After a very long day Friday, I head straight back to the apartment, too tired to do anything else. Between school and working at the library, I have also taken it upon myself to work tirelessly on my music this week. The sad song Min had heard became more than the small project I expected. Now I want it to be a full song. Maybe something for the competition – if I get accepted. I change into a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt, then plop myself down on the couch and turn on a show I was binging before I came back to the United States. I have a textbook in my lap, intending to work on an assignment, but my body becomes heavy. I lean my head back against the couch and close my eyes. I’ll only rest them for a few minutes, then I’ll be able to focus.
“Hm?” I ask, not wanting to open my eyes.
“I don’t think that textbook is being read if you’re taking a nap.”
“I’m not napping, I was resting my eyes.”
“Is that why the TV’s screen saver is on?” I finally open my eyes to see her standing before me with Jay and Vance on either side of her. I immediately straighten, feeling my heart race at the sight of Jay.
“I’ve been tired.” I admit to her.
“Yeah, because you insist on working on your music until the wee hours of the night, then you turn around and wake up not even five hours later. You’re not getting enough rest.”
“I’ll be okay.”
“Until you crash. I’m demanding that you get at least eight hours of sleep tonight.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I say, waving her off.
“You two sit down and play nice. I’m going to go freshen up a bit, then we can leave.” Min orders the two, then disappears into her room. Vance sits down on the recliner while Jay opts out for a chair at the kitchen table. I hit resume on the TV, a yawn escaping me.
“What did Min mean when she said you had been working on music?” Asks Jay. I look over at him, happy that he’s curious enough to ask. He knew I always loved music, one of the many reasons I fell in love with him, but we never knew producing music would be in my future. At least I didn’t.
“I produce music.”
“You do? When did you start doing that?” Asks Vance. My heart leaps at their curiosity and the fact that they’re talking to me. But I force myself to remain calm and keep the smiling at a minimum.
“The second semester of college. It’s why I was shipped off to England.”
“You didn’t go intentionally?” Jay’s eyes are glued to me, the most he has said and looked at me since we’ve crossed paths.
“Fuck no.” I say, albeit a bit irritated at his assumption. “My mom forced me to go. I tried to play the ‘it’s my life, I’ll do what I want’ card, but I lost my record player for it.”
“It means the snake Diana Langston took a sledgehammer to it. Then she put all the broken pieces out into the front yard so when Alia returned home – she would see it. Diana promptly set it on fire in front of Alia and told her to clean up any mess that was left behind.” Min says angrily. She’s leaning against her door frame, arms crossed, still angry at the memory just as she was the day it happened.
“You didn’t have to go into that much detail, Min…”
“Well, it’s true. You were so heartbroken. You had just gotten out of the hospital too. I vividly remember the hurt in your voice when you called me, and I will continue to be pissed about it for as long as I live.” Jay’s eyes are on me, but I refuse to look at him. I refuse to meet his eyes and have him to see how much my mother has crushed me over the years.
“You were in the hospital?” Asks Vance.
“Yeah, just a minor accident. I had a broken wrist.” And a broken leg too, but they don’t need to know that.
“Min, why didn’t you tell me that Alia was a music producer?” He looks back over to her, clearly annoyed by this lack of information.
“I did. I said my friend in England produced music. You’ve liked all of her songs. Odyssey! Alia, they had it on repeat the whole summer, even played it at the bar for fun. Jay, you should show her the lyrics you wrote for it.”
“That’s your song?” Jay looks at me in awe, the first positive emotion I’ve seen on him all week.
“Yeah, I wrote it when I decided I was coming back home.”
“That song is… incredible. Beautifully written.”
“Thank you.” I say sincerely, a proud smile on my face.
“Speaking of music.” Says Min. “Have you heard about the competition?”
“Not yet, I expect soon though.”
“Competition?” Vance and Jay ask.
“I entered the Riverton music competition as a producer.”
“What?” Vance turns white with shock.
“Yeah, Min told me about it. That’s why I entered it.”
“She failed to tell me this.” Vance says as he looks at Min, who just smiles.
“Oh, right. The band entered the same competition. They were selected for the next round.”
“What?” Now I’m the one turning white from shock. “You failed to mention this.”
“Well, you know how forgetful I can be.” She’s still smiling, showing that this was her plan all along. Maybe not at first, not when she didn’t know about my connection to the boys, but she’s kept silent ever since finding out.
“We’re going to talk later.” I say.
“Can’t undo what’s been done. We better get going though. Also, don’t you have a date to get ready for?” I look up at her confused, then it hits me.
“Shit! Yes. Fuck.” I jump up and run down to my room as I hear Min laughing at me and Vance asking, “Who is she dating?”
“No one. Just a date with someone she works in the library with. I doubt there’ll be a second date.”
“I heard that!” I yell as I throw off my sweats and find a pair of skinny jeans.
“Love you! See you later. Have fun!” She yells back.
It only takes me ten minutes to get dressed into a pair of jeans and a cute top and freshen up my makeup. I don my puzzle piece necklace. Now sure if by wearing it, I’m hoping this date will go badly. When I pull up to the restaurant, I see Ben standing outside, looking at his phone for probably the hundredth time. I take a deep breath then make my way towards him. When he finally looks up from his phone and sees me, a smile rises on his face. “Alia, I honestly thought you were going to bail.”
“No, I’m so sorry. I fell asleep after class and didn’t realize what time it was.”
“It’s okay. You look refreshed though.”
“Thanks.” I say, not sure if he meant that as a compliment or not.
“Have you ever been here before?” He asks as we walk inside.
“No, but I have heard great things about it.”
“It’s my favorite place to eat around this area, I hope you like it.” When the hostess asks us how many, he clears his throat and says, “I have a reservation for two.” He looks at me with a big smile on his face and I wonder if he’s trying to impress me. Ben looks at his watch that’s easily worth a few thousand dollars, every move he makes is over the top and I see that he is trying to impress me. With money, no doubt. If only he knew who my mother was. We’re seated at a nice table that already has a bottle of wine sitting there. It takes everything in me not to roll my eyes. He clearly has done this plenty of times to impress girls, but I am not going to be another one on his list. He fills my wine glass that I study for a few moments, wondering if I should drink. But then he looks at his watch again, a watch that doesn’t even have working batteries, and I know that I’m going to need this wine in order to get through tonight before going home and telling Min that she was right. “How are you settling in? I think you said that you were in England these last couple of years?”
“Yeah, I went there to study, but I originally started at this college. So I’m happy to be back.”
“Did you enjoy England?”
“It was… okay.” How honest should I be with someone who I won’t go out with again? “But what about you? How long have you been to this college?” My phone lights up with a text message as Ben tells me the answers.
Min: We probably should have told each other where we were going tonight
My heart rate increases and I search the restaurant. Desperate to see Micah and Emmett. It takes me two searches around the building to finally find them sitting in a booth in the back corner. Min sits with Vance and Micah on either side of her. Jay is to Micah’s left while Emmett is on Vance’s right. Emmett’s blonde hair is darker than it was in high school, and he has put more effort into styling it. He must have grown the most because he’s buffer and his jawline is prominent. If I ran into him without the others around, I would not have even guessed it was him. Emmett laughs at whatever was said, and my heart breaks at seeing that smile again. On Min’s left, Micah sits, listening to the conversation, a smile plastered on his face. His once dark and shoulder-length hair is now cut short on the sides and the top parted on the side and neatly combed down and back. If he had a mustache instead of a closely shaven beard, he would look like a dapper young man from the 20s. I pick up my phone and text back.
Me: Welp, I guess this date is going to be awkward now.
I send the message then look back to her, waiting for her to see. Her phone, sitting on the table between her and Micah, lights up. He instinctively glances at it, then takes a second look. His head shoots up and searches the restaurant. Min has my full name in her phone. He knows it’s me, or at least he hopes. I watch, waiting for his eyes to find me Willing for him to look my way. He glances over me but suddenly his eyes dart back. It takes him a second, but he knows it’s me. Min grabs his arm, and it takes all his strength to pull his stare away from me and to her. She shakes her head sternly at him. “Alia?” I look back at my date, realizing that I haven’t been listening to a single word that he has said.
“I’m so sorry. I’m being rude.”
“It’s okay. You seem distracted.” I take my phone and put it in my purse, telling myself that it’s none of my business as to what’s going on over there. Not right now. Even though I’m not excited about this date, I should still give it my attention.
“Distraction put away. My friend was texting me, but I told her I was on a date.” He easily accepts my lie. “Where were we?” Ben tells me about his years after high school. That he had two colleges who really wanted him, but it was hard for him to choose since they were both excellent schools and money wasn’t an issue to go to either. He talks about the new sports car he bought for himself this year and how anyone would die to spend that much money on a car. The longer he talks, the more self-absorbed he becomes. Nearly everything that comes out of his mouth is a way for him to tell me he has money without outright saying it. There are so many eye rolls I have to hold back. How did I get stuck on a date with someone like this? Halfway through our dinner, Min and the others leave. I have to resist the urge to look their way. Continuing to pretend to listen to Ben as he goes on about his expensive shoe collection. All I can think about is how surprised Micah was. Like he didn’t even know I was back. This only confirms my suspicions. Jay nor Vance deemed it important to tell them. After an hour and a half of sitting here, Ben asks for our check, requesting to split it. I’m not too surprised. I hadn’t said a single word other than “Yeah?” in the last forty minutes. I’ve had two glasses of wine, but I’m not worried about paying for my share. After our meals are paid for, we leave our table. Ben comes to a halt outside the restaurant and says, “Look, Alia. You were nice and all, but I don’t think this is going to work. Which is why I asked for separate checks.”
“Yeah, that’s fine. I was going to suggest the same. Thanks, though.” He looks at me in disbelief. As if I should be devastated that this date didn’t work out. He shakes his head and walks over to his car. I let out the sigh I’ve been holding in and pull out my phone to see the messages I received from Min.
Micah saw you. I don’t think they told them you were back.
I told Micah not to do anything. Not right now.
I wasn’t sure if you were up to talking to him.
We’re leaving. Enjoy your date! Pay attention!
Although I’m not ready to face Micah, I’m disappointed he didn’t put up much of a fight to come see me. Out of everyone, I expected Micah to be the most forgiving. Looking around, I spot a small garden area with benches. No one else is sitting there, so I make my way over, needing a fresh breath of air before I go home. I sit down, wishing the urge to cry wasn’t so strong. I know Jay and Vance haven’t been excited about me being back, but I would think they would have told the other two, so they can decide for themselves.
“And here I thought I would never see the great Alia Sanders ever again.” Goosebumps prickle my arms as I look over my shoulder at Micah. He walks over and sits on the bench across from me, causing my heart to race. He’s by himself, but that doesn’t make this any easier.
“Micah.” I try to keep all the emotions I’m feeling out of my voice, but Micah studies me, a smile on his face. A sincere one telling me he has missed me.
“It’s been a long time. I never pegged you as a blonde, but it looks good on you.”
“Well, what’s been going on? What have you been up to? What are you studying? Spill the beans.” I gawk at him. His questions are so normal and not like I didn’t disappear for three years.
“You’re not mad? Surprised? Surely you have different questions you want to ask me.”
“I spent a good two months mad you left.” He shakes his head as if remembering that time too clearly. “Then when the news announced that Diana Langston and her daughter returned home, I became sad. I missed you and I wanted to tell you to come back. But you left for a reason, and I accepted it. I just didn’t realize three years would pass before we ever saw each other again.”
“Why are you always so understanding? You should be mad and demanding that I tell you why I left.”
“Why did you leave?” He asks, not missing a beat. I forgot how straight forward he can be. How he never danced around something unless he knew you wanted him to. “See, you don’t want to tell me.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to tell you. I just… It’s been three years. How are you still the same?” He laughs, my heart tightening at that laugh. I have missed my best friend so much. I watch his eyes land on the necklace hanging around my neck. But he doesn’t mention it as he looks back up at me.
“I take that as a compliment. Min told me not to do this… She said you weren’t ready. But I had to know. Had to confirm you were the best friend that I have missed so much.” My chest tightens at his words, at how sad he must have been. I always knew they were sad after I left, but seeing it up close is somehow worse. “How long have you been back? Do Vance and Jay know? Well, I guess that’s a dumb question. When did they find out?”
“I came back last Friday. They’ve known since then. Min and I went to see the band, but she didn’t know we all knew each other. I didn’t tell her about my time in North Isles.”
“I thought if I never talked about it then it would hurt less.”
“No… It hurts now more than ever.”
“I’m guessing they’re not talking to you?”
“Min says I’m actively avoiding them, which doesn’t give them the chance to talk to me, but I also feel like there have been times they could talk to me, but don’t.”
“Makes me wonder why they didn’t tell us. They’ve had an entire week to do so.” He retorts. The atmosphere between me and Micah is the same as it was in high school. It doesn’t feel like I ever left.
“Not everyone is as forgiving as you Micah.” The smile on his face is small, but he finally walks over and sits down beside me, pulling me into his embrace.
“I’ve missed you so damn much.”
“I’ve missed you too.” I say, failing to hold back the tears that have been forming ever since he walked up.
“Don’t cry, Alia. Everything happens for a reason. You coming back into our lives right at this moment, is for a reason.”
“Yeah, so I can ruin your lives again?” I say, looking up at him.
“You never ruined them in the first place.” He gives one last squeeze, then stands up. “Come on, let's get out of here.”
“And go where?”
“Back to your place? They’re going to watch a movie and I much rather hang out with you.”
“Are you sure?”
“Why wouldn’t I be? Alia, I am beyond ecstatic you’re here. Come on, you brought your car, right?”
“Yeah, okay. Do you want to stop and get ice cream first?”
“Is that a serious question? Because I am still an avid ice cream eater.” I laugh, happy that Micah is still the same. Happy that I have my best friend. But I also feel guilty for not asking about Letty. She wasn’t with them tonight, and I’m worried that they all grew apart after I left. I would have never wanted that. She deserved their friendship more than I ever did. But I can’t bring myself to ask him about her, not tonight. But later, I will. I must.
Back at the apartment, ice cream in hand, Micah sits on the couch as I sit in the recliner, turning on the TV for some background noise. “Alright, catch me up. What has been going on in your life?”
“Where do I start?”
“Anywhere you feel comfortable.”
“You know you can demand the answers you really want to know.”
“Right now, I want to know how my friend is. If you tell me why you left, then good. But if you want to wait, we have all the time in the world. I just want to know how you have been.” He says sincerely. I look down, the full weight of all my choices these last few years bearing down on me. I’ve been in a stupor with no hopes or ambitions. I haven’t been living my best life. How can I with a mom like mine?
“It hasn’t been a very fun couple of years.” I can be honest with Micah. I have always been able to, but talking about this feels difficult. “My first year here was amazing because I met Min and she’s a great person, but then my mom made me go to England.”
“Why does she make me do anything? To control me… I told her I wanted to pursue music. She didn’t take it too kindly. So, she sent me to England. Told me it was a punishment, and I would not be allowed to return.”
“I think that’s what she was intending.”
“What changed her mind?”
“She didn’t. I told Min I wanted to return home, and she planned the rest. Found this amazing apartment, set up certain bills in only her name so my mom wouldn’t find out. Did everything she could to ensure my mom didn’t know about my return until it was too late.”
“She must really trust you to put bills in only her name.”
“She does… I don’t deserve it though.”
“Why do you say that?”
“If she had known beforehand about North Isles and how I left you all, I don’t think she would trust me as much.”
“I think judging someone on a choice they made when they were young and vulnerable isn’t right. Do you think she would judge Jay for the choices he made in high school?”
“No… She has too good of a heart.”
“There you go. She trusts you because she sees you are a good friend and an amazing person.”
“You give me too much credit, Micah.”
“And you never give yourself enough. So music? This is new?”
“Well, I’ve always loved music, but yeah, I wanted to produce it.”
“And?” I pull out my phone and sync it to the Bluetooth speaker in the living room. I go to the song Odyssey and press play. He listens intently until about a minute into the song when his eyes go wide. “I know this song!”
“Yeah, Jay and Vance were listening to it on repeat and I think they even played it at The Oakley.”
“Min said they did that, but they really liked it?”
“Hell yeah, we all did. I wish she told us it was you. When she said that her best friend in England was coming back home, they asked her if you would be willing to work on a song with them.”
“Yes, really. You’re incredibly talented, Alia. Jay can see that. We all can see that.”
“Maybe if we all get on speaking terms, we could write a song together.”
“I think it would be a good idea. I’ll see if Min can sweet talk Vance into suggesting it again.”
“Don’t. Plus, if I’m selected for this competition I entered, then I’ll be too busy to worry about Jay.”
“Riverton Music Records Competition for Producers and Bands. I submitted my song last week so I should know within the next week or two. If I’m selected, then I’ll spend the next two months working with a band to create three songs for their annual winter festival.”
“I think I’ve heard of that.” He says.
“Well, don’t act like you didn’t know Jay’s band entered. I just found out tonight.”
“I wasn’t sure, but I’m glad you know. You’ll have to keep me updated.”
“Of course!” I pull out my phone and toss it over to him. “Put in your number so I can text you when I find out.”
“Glad I don’t have to pry your number from you.”
“Well, I didn’t expect things to feel the same.”
“They always will with real friends no matter how much time has passed.”
“What are you going to school for? Because if it’s not literacy or philosophy, I don’t know what you’re doing with your life.” He tosses my phone back to me.
“Chemical engineering, actually.”
“What the hell is that?”
“Basically, I’m a gigantic science and math nerd.”
“I knew you were smart, but damn.”
“What about you? What are you doing?”
“Business like my mom wanted. Didn’t have much choice.”
“Have I mentioned how much I hate your mom?” I laugh but look down, wondering if now is the time to tell him why I left. “What is it?”
“I don’t want to ruin the mood.”
“Well, if I’m connecting the correct puzzle pieces, then I think I know what happened.”
“What puzzle pieces are you trying to connect?” I meet his eyes again, his face serious.
“Let’s see. We confronted Brian. And then you leave that very same night. She makes you go to England because you want to produce music. I say I hate your mother and you grow silent. I believe that the reason you left was because of your mom, not because you wanted to. What did she say or do to make you leave?”
“She threatened to ruin your lives if I didn’t leave and stay away.” It’s out there. The truth that I never thought they would ever know. “I wanted you all to be able to go to college and have a good life, so I left… And you have all had amazing lives. You’ve flourished since I left and I am so happy that you did.”
“So I’m guessing she threatened you not to come back either. Is that threat still valid?”
“I don’t know.” I say honestly. “Once I was sent to England, I kind of gave up. My primary goal in coming back, was to see how you guys were doing. I just wasn’t prepared for it to happen immediately.”
“I’m glad you were planning on finding us. If your mom tries to threaten you again, promise you’ll tell us this time? We’re older, so I’m sure we can find a way to make your mom’s threat invalid.”
“You do know who Diana Langston is, right?”
“Oh, I saw the interviews. She’s a snake if I ever saw one. But snakes can be played. I can promise you that.”
“Are you going to tell the others why I left?”
“Do you want me to?” I shrug my shoulders.
“I guess it doesn’t matter either way.”
“I’ll tell them, but they kept you from me for a week, so I can hold on to this information a little while.”
“Thank you, Micah…”
“For being you. It’s been a struggle this past week. I felt crazy and obsessive and you have calmed me completely.”
“That’s what I’m here for.” We sit back and watch a movie, enjoying the time we get to spend with each other. Min comes in about an hour later, looking irritated. “Hey, Min.” Says Micah.
“Emmett is not very smart; did you know that?” She says as she sits down beside him.
“What happened?” I ask.
“He didn’t understand why or how Micah was here. For some reason, he was thinking I got this apartment by myself. We had to explain to him it was you and that yes, it was the Alia you all went to high school with.”
“I love Emmett but he acts blonde way too much though.” I say.
“I think he was more in denial than anything. He was mad at Vance and Jay because they’ve known all this time.”
“Trust me, I will have a conversation with them about that tonight.” Says Micah.
“I didn’t know they didn’t tell you or I would have.” Min says to him.
“I know you would. I would have expected them to though.”
“If it makes you feel better, Jay had an entire conversation with Alia while she was drunk, and he isn’t telling any of us what happened.”
“You didn’t tell me that.” Says Micah, looking at me. “This just adds suspicion.”
“Well, no, I wasn’t going to tell you because I was drunk and that’s embarrassing enough.”
“You don’t remember what you talked about?”
“Not a single thing.”
“You were hammered, not drunk.” Retorts Min.
“I have issues, okay.”
“We all do.” Says Micah as he stands up and stretches. “I should get going.”
“I’ll take you home.” I say, standing up.
“Actually, Jay said to call him when you were ready. He figured you were going to drill him about Alia.” Says Min.
“He’s damn right.” Micah pulls out his phone and sends a quick text. “I’m going to wait for him outside.”
“I’ll go with you.” I say.
“I feel left out.” Says Min.
“You can come with.”
“I’m joking. It’s been three years, you go talk some more. I’m going to bed.”
“Night.” Micah and I go outside and sit at the top of the stairs while we wait for Jay to come.
“Thank you for hanging out with me.” I say.
“Thank you for coming back into our lives.”
“Go easy on Jay, okay?”
“I’ll try. I’m pretty mad at him.”
“I’m sure he had his reasons.” I reply.
“Not a good one.” I rest my head on Micah’s shoulder, not wanting tonight to end.
“I really missed you.” I say.
“I’ve missed you too, Alia.” He rests his head on top of mine as we watch a grey car pull up into the parking lot. “That’s me.” He says. I sigh, not ready for him to go.
“You should just stay the night.”
“I really would love to, but I have to talk to Jay… Keeping you from us. It was selfish and a gigantic assholey thing to do.” Micah reluctantly stands up as I follow suit.
“I mean it, Micah. Go easy on him.” Micah pulls me into a hug, the smile on his face ensuring he will not be going easy on Jay. “Thank you for being okay and for coming back.”
“Thank you for being so forgiving.” He pulls away, giving me one last smile before walking down the steps. I watch as he gets in the car, waving bye, then I go back inside the apartment.