J O H N
They all entered the polished house with a sense of resentment for all of it. They had turned their back on their daughter and living securely and healthily. It wasn’t deserved.
John kept Mari at his side and would do for the entire event. This would be a prime place for her to escape. He hadn’t checked out all possible exits and like her, didn’t know the house, putting them both in the same boat.
He could sense Sara’s jealousy of Mari from a mile away and couldn’t blame her. But Mari was his job, his responsibility. He had to keep her close.
“Don’t you want to spend time with your family instead of constantly watching me?” Mari deadpanned with a roll of her eyes.
“You’re a pretty sight,” he commented with a shrug. The truth was, being so disconnected from the grief he should have left a hole. A hole he usually filled with alcohol or something a little more recreational. But now, all he could do was focus on Mari and hope his past wouldn’t catch up with him.
“Are you okay?” she asked in a small voice, like she was scared she was going to offend him.
“Yes, I’m fine,” he replied curtly.
“It’s an intimate gathering. I shouldn’t be here. I didn’t know your mother.” She was right, it was rather intimate. There was only John’s uncle and his wife and that was it. The eight of them at a wake. It was ridiculous.
They settled at a long dining table, decked with fine plates and silver cutlery his parents could never afford. John had rarely been to his grandparents’ house in his youth, deciding that there was no point. They didn’t care for him; thus, he didn’t care for them.
“So… John, it’s been a while since we’ve seen you,” his father commented. John remained as stoic as ever, not bothered by his father’s obvious vindictive tone. Mari shuffled uncomfortably in her chair, feeling out of place in the setting. He did too. This was his family, and they were practically strangers to him.
“It has been a while,” John agreed in a dull voice.
“And you come back with…” He looked to Mari disapprovingly, causing John to scoff.
“My name is Ella,” Mari said confidently, narrowing her eyes at John’s father. How could he think she needed protecting? She could stand up for herself well enough. She was a fighter; that was something he had always known.
“Right,” his father replied nonchalantly. “How did you two meet?”
“This is mother’s wake. Don’t start this shit,” John stated, huffing in annoyance.
“I can’t speak to my son’s new girlfriend? She’s important enough to meet your family and you don’t want me to ask about your relationship?” his father questioned. “Unless… there’s something wrong with the story. Maybe you met her at some trashy strip club, maybe-”
“Watch your mouth,” John hissed, defending his fake girlfriend. Mari was anything but some trashy dancer from one of those backstreet strip clubs. She was much more innocent than that. He doubted if she had ever been kissed by a boy before she kissed him as a ploy to escape.
“I stumbled into him outside my apartment and I fell, dropping all my things. And he then helped me up and asked me out,” Mari declared, keeping her cool. John felt proud. She was a skilled liar, which both impressed him and terrified him. And she was calm under pressure.
John remained stoic usually, with the exception with his family. They were always the ones who could bring out his monster if need be.
After a touch more small talk that was mostly curt answers from John, the family took their leave, saying their goodbyes. Sara was consistent in watching the little girl she appeared utterly jealous of. It was true; even now, Mari held John’s attention in her grip tightly. As much as he wanted to be able to tear his eyes away from her, he knew he couldn’t even if he were able. She captured his interest and excitement. Every little action she made had to be observed. He had to keep trying to understand her, at the least.
However, he supposed she would be gone in a few days. After the funeral, which would be in a couple of days, he would take her home and he would leave her there, never to be seen again. He didn’t have a heart or a conscience, or so he liked to convince himself.
They had acted like that kiss meant nothing. And that was how he wanted it to stay. If they addressed it, he might never be able to let her go.
John’s father had a little too much to drink, which was a great surprise to John. He would have figured the man to be passed out by now, but perhaps this deadbeat father had actually loved his wife more than his drink.
John’s father and Sara were both asleep in the back, light snores escaping them. Yet, Mari wasn’t tired. She was doing something, as usual, keeping herself entertained with whatever she could find. And now, she chose conversation. The girl loved to talk.
“Your family are very nice,” she commented sarcastically in a quietened tone.
“Yes, they are.” John let out a chuckle, sighing softly. “You handled it well.”
“That’s because I didn’t have to handle anything. This is all pretend. I can be Ella, someone who I’m not. Someone who’s free to do whatever she wants.”
The more Mari spoke now, the wiser she often sounded. He rarely saw her once blatant youth anymore. There were, of course, still touches of it in her complexion and her impulsivity. But there was something different about her. Or perhaps it had always been there, just hidden by her inexperience in the real world.
They returned to the house and to his room, Mari lounging on his bed, reading some book she had found, and John was fiddling around on the computer, slamming it when it didn’t work.
“You know, old man, I can help you with that,” Mari said with a grin. She enjoyed calling him old, like he was some sort of useless dependent elderly man who needed constant help. She snaked around to join him by the desk and sat on one of the arms of the chair.
“I don’t need your help, little girl,” he retorted. It was the game they played. They played many games, and somehow, he found enjoyment in every single one. She was a challenging opponent, and he often wondered if he could ever win against her. She had some sort of… power. And she had strategy when playing. She knew her next move.
“Really? Have you ever even heard of the internet or is that way before your time?” she asked with a giggle.
“Quite the funny one today, aren’t we?” He didn’t know why but he dragged her onto his lap from her perch on his chair’s arm.
“I’m always funny. You’re just too dry to understand humor, and too old.”
“Oh yeah?” He didn’t know what he was doing. It was just natural, instinctive. He wasn’t thinking, he was just… doing what he wanted. “And-” Before he could say anything else, the door swung open, his sister at the entrance.
Her eyes slightly widened, and he had almost forgotten the position he and Mari were in. It fit her lie rather well, making them appear a couple. How long could he pretend until it started to feel real?
“Oh, s-sorry,” Sara stammered.
“Did you need something, Sara?” he asked, his fingers subconsciously dancing on Mari’s hips.
“I ordered take out. I got you your favorites, and extra because I didn’t know what Ella liked. It just got here if you want to eat,” Sara replied shyly. She had never seen her brother affectionate with anyone, not that he and Mari were affectionate for one another.
Reluctantly, John stood Mari up and led her out of his room, following Sara down the stairs. They settled at the table and Mari instantly dug in. The two watched the girl devour the food without the slightest bit of bashfulness. John couldn’t help a chuckle escape, and that caused Mari to stop and look up at him.
“You never feed me right. And lunch was very awkward. Sorry that I have to eat,” she snarked, causing another chuckle released from John.
“I didn’t say anything,” John argued, raising his hands in surrender. “I know all too well that you love food.”
“You were judging me.” She pouted and John bit back another laugh.
“Eat as much as you want, princess,” he said. She narrowed her eyes at him before she continued to eat, not caring what anyone else thought. She still excited him. Everything about her. Beautiful, exciting and confusing.
“Where’s my fucking food?” his father bellowed as he entered the kitchen, stumbling all over the place in a drunken mess. Of course. How could John think any better of his father?
“Go sit down by the TV and I’ll bring you something,” John declared. He didn’t want to ruin Mari’s deserved meal by adding his father’s interrogating stare whilst she was eating.
He organized a plate for his father and brought it in to him before returning to their meal. Sara was staring at Mari with narrowed eyes and both were ever so silent.