Abigail Taylor POV ~
After spending the day before feeling equal parts hungover and emotionally drained, I just couldn’t face opening the shop. Being forced to reminisce on the shittier part of my life, which meant reliving the awful way Dominick treated me in the end and having that increased tenfold by discovering the even worse way he had actually been fucking me ever since, made me not want to ever step foot in that shop ever again.
I phoned Mr McGee after lying in bed for thirty minutes past my alarm going off, and told him I was sick. I know he didn’t buy it for a second, but thankfully didn’t call me out on my lie. I’m sure he could still hear that my voice was full of unspent tears.
Next I called Mikey, the drummer in my band, and told him the same lie. He offered sympathy, and said he’d rearrange our band practice we had scheduled for that evening.
Now my day was completely free I felt a little bit of relief.
I stayed in bed, listening to the sounds of my housemates getting ready and leaving for college. I still didn’t know why Jake was going along with the pretense. I could tell he hated college. The amount of lectures he’d skipped to hang out at the record store was probably more of the reason he was failing, because he wasn’t unintelligent by any means. I know his heart wasn’t in the subject he was majoring in, but that was easy enough to change.
Just before midday I finally drag myself out of bed and into the shower and get dressed, shimmying into a pair of cut-off jean shorts and slipping an oversized hoodie, which I think I’d stolen from Mikey or one of the other band members, on over my bare torso. I force my bare feet into my trusted Dr Marten’s and grab my bank card.
I find myself wandering idly down the aisles in the local Walmart, not realizing I’ve ended up in front of the home hair dye kits.
I’d had the same hair style since I was sixteen. Dominick had always joked that I was his real life Betty Boop. Maybe is was time for a change?
“I said no already Sammy.” I look up at the weary sound of AJ’s voice, and find him stood a little ways up the aisle from me, an adorable curly haired blonde girl hanging off his hand. She stomps her foot and huffs, making me giggle.
“Woman trouble, AJ.” He looks over, and I push down my hood and he grins at me.
“Hey, Abi. I didn’t realize that was you.” The little girl tugs on his hand again.
“Andy, why can’t I?!”
“Because you’re not old enough, and mom would kill me!” He squats down so he’s at eye level, “You don’t want mom to kill me do you?”
“No. S'pose not.” she replies in a small voice, scuffing her toe along the floor.
He straightens up and rolls his eyes at me. “She’s six going on sixteen.”
“What does she want, anyway?” I ask with a smile.
“She wants to dye her hair pink,” he shakes his head, “She’s watched too many episodes of Adventure Time and wants to be Princess Bubblegum.”
His little sister has been studying me while we’ve been talking, and she tugs on the bottom of my hoodie so I crouch down to talk to her.
“You could be Marceline.” she whispers.
“I don’t think my hair is long enough sweetie, but thank you,” I lean forward and cup my hand round her ear and whisper, “she’s my favorite.”
She giggles, covering her face with her hands which makes her ringlets fall forward. So freaking cute!
“I was thinking about dying my hair, actually. What color do you think I should go for?” Her blue eyes light up and she turns back to the shelves, clapping her little hands in glee. “If you want you can even help me do it.”
“Oh yes please!” she turns to AJ, her hands clasped in front of her pleadingly, “Please can we Andy? Please please please!”
“Sure, sure.” AJ smiles, “You ready to get very very messy?” He points a finger at me.
I laugh and stand back up. We chat as Sammy picks out my new hair color.
“You know there are those spray in-wash out hair colors, would your mom still go mad if we used on of those of your sister’s hair?”
“I guess not.” AJ picks up one of the bottles and reads the back.
Two hours later my hair is a bright turquoise and Sammy and Lottie, AJ’s four year old even littler sister, both have pink hair. We’d even managed to give AJ a pink strip in the front of his hair, although the fact that his hair was black meant it looked more purple. Surprisingly we hadn't made that much of a mess of his bathroom.
AJ had gone to the kitchen to make snacks for the girls, and they were both currently intensely scrutinizing my tattoos; their little fingers running over my skin as if they didn’t believe the ink was permanently there. I'd already been bombarded with hundreds of questions from the two of them regarding my tattoo's and my piercings. They obviously knew Jake and had seen his tatt's, but I don't think it had occurred to either of them that girls could get them too.
“Sorry about them,” AJ chuckles as he puts plates of cut up fruit down on the coffee table, "You'd think they’ve ever actually seen anyone with tattoos before.”
“It’s okay.” I shrug with a small smile. I was actually enjoying the distraction.
The front door swings open and his folks walk in, arms round each others waists, and smiles on their faces. The two little girls drop their food and run over to them, arms open for hugs.
“Hello my babies!” AJ’s mom embraces them both, peppering them with kisses, then pulls AJ in for a hug too, his dad giving him a fond pat on the back of the head when she does.
Stupidly I feel my eyes welling up at the portrait of a perfect family which is happening in front of me. I sniff, and run a quick sleeve covered hand over my eyes to dry them before anyone can see.
“Hi! You must be George’s housemate Abi, right?” The pretty blonde woman walks over and pulls me in for a hug too, the warm scent of cinnamon wafting over me as she does. “I’m Andy’s mom, Noelle, and this is his dad, Gareth.” He waves at me with a lopsided smile.
“Y-yeah. Nice to meet you.” I try to surreptitiously wipe my eyes again, but catch AJ studying me with a frown.
While his parents fawn over his sister’s new hair color, he grabs my hand and leads me upstairs and into his bedroom. I slowly walk round taking in the shelves of trophies and awards, both for football and other academic triumphs.
“You okay?” the frown is still puckering his forehead as he sits down on the edge of his bed.
“Yeah...it’s just...I never had that, y’know? The warm greeting off my parents, the happy family unit.” My eyes start to burn again, and I sniff wetly.
AJ looks at the door, then down to the floor. “They’re great, but it’s not all what it seems.”
He leans over and pulls a polaroid picture out of his nightstand drawer and hands it to me.
“That’s my biological father. He got my mom knocked up when she was only 15. Because he was 20 my grandparents had pushed for him to be charged with statutory rape. He fucked off back to Puerto Rico to escape any charges. Hence my black hair and brown eyes not the blonde haired blue eyed gang downstairs. Last mom heard from him, he was in prison over there for auto theft." AJ runs his hands through his hair. "He wrote me a while ago but I never replied. I didn't tell my mom because I don't want to drag her back to a shitty part of her life."
I stare at the man in the picture. He looks like a carbon copy of AJ; his arms slung around the shoulders of a young Noelle.
"My real dad died in prison." My voice is huskier than usual, thick with emotion. "He never bothered to reach out to me, even when he found out he was ill."
"I know my mom and dad love me, but I still sometimes feel like an outsider in this family." his warm brown eyes focus on my face, "All of us are broken in some way, Abs, all of us. But I truly believe that we find our own family as we live our lives. George, Jake and me, we'll be your family if you'll let us."
The flood gates open, and I can't do anything to stymie the tears. I feel AJ pull me into a tight hug and bury my face into his chest as my body is wracked with sobs.
I decide that I can't skip another day of work. I'd spent the night hiding in my room after AJ dropped me home, too drained to talk to my friends. Jake had knocked on my door asking if I wanted anything, and even though I could actually think of nothing better than being wrapped up in his strong arms and surrounded by his comforting smell, I told him to leave me alone.
My new hair color was still a surprise to me every time I caught sight of myself in the mirror, it was a hell of a lot brighter than I'd originally planned on going. But it looked so cool when I pulled on my usual black uniform. I took my time getting ready, Mr McGee already having text me to say he was opening today so I didn't need to rush in.
When I get there, the shutter is still half way down, the lights dim. What the hell? I glance at the time on my phone and see it's an hour past opening time.
I bend down to scoot under the shutter and push open the door. The lights in the office are on, and I can see several people's shadows through the frosted glass.
Walking over, I stand in the doorway and see Mr McGee, Jake, Jake's dad and some guy in a suit.
"What the fuck's going on?"