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The Memories That Break Our Fall

The Memories That Break Our Fall

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The Memories That Break Our Fall

Länge:
522 Seiten
11 Stunden
Herausgeber:
Freigegeben:
Sep 24, 2020
ISBN:
9781005133764
Format:
Buch

Beschreibung

After the loss of his father, seventeen-year-old True Lockhart is forced to move from California to Utah with his overbearing
step-mother.

With no blood relatives alive and miles away from his past and the incredible life he knew, True feels lost and can only find comfort in his memories.

But after reconnecting with his compassionate and caring step-cousin and meeting the school's resident bad boy, True begins to wonder, does the past shape you or do the people you love?

Herausgeber:
Freigegeben:
Sep 24, 2020
ISBN:
9781005133764
Format:
Buch

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The Memories That Break Our Fall - Victor Lodevico

Copyright © 2016, 2020 Victor Lodevico

All rights reserved.

The Memories That Break Our Fall is a complete work of fiction. Any names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the product of fiction or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

No part of this publication may be produced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to reproduce any part of this book should be directed to vlodevico31@gmail.com .

Cover illustration and book design © Victor Lodevico, 2020

The Memories That Break Our Fall

2 nd Edition

To the lovers, the broken hearted and the new romantics — this story ’ s for you.

-Victor

Prologue

The Summer I was ten years old, I had grown 2 inches, learned all fifty states and their capitals, perfected riding my bike with no hands, and broke my left wrist after attempting a very poorly supervised handstand. Los Angeles was in a record-breaking heatwave, topping the previous year's 100-degree weather by adding three more degrees and bronzing my already brown skin to a color that reminded me of burnt sugar.

One particular summer day had me biking quickly through a hot and muggy morning. The humidity in the air stuck onto me like a thick, invisible, waxy film, and by the time I had reached the park, I immediately regretted skipping my morning shower. The coupled heat and exhaustion matched my mood perfectly, a combination of intense frustration and lethargy that seemed all too perfect. I chained my bike to the racks and stomped halfway through the dry grass before sprinting like a decathlon runner the rest of the way. The morning sprinklers promised ice-cold drops against my exposed calves and were the reason for my early morning ride.

I had made it to the pavement outside of the park's activity center dry, but the lingering humidity and mounting sun made the win feel hollow. My pace resumed slow and disgruntled as my feet stopped in front of the bungalow. I reached the door and swung it open to have Mason look up from where he stood in front of a canvas, where he placed paint and brushes in a tray.

You're here early, Mason said with a wide smile.

Whenever I think about Mason now, the first image that comes to mind is that bright row of white teeth.

Instead of greeting him with my usual jab at his bad, college-boy, style choices, or opening up a conversation about what new danger Fox News warned me I'd encounter this morning, I had just let out a sigh. A sound that ultimately showed how frustrated I was. I had wordlessly sat down at the blank canvas he had just prepared. A freshly sharpened drawing pencil steady in my hand and began to sketch directly onto the canvas. When I glanced up at the clock right above Mason's head, I saw just how early I was.

9:30 am.

The class didn't officially begin 10:30 am and had given me plenty of time to work out everything that went wrong that morning through my latest obsession — painting.

The Summer prior, my Dad enrolled me in the Kids Summer Art Class at the park. My Dad's divorce counselor suggested that I would benefit from: Utilizing a strong mind in healthy and rewarding hobbies, instead of providing the world with more chaos. I had told him that the chaos I created wasn't intentional. All those schemes to get my parents back together were supposed to work! I mean, I had seen The Parent Trap about a hundred times, and I figured that anything two Lindsay Lohans could do, I could do better. I guess being a naive little nine-year-old, I just wanted to maintain what I had always known to be constant. The divorce had brought a swarm of different changes, and I just couldn't understand why. After my Dad explained what a divorce was and after I watched my Mom move out of the only home I had ever known, I tried everything I could to just stop my world from changing.

Yet, life kept changing. After Mom's trip away to get better, and Dad starting to date again, I slowly came to terms with the fact that they would never get back together. After being grounded for a week because I locked them together in a room for 3 hours, being grounded for two weeks after accidentally giving both of them food poisoning by sprinkling this Love Serum, I bought online over their dinner. And after the month-long grounding for breaking my wrist during my handstand protest against their divorce, I realized that my attempts were futile and painful. My Mom and Dad were better divorced. It really did make both parents happier and a whole lot less angry.

No, my mood that morning didn't stem from the hopeless thought of getting my parents back together. The reason I dug the pencil lead across the white canvas with muttered grunts was because of the giant bomb my Dad dropped on me that morning over breakfast.

She'd be moving in , I had thought to myself as I put extra effort into erasing dark lines. There'd be no escape from lectures about manners or Patsy Cline on repeat from the kitchen patio.

Rough morning? Mason asked from where he sipped on his coffee next to my canvas.

I hadn't even noticed him move toward me. I guess it was because I was too invested in my stewing. His light brown eyes always looked tired, but still soft. He had grown a patchy beard around his firm jaw, and his messy brown hair fit his college student-teaching-major posture.

You're usually the last one in here when the session starts, and you usually don't stab your art. I'm somewhat relieved that you're not working your anger out on strangers in the street.

With brilliant deduction skills like that Mason, it's a wonder why they haven't already just handed you that Teaching degree, I said.

Don't be a smart-ass kid. Mason laughed, nudging my shoulder and having me relax.

I let myself a small smile and set the pencil down. Mason proved to be someone I could talk to, especially after how much he helped me cope with my parents' divorce last year. I knew I could speak to him about anything. Still, talking to him about this was one thing, getting him to understand just how frustratingly, life-altering this crappy situation was, was another.

Is it anything I need to talk to your smoking-hot Mom about? He had asked with his wry smile. Because if it is, I'd be more than happy to call her in for a personal conference.

I laughed and threw my eraser at him, which he easily caught. I knew my Mom was gorgeous, her olive-brown skin was flawless, and her delicate Filipino features made up half of my genetic makeup, but hearing a college boy talk about hitting on her instantly creeped me out.

She's still out of town, and may I remind you, you're only ten years older than I am, I had said jokingly. No, it's not a Mom problem. My Dad —

— is here. Mason finished for me.

I saw him look up to the door and straighten to a stand. I turned around and groaned.

My Dad stood with his broad shoulders relaxed, hands in his khakis, and a slight smile. His dark black curls slicked back at the sides with a few loose tendrils parted to the right.

I figured I'd find you here, Dad said from the doorway, walking casually up toward me before setting a smile to Mason. Hello, Mr. Reed!

He offered his hand to Mason, who wiped his own hand on his jeans and took my Dad's in greeting.

Good morning, Mr. Lockhart. Mason said in his professional voice, the one he reserved for parents and administrators.

I let out a disgusted scoff and turned back to my canvas to continue sketching.

Well, I'm just going to step out for a quick second, Mason smiled. I'll leave you with your son.

I shot Mason a look as he moved to the door. He gave me a thumbs-up from behind my Father, and I fought every urge to get up out of my chair and tackle him to the ground for making me face my problems instead of allowing me to wallow in silent anger for at least one morning!

My eyes met my Father's gray-blues, gentle, kind, and always smiling. I let out a sigh, turned back to my canvas, and away from his perceptive stare.

Looks good, I heard him say as he settled on the stool next to me. What's it supposed to be?

A representation of a struggle between warring emotions. A distinct separation between adoration and disdain. I responded quickly, with my un-casted hand traveling swiftly over the canvas.

"That's very astute for a ten-year-old ." my Dad said, and I could hear his smile.

I'm painting that or an eggplant, I haven't committed to either project yet, I replied seriously, which got a small laugh from the tall man.

I felt the corners of my own mouth tug up slightly, so I tried harder to contain my smile. I had to remind myself that I was mad at him.

Baby, about this morning, he began, and I found no difficulty having my almost-smile return to a frown. I can see now that how I handled the situation could've been executed better —

" — Pfft , I interrupted, spraying the canvas in front of me with spit that I wiped off with the back of my hand. Understatement of the year."

Dad sighed, a compassionate, but still firm one, that urged my conscience to give him my attention. He gently placed his large hand over mine, brought it down from the canvas, and smiled.

What I was going to say was, I know I could've handled the situation better — but you didn't give me a chance to explain myself, his tone was still soft.

One of my Dad's outstanding skills was reprimanding and scolding me without raising his voice or even trying to start an argument. His powers of the guilt-trip were so effective he didn't need to yell.

Three months! I said in disbelief, snapping my hand back from my Dad's warm touch. How can you even consider marrying someone after only three months of dating? What insanity is that? I'm 10, and I already know that this is a terrible idea. It's nonsensical! It's irresponsible! How do you even rationally know that she's the one? How can you foster love in such a short amount of time —

— It's happened in less time to me before, Dad interrupted. I fell in love with you the second I laid eyes on you, True.

I smiled slightly and felt the blood flow return to my skull.

I had to applaud the man for always knowing how to calm me down before erupting.

You don't get off the hook that easily, Dad, I said with a sarcastic laugh, setting my tone a notch lower than infuriated. And you didn't answer my question. How do you know that Rhonda's the one? I mean, you must've thought Mom was, and that didn't end right. How can you be so sure that this thing with Rhonda won't end in disaster?

My Dad sighed and took my hand in his again. He scrunched up his handsome face in thought and pouted. I found my smile, that face he made always painted one on, no matter how angry I was with him.

I don't, he said. That's the reality of it, True. No one ever does know how these things play out. But I can tell you honestly, that's the reason I want to marry Rhonda.

His response was so bluntly honest. I raised my eyebrow, intrigued, urging him to continue.

I know that the idea of proposing to her this early in our relationship is crazy, he said with a chuckle. I know if I were on the outside looking in, I'd definitely call myself insane. But it's different with her. She's —

— stubborn, I finished, then continued. Headstrong, nit-picky, annoying —

She's also kind, smart, and crazy about you too, True. Dad smiled.

I scoffed and rolled my eyes.

And she's someone I love very much. And I'm willing to succeed, fail, and endure whatever else this relationship offers.

I felt my body ease slightly, but Dad must've seen the lingering doubt I held on my face.

You can't let one setback keep you from letting someone else try to love you, True, he continued. I would never want you to close your heart off because of the fear of failing. Personally, I believe that not trying is even more painful than being heartbroken.

I leaned my head against my Dad's shoulder and felt that familiar security radiate from him. He set his strong arm around me.

So, that's how easy it's gonna be? I asked, facing the canvas with Dad's shoulder still firm beneath my cheek. You're going to promise her forever?

It's not going to be all that easy, he said, letting out a nervous and breathy sigh. I still need to ask her. Besides, I can't promise Rhonda forever. I can only promise to love her and be faithful and to cherish her as long as she'll have me.

My lips turned up into a small smile that he couldn't see. I could feel my anger from that morning drain from the top of my head and disperse into the air, setting out into the world, off and unleashed to plague someone else with its trouble. My Dad was an amazing man who was filled with love to spare. Anyone was lucky to have him, and if he found Rhonda worthy, I had to trust him.

You should go with that little speech as your proposal, I said, looking down at my Dad's shiny Rolex and our entwined fingers. There would be no way Rhonda would say no to that, even if you can't promise forever.

Dad laughed, and I smiled.

I do know one thing about forever, though, something I can completely promise without a second thought, he said, having me raise my head to be met with him already staring at me. I will love you forever, True. And you will never have to doubt that. There isn't a force in the universe that will ever stop me from loving you forever.

So sappy, Daddy. I said with a smile.

He laughed into my curly black hair, kissing the top of my head and pulling me tight into a hug. I had always joked about how his philosophical moments would become too sentimental when he let them linger, and he would just laugh and agree.

But despite my sarcasm, I still found myself holding onto my Father tighter than I could ever remember. And there, sitting on stools in an empty classroom, surrounded by blank canvases and the summer sun flooding through windows, I began to count the days to forever.

PART 1

Chapter 1

Stop being so dramatic. Utah is going to be great.

No, it wasn't.

There were 28 or 30 more miles to go before we were to reach Rhonda's sister's house in the sunny suburb of Rosedale, Utah. I had visited the place once the summer I turned twelve when Dad decided to remarry after his and Mom's divorce. What I remember from that trip was that it was ungodly hot in that stupid town and that cookie-cutter houses (where you can get fined for having a patch of grass browner than the rest of the lawn) were the creepiest kinds of ordinary. It was the rare kind of dull that bores people to death. And now, I'd have to spend the next year living with Rhonda, her sister Melissa and her son, Justin.

Great. Exactly how I envisioned my senior year of high school.

We turned off the major road and onto a strip of undeveloped land. The paved highway and lampposts happened to be the only thing relatively modern about this high grass stretch. From a far-off distance, I could see wooden skeletons of what were to be houses. Cranes and ant-sized people were moving about in the heat, absent of sound.

That's where they're building the new subdivision of the Rosedale Homes. McMansions. Rhonda said.

I scrolled through my iPod, desperately trying to find something worth listening to, so I wouldn't have to listen to her.

Rhonda, my Stepmother, and now legal guardian, was moving me to Utah for the structure I apparently needed that she knew LA couldn't offer me. She constantly reminded me of what a colossal fuck up I was. I guess not necessarily in words so harsh, but in the underhanded insults, only a stepparent can provide without sounding too much like an actual parent.

I've heard the usual: I know you're smarter than this, you don't apply yourself, and If you surrounded yourself with people who care about their futures.

Ever since Dad died, she's made it her lifelong mission to shape me into something worthy of calling hers, especially since, to her dismay, she had now inherited me.

She continued talking as I gave up on looking for something new from the same songs, I had listened to the entire car ride from California. I pushed her voice to the back of my head (as I usually did), making it the perfect white noise to attempt to fall asleep to. I was about to drift off into a blissful car ride slumber until she abruptly screeched my name, which did its successful trick of waking me up.

TRUE! Are you listening to anything I'm saying?

I haphazardly sat up and turned my head toward her. My bug-eyed, rose-tinted sunglasses slid down my nose's bridge, successfully making me look more apathetic than usual.

I wasn't. I was enamored in the thought of living in White-Bread suburbia! I responded sarcastically.

She gave me her usual sidelong glance of annoyance and let out one of her famous long-suffering sighs.

This isn't going to be bad, True, she said as she reached for her Diet Coke from the center console. It'll be good for you, get a chance to be around … a normal environment, concern yourself with kid things.

Rhonda put the bottle to her lips. She has this annoying habit of guzzling down drinks like a baby goat, thin neck bobbing up and down, lips pursed, and eyes bulging to keep her eyes on the road.

Kid things? Like finger painting? Sock hops? I thought the point was to prepare me for a future in the adult world, not regress into stages of early childhood.

I heard another exasperated sigh and saw an eye roll as she put down her Coke and set both hands on the wheel.

Things a teenaged boy should concern himself with: school, dances, hanging out with friends … girls.

I hated that she did that.

I couldn't comprehend how she could still think I would ever, remotely, even possibly be interested in girls, after repeatedly telling her that I was gay. Like really gay. She was incredibly irritating, but more so when it came to the subject of my sexuality.

Rhonda, I'm gay, you know I'm gay. I like boys, boys like me. I mean you know this after you had caught Alex and me —

Okay, stop! I remember! she quickly interrupted, shaking her head to diffuse the memory from her mind. I sat back in my seat, pleased with myself. This always seemed to be an effective way to end these kinds of conversations. I just mean that you should be enjoying your life before you head to college next fall.

I threw my hands up in frustration.

Rhonda, I was enjoying my life in LA, my life is there!

Your life is not there, she immediately snapped. And the things you were doing, and the friends you were hanging out with were not good for you. All those things are behind us, remember? We decided those bad influences won't help you reach your full potential, True. We've discussed this.

No, she decided and discussed. I yelled, ran out, and accidentally wrapped her Volvo around an oak tree. I knew this argument was going nowhere. It didn't work six months ago. So, it definitely wasn't going to work here, on this road in Utah, on my way to Rosedale Penitentiary: Facility for the Carbon Copy Deranged. I brought my feet up to the dashboard and sunk low in my seat. I wasn't going to let her lecture me, yet again about my choices.

You have to trust me on this. I grew up around this area; it's definitely made me the person I am today. Rhonda finished.

Right, I replied as sarcastically as I could. Can't wait to start my path on the road to Zombie of the West, making the right choices, with my bottle of White Zinf and Prozac while honing my self-internalizing skills... I'm sure it's a great way to develop a tumor.

That's not funny, True, Rhonda whispered. Her somber reaction instantly made me feel bad.

I always knew when I had gone too far with a joke when Rhonda's voice lowered, and she got that distant, almost disappointed look in her eyes. I'm not even sure if she caught on, but every time I got that particular response from her, I couldn't help but be angry with myself as well. Often, words left my mouth before my thoughts could completely clear them for takeoff. That little filter — that was apparently nonexistent in my mind — got me into trouble quite a bit. The afternoon started to wane. The sky was still, and the fading sun's remnants peeked into my peripheral from under the sun visor.

It had been almost a year since Dad died of pancreatic cancer. He went in for a check-up when they found a tumor that had spread to his lungs. After that initial screening and two intense hospital stays, he was gone by my sixteenth birthday. He was leaving Rhonda and me to figure out what we were supposed to mean to each other, now that the foundation that held our family together had buckled and fallen. The tension lingered longer than needed, and I felt guilty for being (yet again) careless with my choice of words. I was about to say something positive, or at least not as abrasive when Rhonda beat me to the punch.

You know, you really should have let me buy you a couple of decent outfits before we left LA, she tugged at the worn Queen Concert T-shirt. One that I had found at my favorite thrift shop, and my faded skinny black Levi's. This whole … thing you've got on right now, it's the old you.

And once again, Rhonda, who couldn't go two seconds ignoring my fashion sense, was back to criticizing me.

This isn't a thing, Rhonda … It's me. I said to the window, cringing at how rebelliously clich é that response was.

I pushed my sunglasses up higher onto my face and started to count the lampposts as we neared a town.

This whole thing was crap. She had already ripped me out of my life and forced me to move to butt-fuck nowhere to live with pseudo relatives under the guise of trying to benefit my future. But no matter where she made me live, or how much she tried to shape me into her likeness, I'd never give her the satisfaction of complying with everything she wanted me to be. I was above trying to squeeze myself into molds that don't fit me to make life easier for other people.

We turned down a wide street and drove for another ten minutes. Our car breezed by a high stone wall. Streets of the same house, copy and pasted over and over again, peeked over the wall. We made a right into the main entrance of the sprawling complex. A sign that read, Rosedale Homes - where your heart lives, was firmly planted in bold lettering. The sign stood perfectly leveled between bushes and two bright lights that illuminated its cheesy tagline. The light placement looked suspiciously like a pair of upside-down testicles. As we neared the towering gate, a security guard came out of a control room and urged Rhonda to inch forward. He held out his hand in a stop motion and glanced at a TV next to him. Our car's back license plate filled the screen as he typed something into the iPad he was holding.

Good afternoon! he shouted, a little too damn chipper for the late hour. And what can I do for you two?

Just checking into the prison before lights out, sir! I shouted back.

Rhonda gave me a death stare, which I naturally smiled at. The old security guard just laughed.

I always wondered why they let older men take security guard positions. Looking at him, even a skinny little punk like me could take this guy in a brawl. But he was an adorable little man, one whose hands shook as he slowly tapped on the iPad screen. He had to push his glasses back onto his face repeatedly. Maybe the reason they gave them these jobs was because no one, in good conscience, would ever do anything to hurt an older man like him. Just looking at him now made me want to rush up and hug him!

We're heading to 515 Sunnyslope Road, Melissa Boyd's house, Rhonda told the mustached man. She's my sister and is letting us stay with her until we can find a residence in your —

— Correctional Facility, I interjected.

Rhonda just sighed and continued, Ignore him. I'm Rhonda Lockhart, and this is my son —

— Stepson, I interjected … again.

Rhonda slowly blinked and sighed again, knowing that it was better to retreat than argue when I'm being this difficult.

My Stepson, True.

All the while, the mustached security guard (whose name was Bill), typed away on his iPad. He looked up after pressing a button on the inside of the security control room and smiled.

Welcome to Rosedale Homes, Rhonda and True.

Rhonda crept the car up toward the opening gate and thanked Bill. He looked back at me and gave me a grin, Now you stay out of trouble, young man.

I gave him the widest, most innocent looking smile I could muster up.

I like you, Bill, I said as we continued to creep up. I have a feeling we'll be seeing a lot more of each other.

He laughed and shook his head.

Well, being Head of Security, Let's hope not!

I threw Bill a peace sign as he gave me a thumbs-up and a broad smile. The gate finally parted, and we started our voyage through the sea of identical houses. Within the span of the five years since I had last seen it, Rosedale Homes had not changed at all. Every single street was obsessively groomed, lawns were kept, the sidewalk absent of a single speckle of blackened gum, and not one crack or cement flower anywhere.

You're quiet, Rhonda said, her mouth agape while trying to read street signs and addresses.

Just wondering when the pair of creepy twins appear in front of us, asking to play.

Chapter 2

We were lost for a good five minutes before we got to Melissa's house. Rhonda and I kept arguing about Sunnyslope Rd and Sunnyslope Drive. I was ultimately right, and she complained about how they should've named Sunnyslope Drive something else. The sun set, and in unison, all the lampposts blinked on, covering its surroundings in an eerie white glow.

I got out of the car as soon as Rhonda parked outside. I let out an exaggerated yawn and stretch. After being stuck in that damn car for what seemed like an eternity, I needed to stand up. I surveyed my environment. Everything looked like it had been severely disinfected with a harsh antibacterial or the hot Utah sun. I'm sure if anything got too bleached, it would be repainted before anyone noticed anyway.

Rhonda was still in the car. She had the sun visor down and was fixing her make-up and hair in its mirror. I walked out onto the empty street. The black asphalt illuminated in patches between lampposts. Melissa's house stood at the end of the cull de sac. The massive structure stood happily erect. There wasn't a broken window, busted porch light, or oil stain on the driveway. Proudly boasting how well it blended in with its fellow houses. I had been at Rosedale Homes for 10 minutes and already couldn't wait to get the hell out.

The car door slammed with Rhonda coming around the back, now wearing her heels and donning a cream-colored blazer that clashed horribly with her black leggings. The whole ensemble had her look like a mortician who sells haunted houses in between gym sessions.

Well, here we are, She sighed out, smiling. Home sweet —

I let out a loud groan before she could finish that incredibly clich é and almost insulting phrase.

For the love of God, True, lighten up. Rhonda scolded.

She grabbed my elbow and urged me up the walk toward the house. I hated when she'd lead me places like that, it was so patronizing. Like I was some disobedient pet that she had to corral, and I guess given the circumstance, that scenario wasn't much of a stretch. I wriggled free and followed her at a much slower pace. This was my last glimpse of the real world. Stepping into that house would be accepting my sentence into suburbia. I tried to savor as much freedom as I could while hating the reality of what I would be dealing with for the next year of my life.

As we stepped up on to the veranda, Rhonda's hands frantically tried to smooth the wrinkles from my clothes and attempted — then failed as I swatted her preening hands away — to calm my messy black waves. She gave me a half stern smirk and hit the doorbell.

True, I want you to be nice to your Aunt Melissa and Justin, She warned before running open palms over her hair for the hundredth time. They're very generous for letting us live with them until our house is ready. I'm still not sure how long it'll take.

She really didn't need to give me the be polite speech. I rolled my eyes and started to put my ear-buds on. But before I could nestle them into my cranium, she yanked them out of my hands and put them in her pocket.

I will not tolerate you intentionally being rude or offensive. She cautioned.

I absently nodded, still not in any mood to negotiate or argue. There was no reason for her to threaten me. I was probably going to end up saying something rude or offensive unintentionally anyway.

The door swung open, and there stood Rhonda's sister Melissa, screaming her head off in excitement. Her eyes traveled from me, to Rhonda, to me, and then back to Rhonda before attacking her with a giant hug. Her graying blonde curls swayed with every laugh. Melissa, much like Rosedale, hadn't changed at all. She still wore her long dresses that flowed with each step, and she was still a short, heavy-set woman. Despite the laugh-lines and tiniest of crows-feet, she still was as energetic and as beautiful as I remembered.

Oh my God, Rhonda, True, I'm so glad you are finally here! I have dinner all ready, and I was so worried you had gotten lost on the highway, and a million scenarios went through my mind — She continued in a fast blurb of words as we walked into the foyer.

I hated to admit it, but inside, the house was gorgeous: a high ceiling with a glass chandelier dead center and a sweeping staircase that led to the bedrooms upstairs.

The drive wasn't all too bad, although it was a long one, Rhonda laughed out.

Melissa rushed toward me and gave me a huge hug, which completely caught me off guard.

You poor dear, Melissa began, her grip steady as I sucked in tight breaths to not pass out. Rhonda had told me all about what was going on in LA.

Did she now? My eyes immediately met Rhonda's, shooting her a glare.

Melissa stared me in the eyes with weird compassion, like a baby bird fallen out of its nest.

Of course! Melissa eased her hold on me. How you got into that horrible car accident after your Father passed. You must have been so distraught, I can't imagine what you are going through, and it's so much to deal with, especially with you being so —

— I'd love a glass of water, Mel. Rhonda cut off Melissa before she could continue to rant.

The two exchanged a small glance, and Melissa sighed in resignation. I was genuinely confused. I wrecked Rhonda's car three months after Dad died, and it was because she told me we were moving to Utah. Why had she told Melissa differently?

Listen to me go on. You must be so hungry, Melissa laced her arm in mine and squeezed my shoulder. Oh my, you're nothing but skin and bones, True! Didn't Rhonda feed you in LA?

Melissa led us down a hall toward the kitchen, all the while, remarking on my slim frame and swearing she'd have me bulk up by the time winter rolled around. I turned toward Rhonda and mimicked a gun to my head. She grabbed my arm (without Melissa noticing anything) and shook her head.

Be nice, she warned.

I reluctantly turned my attention back to Melissa as we entered the kitchen. Like the foyer, it was massive. Glass walls and glass windows, a table at the far end of the room was filled with food. It boasted fried chicken, potatoes, greens, everything! It was like a giant turkey just came out of the blue and puked up an entire Thanksgiving dinner onto the table.

Holy shit! I said, staring at the impressive spread.

Language! Rhonda snapped.

Melissa just laughed.

I made up a little bit more for your arrival. Usually, it's just me, Justin, and half of this.

My eyes widened at that. Half? I could've eaten a corner of the giant cornbread in front of me and be set for hibernation. Melissa sat me down on the booth side of the kitchen table with my back to the windows.

You two take a seat and relax for a minute, she said, still beaming her bright smile my way. I'll get us the drinks and plates.

Rhonda stood, saying she wasn't tired and helped Melissa set up for dinner. I admired the giant kitchen, which was unmistakably her. There were shelves of handwritten labels on containers and jars, and little QVC knick-knacks adorned small spaces. Above the tchotchkes, there was an entire shelf dedicated to cookbooks, and the three written by Melissa herself were displayed above them. The most recent: Miss Melissa's Summer Night Barbecue, caught my attention. Melissa was on the cover, a broad smile on her face with her curls slightly tamed with what had to be cans of hairspray. There was a comically large slab of ribs and a post-edited flame erupting from a grill behind her.

Where's Justin? I heard Rhonda ask, rinsing a strainer full of grapes.

Today is his last day at his summer job at the movie theater before school starts this Monday, he should be on his way home by now, Melissa said from the island in the middle of the kitchen. He has been so helpful these past few days, trying to get this place ready for you! I swear if it weren't for Justin, I'd leave this place such a mess!

A large pitcher sat next to her as she cut up fruits and bits of mint for her famous Miss Melissa's Le-Mint-Ade .

Justin.

My memories of Justin were of a chubby little boy who wore large flannel shirts and was four or five inches shorter than me, despite being two months older. He was reticent and kind of awkward, and his little face was dotted with pimples. He had a happening bowl cut that made his blond locks look like tassels on an old Arabian rug and seemed eternally attached to his mother's hip during our visit when I was twelve. He also had quite the collection of Hot Wheels. It was probably the only thing he talked to me about at length. Justin would go on endlessly about those stupid cars, their models, and how his Dad had tracked down one of the Sweet 16 and gave it to him for his 10th birthday.

It took him a while, but he eventually warmed up to me and would laugh when I would supply sarcastic remarks to my Dad and Rhonda — probably marveling at how candid I could be with the adults in my life. Justin was definitely a nice boy. He was polite, said the Yes Sirs, and the Please and Thank Yous. Rhonda used the phrase, You could stand to be as polite as Justin, True, a whole lot during our visit.

He was shy, but also very sweet. I remembered scraping my knee up

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