Chapter 28-Family Therapy
“The tragedy of life is not death...but what we let die inside of us while we live.”
“The seatbelt blinker thing is off,” Raven
commented. “So you can go to the bathroom, if you need.”
“Already went,” I said, not bothering to unfasten the belt.
Raven sighed and lowered her seat, much to the dismay of the middle-aged woman sitting behind her. I felt bad about sticking her with such a sucky travel partner. My attitude for the last week had taken sulky and sullen to a whole new level.
We’d bid Maddie farewell on campus, since she was getting a ride home from a friend. It had been bittersweet, with a touch of awkward thrown in for spice. Maddie was still acting off-beat, but she’d been essential throughout what I’d dubbed ‘Heart Hell Week’, bringing copious amounts of tissues, chocolate, and booze. She hadn’t mentioned Erica in ages, and I’d wanted to ask what was wrong, but I was too busy licking my wounds.
As for me…the Psych presentation had propelled me into bed for a straight twenty-four hours, petting Poe and listening to morose music.
Landon and I sat on opposite sides of the lecture hall. I’d already emailed Garfield the PowerPoint, and Landon had all the notes he needed for his part. So long as neither of us deviated from the script, the next three hellish hours should go by smoothly.
As pair after pair presented, I grew more agitated. I hadn’t spoken to Landon since the night I’d told him I loved him. He hadn’t tried to call or reach out at all. I had no idea where his head was at. There was never really a way to tell.
“Sophia Michaels and Landon Sinclair.”
My heart began to race wildly. Grabbing my crumpled notes, I zigzagged over backpacks and skateboards until I reached the front of the room. Landon was already there, hip balanced against the desk and arms crossed over his chest. He didn’t look at me as I approached.
Pulling the PowerPoint slides up on Garfield’s laptop, I was glad to have the desk between me and Landon. A tangible obstacle separating us.
“We did our presentation on, um, addiction,” I started, wincing at the points we’d undoubtedly just loss for lack of creativity in opening. I just wanted this final to be over.
I read through my slides robotically. They were mostly statistics I’d gathered online with trivia sprinkled in, along with my opinion. Relaying information from my sessions with Landon was the hardest.
When I reached the end of my part, I exhaled in relief. I quickly skirted the edge of the desk so Landon could take my place in front of the laptop. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and tried not to stare as he addressed the room.
“Addiction is described as the state of being enslaved to a habit. My partner gave you the numbers-let me give you the truths.”
I glanced sharply at his notes. There was nothing about ‘truths’ in there! I’d checked those pages at least seventy times. What did he think he was doing?
Landon ran his fingers along the corner of Garfield’s desk. There was an energy to the way he carried himself, to the way he moved, that kept everyone on the edge of their seat.
“I think addiction is a scale. We are all addicted on some level. Of course, the levels vary, the subject of addiction changes. Most people assume addiction is a disease because of drugs, or alcohol, whatever. But the substance doesn’t matter. The strength of the addiction does.”
He clicked through to the next slide. “Points of progress of addiction are different for everyone. But some similarities survive in each case I studied. Each victim thinks they’re in control. They think they can protect themselves. Fools believe that at the end of the day, the addiction won’t be able to betray them. And the deeper down the rabbit hole they go, the more they start to feel like the addiction is the only thing they need to survive.”
Numbness was spreading through my arms and neck
as it hit me what-or rather, who- Landon was talking about. “But at the end of the day, if something is bad for you, it doesn’t matter how pretty the wrapping is, or how funny, or how vulnerable. With each hit, you lose more than you could ever imagine.”
I turned my head and immediately regretted it. Landon was staring at me, blue eyes filled with a condemnation that raked through me like hot coals. No matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t move away, couldn’t tear my gaze from his. He held me captive as I was shred apart.
“Addiction lowers your guard, step by step. A shy smile, cold toes, a chocolate milkshake. Nothing too deceiving, not at first. Addiction is tricky that way. One minute you’re experiencing the greatest high of your life-and the next you’re lower than you thought possible.”
Landon chuckled as he clicked to the last slide of the presentation. “Addiction is willingly climbing the steps of the gallows, and smiling while you hang.”
The PowerPoint ended, and Landon began to gather his papers. After a beat of shocked silence, the class applauded. Garfield blinked a few times before clearing his throat and calling the next group.
The rest of the flight passed smoothly. I didn’t manage to sleep, but I rarely did on flights. When we deplaned, Raven barely had enough time to bid me goodbye before she had to catch a bus. She lived two hours away, and she didn’t want her parents making the drive to get her.
Throwing her arms around me in a tight hug, she squeezed the daylights out of me. “Remember, if you need anything, just call. Seriously, you need to communicate. If you do your introvert, lick your wounds quietly thing, I will punch you in the crotch.”
I laughed. “Communication, got it. Now go! You’re going to be late, and I need to go get Poe.”
“Not going to miss demon cat,” Raven said gleefully. “Wow, three weeks of fur-free underwear. What a treat.”
After some more urging, Raven ran for her bus. It had grown dark outside, but LAX was bright. It took a while to go through the process of retrieving Poe, but finally I was slugging through the tunnel leading to the pickup zone. I spotted my parents immediately. Mom was standing on a chair, and Dad was trying to convince her to step down.
She saw me, and a huge grin spread across her face. A pang went through me, and suddenly I wanted nothing more than to be in my Mom’s arms. Elbowing past an overly-affectionate couple and grouchy businessman, I ran straight to my mother’s embrace. Dad gingerly took Poe’s cage and my suitcase as I tossed my arms around Mom’s waist.
The urge to cry was fierce, and it was a feat of epic proportions to keep my emotions from welling up. Sniffling, I released Mom and hugged Dad.
“Are you alright, baby?” Mom asked carefully. “Was your flight rough? Did anyone give you a hard time?”
I shook my head, bending to release Poe from his cage and sweep his wriggling body into my arms. Putting him in the cage in the first place had been nearly impossible, and I’d hated doing it with every fiber of my being. I wasn’t going to make him stay in there any longer than I had to.
Mom’s jaw dropped. “Sophia…where did Poe’s tail go?”
I laid on the couch, lazily flipping through channels on T.V. Mom and Dad were in the kitchen, and I found comfort in the low hum of conversation. My first day home was luxury and relaxation, but I had no doubt the spoiling would end tomorrow.
Explaining Poe’s missing appendage hadn’t been easy. Dad was furious, Mom was scared silly, and both wanted to go to the authorities immediately. All I’d told them was some psycho had broken into the room and mutilated Poe. I wasn’t shelling out many details.
“So honey,” Mom appeared at the foot of the couch. “Do you want to help us start decorating for the Christmas party?”
I sat up, rubbing my temples. My parents annual holiday party had completely slipped my mind. Great, mingling with nosy relatives and drunk cousins was exactly what I needed.
“Sure Mom,” I sighed. “It’s in like three days, right?” “Same day every year,” she replied, a hint of sarcasm in her voice. I couldn’t stop a giggle from bubbling through.
Sarcasm on Mom was like a pink dress on an alligator. “There’s that laugh I’ve been waiting to hear.” Mom reached over and took my hand in hers. “I wish you would tell me what’s bothering you. I’d understand, you know. No smothering.”
Tugging a strand of hair free from my bun, I stretched it across my forehead. Dad was puttering around the kitchen, but I knew he had one ear listening in on our conversation.
“I’ve just had a tough time at school lately.”
Absently, I strung the piece of hair across my mouth, only realizing my actions when Mom reached over to smack it from my hand. “Do you know what happens when you swallow a strand of hair? It’ll wrap itself around your intestines and kill you!”
I rolled my eyes.
“Amy!” Dad called, a tired reminder to get back on topic.
“Listen you guys,” I started, hoping to set their worries at ease for once and for all. “I’m fine. Really. I’m just in a slump because my brain is trying to recover from finals. So what do you want me to start decorating?”
Despite not looking particularly convinced, Mom stood up, yanking me along with her. We headed into the garage and sifted through the boxes of junk we routinely stored in there. After plenty of dust and spider scares, we reached the holiday jackpot.
Mom grunted as she dragged a worn cardboard box out from behind an old bike. “We need to clean in here.”
“You say that every year.”
“And every year, I mean it.”
Giggling, I pulled my own box out, and the two of us grunted and groaned into the living room. Dad watched amusedly as we both collapsed atop our boxes.
“Lightweights,” he snickered.
Mom raised a brow. “Oh yeah? Let’s see you try.”
“Game on!” Dad answered, striding to the garage. Ten minutes later, Mom and I were dissolving into heaps of laughter as Dad reemerged, sweaty and annoyed.
“We need to clean in there!”
The next three days went by in a flurry of cooking, old Christmas music, and decorations galore. I was almost always covered in glitter, and Mom smelled like she bathed in pine.
The work may have been painful, but by the time the party rolled around, I was feeling loads better. Decorating was cathartic, I suppose. Or maybe it was just spending time with my parents and remembering that life did exist beyond Franklin University. Mom and Dad were really going over the top this year. I’d worn a knee-length red dress and done my hair up with green barrettes so it curled around my shoulders. Poe was roaming the second floor, with one of those child barriers in front of the stairs to keep him from freaking out the guests.
“Oh my God!” Mom shrieked. I was sitting on a stool in the kitchen, where I likely wouldn’t move for the rest of the night. Access to food and avoidance of civilization-who could ask for more? “We forgot to put up mistletoe!”
Dad groaned. “Amy, the mistletoe has ruined lives. Marriages.”
“I don’t care! It’s tradition. Here, help me put it over the entry to the living room.”
I watched Dad humor my crazy Mom while I discreetly munched on some chips. I’d never really stopped and thought about how strong my parents’ marriage was, because it had been a given that they would weather anything together. They were a constant, unbreakable. They’d lost a child after years of struggling and had their other daughter sink into herself-that would sever most marriages. But here they were, stronger than ever, ready to take on the world.
“Sophia, are you eating the food? Wait till the guests get here!” Mom ordered.
On that note, the doorbell buzzed. The Meyers popped in, parents and two teenage kids.
“Oh, look at you! You’re so cute!” Mrs. Meyers gushed, holding my shoulders tight. “And good job avoiding the freshman fifteen. My niece-you met her, Debra!- she wasn’t as lucky. All that dessert isn’t good for a young lady’s shape.”
This was going to be a long night.
As guests continued to filter in, I said many hello’s and how do you do’s. Frankly, the only thing keeping my sanity intact amidst the, “You’re an undeclared major? Hmm, I see,” or gems like “I thought for sure you would go into the medical field! But I guess that kind of challenge isn’t for everyone” was the bar full of desserts to my left.
The hum of conversation and mirth along with the holiday music playing in the background helped settled my frazzled nerves. People were getting along, the gossip was minimally malicious, and they loved Dad’s onion dip. Outside, the younger kids were playing tag around the pool, an activity keeping a lot of the parents nervous.
“Sophia, I’ve got someone I want you to meet!” Mom’s voice had my shoulders immediately tensing. Plastering a polite smile on my face, I swiveled to meet the guest.
A girl my age or a bit younger watched me curiously, her wrist held captive in Mom’s grip. She was gorgeous, with a thick mass of light brown hair, sharp cheekbones, and full lips.
We shook hands, and she introduced herself as Mercy James. Mom excused herself, leaving us standing awkwardly. Mercy rounded the kitchen island and grabbed a stool across from me.
I tried to make conversation as she shoveled food onto her plate. “So you came with Archer Sloane, huh?”
Archer was the son of old family friends. The
Sloanes’ hadn’t been able to make the party this year, since it a busy night at the restaurant they owned, but Archer was close enough to my parents to make an appearance alone. Or in this case, with a date.
“Yup,” she replied, popping a brownie bite into her mouth.
Tugging a strand of hair around my fingers, I reflected on the man in question. “I’ve known him since I was a kid. Really cool, very down to earth. Not usually something you see in guys that are smoking hot.”
Mercy tilted her head in thought. “The down to earth thing is arguable.” She licked a dollop of frosting from her finger. “Anyway, who crapped in your cereal this morning?”
My brain took a couple of minutes to compute. I chuckled, confused. “What?”
She gestured in my general area. “You’re not wearing a stitch of makeup at a party, there’s a dried coffee stain on your dress, and you’re majorly spacing. So either you have boy trouble or you’re a serial killer in disguise.”
“How’d you know? I even hid my bloody axe this
She reached over and snagged a brownie. “You’re funny. Surprising, since you look like someone ran over your cat.”
“My cat is more likely to be the one running people over,” I joked weakly. “But yeah, you’re right. There’s a boy. Or was.”
For some reason, I wanted to open up to this girl. Maybe it was because I’d been keeping everything under lock and key throughout the break. It could have just been her cavalier, painfully blunt attitude. Whatever it was, I found my guts promptly spilling.
“A lot. Too much, actually. Relationships shouldn’t be this painful, right? Loving someone is so simple. So why does it hurt so freaking much?”
Wiping her fingers on a napkin, Mercy looked thoughtful. “Don’t let the movies fool you. Being in love isn’t all sparkles and unicorns.”
Well then. Not what I expected.
She wasn’t finished. “Loving someone is the hardest thing in the world. Loving someone means fighting. It can lift you so you’re soaring high one second and bring you crashing down in the next. Now, the type of love it is doesn’t depend on how high you go or how hard you fall. True love…” Mercy paused, a small smile playing across her lips. “If it’s true love, he’ll give you wings so you can fly beside him.”
She licked the powdered sugar from her fingertips.
“Unless he’s an abuser. If that’s the case, get away as fast as you can, and give me his address because I have connections.”
I grinned. “Very poetic. Would you like a napkin to draft a short novel?”
We talked for a few more minutes, and her advice actually made sense. She was logical, with just the right touch of romantic. When she asked me if the problem between us was fixable, an image of Naomi boarding a train filled my mind.
Mercy shook her head, pouty red lips twisting into an exasperated smile. “Then what are you pouting about? Axe the issue and get your shit together, girl.”
For a wild moment, everything was so simple. My problems with Landon didn’t seem so vast and thorny. I was invigorated anew, actually standing to go see him when I remembered I lived in California and he was in Maryland.
I sat down.
“So how did you and Archer meet?”
Her response was vague at best. “Um…he kind of saved my ass. I was in a tough spot and he bailed me out.”
I smirked. Figured. The boy was always searching for a problem to solve, a case to take on. It made sense that this girl, with her no-holds-barred attitude and world-weary eyes would be the one he’d pick.
Sharing a story about his childhood antics, I noted how she lit up with glee. Hopefully Archer wouldn’t hurt this one.
“Bless you for telling me,” Mercy cackled, tickled pink by child Archer’s crazy.
I winced. “Just don’t tell him I told you. He has a gun and he knows how to use it.”
Mercy froze, a fudge square halfway to her mouth. “You know about the gun?” she murmured, shocked.
I arched a brow. “Well, yeah. It kind of comes with the job description.”
Mercy started to respond, but Archer swooped in, a panicked look on his handsome face. He mussed my hair until I smacked his hand away.
“Mercy, can I talk to you in the backyard?” he asked. I smirked, knowing full well he didn’t want her to hear all the dirt I had on him.
She shrugged. “Sure.”
Grabbing another cookie, she rose from her seat. “It was nice talking to you. Let me know what happens, okay?”
“You got it. And thanks, Mercy.”
They headed into the backyard, and I creepily watched them for a few minutes. Archer couldn’t seem to tear his gaze from the girl. He said something that made her face crumple with sadness, and she glanced my way.
Whoops! I quickly turned my attention to the cookie on my plate.
Raven had yet to hear from Jesse, and the stubborn girl refused to be the first one to reach out. Those two were so annoyingly similar. Tenacious as hell with a protective streak a mile long. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t seeing it from his point of view. If he’d done the same thing to me, waiting till I was at a low point before calling in my ex to see me in all my humiliation, Raven would have brought down hell. Jesse was doing what he always didtaking care of his best friend.
I wondered how Landon was doing. I wished he used social media, so maybe I could stalk his activity, but alas. Was he spending it with Naomi? I gritted my teeth at the thought.
No, Mrs. Kendall would never let him stay at school during the holidays, and no way would she allow Naomi to darken her doorstep.
The party started winding down, the high point coming when Archer and Mercy kissed under the mistletoe.
Guess Mom hadn’t been wrong.
As guests started filtering out, I let Mom drag me to the door to say goodbye. A lot of wet cheek kisses later, I was bidding Archer and Mercy farewell. She hugged me tightly and commanded Archer to text her number to my phone so she could get updates. When it was my turn to hug Archer, I stood on my tiptoes to wrap my arms around his broad shoulders.
“Be good to this one,” I murmured in his ear. “She’s spunky and I want to know how she keeps her hair like that.”
“Trust me Soph, I’m not the wild card in this relationship,” he replied softly.
Once the house was finally empty and quiet, I got to cleaning. Mom and Dad tried to help, but I could sense their fatigue. “Go to bed,” I ordered. “I’ve got this.”
“Thanks baby.” Mom pressed a kiss to my forehead and disappeared up the stairs.
“Night,” Dad yawned, following her up.
I plugged in my headphones and got to work, taking some cleaning breaks to slow dance with the broom. I found a shoe lying next to the DVD player, a tube of lipstick near the soda, and a baby’s pacifier on the couch. Better than last year’s cleanup, featuring a flavored condom near the fireplace.
Nearly finished, I was lugging the black garbage bags next to the backyard door to take them out in the morning when a photo on the mantle caught my eye.
I picked it up, thumb caressing the embroidered frame. It was a picture of Lexi and me at Laguna Beach from six years ago. We were wearing swimsuits; Lexi clad in a cute striped bikini while I was sporting a gray one piece. We had our arms around each other, cheeks mashed and dopey grins on. I was hiding behind her a little, worried about how my legs and belly would look in the photo.
A pang seared through my chest. It had been a happy day for all of us.
I sat on the couch and stared at the glittery Christmas tree. Lexi was a Christmas junkie, always gung ho with the decorations and begging to string the lights up right after Thanksgiving. She’d dress in only holiday themes the week of Christmas and play enough hokey music to make our ears bleed. Our annual holiday party had always been a blast when she was with me. We’d sit on the couch and gossip about who was cheating on who, or who had gotten work done on their nose.
Even when we fought, it was the kind of fighting where you knew you would make up quickly. My anger had a very short expiration date when it came to my twin. She’d pout and cutesy her way out of any situation, a tool I’d envied like crazy. I’d never met anyone since who’d been quite as brave as my sister, or quite as gutsy.
Exhaling, I set the picture gently back on the mantle.
And I made my decision.
“Guess I’m finally taking a page out of your book, sis,” I murmured, mind already whirring with plans. “Because I’m going back to fight for my guy.”