I manage to make it through the rest of the day without any more naked encounters. Jake leaves at some point for work related matters and Ben has training. With Maddie sulking somewhere I’m alone in the house. That doesn’t help with most of my problems – for example that I keep checking my phone every few seconds. I fold a towel, I check my phone. Make a bed, check the phone. Drink some tea, check the phone. The display doesn’t even have a chance to turn off. But no word from Sam.
I’m going stir-crazy, can’t sit or stand still for longer than a few heartbeats. My last task for the day is putting away the laundry. Most of it clean linen and towels, only a few actual clothes. I go into Ben’s room last, open a window to air it out while I put his clothes away. The shirt and sweats he had given me for that dinner back then.
A stronger than expected gust slams the door shut behind me, sends some papers on Ben’s desk flying. It’s not snooping but actual cleaning, I tell myself, and pick them up. Meaningless stuff, some flyers, some copies of what turns out to be high school notes. Of course, he’s not living here anymore, this is all old. My heart skips not only one but a couple of beats when I find some sheet music among the clutter. Bittersweet symphony.
Okay, there has to be a good explanation for this. His Dad also loves that song, it doesn’t mean that Ben is actually the one who sent me the sheet music for it back then. Asking for a duet.
“Oh god… oh god, oh god, oh god…” My mind broke, maybe slapping myself can reboot my brain. Not that I would actually slap myself, but this discovery now is more than I can handle. Now that I think about it, the hairtie I found in my locker just appeared a day after my old one broke. I told Mom after school, in the kitchen of the mayor’s house. And that notebook? My own one had been snatched by some bully – a.k.a. Jake – so Ben could have noticed and given me a new one.
This is the moment my soul leaves my body, the moment my teenage dreams and reality collide. My high school crush was also my secret admirer! And I was too stupid to realise! But said crush is engaged to my friend, or better, former friend. If they are still engaged, that is.
My phone uses this exact second to ping, I drop the papers and grab it, but it’s only a text. At least it’s from Sam.
Sorry, today was crazy busy. Just listened to your voicemail. Can’t call you today, but I want to talk to you. Tomorrow?
Tomorrow is Sunday. The dinner party.
Yes, of course! And again, I’m sorry for not calling you last night.
After some back and forth I delete the ‘Can’t wait to hear your voice’ and just send it as it is. The little icon is telling me that Sam read it and is typing now.
It’s okay, family comes first. Let’s just leave all that behind us and focus on what’s important, okay?
But what is important? A few years ago discovering that Ben had a crush on me like I had on him would have been the most important information in the world for me. Right now I have trouble actually processing it.
Is the important thing the one between me and Sam? Or maybe just our business idea? Maybe it’s just the few things I left at Sam’s place and the even less things Sam left at mine. There is so much I want to ask but I’m too afraid of the answers.
What else could I reply after all? I’m not okay, this whole mess isn’t okay, my parents are not okay. It’s an empty word that doesn’t mean anything to me.
In autopilot I clear away the papers, close the window and make sure everything is spotless when I leave.
The festival starts at 6pm and I arrive at Miho’s at 5. More than enough time to halfway down the first drink she serves me and top it with a cookie so there’s something to soak up the alcohol.
Between bites I tell her about my short exchange with Sam, having turned every word, every punctuation mark in my mind over and over already.
“That’s good, right? You can talk tomorrow and make up, and hopefully your mood will be better by the time the party starts. The bitchface clashes with the dress. Any dress to be exact.”
Gotta love Miho for her honesty. If not she’s making you.
“Thanks. But yes, I will either be much happier or crying.”
Those Espesso Martinies are a blessing, my first one numbs my swirling thoughts and the second smoothes the crease between my eyebrows. Not even the night before handing in my thesis I was so stressed like last week.
“Drink up, it’s time to close the shop and get out there to have some fun,” Miho instructs me, hangs a sign into the window of the door, informing potential customers of her absence during the festival.
“No one’s gonna come anyway.”
She’s not wrong, people are already milling towards the meadow where the festival has been set up during the last week.
“And we are leaving now, too.” I grab my jacket and my purse, make sure to drain the glass completely. I need some distraction or I’m going to bounce out of my skin.
“Are you really that excited for the fair?” Miho asks when I skip down the sidewalk, keyed up and tipsy.
“Well, there’s food and drinks, so yeah, I’m looking forward to it.”
“We could have food and drinks at my place, too,” she points out and it’s true. We could have that, even for less money, and usually I’m all for being thrifty, especially since my finances are pretty tight right now. But there’s something about festival food that just makes me happy. Must be the ridiculous amount of salt, sugar and fat. And the fact that they were rare treats, as a kid Mom only ever bought me one thing on festivals.
“But we can’t watch the crowd and gossip,” I reply, nod towards a few high school kids. The girls in too tight, too bright clothes and the guys in what looks like at least three sizes too big.
“Don’t tell me we were like that.” My closet never held the It-pieces anyway, and I was too self-conscious to show much of my body.
“Nope. Can you imagine that they are only six, maybe seven years younger than we are?” Miho squints, shakes her head. “That guy’s pants are so low, you can’t even see his knees.”
“Yep. That other guy, though, wears pants that are so tight, it must be painful.”
I remember getting bullied at school for my clothes a lot. I was poor back then, I’m still poor today, so I’m used to it. Feels strange to be on the other end of the teasing and gossiping now.
“So, what do you want to do first?”
I have 20 bucks in my pocket, not really much but way more than I could spent as a kid. Not that I have the same interests anymore, I won’t buy candy floss for it or ice cream. Well, maybe ice cream.
“Here?” Miho looks around, the crowd already scattered over the whole area. “Nothing.”
“Oh, come on! Let’s get a snack and just walk around a bit.”
“I swear, if it wasn’t for you to distract you from your actual problems, I wouldn’t even be here.” She sighs but gives in, follows me to the first row of food trucks and stalls.
“As if you had anything better to do than worry about how you will ruin your date tomorrow,” I grumble back. “And just for the record, you are not going to ruin it. You haven’t scared him away with your awkward flirting yet, so I guess he’s tougher than he looks like.”
“I certainly hope so.” The smirk is audible in her voice, even for me in all this noise.
I huff a chuckle, investigate the menues of the stalls. Fries, sausages, burgers and hot dogs. The usual fast food. Some people sell pizza slices, some meat skewers.
“Wait, isn’t that your Mom?”
It is. She’s serving people bowls filled with stew, her wrist still bandaged. I can spot Dad in the back of the truck, probably doing what he does best. Nothing.
“Excuse me for a second, I gotta commit patricide.” Why did he bring Mom? She’s still injured and actually could get into some serious legal trouble since she’s on sick leave from her original job.
“Sure, I’m waiting here for you.” Contrary to her words she’s getting in line, though, waves at my Mom but I focus on Dad and how to get to him. There’s a door at the back of the truck and it’s not locked. Second mistake of the night, Dad.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Oh, hi Jazzy-bee. You want some stew?”
Mom also turns around but a customer demands her attention. Good, because I don’t really want her to hear what I have to tell Dad. I lower my voice to a hiss, glare at him.
“I want some good explanation why you let Mom work here in her condition and why you are here in the first place!”
I hate how casual he is, completely undisturbed by my anger.
“It’s a festival, I have a food truck. Perfect match.”
“Yeah, I get that, but you had promised me not to come here at all,” I press out, frown at the scents that register only now that I’m in the middle of them. Is that Mom’s carrot and beef stew?
“Really? I can’t remember such a promise. Besides, your mother is the only one who can tell me to stay away from her – and she doesn’t.”
Not only the heat in that small space, filled with cookers and huge pots of stew, nor the alcohol I had earlier are responsible for how my blood rushes to my face. It’s pure anger and frustration.
“You are a jerk. A liar, a scammer, and worst of all, a loser. You are a failure as father and the worst partner a woman could have. Congratulations, Bradley, you are officially scum now and I don’t want to ever see you again.” I planned to deliver this little speech coolly and distant, but I can already feel my eyes burn and my bottom lip quiver. Very impressive, I bet.
“Jazz!” It’s my Mom chiding me, not Dad. He just shrugs, turns to Mom who glares at me.
“It’s okay, Bridgy, she’s just a bit upset.”
“No, I’m not!” I could only look more like a petulant kid if I stomped with my foot, so I don’t. “I’m not upset, I just had a realization. You are a leech and I’m done with you.”
It would be so cool if I managed to storm out and slam the door behind me, but I trip over some rug and catch my fall just in time at the doorframe. Dad doesn’t follow me but Mom yells after me, I ignore her and stumble on, past some other stalls and towards a row of trees. My throat is tight, I’m choking on air, gulping it down until I cough.
“Hey, you okay?” Miho grabs my arm, holds me up. I’m only now realizing that I’m shaking.
“No,” I bark between sobs. “I’m just – so fuckin’ dumb!”
And furious. Why, why the hell do I have to have parents like that? I love Mom, she’s great, but so stupidly blind and deaf when it comes to Dad.
And Dad… well, he might not be the worst person in the world – there’s a long line before him, mostly politicians – but for me he only means chaos and disappointment.
“What happened?” She leads me to a bench, pushes me down on it before she sits next to me.
“I’m an idiot, that’s what happened!” My hands tremble, I clench and unclench them to get them back under control. “What – what’s that smell?”
“Your Mom was nice enough to give me a bowl of that stew. It’s a bit bland, though.”
“Ha! Figured!” He can get Mom’s recipe, but not her palate. Dad has no clue how to season food, never had. It’s either too much or too little, never just right. I wipe my eyes and cheeks dry, shake my hands.
“Can you believe that all my money is that stupid food truck and this bland stew?” I would laugh if it wasn’t so sad.
“Your money? Why your money?” She hands me the bowl, I only need a spoonful to know that I will never get my money back.
“Because he suddenly showed up at my place a few weeks ago, told me about this – this situation he was in.” I poke at some piece of beef in the stew, imagining I’m stabbing Dad. A bit. Not killing him, just enough to hurt.
“What situation?” She gently takes the bowl and spoon from me, robs me of my little distraction.
“So he knocked some chick up and came to me to whine about how this time he wants to do the right thing and take care of her and the kid and all that. And that he needs some money for that, doctor’s bills and a crib and – god, I really thought he was serious.”
“Wait, what? He comes to his daughter to beg for money for a kid that he has with someone else?”
I sniffle, wipe my nose with the back of my hand.
“That’s what I thought.”
“So – he doesn’t have that kid? Or does he? I’m confused.” She stares at the stew almost accusingly, eyes narrowed and nose scrunched up.
“Oh no, that woman is real and so is the baby. The mother found me on my social media account and once we were sure that yes, I’m Brad’s daughter and yes, she’s having Brad’s other daughter soon, we talked. A bit. It’s not an easy situation and she’s aware of that. Tracy. Her name is Tracy.” She’s only a couple of years older than me. Poor girl.
I nod, shudder through another breath. “So I gave Dad all the money I had in my saving account, but under a few conditions. He had to tell Mom. Over the phone, not in person. He promised, no, he swore, that he wouldn’t bother her again, wouldn’t ask her for money. He did. Took 4678 dollar from me and around the same amount from Mom.” The taste of copper spreads in my mouth, I have chewed on my bottom lip so hard that I’m bleeding now.
“Fuck. Now that’s low!”
I hold her back from storming off and ripping Dad a new one on her own.
“Do you have an idea how much a food truck costs? Small hint, around six to ten thousand bucks. I told him he could only use that money for the baby, but I guess it was just stupid from me to think he would actually listen. Or care. He never cared.”
“Stupid fucker,” she hisses, glares at the stew some more.
“Yeah. But you know what? I’m just gonna let it go. So I lost some money, but I also learned a valuable lesson. Can’t trust a liar even if he says he changed. Because guess what? He’s still a liar.” I inhale deeply, splutter the breath out in a loud, unladylike sound.
“Well, you know, some people can change,” she points out, lips drawn into a tight line.
“I know. But not him. Never him.”
I jump up, shake my arms and legs to get rid of the gloomy thoughts.
“Okay, I need a drink and some ice cream!”
“Fine. And although I want to repeat that I hate festivals, let’s go and try out some games. Might help to get your mind off things a bit.”
We try whack-a-mole first and go fish for duckies next. Miho wins me a strange plushie – well, it’s not an animal, but definitely not a person either. A brown square with huge teeth and beady eyes. She says it’s a Domo-kun and although I never heard that name so far or seen that little fellow, I kinda like it. A glass of cheap beer later and my mood is slowly improving, the lights and sounds of the festival distracting me better than the booze.
“Where are we going next? Ice cream?” I point towards an ice cream vendor and Miho shrugs, just follows me but pouts when I tell her it’s my turn to pay now. I can afford two servings of ice cream.
“Oh, you are here, too.”
The familiar voice makes me grin and Miho blush.
“Hello, Mr. Sanders.” I wave at him, give Miho a pointed look before I order her some strawberry ice cream.
“That’s not what I wanted,” she grumbles.
“Well, it’s what you get. Because it fits your teint so well.” She jabs me in the ribs but I know she’s not really angry. She would have hit me harder in that case.
“Do you want some ice cream, too, Mr. Sanders?” I like saying his last name, mostly because he looks so sheepish when I do. No idea why, calling him by his first name without ever actually introducing first should be worse, at least by my standards.
“Vanilla would be nice,” he answers and Miho’s mumbled: “Now that’s disappointing,” is almost drowned out by the sounds of some carousel nearby. But I can hear it, snort a laughter before my poker face is back in place and I order some vanilla for Jared and some cherry ice cream for me.
“Are you having fun at the festival?” I ask him, hand him his ice cream and grin back at Miho who glares at me. So much for our nice girls’ night out.
“It’s a welcome change for sure.” He tries his ice cream, frowns when he looks at my bag where the Domo is tied on. “What’s that?”
“Miho won it for me. Apparently she’s a genius when it comes to festival games.”
His raised eyebrow says enough for Miho to raise to the unspoken challenge.
“What? You don’t believe it?”
“I didn’t say that,” he points out, but doesn’t deny it.
“Oh, she’s really good. Never saw someone whack a mole like that. As if she holds a personal grudge against the game.” I was only getting all my aggression out of my system, but Miho – well, she took it seriously.
“And? Do you?” He’s turned to her now, stares at her intently. I’m definitely out of place here.
“A grudge? Sure. That pesky lil’ fella had it coming, though.” A smile tugs at her lips and she hides it behind her ice cream cone.
“And is it only the mole or do you take all the games so seriously?”
Time for me to get out of here. The ice cream should buy me some time before the heat in their gazes sets something aflame. Their clothes, probably.
“That’s for me to know and for you to find out,” she replies with a smirk. “But if you ask nicely I will win you a plushie, too.”
That’s my cue to just scam, I guess.
“Try the shooting gallery,” I suggest, not without hidden agenda. It’s the most macho game after the strongman game after all.
“Why not?” Jared agrees. “And maybe I can win something for you, too.”
“By shooting?” Miho scoffs, but complies. “Don’t cry if I show you how it’s done, though.”
She looks back at me, tilts her head inquiringly. “You coming?”
“Nah, you kids go and have fun. Me and Domo, we need a break.”
Her eyes narrow at me slightly and I open mine wider, wordlessly signalling her to go with her crush. If only she knew some more sign language. But she gets what I mean, shrugs casually.
“Fine. Take care, will ya?”
“Me? Why? I’m not the one standing next to you when you handle a BB gun.” I poke my tongue out at her and earn a slap on my bum in exchange that only fuels my laughter. “Go, it’s okay, I promise.”
She nods, warily, but smiles when she turns to Jared. I watch them walk off, no contact but each seeking the other.
“Yeah, I give them a week before they bang,” I tell Domo and wander off to see what else I can do with my remaining eleven dollar.