focused on my music and at getting better at it. Min continued to be my biggest fan. She encouraged me and helped me get through the darkest part of my depression. She continued to show me how wonderful of a friend she was, but I was guilt-ridden for never telling her about North Isles.
After meeting Jay’s parents, I shut North Isles out. I would never talk about it again. It was too hard to talk about what happened there. To talk about the people I loved so dearly and even to this day never stop thinking about. North Isles became a part of me that I wanted to keep wholly to myself, and so I never told Min.
When the first semester of my junior year came to an end, I mentioned to Min that I wanted to come home. I wanted to finish my last year of college, where I would be happiest. Min was supportive and began planning. We had to be careful. We couldn’t raise any flags where my mom could find out and interfere. Everything had to be done last minute. I moved money over to an account my mom didn’t know about or had any access to. From the small transfers and cashback I did anywhere I used my debit card, the funds in the account quickly grew. If my mom knew what I was doing, she never said a damn word about it.
Min found a three-bedroom apartment that we could rent. And a week before I would fly back, she moved in. I was nervous that my mom would find out, but again, she never said a word. Among the stress we went through to get me back home, Min still had time to be concerned with my music. She found a competition for bands and producers and urged me to enter. I was hesitant at first, but at the end of July, right before the cutoff date, I sent in my submission.
Two days before my flight, I called Min in a panic. It was two in the morning her time and I felt awful, but she picked up and let me talk it out. She listened and soothed my worries, but she couldn’t soothe the ones she didn’t know about. Returning home to enjoy my last year of college has been the intention, but it’s not the only one. I told myself it was time to find out what happened to the people I left in North Isles. I know I could easily look them up on social media, but I need to see them for myself. And when I know that they have had the best lives possible, I’ll be able to close that chapter of my life for good and move on. At least I hope I can. I think the hardest part will be to tell Min about this part of my life that I kept from her. I don’t even know where I would start. I don’t know how I could possibly justify my actions, but I hope she will understand in the end.
When I pull into the familiar town, my heart leaps with joy. I never thought I would be back here so soon. The GPS guides me to the apartment where I find our building and park in front of. Before I can turn my car off, the front door of an apartment on the top floor swings open. Min stands there, a huge smile on her face. She does this little excited dance that makes me laugh. I unbuckle my seatbelt, turn off the car, and step out, giving Min enough time to run down the stairs and jump me with a hug. She squeezes me tight as I do the same, happy to finally be back here. England wasn’t terrible, but it felt like a punishment which made me hate it even more. “I can’t believe you’re here!” She pulls away from me and quickly goes to the back of the car when I pop the trunk.
“How did you even know it was me that pulled up?”
“You said what your ETA was, so I’ve just been staring out the window the last five minutes.”
“You’re insane.” Min pulls out my suitcase while I put on my backpack.
“I’m excited. I’ve been in this apartment for myself for a week now and I don’t enjoy being by myself.”
“It’s okay. I wasn’t totally alone, but having you here will be nice.”
“What do you mean you weren’t totally alone?” A big smile crosses her face as she shakes her head.
“Let’s get you settled first.” I roll my eyes but follow after her, wondering if she has a boyfriend that she hasn’t told me about. When we get upstairs and into the apartment, I see that the living room is scattered in boxes, all from England.
“Most of these weren’t supposed to come for another couple of days.” I say.
“Yeah, they legit all came yesterday. I felt so bad for the delivery person.”
“Oops.” I say. “I would have helped if I was here.”
“It’s okay. I kind of helped. I think I brought in that box.” She says pointing at a small box in the corner.
“How helpful of you.” She smiles so big that her dimples show. I must be staring at her too long when she asks, “What’s wrong?”
“I’ve just missed you.” I say honestly.
“England was that bad, huh?”
“No, I just didn’t make any real friends. All I did was make music.”
“And you made some really beautiful music.”
“I mean it. I don’t think you realize how truly talented you are.” We both sit down on the couch and prop our feet up on the coffee table. I feel like I could just fall asleep any second now.
“I guess we’ll find out in a few weeks.”
“You didn’t tell me you applied!”
“I kind of wanted to wait until I heard back from them.”
“Oh my god, I’m so excited for you! What song did you submit?”
“That was a good choice. Your best work yet.”
“So you said something about not being alone.” I question, looking over at her. She sighs and rolls her eyes.
“Okay, don’t be mad.” She adjusts her seating so that she’s facing me, so I turn to face her as well. “I met someone and we kind of been dating for six-ish months.”
“More like 8…”
“Min! Why didn’t you say anything? I don’t recall ever seeing you post anything about him on your social.”
“Because I haven’t. When we started dating, I wasn’t sure about him. He was very stoic at first, and I didn’t know if I would like him that much. But the more we hung out and talked, he opened up a lot and I fell for him. Once I knew I liked him, I wanted to wait and see if this was a long-term thing. Then when it was, and I wanted to say something, you were talking about coming back home so I figured I would wait and surprise you.”
“Awe, well, I’m excited to meet him.”
“Excited enough to come watch his band play at The Oakly tonight?” I narrow my eyes at her, but she smiles. “Please?”
“Seven. So enough time for you to take a nap in your room that has your bed made up and your clothes hung up.”
“You did all that?”
“I knew you would be tired, and I knew I would need a bargaining chip to get you to come.”
“I guess I have no choice then.”
“Yay! You’re going to enjoy them. We’re also going back to their place for dinner, so that’s a plus.” I roll my eyes and throw the accent pillow at her.
“I’ll see you in a few hours.” I say as I get up and grab my backpack, suitcase, and purse.
“Get lots of rest!” I walk down the hallway where my bedroom, bathroom and music room are located. Min knew I would need a separate place to work on my music, so we opted to get a three-bedroom apartment and she would take the master bedroom. I walk into my bedroom and see that Min did exactly what she said she did. I feel relieved at knowing I can lie down for the next few hours and not feel guilty for not unpacking a single thing. Taking off my shoes and swapping my jeans for sweats, I get in bed, set my alarm and drift off into sleep.
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Five hours later, I wake up before my alarm, feeling more refreshed. With the extra time I have, I grab some clothes and head to my shower. To my delighted surprise, all of my face products are sitting on the counter and even some makeup items are out. When I open the shower curtain, I see my hygiene products carefully placed on the shelves in the shower. I smile to myself, happy to have such a great friend even though I don’t deserve her. I turn on the water and while I wait for it to heat up, I look at myself in the mirror. I’m not the same person I was before England. The long dark auburn hair I once had is now cut short above my shoulders and died a platinum blonde. Makeup I once only wore in neutral colors, now have pops of pink and orange. I would say my eyes are soulless but… something has been missing from them for a really long time. I hope being back here will help me finally move on and forget the life I took for granted. Min is a wonderful friend and I hope to keep her as close to me as possible.
After I shower, blow dry my hair, and put a little more effort into my makeup, I go to my closet where I select a pair of ripped skinny jeans, a simple loose-fitting white t-shirt, and a pair of beige heels. Once I am dressed, I put my phone in my back pocket along with my ID and credit card, and I’m about to walk out when I spot the jewelry on my dresser. The puzzle piece necklace sticks out amongst the jewels and my heart sinks. I haven’t seen it in such a long time. I’m not sure why, but I pick up the necklace and clasp it around my neck. The first time I’ve worn it since leaving North Isles. I look over myself in the mirror, happy with the last edition, then walk down the hall. As I enter the living room, Min is exiting her own bedroom. She wears a cute pink flowy tank top with a pair of shorts and sneakers, and her long black hair is pulled up into space buns.
“Cute!” We say in unison then start laughing.
“Are you ready?” She asks, holding out her arm out to me.
“I am.” I say as I put my arm through hers. We exit the apartment and begin our walk to The Oakly. One of the perks of these apartments is that it’s not too far from our favorite bar; a place we spent many nights at our first year here. So much so that the bartender eventually started giving us alcoholic drinks, even though we were underage. “I still can’t believe you’re here.” Says Min.
“I know. I keep thinking Brian is going to show up out of nowhere and ruin the night.”
“No. There’s no way they would know you’re here already.”
“I know, but I can’t help the thoughts.”
“We’re not going to let them ruin our night. You are here. You’re going to stay. They’re not going to make you leave. Your mom has barely talked to you the last six months. She’s probably too busy to know you’re even back.”
“No, you’re right. It’s hard not to think that this isn’t too good to be true.”
“I understand, but you’re here. Let’s enjoy our night. You’re seriously going to love this band.”
“Did they not play when I was still here?”
“No, my boyfriend and his best friend didn’t come here until the semester after you left. I think the other two were already at the school though.”
“Well, I can’t wait.” When we get to The Oakly, Min tells me that she’s going to go backstage to wish her boyfriend good luck, so I go to the bar to order a drink. The bartender has a double-take when he sees me. “Alia! Min has been raving about you coming back.”
“Sal! I’m surprised you remember me.”
“Of course I do. You and Min made this place a little livelier.”
“You mean we made fools of ourselves constantly and you got a good laugh every night.”
“Your words.” He says with a smile. “What would you like? Your regular?”
“It’s the only thing you would ever drink.”
“You know for old times’ sake, I’ll have my regular, but could you make it a bit stronger?”
“Sure thing, do you want to start a tab?”
“Yeah, go ahead.” I hand him my card and he walks off to open my tab and make my drink. My phone dings with a message.
Min: I’m up by the front. Come join.
Me: I’m having a drink, but I’ll come later.
Min: Okay! :)
I spin around on the stool to face the stage. The banner on the wall says, ‘Fallen Resistance’ and it gives me a rock band vibe. I’m excited to hear what they will be playing. Sal comes back with my card and drink, so I turn back around to take a sip. The crowd erupts in screams and whistles. I’m surprised by the warm reception, as most bands don’t get that kind of attention here. I should have known how popular they were by the sheer number of people in here, but I just thought it was because it’s the last weekend before classes startup. “How is everyone tonight?” A deep and handsome voice says into the microphone. Goosebumps rise on my arms and my blood runs cold. That voice… surely it can’t be? Slowly turning around on my stool, I nearly drop my drink at the sight on stage. “We have a few songs for you tonight. If you know the lyrics please sing along, otherwise, just enjoy yourselves.” Girls scream at the top of their lungs as he straps on a midnight blue guitar. Jay smiles at the crowd while the drummer starts the intro, then Jay quickly joins in, jamming away on his guitar. I can’t believe this.
How can this even be happening? I look him up and down to make sure I’m not seeing things, or at least someone who looks eerily similar to Jay, but as soon as he sings, my heart stops. Although older and more refined, his voice is the same one I heard on that rooftop all those years ago. Three years and Jay has grown into himself well. His dark blue eyes light up as he looks over the crowd, the smile on his face doesn’t leave even when he’s not singing, and his gorgeous thick brown hair bounces at every movement he makes. I throw back my drink, consuming its contents without tasting them, then ask Sal for another. I watch as Jay plays his guitar solo, the energy from the crowd fueling his confidence and the girls… The girls are dying over him.
A pang of envy runs through me as I suddenly remember that Min’s boyfriend is in the band. If it’s Jay… It can’t be Jay. I look to the other guitarist but quickly rule him out. His child-like features may be too young for Min. I look to the bassist and although he’s handsome, he may be a little too edgy for Min, especially with his long hair. Lastly, I look at the drummer and knots quickly form in my stomach. Vance is jamming out on the drums, a huge smile on his face, and looking like a completely different person. Instead of the vibrant red hair he once had in high school, he now has jet black hair and a five o’clock shadow. I steadily sip my drink, my glare shifting between Jay and Vance.
One song and two drinks down. I order another in time for the next song. All through the second song I’ve convinced myself that Min has to be dating one of the two. There’s no way the universe would let it be anyone else. As I’m finishing my third drink, my body feels warm and not like mine. My eyesight is slightly blurred but I’m still coherent. I’m about to order another drink when I hear my name. “Alia!” Yells Min. I look over my shoulder and as her eyes meet mine, her smile falters. “What are you doing?” I hear the disappointment in her voice. Before England I promised her, I would never drink enough to be drunk. Especially after a horrible accident that left her fearing for my life. Yet here I am, disappointing her with my horrible choices.
“I just had a couple…” Her eyes stare down at me, trying to decide how to feel. “Min-”
“We talked about this.”
“I know but Min-”
“They only have two more songs. Get some water, close your tab, then go outside and wait for me. DO-NOT go anywhere without me.” I know it’s the alcohol that’s making me extra emotional. But Min’s words hurt. I quickly wipe the tear off my cheek, not wanting her to see.
“Alia…” I look up, her face softer, and I can see that she feels bad. “I’m just a little angry. We’ll talk about it later, okay? Just do what I said, get some fresh air. Drink some water and do not leave until we come outside.” I nod my head and she gives me a quick hug before going back into the crowd. I ask Sal for a bottle of water, close my tab, then walk outside. I sit down on the tabletop of a bench, my feet resting on the seat as I drink my water and think about how awful I feel. I let my emotions get the best of me, again. I rest my head in my hands, wishing my heart would calm down. Not only am I worried about Min being mad at me, but at any moment she’ll bring out her boyfriend who could be Vance or Jay. Panic etches its way into my body, trying to take over, but I hold it at bay–telling myself that it’s not going to Vance or Jay. It’ll be someone else in the band, and I won’t have to tell Min the truth. Not right now. “Alia.” I look up in time to see Min walking towards me, Jay and Vance on either side of her. They give Min a questioning glance, then look at me. I can see the same thoughts I had earlier running through their heads. I jump down off the bench, clutching the water bottle to my chest, hoping that this is over as quickly and painless as possible. “Are you okay, Alia?” I nod my head, too afraid that if I speak my voice will give me away. Min has been there for plenty of my panic attacks, enough to know the signs. Vance looks at Min, waiting for her to explain what’s going on, but Jay looks anywhere but at me. Does he even recognize me? Does he care? “No, you don’t look alright.” Min reaches out for me, but I step back. If she touches me, she’ll be able to feel how badly I’m shaking. I wasn’t prepared for this. I wasn’t prepared to meet them again so soon. This isn’t what I wanted. My chest feels like it’s going to explode, and I just need Min to tell me who she’s dating.
“I’m fine.” I forcefully say. “I promise.” She looks at me, knowing that I’m lying, but nods her head.
“Well, this is my boyfriend Vance and his best friend Jay.” I let out a sigh of relief, but it doesn’t calm my nerves any. “Guys, this is Alia. She just got back from England, so I’m sure the jet lag and alcohol have her feeling a little weird.” Min tries to explain my weird behavior and although I’m thankful, it makes me feel worse.
“It’s okay, babe. She’s probably acting weird because we all know each other.” Replies Vance.
“What?” Min looks from me to Vance, and I feel a crack form in my chest. Panic is fighting for control. Begging for me to let it take over.
“It’s a long story.” Vance says.
“Well, why don’t we all go back to your place, and then you can explain.” Min replies. Without thinking, I reach for Min and pull her away from the two, my back to them as I face Min.
“I really need to go home.” I plead.
“Why? You promised.”
“Min, I’m serious. I can’t do this.” She looks down at my hand that holds her, then back up at me to confirm her suspicions. I yank my hand away, wishing I didn’t hold on to her for so long.
“What happened? Why are you shaking?” She looks over at Jay and Vance accusingly. Because I can’t keep my emotions in control, she’s now questioning her boyfriend. “Alia, what’s going on?” She pulls me further away from the boys, hands firmly on my shoulders. “Come on, breathe in and out. We got this.” I nod my head and focus. After three very deep inhales and exhales, my heart rate slows, and the panic slowly dissipates. Min searches my eyes, waiting for an answer. “I’m sorry… I can’t go tonight. They did nothing wrong. Do you remember me telling you about the time my mom went into hiding to make sure she didn’t go to jail?”
“She was gone for over four months and during that time she sent me to live in a town called North Isles. In that town, I met Jay… and Vance and their other friends.”
“You never told me about that…”
“Because I left, and I was heartbroken, and I wanted to forget about it. I panicked because I didn’t think I would see them again… Not like this.” She nods her head, then we walk back over to the guys. I feel Jay’s eyes on me, but I refuse to look at him. This is not the image of me I want him to see. “So it’s been a really long day. I think Alia and I are just going to go home. Raincheck?”
“Min, no, you should still go.”
“I’m not letting you go home alone.”
“I’ll be fine. In all honesty, my bed is calling my name. Maybe even a little music.”
“Are you sure? It’s your first night back…”
“Vance, can we drop her off on our way back to your place?”
“Sure thing.” Answers Vance. He and Jay walk towards the parking lot while Min and I follow behind, her arm through mine. We reach a white Subaru where Jay starts to get in the back. “What do you think you’re doing?” Asks Min.
“Yep, sorry I forgot. You usually sit up front.” He says sheepishly then quickly goes to the front passenger side. Min and I get in the back and the radio is turned on as Vance drives towards the apartments. “Are you sure you’re okay?” Whispers Min.
“Yeah, I promise.” I whisper back.
“I don’t believe you.”
“We’ll talk tomorrow about it. Okay?”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“Because…” I glance up front at Jay, my heart can barely handle being this close to him. “I’m not over it.”
They drop me off at the apartment, not pulling out until I’m inside. I walk down the hall to my bedroom and fall against my bed. Did tonight really happen? Three long years… I cover my face with my hands, unable to hold in the tears anymore. I let the sadness and grief take over my body. I just need to cry it all out, then I can process what this means.