Blood Spatter: Part Seven

RECAP of Part Six: Kiril and Miho finally relent to the inexplicable attraction that has been drawing them together, and Miho finally contacts a concerned yet still cryptic Sebastian. Following information from the vampire king of Prague, Jazz and Konstantin are discovered, but it is not entirely a happy – nor peaceful – reunion.

In the past I have felt like a bit of a grandma for carrying a handkerchief, but right now I’m glad to have it. If I could, I’d be sitting in Jazz’s lap. I want to curl my arms and legs around her and never let go, but I actually feel pretty weak with relief that she’s still… alive.

That’s the other thing isn’t it? Kiril and I talked about the possibility, but now the reality is squeezing my hand almost painfully.

Jazz is a vampire now.

Even in my ugly crying state, I can tell Konstantin is highly apprehensive. He’s not letting Kiril out of his sight, like maybe he thinks Konrad sent us here to kill them both, but at the same time he wants to comfort Jazz who is clearly struggling with the moment.

No one really knows who should talk first, but eventually, I cough something out – the biggest question of them all.

“Why?”

“How did you even find us?” Konstantin scowls, ignoring me.

Kiril’s response is curt.

“I didn’t, she did,” he points out, indicating with his thumb in my direction. “Now answer her question.”

“Why what?” Konstantin glares, and I have to fight not to shrink back.

“And watch your tone,” Kiril snaps icily, and Jazz places her hand on my knee before leaning toward the two men.

“Cut it out, both of you,” she growls, then looks to me with such an apologetic shadow in her beautiful blue eyes I nearly forget how mad I am at her. “I’m sorry, Miho, really. It was never my intention to hurt you. Things just got… complicated… really quickly.”

Her hand is cold.

“I didn’t even know,” I sniff, “you were serious… but becoming a vampire serious?”

Jazz winces.

“We didn’t plan it like that,” Konstantin replies. “And it is my fault.”

“Not just yours,” Jazz quickly adds. “I didn’t say no.”

“I just got… carried away,” Konstantin frowns, looking into Jazz’s face apologetically.

“That is usually my line,” Kiril snorts, perhaps an attempt to lighten the mood in his own way, but it falls flat.

“It is what it is,” Jazz rationalises. “And I don’t regret it, not the vampire part anyway.”

Though Konstantin is still peering at her, Jazz’s eyes return to Miho and rest there.

“I can’t go back to London, Miho, or the UK even,” she goes on, and instantly both Miho and Kiril are shaking their heads.

“I honestly do not care what you do,” Kiril declares, pointing at Jazz, “but he is going back, unless he wants Konrad’s finest hunting him down and killing anything that gets in their way.”

Konstantin winces, so it’s clear he knows the truth in that statement.

“I won’t be leaving him,” Jazz announces forcefully, and I feel as much as see the tension in her hand, the creep of her fingers toward a fist.

“Do you even understand the predicament you have put yourself in?” Kiril presses, and I – at least – feel as if he has grown ten feet. “Konstantin is Konrad’s golden child, the one upon whom he pins his legacy because he is purportedly the elusive perfect mix of blood powers.”

It’s a surprise Konstantin doesn’t interject; he shifts uncomfortably, for though in another tone Kiril’s assertion could have been a compliment, even to my ears it sounds like a terrible and oppressive yoke.

“He has spent centuries breeding for a vampire like Konstantin,” Kiril snorts, and there is bitterness there. “Many women and many children slain because they did not meet his standards – he will not let his hard work run away with a turned for something as foolish as love.”

“You only say love is foolish because you lack the capacity to feel it,” Konstantin spits, and I cannot help the flit of my focus between the two brothers.

And in a split second that doesn’t go unnoticed by either Jazz or Konstantin, Kiril and I meet somewhere in the middle.

“No way,” Konstantin blinks, and Jazz goes that little bit further, snatching both my hands and nudging me sideways, putting her legs between Kiril and I.

No way,” she reiterates, but Kiril is unfazed.

“Do not project your foolishness on me,” he derides, a dark, jaded sound that hits me far more solidly than it should. “At least in my own pursuits I have the good sense to keep clear of Konrad’s zone of absolute destruction.”

“This wasn’t planned!” Konstantin charges, rocking to his feet, and Kiril is standing beside him that same instant, an intimidating obstacle between Jazz and I, and his brother.

“It does not matter how or why,” Kiril grates through his teeth, so low I physically feel his words. “As your reckless lady friend said, it is what it is, and what it is is a mess no amount of running will mediate.”

“You are the mess mediating expert,” Konstantin snaps back, and I’m finally at my limit, leaping to my feet and placing a hand against both their arms. Tingles spread up through my fingertips, but my annoyance overwhelms it.

“Enough!” I bark, taut and pointed. “This stupid circular bickering is getting us nowhere.”

Silence fills the space vacated by my patience.

“You want him to go back, Kiril – he needs to or Konrad will send Narumi and others after him,” I go on quickly, before I lose my steam. “Jazz won’t leave him, but going back for her is suicide – so what now?”

Licking his lips and looking slightly destabilised, Kiril takes my wrist and slowly lowers it away from his body.

“Konstantin needs to return post haste,” he says, evenness returning to his demeanour. “For now, until Konrad is appeased, he comes back with me, and Miss Mann here can take refuge at one of my estates on the outskirts of London.”

“Hide?” Jazz exhales.

“Bide your time,” Kiril corrects. “If there is any suspicion – and to be frank I would not put it beyond Arno or any of his people to attempt garnering Konrad’s favour by divulging what they discovered here – then there must be distance between you that leaves none.”

“And then what?” Konstantin huffs, sliding around his brother to sit on the arm of Jazz’s chair.

“Then I cure cancer, end war and solve world hunger,” Kiril sneers. “You be a good boy and play Konrad’s foot-stool until it is safer, but make no mistake – her life will always be in jeopardy if you continue this… relationship.”

“Could you say it with any more distain?” Jazz glowers, and Kiril’s self-confident grin only grows.

“You hooked up with the nice brother,” he leers, and I’ve had enough of the snarkiness.

“Will you come back?” I ask Jazz, but of course I’m caught between wanting her back in my life, and keeping her safe.

Biting her lip, I can see she too is in the grips of indecision, and it’s not one she wants to make without Konstantin’s input.

“I hate you, you know that?” Konstantin drops acerbically, the comment definitely meant for Kiril.

“Because I am right?” Kiril sniffs.

“Because you’re only ever right at the most infuriating of times!” Konstantin spits back, and Jazz takes this as the signal to move.

There is absolutely no way I’m letting her out of my sight, so I follow without so much as a glance back at Kiril, though the brothers remain glaring at one another.

Jazz and Konstantin had been travelling light, so there wasn’t much for them to pack up before they were ready to go. Miho, on the other hand, had far more luggage.

Though there was still so much to say, a weighty silence – a storm cloud on the very brink of breaking – followed their progress all the way to the airport where they boarded Kiril’s jet. They had encountered no problems – nothing from Arno and nothing from Konrad, and arrived back in the U.K to nothing but a limousine with heavily tinted windows. And still the thick tension persisted, all the way through the city, glancing over their shoulders, until it all gave way to much greener scenery.

But the rolling hills the farthest thing from Miho’s mind. She took very little in about the grandeur of Kiril’s sprawling estate, focused instead on trying to put all her questions and statements about everything that had happened since Jazz’s disappearance in some sort of order.

In a bedroom fit for a queen, the two men left Miho and Jazz sitting on either side of the bed. Both of them look down at where their hands were folded in their laps until Miho lifted one to rub fingers against the slowly increase throb of her temple.

“When did you know?” she asked quietly. “About the vampires?”

“Not right away,” Jazz answered, staring across the room at the balcony doors. “But, before…”

“Before what?” Miho pushed, rocking to her feet and turning around, though that only aggravated the ache in her skull. “I mean, I knew he’d been at the club, that you’d seen him outside a couple of times, but we used to share everything… I’d have thought the existence of supernatural creatures would count as pretty important to tell your best friend.”

“I think you’re well enough informed now to know why I couldn’t say anything,” Jazz frowned, tipping her chin toward the door in a gesture meant to indicate somewhere in the great manse, Kiril and his brother were no doubt having their candid own discussion. “I wanted to protect you.”

A noise something akin to a snort punctuated Miho’s incredulity.

“Did you expect me to accept you’d dropped off the face of the Earth and just get on with my life?” she questioned rhetorically, kneading the back of her neck. “Because that’s the only explanation I can think of that might have led you to think I wouldn’t do everything in my power to find you, and in doing so, put my nose in vampire business anyway.”

There was little for Jazz to do but cringe, because Miho was right.

“It was a difficult choice to make,” Jazz began awkwardly.

“You chose him, Jazz!” Miho exclaimed, the thundering in her skull doing little to aid in the containment of her sense of betrayal. “And I would never stop you from seeing someone you loved, but you actually chose to be with him, to keep his secrets, to become one of them, rather than stay with someone you’ve known practically your whole life! You just, threw me away.”

Cringing for the twisted expression on Miho’s face, Jazz finally tried to approach, but the wild slashing motion of Miho’s arm warned her not to get too close.

“I’m sorry,” Jazz sighed, and she’d lost count of how many times she had said it. “I fell in love with him and he with me, and when he confided his secret…”

“You couldn’t have told him there is nothing we don’t share?” Miho snapped, her eyes losing focus. “You couldn’t have told him we’re practically sisters and nothing can… nothing should have come between us?”

“Miho, be reasonable…” Jazz tried again, but she had seen Miho lose her cool enough times to know a temper like that was beyond reason and logic.

“You’re a fucking vampire!” Miho shouted, her whole face scrunching up as she backed away, the animated nature of her expressive hand movements causing her to wobble. “There’s no coming back from that, and what’s worse, if Konrad finds out his favourite son has gone and given his heart to a turned, you’re dead, dead!”

Breathing heavily against the boiling emotions in her chest, Miho leaned against the sideboard. Oh she was angry, no two ways about that, but now her fingertips felt as if they were burning away from the bone and her skull was cracking from some inexplicable pressure that distorted her vision.

Obviously, Miho was very angry, but it became clear when she blinked away large tears rolling red ribbons down her cheeks, that something else was very very wrong.

“Miho!” Jazz gasped, dashing forward in time to catch Miho before she hit the floor.

“Everything’s on fire!” Miho panted through teeth tightly clenched, and Jazz wanted nothing more than to comfort her, but blood was now dripping from Miho’s chin, and within Jazz a dangerous hunger called.

“Konstantin!” Jazz shrieked in panic, laying Miho gently against the carpet and moving swiftly to throw open the bedroom door. “Kiril! Help!”

She didn’t know where either of them were in the spacious mansion, they could have been in another wing entirely, but as Jazz took a necessary step onto the landing – away from the scent of blood that taunted her – two blurs flashed toward her at great speed.

“Jazz? Are you o…” Konstantin began, but his sentence broke off when he too was reached by the sweet smell of Miho’s distress.

“Take her down stairs, now,” Kiril barked sharply, and with eyes flashing an uncompromising warning, he spared neither a second more before disappearing into the bedroom. “Miho,” he hissed, pulling her gently into his lap.

And instantly the razorblades that had been digging through his veins were somehow dulled.

The beast within him paced irritably as Kiril weathered the tantalising spectacle of Miho’s blood-smeared face, but he hoisted her into his arms and carried her whimpering to the bed.

“What is this?” he whispered coldly, not to her but to himself, as he gently wiped her face clean with a hastily acquired pillowcase, before tossing is as far across the large room as he could. “Miho?” he breathed again, and finally she seemed to rouse from her agonised state enough to focus on his face.

And her mind was clear, her skin prickling pleasantly in the wake of each soft pass his fingers made down her cheek.

“That was…” she croaked thickly, reaching out to take his other hand and draw it down between her breasts, pressing his cool palm over the rapid pulsing of her heart. “I thought I was going to die.”

“What happened?” he soothed, his voice sounding foreign to his own ears.

“Nagging headache just, got worse and worse,” she murmured, savouring the sensation of his fingers sliding through her hair and the pressure of his hand that ensured they were connected. “Then it just, erupted… but…”

The last few tears fell, but this time they were clear.

“The moment I touched you,” Kiril continued, his brows knitting, “the more I touch you, the pain subsides.”

“You too?” she exhaled, examining his face as it drew closer.

Less than a minute ago it had felt as if she was being torn apart; but now she wanted to taste Kiril’s tongue, ravenously claw away his clothing and bury him so deeply within her the memory of that pain would be erased completely.

“Just relax,” he instructed, lips brushing lightly against hers with the promise of more, but to her disappointment he then sat up. “There is something I do not like about this.”

“Bleeding from the eyes was sort of traumatic for me too,” Miho piped up, shifting his hand over to her right breast. “But…”

Her pause was filled with puzzlement.

“… all I want now is to feel you,” she finished finally, frowning. “Kiril…”

“I know,” he admitted, but it was through gritted teeth.

He was fighting himself, Miho could see his struggle.

“Why am I not freaking out?” she exhaled, clutching his hand more firmly. “I should… see a doctor.”

“Liana will examine you,” he asserted, rocking back and standing, but Miho dug in her fingernails.

“Don’t leave!” she gasped quickly, a reflex, and Kiril’s gaze narrowed on her grip.

“I will return momentarily,” he told her, strain tightening his voice. “But until Liana has examined you, your friend will have to stay away. She is still young, and if you bleed again she may not be able to control her primal urges.”

“But not you,” she stated, rather than questioned, not removing her grip.

“No, not me,” he smiled with a gentleness Miho had not yet seen from him, and she allowed her hold to fall away.

True to his word, just minutes later Kiril returned, a woman a step behind him.

Though she again found relief in Kiril’s presence, this did not detract from the sharp, clear blue of the other woman’s eyes, and her instantaneous study of her new patient. And there was something old-world about her – from the modest ankle length of her skirt, to the well-loved leather doctor’s bag she carried to the bedside and opened.

“You may leave now, Master Kiril,” Liana said softly, placing a stethoscope around her neck.

“I shall stay,” Kiril responded, much to Miho’s relief, but Liana turned to frown at him – and when she spoke it was much more crisply.

“Master Kiril,” she began, firmly, the tone of an uncompromising woman. “I should like to begin my examination of your lady friend, however, I shall not do so without the requisite privacy necessary to uphold her dignity and confidentiality.”

Miho blinked; people generally did not speak to Kiril in such a manner. She expected a storm to break in the room – gale force winds and lashing rain, but Kiril simply looked annoyed.

“She is…” he began, but Liana cut him off abruptly.

“In capable hands,” she finished for him. “I shall call for the young master if I require assistance.”

This made Kiril ruffle, but Miho lifted her head a little.

“I’ll be okay,” she forced out, though she honestly didn’t want him to go.

Wordlessly he ground his teeth for a few seconds, while Liana simply peered at him expectantly.

“Fine,” he huffed, then stalked out, closing the two women into the room alone.

If she was pleased, or felt any form of satisfaction over her victory, Liana’s expression showed none of it. There was an intensity of focus about her, a stare that told Miho she missed very little, and practiced hands that spoke of experience.

There was little talk between them, save for questions and answers, and when Liana had determined Miho’s basic physiological details were normal, she requested more comprehensive tests to be performed… in the basement.

“So,” Miho quipped, much of her strength returned as she walked beside Liana out of the elevator into the incongruously sleek and sterile décor of the basement. “Kiril really is Batman.”

“He has considerable wealth, if that is what you mean,” Liana nodded, guiding Miho past various rooms before urging her to enter another.

“He doesn’t have a mask wearing fetish?” Miho quipped, settling into the indicated chair before a piece of medical equipment.

“Not to my knowledge,” Liana replied, taking her time to calibrate the machine. “However, what Master Kiril does outside the estate is his own business.”

There were still so many unanswered questions – like who this woman really was, and what her relationship to Kiril was, but Miho didn’t want to just blurt them out. She felt suddenly, acutely aware of his age, and what that meant for his relationship history – not that she was all that clear on his relationship at present either.

“Just relax, and look straight ahead,” Liana instructed with a small smile, indicating the chin rest, and Miho complied.

What followed was a gamut of tests, at the conclusion of which, Liana showed Miho back to her room wherein Kiril arrived shortly.

“Well?” he prompted impatiently, but Liana seemed completely unfazed by him.

“She has no evidence clinical conjunctival hyperemia, periorbital or palpebral edema, and maintains normal vision and extraocular movement,” Liana explained. “The young master is currently examining pathology for some underlying cause of the hyphema, though there are no visible indications of infection.”

Miho caught a handful of the medical jargon, and surmised what Kiril then vocalised.

“So you have no idea what happened,” he dropped, clearly displeased.

But the hand he had on Miho’s shoulder was light, warm.

“As yet, no,” Liana responded, and appeared a more than a little irritated by the fact.

Konstantin had been the one to contact Konrad: Kiril’s idea. Since he and his father didn’t get along – to put it politely – and to increase the chances of distracting the king from his rage – however unlikely.

Eyes followed the pair as they made their way silently through the lobby of Konrad’s primary place of business, but no one questioned them. Kiril strode with his typical air of self-confidence despite the derisive daggers shot his way.

Oh, if only they knew.

Better that they didn’t.

“When was the last time you were here?” Konstantin asked as they reached the elevator.

He was not so practiced at hiding his discomfort.

“A year or so,” Kiril shrugged. “Daddy dearest is not especially welcoming.”

“Like you ever tried to make peace with the guy,” Konstantin snorted, stepping into the gilded cabin of the lift.

Very conservative.

“What, drawn, and talk of peace?” Kiril smirked.

“Yeah, yeah, you hate the word, and he started it,” Konstantin huffed. “But you can’t tell me you’ve done anything to try and appease him.”

“No, I cannot,” Kiril agreed with mirth, not the slightest bit repentant. “That is what happens when you kill a man’s mother.”

“That’s your excuse?” Konstantin snorted. “Really? Because yours is not the only mother he’s killed.”

“So I should not hold him accountable because he has a full complement of victims on his ledger?” Kiril retorted.

“And I suppose your hands are clean?” Konstantin challenged. “Perfectly clear conscience?”

“Do not be absurd,” Kiril sniffed. “But by comparison…”

“Bad is bad, Brother,” Konstantin argued, looking up as the elevator chimed.

“I will keep that in mind as I’m bailing you out of the grave you have dug yourself into,” Kiril smirked, and was first to saunter out into the plush antechamber.

“Hmm, new carpet,” Kiril noted flippantly, causing several chatting in the large room to stop and stare.

As if it was his house, a crown upon his brow, Kiril strode unaffected by the attention he had drawn; in fact, Konstantin noted he seemed pleased and entirely unsurprised.

The way he pushed through the double doors was anything but subtle. Indeed, he announced his arrival like a performer: exaggerated, confident movements, boldness, and an aura that drew and held gazes.

“Father!” he exclaimed in an overly affable tone, clearly intending to mock the poor relationship they shared.

Konrad did not turn from the conversation in which he was engaged, though two other bodies in the room inched away from the king.

Not only unaccustomed to being ignored, but already looking to stoke the fire of opposition, Kiril filled the hall with his presence. As much as Kiril clashed with his father, this magnetism was what had allowed him to build his own empire despite the king’s enmity, and Konstantin had to admire that.

When there was no reaction after a few more seconds, Kiril’s upper lip began to curl, and Konstantin saw all the theatricality recede.

“You have ten seconds to acknowledge my presence, or your favourite and I return to our fun and games,” Kiril growled.

Challenge accepted.

It was the sudden slamming of the doors they had entered through that drew Kiril and Konstantin’s focus, and there they found Narumi with arms crossed over her chest.

“I am listening,” Konrad stated, his voice reverberating most unnaturally. “But not for long. You have already kept me waiting.”

“Drop the drama, Konrad,” Kiril dismissed, hands deep in his trouser pockets and looking completely relaxed. “We are here of our own volition at your most insistent behest.”

“And yet it was not you I called for,” Konrad dropped, only now turning to rest his unsettling scrutiny upon his children.

Kiril, however, he looked right through.

“Explain,” he added, cold and commanding.

“I sent Konstantin to address sensitive interests in Europe I could trust to no one else,” Kiril answered, and that more directly drew Konrad’s ire.

“And who are you to send my son, anywhere?” Konrad glowered, Kiril’s demise swirling in his eyes, his disdain carving his mouth in jagged lines.

“You would not question the contributions my business assets make to this kingdom,” Kiril replied calmly. “Because you would notice a significant decline in both revenue and influence were I to transfer my operations to say… Australia?”

“Do not over-estimate your worth,: Konrad retorted, approaching his elder son with a predatory gait.

“Oh, I know exactly what I’m worth,” Kiril chuckled, and the two vampires who had skirted to the edge of the room began their way toward Narumi, perhaps for protection from the oncoming affray. “But I stopped measuring myself by your skewed standards many years ago. After all, when you’re that small…”

Knowing he was playing with fire and brimstone, Kiril made a ‘tiny’ gesture with his thumb and index finger.

While the eyes of the three who were not important enough yet to be given names froze in absolute shock, Konrad began forward. It was Narumi, however, who took firm hold of Kiril’s chin and forced him to look at her.

“You owe your king the truth,” she hissed into his face, eyes boring into his, and he knew her power would catch him in a lie if he attempted to tell one. “So I suggest – for once in your life – you do not lie.”

“Konstantin was working for me,” Kiril told Narumi confidently, and instantly her nose wrinkled.

“As much as it surprises me, my Lord, Kiril is telling the truth.”

With his full focus on Kiril, Konrad didn’t notice the most unsubtle double-take Konstantin performed.

“It is truly touching how much you trust your children,” Kiril sniffed. “Now, if there is not anything else, there are a great many other things I would like to be doing.”

“Konstantin, remain,” his father ordered, and Kiril made no quarrel.

IF he dropped himself in it now, both he and Jazz deserved to be hunted as far as Kiril was concerned.

Following his retreat, Narumi waited with Kiril for the elevator and stepped in beside him.

“And what did that little ruse just cost me?” Kiril drawled, working the ache of his jaw and touching the throbbing pain of one temple.

“The truth would be nice, but I know it’s unlikely you’ll give me that,” she shrugged nonchalantly. “So, for now I’ll keep that one banked. Need I tell you whatever game you’re playing is a most dangerous one?”

“No,” Kiril grimace, and this certainly did not escape Narumi’s notice.

“What is wrong with you? You’re paler than usual.”

“It was a long trip and I am famished,” he answered flippantly, but his tone was tainted by discomfort.

“Have you been feeding from junkies again?” she snorted in amusement, knowing full well his response was a falsehood.

“Best you mind your own business, Narumi,” Kiril warned. “You want none of mine, and if the king learns of your complicity in my deception there will be little left of you but dust in the wind.”

“I knew what I was doing, cousin,” she smiled. “And I know – whether you tell me or not – I will uncover what you’re hiding.”

As swiftly as inhumanly possible, Kiril returned to the estate. Blinding pain seared his consciousness, and so he feared Miho was in an even worse state.

He was directed to Liana’s infirmary by an anxious Jazz, but he left her alone upstairs to ponder Konstantin’s failure to return.

“I was forced to sedate her,” Liana reported, when Kiril showed alarm at Miho’s unresponsiveness. “She was thrashing about quite vigorously, in addition to the symptoms you described earlier.”

Sliding his palm up Miho’s arm, Kiril’s own anguish abated swiftly, and when he touched his lips to the warm of hers, a buzzing joy flooded his veins.

“This is most unnatural,” he exhaled in relief.

“I have been able to determine no medical explanation for Miss Fujiwara’s condition,” Liana admitted. “And could certainly not yet venture the correlation with your own afflictions, save – it seems – that it intensifies the longer you are parted.”

“Unacceptable,” Kiril snapped, but he was gentle in the brushing of Miho’s forehead.

“It is all very well and good you saying that,” Liana grumbled. “But at this stage I must consider the cause to be rooted elsewhere.”

“Such as?” Kiril prompted expectantly.

“Witchcraft, obviously,” came a rather impertinent voice from the doorway. “Clearly, both you and your visitor have been hexed.”

Carrying a tome almost as large as his entire body, the lean child moved effortlessly toward Liana.

“I’ve been reading,” he announced.

“That is all you ever do, Kai,” Kiril pointed out, but he was clearly listening.

“And a good thing too, since you do so little,” Kai snorted, though he sobered and straightened his shoulders when Liana looked displeased.

“Did you know,” Kai began again, “that the Cerchio di veli coven in Florence during the Renaissance were well reputed for their love spells?”

“Are you truly suggesting I am subject to a love spell?” Kiril scoffed.

“Wealthy families paid fortunes for political gains founded in love spells that caused infidelity and broke politically motivated marriages,” Kai elaborated, much to Kiril’s disdain.

“Have you upset any witches lately?” Liana queried. “Aside from me, that is.

“No more so than usual, and even if I had, they would certainly not be alive enough at present to curse anyone,” he asserted.

“Unless,” Kai piped up, “she is the primary target of the manipulation?”

Appreciatively, Liana nodded, and Kai smiled broadly.

That Kiril did not immediately shut down this concept, told Liana Kai’s postulation had some merit.

“So, who exactly is your little friend?” Liana asked, since Kiril was not forthcoming with the details.

“A hunter, I suspect,” he replied, and both Liana’s and Kai’s eyes bugged. “You have plenty of blood to test so I want it confirmed,” he added waspishly. “I need to be sure.”

“So, you’ve been out and about cavorting with a hunter?” Liana questioned, though it was obviously rhetorical.

“Unawakened, but yes,” Kiril confirmed, his top row of teeth scraping over the lower.

“Are you insane?” Liana hissed, leaning over Miho toward him.

“No, hexed apparently,” he retorted, glaring icily, and Liana moved back. “Return to the library, Kai,” he then commanded. “I want to know which spell and who I need to kill to break it.”

“And you’re going to be doing what meanwhile?”

For a second Kiril pursed his lips, his fingers paused mid-way through stroking Miho’s hair.

“I have a child to teach the ways of our world and a couple of nightclub owners to manage.”

“You’re going to leave here with her? With both of them?” Liana blinked. “If you are indeed connected by magic, it may very well be ill advised to kill her before the spell is broken, but to allow her out in public? Have you lost your senses?”

“Watch your tone, Liana; you know who you are talking to,” Kiril snarled.

“And it’s because I know, I think this is a terrible mistake,” she tried to reason. “Were the king to learn of this…”

“He shall not, unless some poor creature no longer wishing to live should tell him.”

Both fact and a warning Liana heard loud and clear.

I rouse to a melancholic piano melody drifting purposefully through the mansion. Though I picture the simple press of keys, the sound each makes is far more than that; there is a ubiquitous pain woven into the undulating tempo, a graceful, sorrowful longing in every hanging pause and a hand offered in my direction.

Wrapping myself in the satin robe hanging at the end of the bed, I pad out of the bedroom I don’t remember returning to, coaxed by the music’s sweet desperation, completely under its spell. And half way to the lower floor, I find myself unable to move – peering down into the lounge I discover the source of that beautiful distress.

Transfixed, unblinking, I watch Kiril’s fingers glide across the concert grand, the monstrous instrument of dark, varnished wood tamed by the skilful touch of his cold fingertips; and I wonder if it’s possible to be jealous of an inanimate object. Yet it seems so alive, the silver strike of each hidden string taking flight and fluttering upward to where I stand – and I can almost see those hazy wisps of sound shuddering toward me: fragile, hopeful, fervent but somehow laces with fine threads of irritation.

When the final reverberation gives way to silence, I inhale a sob and finally release the tears that have been swimming across my vision.

Clear at least this time.

Kiril looks up at me, his expression unreadable, his thoughts so shielded compared to the open emotion of his unguarded tune.

“You’re such a trope,” I declare, my voice still thick with a clinging sadness. “Sullen vampire playing broody music on his piano in the dead of night.”

“The pipe organ was taking up too much space,” he replies, and it might have been humourous had his tone not emerged so darkly from between those perfect lips I have kissed fervently and want to partake of again. “And it’s a little past noon.”

Impassively, he turns a couple of sheet music pages and begins again to play, ignoring my approach.

What am I supposed to make of that?

Have I irritated him by interrupting, offended him with my remark, or is there someone worse still than the wracking pain connecting our separation?

Persisting despite the ache in my chest, I complete my descent and tread slowly across the space until I am directly behind him. The swaying rhythm of his new malady causes me to frown; he is right there within arm’s reach and yet he somehow feels very far away. To reassure myself, I lightly place a hand against his shoulder, but immediately recoil when the piano shouts a single, dramatic discord and Kiril becomes still.

“What?” I scowl, with equal parts indignation and upset, and Kiril turns his whole body, suddenly trapping my legs between his, possessively drawing me close again with one arm around my waist.

I’m looking down at him, but the power is all his; not something I’m used to nor entirely comfortable with.

“Spit it out,” I huff, even as his hand floats downward over the curve of my backside.

“I am angry,” he answers finally, and as much is evident in the arctic sharpness of his eyes.

“I can see that,” I retort, trying to maintain my train of thought as he begins to gather up the back of my robe.  “It’s not like we both don’t have plenty of reasons to be pissed off at the world right now, so what particular frustration has got your goat right now?”

“I want you beyond all reason,” he snarled, but hidden beneath it was a despairing purr. “I want to consume you entirely, but then you would be gone and that I simply cannot allow.”

This confession is so incredibly frightening, but at the same time the most mind-blowing statement I have ever heard – of this I am sure.

Expressing this is nigh impossible, however; emotions refuse to be converted into words. All I can do in response is climb into his lap, lock my fingers at the nape of his neck and drink that sweet affection from his lips. Fervently, he searches for the places about my body of greatest warmth, until he’s straining against my inner thigh.

“Wait,” he utters, incongruent with the insistent press of his fingertips. “Wait.”

“For what?” I rasp. “A written invitation?”

“This,” he begins again, swallowing his desire in a massive gulp, “this isn’t real.”

“You’re going to let witches tell you what is and isn’t real?” I challenge.

We’d spoken in the infirmary about the theory of a curse or spell binding us by lust, and at first I was outraged and sickened and frustrated. To be manipulated in that way, to be robbed of emotional freedom made me feel trapped, suffocated.

As Kiril kissed me good night, however, and left me alone I couldn’t reconcile what I knew of my desire’s falseness with how powerful and real it felt.

How it feels.

“I will let the facts do so,” Kiril clarifies, and the icy edge causes me to recoil, rock back and pull free easily because Kiril allows me to.

“Oh well, in that case I’ll just be on my way and waste your time no longer,” I bite back, the lashing of a wounded and confused animal.

“You are overreacting,” he says from his seat. “You know very well you and I cannot be apart at present.”

“Enjoy your headache, Kiril,” I spit, failing to resist the burning hurt of a knife twisting between my ribs.

“Are you a woman or a toddler throwing a tantrum?” he hisses, in front of me before I can dodge.

“I’m a woman taken for a fool!” I shout into his face. “Caught up by your unnatural charm and swagger – maybe drawn by magic if you want to blame it – but preyed upon and lured nonetheless until I gave myself to you!”

“And I am the only one who has ever had the pleasure I suppose?” Kiril volleys.

I don’t know if he’s just caught off guard, or if my rage has given me supernatural speed, but my palm snaps loudly across his face.

“Miho?” Jazz calls from above, but all my focus belongs to Kiril for another barb before I stomp upstairs.

“I hope you have a good memory, Kiril,” I snarl. “Because hex or otherwise, screaming fits of bloody murder, it’s a pleasure you’ll not have again.”

Homecoming – Day 13-3 Finale

“Uhm, surprise?” Miho laughs awkwardly, cranes her neck to look into the same direction as I do, but I can’t deal with her now. All I can see is Sam, on the other side of the room. When our eyes lock I wave, shyly almost.

The advantage of sign language is that you can communicate across a distance, a crowded room for example.

“Hi.” That smile.

“This is the worst moment to have a stroke. Or hallucinations,” I admit and Sam laughs, a bit delayed.

“Easy there, I’m still a beginner. Would you like to actually talk now?”

It’s cute how stiff and stilted some of the gestures are, so textbook and not ingrained yet.

“Honestly, which one is it?” Still scanning the crowd Miho gets impatient.

“The blonde one,” I reply, nod to indicate Sam to come over. I have a moment to appreciate the outfit, dark grey dress pants, a matching vest over a light blue blouse.

“Sam’s a girl?!”

It takes too long to explain and I’m already halfway over to meet Sam in the middle of the room. Heeding Miho’s advice from earlier I don’t care about making a scene, let the people talk if they want. I grab Sam the moment I reach them, bury my face in the crook of their neck and inhale the soothing scent of soap and sandalwood, with a hint of vanilla.

“You – you are here. You are real.”

“I’m here. I’m here, love.”

If any of the other guests have never seen a girl bawling in the arms of her lover, they can do so now.

I stand no chance.

Tears and emotions spill before I can even blink, I ruin the nice blouse in under five seconds.

“So, are you happy to see me or-?”

Muffled by their collar I laugh, nod and hug them even tighter.

“But how?”

“Your friend Miho messaged me and threatened to make my life hell if I wouldn’t come and make you smile again. Well, looks like I’m in for some trouble because I can’t see you smiling yet.”

I look over at Miho who grins and gives me the thumbs up, snuggled against Jared’s side, his hand resting in the dip of her waist.

“So, could you smile now? Because I’m actually a bit scared of what your friend will do to me of you don’t.”

Of course I can. I’m bursting with happiness. I laugh, topped with a small snort that makes Sam laugh, too, and draws the attention of some people around us. It’s hard to act apologetic when I don’t even care, so I bury my face in Sam’s shoulder after grinning back at Miho.

“I’m so glad you are here. I missed you.”

“I missed you, too.” Their arms around me, the tickling of their soft hair, it’s enough to make most of my problems just melt away. Except for one.

“I’m so sorry for just running away.”

“Yeah, we still have to talk about that. But for now I’m just happy to be here, with you.”

I snuggle even closer, my hands carding through their hair. “You need a haircut. It’s almost covering your ears.”

Sam chuckles, deep, ending with a bubbly sound. “You are beautiful as always. I like your dress.”

Their jawline begs to get traced with my thumb so I do, allow the relief and euphoria to take over.

“I can’t believe you’re really here.”

“And I can’t believe you are making out here in public.” Maddie’s voice wavers, I blink and turn my head to see her standing next to us, hands on her hips, a sheepish looking Ben behind her.

“Excuse us, Miss, but we are having a private conversation here and it’s incredible rude of you to interrupt.” Sam isn’t even batting an eye and I have to say, it’s hot seeing them shutting Maddie down like that, still polite but not taking her shit. I burst into laughter again, just manage to squint and pointedly stare at Maddie.

“Hey, Mads, what’s that in your hair? Looks like – gel?”

Her hand flies up, finds nothing but her artfully styled locks. Even Ben’s cheeks flare up, probably for different reasons than the anger that colors Maddie’s face.

Reluctantly I let go of Sam, but my hand finds theirs, fingers entwined I smile at them and tug them over towards Miho.

“Who is that chick?” I hear Ben ask, grin and look back over my shoulder.

“That chick is my boyfriend, Bennie.” I give the word ‘boyfriend’ a mocking lilt, enjoy the confusion that crawls into his expression.

Sam gives me hand a squeeze, leans in close to whisper into my ear. “You sure you should just blurt it out like this?”

“I think I should have done that earlier, to be honest. I know that you are out to all your friends and family and I envy you for it. Besides, who cares? I’m going to leave here soon anyway.”

I bump into them lightly. “Don’t worry about it. People here might be old-fashioned and traditional, but they won’t burn me at a stake for dating you.”

“If you say so.”

Another advantage of a bigger city, people care less.

“Okay, I don’t know how well you know each other already, but I want to introduce you to Miho. Miho, this is Sam, my partner. Sam, this is Miho, my friend.” Partner. Friend. Those words leave a nice tingle in my stomach. I have friends here, and I have the one I love here. “Oh, and that’s Jared, Miho’s date.”

Jared frowns lightly. “I thought she was my date, but okay. Jared Sanders.”

He offers Sam his hand and Sam smiles, takes it and gives it a firm shake. “Sam Glausner. Nice to meet you.”

“I think you missed to tell me some very basic things about your Sam, but I’m going to ignore that for now,” Miho hisses and smiles at Sam. “Glad to see you could make it.”

“After your last voicemail I didn’t want to risk upsetting you.” Sam’s laughter lights up my world, I’m insanely happy, not only tipsy on alcohol but brimming with endorphins.

“You shouldn’t cross her, I saw what she can do with a BB gun,” Jared says with a straight face.

“In that case I’m even gladder that I made it in time.” Sam’s arm around me pulls me closer. No one could think we are only friends at this point but their androgynous appearance still leaves room for speculations. I get reminded of that when Jake comes over to our little group.

“Okay, what did you do to piss Madeleine off like that? I mean, besides the usual stuff that could be anything.” He nods towards Sam, takes in our close contact. “And who would you be?”

“Probably part of what pissed Maddie off,” I explain, my face already hurting from smiling so much. “Jacob, that is Sam. My Sam.”

“Oh. Yeah, nice to meet you, man. I mean, Jazz mentioned you but I have to admit, you are not exactly what I have expected.”

“Funny, I can’t say she ever talked about you.”

Jake’s eyes flit back to me and I simply shrug. “I might have talked about him, but not mentioned his name. Remember what I told you about the basketball jerk? That’s him.”

“Ah, okay. In that case, I’m not sure if it’s actually a pleasure to meet you.”

Even Miho and Jared have to chuckle at that burn, Jake just shakes his head.

“I deserve that, huh?”

“That and so much more,” I confirm.

“So here are the young people,” Elias cheerfully greets us, pats Jake’s shoulder. “Are you enjoying the party?”

“Yes, very much, sir,” Jared confirms.

“Jazz, dear, care to introduce me to your – cavalier?”

Sam straightens next to me, extends a hand. “I’m Sam Glausner, sir. I have a heard a lot about you and want to thank you for taking care of Jazz for so long.”

“It was my pleasure, she is an extraordinary young lady after all.”

Dammit, I’m blushing now.

“And it’s nice to see her with someone who makes her glow like that. I hope you appreciate her and treat her right.” Is it my imagination or does Elias glance at Jake more often now?

“I do my best, sir. She deserves it.”

“Okay, okay, we get it, I’m great. Can we stop this now?” Another round of laughter, this time at my expenses but I don’t really mind.

“So, uhm, how did you two meet?”

“Jazz had an internship in the marketing department I’m working at. She was so cheerful and dedicated, I was impressed from the first day.”

“So you are in marketing? Let me introduce you to a friend of mine, I’m sure you will have a lot to talk about. The owner of a big marketing company around here, in fact the biggest in our whole region. Jazz, can you spare your – uhm, date for a moment?”

It’s cute to see how Elias is trying to figure out what to call Sam. “Yes, of course. But bring Sam back to me later, will you?”

“Yes, yes, of course. Now, where did he go…?”

As soon as they are out of earshot my smile fades and I turn back to Jake.

“What was that earlier about Sam? What did you mean, Sam’s not what you have expected?” Leave it to Jake to upset me again.

“I thought you had a different type. Taller. More athletic.” He shrugs, looks at Miho and Jared who evade his gaze. Not having his back.

“More like your brother?” My eyes narrow at him and he chuckles, raises his hands in defeat.

“Yeah, sorry for jumping to conclusions.”

“Just for the record, almost everyone is taller than me and that’s enough for me. Besides, comparing Ben to Sam would be like – well, comparing boys and girls.”

“So Sam is-?”

“The person I love. It’s not the gender I fell for, but their personality. Although I have to admit, they are gorgeous. Have you seen that face? That smile? How could I not fall for that?” I pat his shoulder, like his father did before. “The world is huge, Jacob. There’s much more than just the old story of boy meets girl.”

“Like girl meets girl?”

“Like girl meets a person who genuinely cares for her and not causes her tons of distress only to excuse their behavior with ‘but I love you’ afterwards.”

“I like Sam,” Miho loudly announces. “She-”

“They,” I offer and Miho nods.

“They are funny, deliver great burns and came when Jazz needed them. I’m good with that.”

“Thank you.” I mean it, I’m grateful she’s okay with this revelation. Not everyone in my life was comfortable with me dating Sam in the past.

“So that’s it? You’d rather be with – with Sam?”

“Than with you? Yes, definitely. I told you before, I don’t hold any romantic feelings for you. But I do love Sam.”

Jake nods, slowly, his shoulders slump. Without another word he turns around and leaves us standing there.

“Shit, I need a drink.” Tension is crawling into my skull, my skin and bones feel too tight.

“Wow, I feel a bit bad for him,” Jared admits and orders some bourbon, passes me the glass with a sympathetic smile.

“So you know him well?” The first sip makes me wince, it’s raw and strong. The second is better already.

“Not too well, no. All I know is that he is great at his job, already helped a lot of people with their businesses. Very dedicated.”

“He’s still a jerk in private.” Miho takes the glass from me, downs it. Her face contorts briefly, she shudders and orders a water that she shares with me.

While I wait for Sam to come back I watch the people, some of them strangers, some of them I know just too well. Maddie and Ben are strange to look at, how she clings to him but keeps glaring when no one is watching. He mostly ignores her when he talks to others, absentmindedly pats her arm without looking at her.

With everything I have learned about them as individuals though I guess they deserve each other. Should I give him a hint? After all he is some kind of friend.

“Jazz? Do you want to stay longer?” Sam’s voice and their hand on my arm bring me back. Should Ben deal with his choice on his own, it’s not my place to warn him. Hopefully Jake will do that, at least before the wedding.

“No, I’m good to go. Just let me say goodbye to Elias and we can sneak out.” This is the person that deserves my worries and attention, no one else. Well, and Miho.

“I have a hotel room not too far from here. Do you need to fetch anything on the way there?”

“Not if they have spare toothbrushes. I think I don’t need pajamas, do I?”

The sharp intake of breath, the slight dilation of their pupils sends anticipation rushing through me.

“But we still need to talk,” they remind me, clear their throat. I lean in, close enough to feel their warmth.

“We will. Afterwards.”

 

I wake up the next morning, late but in the arms of the one I love. Could a day start better?

“Morning, love.” Sam’s voice, thick with sleep, their fingertips run lazily up and down my arm.

“Morning, babe.” I close my eyes, banish every other thought from my mind. Just focus on Sam.

Last night we talked for hours, I cried and apologized a lot, they kissed and comforted me. There was some yelling, some cursing, even laughter. Some muttered threats against Ben and Jake when I told Sam about the last few days. More when I talked about Dad and the mess with Mom.

It will take some more time to rebuild the trust I destroyed by running away, but me and Sam are on a good track now. Honesty leaves us a bit tender which gives me the chance to kiss the bruises better, so I guess that works in my favor.

“So, what’s the plan for today?” Their lips leave a trail from my shoulder to the back of my neck, they nuzzle against me in the most adorable way possible. I’m melting, drowning in the softness of their touch, soaking it all up to enshrine this memory in my very soul forever. Like this. I want us to be like this forever. Naked, bare in the literal meaning, no barriers between us, connected in body and soul.

“Depends. How many days have you off?”

They sigh, warm breath against my skin. “Today and tomorrow.”

“So staying in bed isn’t really an option. What a pity.” I turn to face them, brush some hair from their pretty face. The imprint of the pillow, the sunlight in their eyes – I want to capture it all.

“Breakfast? The hotel offers a buffet until 10.”

It’s a tempting suggestion, but not good enough to make me leave the bed just now.

“I know a place where we can get breakfast all day long.” I roll them on their back, halfway crawl on top of them, just lay there with my head on their chest, listening to their heartbeat. Soft fingertips draw random patterns into my skin and I retaliate by dropping a kiss here and there. Playful, easy, so unlike my last few days.

“I know what you are doing.” Sam’s voice rumbles in their chest, tickles in my ears.

“Mhm?”

“Don’t think you can put off that talk with your parents by being all cute and adorable.”

“I can’t hear you,” I grumble, my nose follows their neck up to their ear to coo: “Sign it to me.”

They groan, roll us around so they are on top.

“Why is it so hot when you say that?”

We get lost in kisses and touches, only manage to get out of bed when it’s almost noon.

 

I send my mother a message, get dressed while Sam’s in the shower – although the temptation to join them is delaying my progress – and call Miho to ask about my stuff at her place. Since I still got a key we agree that Sam and I just grab my bags and I bring the key to the café afterwards.

Also the perfect place to meet my parents, Mom replies before Sam can even dry their hair. My good mood dims, with every step closer to the café my stomach sinks further. With my bags in Sam’s car it’s mostly my hunger by now that draws me down the familiar street.

“Morning,” I greet Miho who looks up and waves.

“It’s past noon, but sure, whatever floats your boat. The customer is always right and stuff. Hi, Sam.”

“Hi. Do you still serve breakfast?”

“Someone had a long night, huh?” She waggles her eyebrows and I’m appalled by her lack of decency. Not really.

“I would ask the same thing but since today is a work day and I at least suspect Jared to take that seriously I assume you got up at the normal time.”

Her obscene gesture makes me laugh, I order coffee and waffles.

“You got a nice little shop here.” Sam looks around, takes in the furniture and decoration.

“Thanks. I like it very much.” The huge coffee monster splutters, fills the room with delicious aroma. After the little sleep and the alcohol last night caffeine is what I lack now, the moment Miho sets down my cup on the counter I snatch it and sit down.

“Hahhh… how I missed you, babe.”

“You never say that to me.” Miho fakes a pout, catches Sam raising an eyebrow.

“Well, she does say it to me.” Their tone leaves no doubt that this is the most important thing and I almost snort into my coffee.

“Fiiiiiine,” Miho relents, fills another cup and turns around to make the waffles.

We chat a bit, the café is mostly empty except for a few people coming in to get something to go. Jared saunters in for his lunch break, a quick kiss for Miho, maybe some inappropriate comments from my side. If it wasn’t for the confrontation I still have to master we would have a great time.

When Mom’s car pulls in outside my hands tremble so hard that I have to set my cup down.

“Okay, showtime.” I slip from the seat, straighten and square my shoulders.

“It’s okay, love, I’m here in case you need me. Just try to stay calm, listen without feeling offending right from the start. You can do it.” How could I ever think I could live without Sam? Their support is really helping me right now, I nod and go outside to greet her.

“Hi, Mom. Thanks for bringing the sewing machine.”

“Of course. I didn’t plan to keep it.” She opens the trunk, tugs at the heavy box but I stop her.

“Let me.”

“No, I can do it.”

“Mom, it’s no big deal. Let me get it please, I was the one to forget it at your place after all.”

I maneuver it out of the trunk, heave it over to the café entrance.

“Are you coming in?” I can’t see Dad anywhere which can mean both a good or a bad thing.

“Do you actually want me to come in?” Mom fumbles with her car keys, looking lost. I’m too soft to ignore her wounded expression, the way her curves downwards, her shoulders slump.

“That’s why I asked you to come here after all. Come on, Miho’s making some great coffee and you and I need to talk. On neutral grounds.”

The little bell rings as I enter but I shoot Miho, Sam and Jared a glare when they fall silent.

“Wait, let me help you with that.” Jared comes and takes the machine out of my hands, I smile at him.

“Thanks, that’s kinda heavy.”

“You’re welcome.” He smiles back until Mom clears her throat behind me.

“Mr. Sanders, what a surprise to see you here.”

“Mrs. Mann. Well, I find myself here often lately. The coffee is great and so is the company.”

Figures they know each other. Jared is probably at Elias’ house every now and then.

“How about I get you some of that great coffee and you choose a table for us?” I urge Mom to take a seat, grab the coffee Miho has already prepared.

Sam nods at me, they can probably tell that I’m close to having a nervous breakdown but I flash them a smile.

Mom has chosen a table in the far back and I manage to arrive there without spilling anything.

“How’s your wrist?” The bandage has vanished but that doesn’t mean she’s all better. Mom just doesn’t like to stay still, to sit around without doing anything.

“Better. The doctor says I should go easy on it for a few more days. Mr. Rosenfeldt has hired someone to take care of the house for this week, next week I will go back to work.”

“That’s good. You better make sure it’s all healed before you dive back into work.” I’m stirring my coffee for a whole minute already although it’s black.

“He also brought me your pay for the last week. I got it here.” She reaches for her purse, grabs an envelope and holds it out to me.

“No, it’s okay. You said you need the bonus.” She always does. So do I, but there’s no need pointing that out now.

“It’s your money, I can’t-”

“Mom. It’s okay. Keep it.” If Dad stays true to his old ways he will end up taking it, but I’m too tired to argue.

“Okay.” She puts it back, not without glancing at me for confirmation again.

I sip my coffee, she sips hers.

“How’s Dad?” Might as well just get right to the point.

“Gone.”

Quelle surprise.

“Another festival?”

“Probably, but also a very ugly fight we had first. Thanks for that.” She rubs her temple with her fingertips, exhales loudly. “Ah, sorry. It’s not your fault, I know. It’s just-” She sighs again, doesn’t even look at me.

“Mom, he left us years ago already. Everything in the last 10, 12 years was only him stringing you along. Does this now really come so unexpected for you?” Hurting her further is the last thing on my list, but she needs to hear the truth and ideally also accept it.

“It’s just – I never thought he would start a new life, with a new family, and leave me behind completely.”

Mom is one of the strongest persons I know, she has always smiled and worked her butt of without complaining. But now she’s just another heartbroken woman, with red rimmed eyes and tired lines all over her face.

“He didn’t only leave you behind, you know? It wasn’t exactly pleasant for me to learn that he plans on ‘doing things right this time’. As if that new baby deserves something that I did not.”

Instead he took my money, lied to me, lied to Mom. No gift for him for Father’s Day this year.

“I guess that also hurts, but it’s not the same. I still love him. Once you find someone you love you will-”

“No! God dammit, mother! Stop this stupid shit! It’s not love, it’s some strange obsession you have with him! How can you love him after all he did to you? To us?” My cup clutters on it’s saucer when I slam my hand on the table. “Just for the record, I know what love feels like. I know it can be exhilarating and crushing at the same time. I know how empty you can feel when you think you lost it! I know all that because I actually found someone to love already, someone who loves me back. But we would never pull this shit with each other and if we did I guess we would be better off apart.”

My eyes flit over to the counter, all three of them sitting there stare back at me. Mom follows my line of sight, brows furrowed.

“Wait, what?”

“Yeah, I’m in love with someone special and I didn’t tell you because I was afraid to end up like you. Completely hung up on one person, to the point that nobody else matters to you anymore. That is what you taught me about love, Mom, that I have to endure anything to deserve it. But that’s not true. I deserve love to my own terms. I deserve to be loved for who I am, not for what I can offer to someone else.” My heart is racing, my throat is tight. “I guess I’m lucky, because I found someone who also accepts my flaws and my stubbornness, who doesn’t treat me like some ATM but cares for me. And I almost gave up on that because I figured it’s safer to keep my distance instead of becoming vulnerable!”

“Is that – you’re in love with him? How did you even meet? I mean, you can only know him for what? A week? And you’re talking about love? Oh, Jazzy-bee, you might have the wrong idea…”

When did I become the one to feel sorry for?

“No, I think you might be the one with the wrong idea.”

“Listen, muffin cheeks, I know Mr. Sanders, he’s really nice and reputable, but whatever you have, it can’t possibly be love.”

I blink, take a deep breath. I can hear some commotion from the counter, turn around to see Miho red in the face, shaking her hands.

“I’m sure Mr. Sanders is nice and I agree with you, Mom, what I feel for him is definitely not love. Because he’s not the one I’m talking about.” Miho’s display of a desperate attempt not to laugh is distracting, but I want to make things clear here.

“Oh, I thought… because you keep looking over at him.” Mom’s gaze flits from Jared to me and back again.

I wave towards Sam, motion them to come over.

“No, Mom. Let me introduce you to Sam. We are dating for almost a year already.” I get up to stand next to them, take their hand and look back at Mom. “Sam, this is my mother.”

“It’s nice to finally meet you, Mrs. Mann. Although I had hoped for better circumstances.” Sam offers Mom their hand but she simply stares at them. At us.

“Oh.” Her shoulders slump even more, it’s as if I’m watching a computer reboot. She straightens up again, smiles weakly.

“I can’t say this isn’t a surprise, but… it’s also nice to meet you. Sam, was it?”

We both sit down, hands still clasped.

“Yes, Ma’am. Sam Glausner.”

“We met when I had this internship and afterwards we kept in touch and – well, I guess we are moving in together soon.” I’m aware of both of their stares. No turning back now.

“That is – that is nice, honey. I’m happy for you.”

There is still a lot we have to talk about, but for now this is a huge step for me. And for Sam. After some superficial chatting Sam excuses themself and joins Miho and Jared again, gives me and Mom some privacy.

“I know it’s not polite to ask, but what is Sam?” she whispers as soon as they are out of earshot.

“Manager of a marketing department.” I suppress my grin, this is not what she wants to know.

“No, I mean-”

“Mom, Sam is Sam. The one person I can imagine a future with. They are most comfortable when you refer to them with they and them pronouns, but you don’t have to worry about me getting accidentally pregnant if that’s what you want to know.”

She looks at me intently, her smile fades.

“When did you get all grown up? You were my little girl just yesterday and now…” She shakes her head, shakes off the somber mood. “Are you happy?”

“I am. Very much.” I smile back at Sam who waves at me once. “I only wish you could be happy, too. But as long as you are hung up on Dad…”

“I asked him. About that other woman. About your money.” She cups her mug with both hands, stares into the remains of the coffee as if it can offer her answers to all her questions.

“He didn’t even deny anything. He came here, told me all those pretty little lies and when I called him out on that he didn’t even flinch. Just said it was only a matter of time before you tattled on him.”

“I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry for not telling you sooner, I’m sorry for telling you at all. I don’t know what to say, I can’t make it better with just words.” It’s a messy situation and I hate Dad for forcing me into it.

“It’s okay, it’s not your fault. I’m still disappointed at you for striking this deal with him, though. I’m an adult, I can make my own decisions and just because you are entitled to your opinion doesn’t mean you can interfere like this.”

I flinch, guilty as charged.

“That said I know you only tried to look out for me.” Her hand finds mine, she gives it a light squeeze. “Okay, this was a heavy conversation for such a lovely day. How long are you staying in town?”

“We are leaving tomorrow morning.” It’s a long drive back, at least I don’t have to take the bus this time.

“How about you and Sam come and have dinner with me tonight? I would like to get to know – them better.”

“That sounds great. Thanks, Mom.” We hug and she waves at the others on her way out.

“Are you okay, love?” Sam’s at my side before I even reach the counter.

“Yeah, I guess I am.” Tired, yes, exhausted, definitely. But nothing a hug and another coffee can’t fix. And cake. Definitely cake.

Halfway through a slice of chocolate-y heaven Jared has to go leave for work again, he and Miho get all lovey-dovey and I remind them of workplace hygiene, just in case.

Since we don’t really have anywhere else to go and I’m still a bit hungover and clingy Sam and I get comfortable at a small table, determined to try every single cake Miho offers today.

“Later today I will need some cheese. Or maybe meat. Something savory.”

Sam laughs and I still accept the fork full of cake from them.

“We can get anything you want, love. Pizza, pasta, half of a pig – no problem.”

“Hey, you better remember the fantastic person helping you reconcile. Maybe they want some food, too.” Miho is just polishing some glasses, the afternoon rush should start any minute now.

“Sure. We can call Jared and just ask him, I guess.”

She pokes out her tongue at me, I simply return the gesture.

The bell chimes and my heart stops when I see who just arrives. Jake.

“Hey, Fujiwara. Can I get a Kenian roast to go?” He leans on the counter, dressed in slacks and a casual shirt. Also looking a bit hungover.

“Wow, looks like you partied hard yesterday.” Miho grins and I swear she’s making more noise than necessary to brew a cup of coffee.

He waves her off, turns around and spots us. “Well, you know what they say: There’s no party like a stuck up dinner party.”

With his coffee he comes over to us, his hand hovers over the backrest of a chair.

“Take a seat.” Sam, polite as always.

“Don’t mind if I do.” Jake plops down on the chair, throws me a glance.

“I hope Elias wasn’t upset about us leaving early.” I try to steer the conversation to a safe topic, last thing I said to Jake last night was a thinly veiled jab about how he has to sit through the dinner without a partner now. I blame the alcohol and a bit my mean streak after everything he did to me. It was petty and probably he didn’t even care, but at that time it gave me a rush of satisfaction. The only satisfaction that ever stemmed from Jake.

“No, I told Sam was tired from the drive and that you had to catch up, so he was fine with it. But some other people asked about you. Looks like you made quite the impression.”

Me? Or rather my PDA with Sam in the middle of the entrance hall?

“She is something special, isn’t she? She always manages to impress people.” Sam’s praise and their gentle touch on my hand skyrockets my heartbeat.

“Yeah, she is – something else.”

I wait for the inevitable quip, the joke on my expanses, but it doesn’t come.

He clears his throat, takes a sip of his coffee.

“So, you guys are going back today?”

“Tomorrow. We are having dinner later with Mom.” The lull in the conversation is awkward, I’m not the only one thinking so.

“Okay, in that case, have a safe trip back tomorrow. I’m heading home now, too. Gotta go back to work and all that.” He taps on the table with his fingers twice, gets up.

“And Sam,” he begins before he leaves, eyes trained on my partner.

“Yes?”

“You better take good care of her.”

“Don’t worry, I will.” Sam’s arm around my shoulder anchors me to the here and now, otherwise I could swear I’m having a very strange hallucination.

“You better take care of yourself,” I shoot back. “And of your brother. I’m not going to come to his wedding because I expect of you to prevent that disaster somehow.”

“Don’t worry, I will,” he echoes Sam’s words, grins widely. “I already have a plan.” A last nod and he walks out of the door, leaves me with mixed feelings that instantly evaporate when Sam bumps their shoulder against mine.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m great.”

Soon we will have to leave for dinner, but for now I rest my head on their shoulder, watch Miho clean and take orders, serve customers.

Here, in this coffee scented sanctuary, we just waste some more time. Together.

 

The End

 

 

 

Homecoming – Day 13-2

“You should get ready for your party thing.” We are lying on the couch, some cooking show on TV providing background noises and idle distraction, when Miho points out the inevitable.

“Nothing’s saving me, huh? Adulting really sucks.” I yawn and stretch a bit, stalling for seconds although I’m sure Miho will drag me there herself if necessary.

“I have to check the dress, hope it’s not wrinkled.” This morning I just grabbed it and crammed it into my suitcase, just wanted to get out of Mom’s place as soon as possible. Now I pay the price for my haste, the dress is wrinkly and looks awful.

“I got a steam iron, no problem. You go and fix your hair, I’m going to fix your dress.”

Yep, she really wants me to go there. Or she just wants me to get out of her place for a while, I don’t know. But I do as I’m told, trudge into the bathroom to do my hair and makeup. Nothing fancy, just some eyeliner and mascara, concealer for that one annoying pimple and the dark circles under my eyes. I’m not going to impress someone with my minimal effort, but I won’t look out of place either. Exactly what I want. I brush my hair, tie it into a sideways ponytail, tuck some stubborn strands away with some bobby pins.

“Your dress is over there,” Miho lets me know when I step out of the bathroom, pointing towards her kitchen door. There it is, on its hanger, crease-free and suitable for the occasion.

“I like what you did with the hem.”

“I shortened it.” Nothing worth mentioning.

“Exactly. Now it’s less ‘80s school headmistress’ and more ‘sexy but sophisticated woman of our time’.”

I roll my eyes and snort, if that’s an attempt to make me feel better about my 15 bucks bargain, well, it’s working.

“Shoes?”

“Oh yeah, wait, they are in my luggage.” Simple black heels. Peep-toes.

“Accessories?”

“I got a black purse and a short jacket.” More stuff lands on her living room floor until I find what I need.

“Jewelry?”

“I can do without.” I never had much jewelry, a simple silver chain grandma gave me for my birthday years ago with a small star shaped pendant, maybe a pair of earrings every now and then.

“No, you can’t. Dressing understated is one thing, but without a little bling your outfit will be simply boring. Here, let’s see what I have.”

A whole box of stuff, that’s what she has. Necklaces, earrings, bracelets, watches. A small jewelry store in her bedroom.

“Here, these jade earrings will go great with your dress. Do you prefer gold or silver? Do you know your ring size? You’re not allergic to anything, are you? Most of this is fashion jewelry, you know?”

Her barrage of questions has be staggering, too many decisions in too little time.

“I think I’ll just go with my own necklace,” I mumble, grateful for her offer but unable to accept it.

“Stars, huh? I think I have some matching earrings somewhere… oh, and there’s a belt over there in that drawer. A black one, rather wide.”

It has a floral pattern, very unobtrusive.

“Miho – I can’t… why are you so nice to me?” It’s not that kindness is a foreign concept to me, a lot of people have been nice to me throughout my whole life. But this right now just is too much, I will never be able to repay her for everything.

“Me? Nice? You better watch your mouth, we don’t want to start some rumors. People might believe you.”

Oh great, I’m getting emotional. I frantically blink, my eye makeup too well done for me to ruin it with another ugly crying fit now.

“No, really, you’ve been a great friend.”

“Oh come on, you hooked me up with the guy I’m crushing on for months now, we are even.” She pats my bum, shoos me out of the bedroom and towards my dress.

“You will feel better once you’re actually dressed. Imagine it being your superhero outfit. That always helps me when I get dressed for some unpleasant task.”

“Don’t you mean, your super-villain outfit?”

“Hush!” This time she doesn’t gently pat my butt, but gives me a slap. A hard one.

“Ouch! Okay, okay, I get it, superhero it is. You definitely have some super strength.” Still laughing I grab my dress, retreat into the bathroom to change and take on my secret identity as confident, somewhat successful better version of myself.

It doesn’t work like a charm, but I do feel more confident now that I’m dressed up, hair and makeup not the usual mess.

“Now look at you!” Miho’s gaze sweeps appreciatively once up and down my outfit, she hands me the earrings and I’m ready to face the night.

 

Or not. A bus ride later I feel ridiculously dressed up, I’m leaving a trail of bobby pins and I’m sweating bullets. Rushing in, greeting the mayor and sneaking out again seems like a good plan of action. Maybe avoiding bumping into his sons, that would be great.

At the entrance I give my name to some nice woman who tells me where to leave my jacket – as if I didn’t know the house better than she ever could – and informs me that Mr. Rosenfeldt wants to see me.

Which one, though? A server offers me a glass of some bubbly and I go for it. Half of its contents later I’m still nervous, but at least with a hint of a buzz. But I have to say, the house looks incredible. Surfaces shimmer and no speck of dust anywhere. Good job, me!

I don’t recognize most of the people here and the few I do are only known to me from sight, not by name. Elias is surrounded by a small crowd, of course, he’s the host after all. Still, as soon as he spots me he excuses himself to them and comes over.

“Jazz, dear, I’m so glad you could make it. There are a few people I’d like you to meet. You are looking very pretty tonight, by the way.”

“Thanks, but flattery won’t get you anywhere. I already cleaned everything around here, there’s nothing more I could do.” At least he makes me smile.

“Nonsense. But didn’t you bring a date? It was a bit of a short notice, I understand. Still, there must a young man somewhere who caught your eyes, isn’t there?”

“It’s – complicated,” I say with the sweetest smile I can muster to throw him off the track.

“Well, maybe you will find someone here tonight. Although I’m afraid most gentlemen here are either already taken or too old for you.” He leads me over to the group he has been talking with earlier, gives me a little push forward. “May I introduce the first scholarship student from our local High School? Miss Jazz Mann, one of the brightest young women I ever had the pleasure to meet.”

There are some very impressive names and titles in the round of introductions, my nervousness skyrockets and so does my sweating. After Elias initiates a lively conversation he excuses himself again to greet some more guests, leaves me there with all these bigshots. Since Elias has announced my field of expertise before he left some questions are actually directed at it and at the projects I’m working on. I get some business cards and offers to talk more about the projects from people who I would have otherwise not the chance to speak to. Probably Elias’s plan all along, but my growing unease in the unfamiliar company, paired with the constant reminders of Sam as my partner in this project, makes me restless.

Just when I’m looking for a good excuse to slink away a familiar face shows up in the group.

“Ah, Benjamin.” The elderly gentleman I just talked to about the possibility of implementing some accessibility options for hearing-impaired visitors of his gallery a few towns over greets Ben as if they know for ages already. Not unlikely, though.

“Have you had the pleasure of meeting Miss Mann already?”

“Indeed, I had. And I’m actually just looking for her. I hope you don’t mind me stealing her away for a second.” He excuses us, grabs me by the arm and leads me away.

“You were looking uncomfortable so I figured I’d better come and save you,” he whispers, but his polite smile doesn’t even waver for a split second. If he can’t make it in sports he can still start a career as politician.

He takes me outside, into the garden, behind a corner hidden from the curious glances of the other guests. I’m afraid to shatter my glass but I have to grip it tightly to mask the trembling of my hands. Being alone with him after what he said yesterday is strange. Thinking that he actually is interested in me is even stranger. Surreal.

“You’re looking great tonight. The dress is – looks good on you.”

“Thanks.” Silence used to be comfortable between us, but this now is painful. I’m hyper aware of his every move, breath, glance.

“So, I took the liberty to make arrangements for us sitting together at dinner.”

Oh yes, he did ask me to be his dinner partner – among other things.

“You did? Oh, okay.” It’s not a big deal, I rather sit next to him than among people I don’t know at all.

“And maybe we can sneak off afterwards, spend a bit time alone together.” He leans in closer, as if telling me a secret. Since we are alone anyway it’s only for show, a cheap excuse to get closer. He smells like soap and wood, grass and fresh air. Not sure how much of it is him and what is our surrounding, but paired with the champagne it sends a shiver through me that stirs up the butterflies in my stomach. It reminds me of so many things I can’t even all name.

“We – we will see.” There’s not even enough saliva in my mouth to swallow and I almost choke on nothing but my own confusion. It’s just the echo of my old crush on him, one-sided feelings that only come up now that he fans them with his sudden interest in me.

It sucks when your mind and heart are not on the same page.

He inches closer, until I’m pressed against the wall, heart racing like crazy, dizzy and  with shaking knees.

His face is right in front of me, I can see the golden speckles in his eyes, reflecting the sun even here in the shadows.

“I think we should go back for now. I don’t want anyone to come looking for us.”

Ben inhales, chuckles and pulls back.

“Yes, of course. Come.” He takes my hand, leads me back chatting as if nothing had happened. Well, nothing has happened, but my spine and knees haven’t gotten that information yet.

Back inside the house he leads me to the makeshift bar, my empty glass apparently a challenge he has to overcome. Another glass replaces my old one, the champagne bubbles happily and after a good swig I also feel much lighter.

“So here are you. I’ve been looking for you.” Jake motions towards the barkeeper who hands him a glass with a smile.

“She was with me,” Ben says, leans against the bar with his back and scans the room, smiles and greets here and there. Trapped between them, although there’s still much room,  I don’t dare to move. I gulp down another big sip of champagne, fumble with the glass.

“Oh, okay. And now she’s coming with me.” No question, he takes my wrist and tugs, not enough to make me move, just indicating he wants to leave now.

There’s not escape at the bottom of my glass, so I set it back on the bar, shake off Jake’s grip and smile at Ben.

“Excuse us for a moment, I guess that will take a while.”

“Okay. Come and find me later.”

I hum, not a yes and not a no, but it’s enough to make Ben nod. We seem to have an agreement. Now for his brother.

“Lead the way.” I’m not going to have any kind of conversation with him when there are other people, we have the tendency to yell or embarass each other. Well, I yell and he embarasses me.

Ben’s room has been turned into a storage room for today, serving staff milling in and out. Jake’s is quiet, he’s staying in here for a few days after all. No way they could divert it without Jake kicking them out.

“Do I have to worry about you and Bennie?”

He plops down on his bed, I just stand there in the middle of the room like an idiot. All dressed up but nowhere to go, or better, not sure with whom.

“You don’t worry much about me anyway, so no need to start now.”

Propped up on his elbows he’s watching me, a cheap staredown I let wash over me. Not raising to the bait.

“I always worried about you. Told you yesterday, didn’t I?”

“No.” My legs are stiff, my knees locked up as I walk towards his desk. “You said you’re in love with me, not that you worry about me.”

“I love you, that’s why I care for you. Hence also worry about you.”

“You are good at hiding it.” My fingertips glide over the cover of his yearbook. He only tilts his head when I look at him so I open it, browse through the pages. There’s a fold somewhere near the end, the page familiar to me. Band and music clubs, me at the piano, before I lost my hearing. My shy smile not ruined by my retainers anymore, I look directly into the camera.

“Oh.”

“Thing is, I didn’t want to hide it. I thought – well, in the beginning you were just this kid and then you grew up and I figured it would be weird if I openly hit on you.” He sits up, gives me room and time to process his words.

“So you opted for bullying me instead?” The sound of me slamming the yearbook shut covers up my dry laughter.

“I didn’t bully you.”

“No? The name calling, the laughing at me with your friends, all those stupid pranks?” My outburst lures him closer, he takes the yearbook from me, places it gently on the desk.

“I never laughed at you.” His eyebrows twitch and knit. “I always thought we were laughing together. You know, the banter, the back and forth. I said something, you said something. That was our thing.”

Banter. Banter?

“That wasn’t us having fun. That was you being a jerk and me trying to say what I think in a way that wouldn’t upset you too much so my Mom wouldn’t lose her job!” That’s not too hard to see after all.

“What?”

“Jake, you exposed me in front of the whole school, you ruined more of my important days than not, god, you even mocked Ben’s nickname for me!”

If there was a literal light bulb over his head it would light up now and illuminate the whole house.

“Ben’s nickname for you?”

“Jayjay. You know exactly what I’m talking about, but I guess you didn’t know that I heard you back then.” When he laughed with his friends, called me ‘Va-Jayjay’ behind my back.

“No idea what you think you heard, but I remember calling you ‘ma Jayjay’ in a very embarrassing fake accent. So I apologize for my poor excuse of a French accent.”

I refuse to get thrown off track now, not even sure if he’s telling the truth.

“Jake, you almost broke my nose with a basketball!”

“I thought you would catch it!”

“You spilled hot coffee all over me!”

“It was for you! You seemed so tired and fed up that day and I figured you could use a pick-me-up!”

“But not all over my blouse!” Every word, every single time we speak we gravitate closer to each other, and despite the difference in height I’m not intimidated, I won’t back down, won’t cower. Not this time.

“That wasn’t planned, okay?”

“Planned or not doesn’t change the fact that I was the girl who streaked in the school lobby for the rest of my time there.” He has only ever made my life harder and now he claims that he loved me all along. Great, just great.

“You act as if I never did anything nice for you.”

That close up his eyes are really interesting, different to Ben’s, but with the same golden speckles. Can’t help but admire that gene pool.

“Did you?”

He scoffs, still only inches away from me.

“The notebook? The hair tie?”

“The pen. Bittersweet symphony. Yeah, that – that has been you, huh?” The only ray of light in my dark high school days and now it turns out the light at the end of the tunnel was a train all along.

“That, too. I was hoping – I mean, you like music and so do I, so we got that in common. And the song is-”

Short-lived triumph wells up in me when he breaks eye contact, hangs his head and shakes it. “We never actually played it together.”

“No, we didn’t. I thought-” My shoes are very interesting, I never noticed that small spot. Is it a hole? “When the invitation to your party was in my locker, I thought I would have one of those Hollywood rom-com moments. You know, the whole confession in semi-public, romantic duet thing. Just didn’t think you would be the one to show up.”

The warmths of his palm against my arm is a shock, sends a shiver through me.

“You thought it was Ben. You wanted it to be him.”

I nod, no need to hide it anymore.

“He’s my brother, I love him and all, but honestly, back then he was the wrong choice for you. He still is.”

“But you are the right choice? The one?” Something is wrong with my eyes, everything is so blurry.

“I surely hope so.” Something is really wrong with my eyes now, it looks as if Jake’s getting even closer, so close I lose focus.

His lips ghost over mine, one hand cups my face, keeps me in place, turned towards him.

“Jazz…”

Is that my voice, that pathetic whimper? Well, it’s not him, he is busy deepening the kiss. His hum is shaking me awake, I pull back before he can put his tongue to use.

“Wait, wait, wait. This – this is not good.” His warmth and scent cling to me, a siren song taking advantage of my confusion and the need for comfort. But not this. Never this.

“Too much, too soon?” His thumb strokes over my cheek, comes back wet. There goes my self control.

“You shouldn’t kiss me at all! Gosh, just like back then… what’s next? You going to let me drown again?” The angry pitch of my tinnitus cuts through the turmoil, shows me the way. Stay angry, stay focused.

“This again?”

I flinch but he only throws his hands up, not directed at me.

“Again and again. Sorry, but no matter how much time passes, it won’t change the facts! You forced that stupid game on me, you kissed me and when I ran away you chased me, right into your pool. And then you watched me struggle until I blacked out.”

“That is not – stop saying I let you drown! I was drunk, I was high, I was stupid, okay? You fell into the pool and I panicked. I wasn’t trying to murder you or anything!”

“But you didn’t exactly come to help me either.” One of the baseball players jumped in and got me out in the end. Just in time.

“Neither did Ben. Do you know what he was doing at that time?”

I take a step back, then another. Jake is too furious for me to feel safe.

“Yes, I know.”

“You know nothing!” The yearbook lands on the ground with a loud thud, opens at a random page. Jake blinks, surprised that he wiped it off the desk with his wide arm motions.

“You know nothing.” Softer this time, weaker.

“No, I do. I saw him. Them. Guess why I was so upset when I came into the kitchen.” I wipe my face with my hands, they come back streaked with black mascara.

“And you are still so hung up on him? He – whatever he tells you now, he doesn’t know you like I do. Doesn’t love you like I do.”

“Probably not. But he never made me cry like you do either.”

 

After a quick visit in the bathroom to freshen up – or better frantically wiping my cheeks clean, can’t do much about my red-rimmed eyes now – I’m calm enough to go back downstairs. With my head lowered a bit I avoid catching anyone’s eyes, I’m going to find an excuse to tell Elias and leave before I have a nervous meltdown. Making my way through the crowd I jump when someone grabs my arm.

“You having fun?”

Bewildered I stare at Miho in her fancy dinner outfit we have picked out earlier.

“What are you doing here?”

“He brought me.” She motions over to group of people. Jared is standing with them, looking good in one of his suits.

“This is the date he took you on?” The concept needs a moment to register, but I guess he’s working with Elias.

“Hey, it’s free food and drinks. I’m not complaining.”

“And free drama.” I take her glass and down it, shudder and let out a very unladylike burp. “Sorry, the bubbles.”

The next waitress with a tray full of glasses finds herself lacking two all of sudden, Miho takes the empty glass from me and pushes a fresh one into my hand.

“What drama?”

“The worst kind.” I never liked love triangles in movies and books, and now that I’m somehow tangled in one I hate it even more.

“Oh, dinner with a show. Nice.”

I shoot her a bitchy look, scan the room for Ben and/or jake. Any Rosenfeldt at this point, I don’t even want to see Elias right now. It’s partly his fault, he’s the one to have these sons and he invited me here today.

“The problem is only, I don’t know my lines. The whole plot unfolds around me and I have no clue what to do or say.”

“Hm, how about you make the best of it? Make a huge scene. I mean, people are already talking about you, so give them something to gossip about.” Her arms loosely crossed in front of her she gestures with her champagne glass. Probably not her first one, minus the one I drank.

“I’d rather not.”

“Well, looks as if you don’t have much of a chance,” she mutters, looks pointedly past me. I turn, glance over my shoulder. Ben is heading directly my way, a bright smile on his face. A smile that wavers before he reaches me, eyes now trained at a point behind me.

“Ben, darling! I was looking for you already.”

Nails on a chalkboard are nothing against the sound of Maddie’s voice, the shiver and goosebumps it sends over me hard to shake off.

“Mads. What are you doing here?”

There’s not place I’d rather be now than trapped between them in this strange reunion scene. Maybe just the inside of an active volcano, but that’s about it.

“Silly question, I just made it back in time here to enjoy this wonderful party with you.” She clings to his arms, smiles brightly at him, but her eyes dart around the room to check for the reaction of the other guests. At least that’s what it looks like to me. Her eyes narrow when she spots me, but she opts to ignore me in favor of fawning over Ben.

“Oh.”

That’s all he has to say, just ‘oh’. His shrug is directed at me, eyes wide, and without protest he allows Maddie to lead him away, her fake laughter and constant chatting battling with my tinnitus.

“What the heck was that just now?”

Jared, ever the gentleman, nods at me as a greeting and turns to Miho for an explanation.

“Ms Brewer? I heard she tried to lure Dr. Posner into her bed at some medical convention but didn’t know that he is definitely not interested.”

“And how comes you know all that?” Miho chats with him as if that was actually the most pressing question right now.

“Well, I play squash with Dr. Posner’s boyfriend, and he’s a huge gossip.”

“When did all of this happen?” I still try to wrap my head around the new information.

“Just now, this weekend. Posner was on some conference and originally another assistant was supposed to go with him but she got sick and Ms Brewer said she would love to take her place. That was -” He furrows his brow, stares at the ceiling. “Last Tuesday. And Friday they left for the conference. Terry – the boyfriend – told me yesterday over a nice game of squash about how the assistant Posner brought along tried to seduce him. They almost died laughing about the whole thing. Well, not the assistant. Only learned today it’s Ben’s fiancée.”

“Wait, so Maddie broke up with Ben to try and get her hands on a doctor?” My laughter shrills, clashes with the noise in my ears. “Sorry, but yeah, that sounds about right.” Not much like the Maddie I know from school, but like the one I met here the week ago.

“Good to know I have such a trusty source of gossip now. Anyone else you play squash with?” Miho lightly bumps her hip against his, smiles brightly. At least one who’s having fun. Or both, if Jared’s growing smile and the way he stays close to her without actually touching her too much is any indicator.

“I got a few, but a guy has to have some secrets.”

Their sickly sweet flirting wraps itself like a blanket around me, calms down my nerves, soothes my overloaded senses. Like white noise, just with more sexual tension. My heartbeat doesn’t hurt me anymore and I can breathe almost evenly. Panic attack averted.

“Are you having fun?”

In the few seconds I let my guard down Jake managed to sneak up on us, now stands next to me with a glass of champagne in his hand, smiling at Jared but it doesn’t reach his eyes.

“Yes, it’s a great party. I missed your father so far, I hope I will have a chance to thank him for inviting me later.”

Two good looking businessmen talking with each other, two women at their sides – we must look like some stupid commercial. Only that one of the women glares at one of the men, the other tries to make herself small enough to fall through the cracks of time while the other man is completely oblivious.

“I’m surprised about your choice for your date,” Jake just says, chokes on his sip of champagne when I jab my elbow into his side.

“Why is that?” Jared glances at Miho who still tries to murder Jake with the power of her imagination alone.

“I just didn’t know you are seeing anyone, that’s all.”

“We just talked about how men are also entitled to their secrets. And some should stay secrets,” I chirp, but my voice drops at the end of the sentence. I don’t dare give him more of a warning, not with witnesses around.

“I guess you are right.” Jake shrugs, but winks at me. Hopefully that means he got the hint.

“As much as I hate those stereotypes, but Jazz, do you happen to have some powder or eyeliner you could share? Or anything else that can pass as euphemism for me asking you to show me where the restroom is?” It costs me an incredible amount of strength to tear my glare from Jake, to move my ramrod spine and turn to Miho.

“Um, yeah, sure. We can go upstairs. That’s okay, isn’t it, Jacob?”

“Sure, will be less crowded upstairs. Mi casa es su casa.”

I stalk over towards the stairs, can feel Jake’s eyes on my back the whole time. No, I’m not putting on a show, my hips move like this all the time. I’m just overly aware of it now.

“You okay?” Miho whispers and I shrug.

“Not sure. How about you?”

“I had a drink or two, I’m fuckin’ great. Jake and his passive-aggressive judging won’t change a thing.”

Up here it’s not only less crowded, it’s completely empty. The carpet swallows our footsteps, I don’t feel like talking so we make our way down the hall in silence.

“Bathroom is in here,” I say, my hand already on the doorknob. “I’m waiting out here for you to – OH MY GOSH!”

“Shit!”

Everything happens at once. It’s a deja vu, Ben leaning against the sink, a girl on her knees in front of him. I realize I walked in on him and Maddie, slam the door shut again while Miho bursts out into manic laughter.

My stomach churns. Throwing up here on the carpet is a bad idea but I can’t go back into the bathroom so I run for the stairs, I have to make it downstairs and into the bathroom there. Or into the kitchen. What the heck, even the garden is a better choice than puking here in the hallway.

Muffled footsteps behind me spur me on, whoever it is, I don’t want to talk to anyone.

“Jazz? What’s wrong?”

That’s not from behind but in front of me. Jake catches me before I can rush past him, steadies me. I’m trembling, alright. Not a good sign.

“Jayjay!” Out of breath Ben catches up with us, his face bright red. “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t-”

“It’s okay, no need to explain.” My voice is shaking, as are my knees. Even more adrenaline today and I will explode. Can’t be healthy, this up and down.

“What happened?” Jake looks from me, pale and wide eyed, to Ben whose pants are still open, hastily pulled up.

“Nothing.” Both of us answer at the same time, Ben more frantic while I’m just tired.

“Benjamin!” Maddie takes her time, she’s just taking a few quicker steps for show. Practically saunters towards up.

“I see.” Jake pulls me closer, away from his brother.

“Oh, you are here, too.” It’s amazing to see how Maddie’s whole demeanor changed from one second to the other. She must hate Jake even more than me.

One of her hands clutches Ben’s arm, the diamond sparkles at her finger as if he was never gone.

“It’s more of a surprise that you are here,” Jake shoots back. Ben is torn between pleading silently into my general direction and looking at the floor. At least some shame left in him.

“Why is that? I mean, Benjamin and I are engaged after all.”

“Are you, though?”

“Of course. I needed a few days to think this through-” At this point I can’t help my sarcastic laughter, but Maddie continues as if nothing was wrong. “- but I decided that I’m willing to fight for him.” She glares at me and I can’t even care enough to react. My blank face is all she gets, the lack of reaction mirroring perfectly my lack of emotion right now. Later this night it will crash down on me and I will probably cry my heart out, but for now I’m pleasantly numb.

“Next time fight for him behind locked doors. If you excuse me now, I really need to get a drink. Maybe I can get drunk enough to black out and the image of the both of you in there will get erased for good.”

“You could have knocked,” Maddie spits, bats her lashes towards Benjamin.

“You could have some class, but that ship has sailed.” Before she can open her mouth I leave, head high, back straight. The urge to throw up is manageable now, so I can go and get some shots, no problem.

“I would say ‘told you so’, but no one likes to hear that.”

Jake motions for the barkeeper, orders two gin.

“And I would let you bask in your triumph, but honestly I’m not surprised.” The liquor burns, I can’t really taste it. But it hits the spot.

“Not? I thought you were – I don’t know, having something special with Ben.”

I pluck the glass from his hand, if he doesn’t drink it I will.

“Yeah? I was rather cautious about the nature of his interest.” There was definitely some physical attraction between us, also from my side, I can’t deny that. “He is not as I remember him anymore. Maybe he never was like that at all.” I make a face, the gin is stronger than expected. Doesn’t keep me from ordering more.

“Hey, what’s the beef with you and Maddie?”

“I think you should slow down with that.” This time he takes the glass from me and downs it. “Well, one year in college I came home for the summer and you had just graduated. So it was my second year? Third? Not sure anymore. Anyway, we ran into each other a few times. I remembered her vaguely from school but she was a bit annoying, threw herself at me all the time. No class, that chick.”

“And you only go for the classy ones, sure.” A last shot of gin and my mind gets fuzzy, my limbs heavy. In a nice way.

“Only the classiest,” he confirms and takes my arm, steers me out into the garden. Ah, fresh air. We give the pool a wide berth, stop at a small bench and he makes me sit down.

“She had a crush on you ever since middle school. Talked about you all the time.” I giggle. “Funny how she ends up with Ben now. And here I sit with you. Reversed worlds.”

“Might be because I turned her down. She asked me outright to sleep with her and I said no thanks. Didn’t take it well.”

I burst into laughter, half fueled by the alcohol, half stems from my mental image of Maddie’s face at the rejection.

“No idea how she ended up with Ben. But he brought her home one day, a year or so after the last time I saw her. And she had the audacity to offer me to dump my brother and be with me instead. Not hard to see why I don’t like her, huh?”

I have to agree, albeit begrudgingly, just because. Can’t get soft on him now.

“Well, she’s not with him because his equipment is so good, you know? First time I happened to see his dick I was mostly shocked, first real dick I ever saw. But from today’s perspective I can say it’s average at best. Probably a bit less.”

“Ewww, too much information! There are things I don’t want to know about my brother.” But he’s laughing and so am I.

“Back then when you kissed me – it was my first kiss.” I’m just miserable enough to tell him, so he can feel bad, too.

“Really?” I nod, rest my head on his shoulder but the world won’t stop spinning.

“You need a glass of water? Don’t want you to puke on me again.” He wraps his arm around me, my eyelids grow heavy.

“Nah, I’m good. Just need a second to rest and then I’m leaving before the actual dinner part. Can you tell your Dad I’m sorry and all, but I’m not well?”

“Do you want to lie down a bit? You could use my room.”

“You really can’t wait to get me in your bed, huh?” I blink against the dim light in the garden, sit up straighter again. “I don’t want to be in the same place as Madeleine or Benjamin. There’s not much of my dignity left, better make sure I keep the remains of it.”

“Well, you got my number.”

I do, but won’t call him. Why should I?

“Jake, listen, I can only imagine how hard it was to tell me all that, but just because you say you love me now doesn’t change the way I see you. The way I feel about you, always felt about you. It’s not an excuse for how you treated me in the past, maybe an explanation, but not an excuse. I don’t want to be cruel, but I want to make one thing clear. I don’t love you, I don’t even really like you. If it wasn’t for the gin I would probably not even sit here with you. It makes no difference if I have your number or not, and I would prefer if you just deleted mine.” It’s all a bit slurred but at least heartfelt. I pat his arm, heave myself up with a groan, wait until I don’t sway anymore and wobble back inside, have to let Miho know that I’m leaving.

I find her whispering with Jared, both of them stealing glances at Maddie and Ben playing picture perfect couple.

“You’re leaving already?” She looks me up and down once, her smile replaced with a serious expression.

“Yeah, sorry. This is – it’s too much. Crazy and confusing and all I want is to crawl into bed and stay there.”

“Oh, come on, at least wait until after dinner. I’m sure you can sit with me and Jared. You shouldn’t be alone in your state. And you should eat, to soak up the booze.” She glances at her watch, frowns.

“No, I really want to go now, before anything else can happen. I can’t take any more drama today.”

I hug her tightly, pat Jared’s shoulder and turn to leave. And freeze. There in the crowd I can see a familiar face, sparkling eyes and a hesitant smile.

“Sam…”

Homecoming – Day 13-1

When I open my eyes on Sunday morning I want to go right back to sleep. I will have to deal with my parents and with Sam today. Plus the dinner party and the mayor’s sons of course. Can’t forget about that.

“Rise and shine, sleeping beauty,” Migo yells from the kitchen. Someone’s chipper already, not sure if she slept at all. But I get it, first date jitters can go either way. Brimming with anticipation or throwing up because of nervousness, I had both already, and every shade in between.

“You kicking me out already?” My best puppy eyes and pout are lost on her, she pushes a cup of coffee into my hands, not even waiting until I got up so I snuggle under the blanket and sip hot coffee.

“Yep. You better buckle up and get your life back on track, Missie, because when I can take the leap so can you.”

She rummages through the kitchen, comes back with some cereals and milk in two bowls.

“Coffee and sugar, the perfect breakfast,” she announces and I scoot over so she can sit on the couch.

“How are you feeling?” Her gaze sweeps over me and seems to find nothing amiss since she quickly focuses her attention on her cereals.

“Better. Not ready to face the world, but yeah, not feeling like throwing up anymore.”

“I call that progress.”

Can’t argue with that and the first spoon full of cereals doesn’t make my stomach churn, so I slowly eat some more.

“You excited about later?” I ask between bites of slightly soggy wheat pops.

“I’m shitting my pants, but yeah, I wouldn’t cancel this for anything in the world. So you better not do something stupid because I won’t be picking up my phone.” An accusing finger hovers in front of my cereal-laden spoon and I nod slowly.

“Got it. No interruptions today.”

Satisfied with my answer she munches some more cereals and afterwards kicks me out – but gently.

 

With no other place to go now I trudge back to my Mom’s home. Dad’s food truck is parked outside and although I really dread facing them it’s what I have to do. Can’t leave Mom in the dark much longer.

Thank goodness for keys, at least I don’t have to ring the doorbell like some solicitor, trying to sell vacuum cleaners or the word of the Lord. It’s only 8am but Mom is already awake, puttering around in the kitchen as good as she can with that stupid brace on.

“Morning.”

She turns around, gives me one of those withering looks as if I had forgotten to do the dishes again. Slightly annoyed, very tired, with a hint of anger.

“I tried to call you.”

“Yes, I saw. I needed some space and time to organize my thoughts first. I’m sorry if I worried you.”

No excuses, no running away.

“Oh no, that’s not even a good start, Missie. You better apologize to your father-”

“No.” I don’t even shout, but she recoils as if I have hit her.

“No?”

“No, Mom. I love you, a lot, but you have to listen to me for once. And I mean really listen.”

She sets the whisk down, crosses her arms and looks at me. “Fine, I’m listening.”

With the attention of a glacier she listens, and all my bravado wavers. Until I glance through the door into the living room. The couch is empty, not even a pillow or a blanket there. Dad hasn’t slept in the living room, but his truck is still downstairs. I doubt he’s in the guest room either. My mind’s made up.

“Okay, so this is hard for me but I know it will be harder for you, so I just say it. Dad – he’s…” How in the world am I supposed to tell my mother this? Is there a greeting card for it? ‘Congrats, your douchebag of a still but not really husband has knocked up another girl half your age and fobbed both you and your child out of your savings?’ Signed and sent, done.

“Still listening.”

I fumble for words, unable to just say it. Should have rehearsed it beforehand.

“He’s lying to you, Mom. Do you ever ask him where he is when he’s not here? And with whom?”

Her arms uncross just for her to throw her hands up.

“This again? Honey, I trust your father.”

“But you shouldn’t. You really shouldn’t. He has someone else, and I think he only comes back here every now and then because he knows you won’t-”

“That’s enough. Jazz, I appreciate that you are worried about me, but whatever there is between Brad and me is private and has nothing to do with you.” The whisk is back in her hand, she starts scrambling some eggs.

“It’s not as private as you think. He has someone else.”

“Enough!” The bowl with egg mush clatters, Mom grabs the edge of the counter. But I can’t back down now.

“No, you promised to listen. I have talked to her, she’s actually really sweet but she thinks that Dad is divorced. And – Mom, she’s pregnant.” My throat is tight, I wish I could get a glass of water but Mom is blocking the sink. She washes her hands, grabs a towel with a serious expression.

“I don’t think you should meddle in someone else’s affairs.” Her voice is clear, hard. Like ice.

“Sorry, Mom, but it became my affair when he showed up at my place and asked me for money so he could provide for his new daughter. Asking his adult daughter for money so he could give his baby daughter what he couldn’t give me. Classy guy, really.”

The new information only slows her down for a second.

“Money? What money?”

“My money, Mom. All the money I saved ever since I knew what money was. All the extra dollars I made from working and being frugal to the point of it becoming almost obsessive, never spending money if I could avoid it somehow. All my savings, Mom, all the money I needed to feel a semblance of security. He took it all and promised that he would tell you about the baby and all, but what did he do? Get your money, too, buy a shitty food truck and not even offer really good food! I mean, that stew was bland!” That’s the last straw and she spins around to glare at me.

“So you knew about that other woman all the time and didn’t tell me? And now you come and make a scene because of money?”

“Oh sure, go and shoot the messenger, why don’t you? I was hoping Dad would have enough decency to stick to his promise and tell you what’s going instead of ripping you off, but yeah, be mad at me instead of the one causing this whole mess!”

She’s not the only one hurt by this, not the only one entitled to her anger.

“And after all the back and forth in your marriage ever since I was a kid, do you really think I would just come and tell you when I already know that you will alway, always give him the benefit of the doubt? God, you are so screwed up, no wonder I am unable to allow someone into my life.”

We are more or less screaming now, but I don’t care. I’m so sick of her always taking Dad’s side, always explaining all his failures away, smoothing over the lies and hurts.

“Don’t you dare blaming your commitment issues on me now! I worked my butt off so you had everything and-”

“That’s the point! Dammit, if you had kicked him out years ago you wouldn’t even had to work that hard! You would have been able to save up a bit, maybe take a break every now and then! Maybe pay some attention to your kid instead of only running off to cover another shift!”

It’s unfair to blame her for that, I know. She provided for me just fine, I never went hungry or naked. But I also always had to share her with the Rosenfeldt family.

“Out,” she hisses, a trembling finger pointing at the door.

“Fine!” I run into the guest room, grab my stuff, make sure to pack my laptop just in case Dad needs some extra money – he always does – and rush out. The tears don’t come until I’m around the corner, out of sight from any of her windows.

 

The thing about a crying woman in public, struggling with her luggage, is that most people are polite enough to ignore her. Ignore me. I keep sniffling, wipe my eyes and nose with my hand since I don’t even have a tissue. Pathetic.

“Jayjay?”

Oh no. Oh. No. Not him, not today, not when I’m such a mess.

“Hey, are you okay?” A hand lands on my shoulder and I turn around.

“Do I look okay to you?” I snap at Ben, immediately regret it. Just because I’m angry and hurt doesn’t mean I can talk to him like that. In my mind I know this, but the rest of me refuses to leave the nice pit of self pity although my fingers are already wrinkly from soaking in it for too long.

“No, you actually look like you need some help. At least with that.” He points at my bags, reaches out for them. “Should I take that for you?”

Last night flashes up in my mind again, I want to curl up and not let him close, but then I remember that he has never been anything but nice to me.

“Yeah, sure. Thanks.” I take the tissue he offers me in exchange for my luggage, dry my cheeks and my nose.

“Where are you heading to?”

That’s a good question. I can’t go to Miho, or better, I don’t want to. But I also have no other place.

“Central station,” I quietly say. There are at least lockers for my stuff and I can leave right after the party tonight. I’m not ditching the dinner party, not after all the effort to find a nice dress. Besides, I have to talk to Jake. And since I’m already at it, with Ben. Not running away anymore.

“Why are you going there? You’re not leaving, are you?” Concern furrows his brow, darkens his handsome features.

“Not right now, no. But I – I planned to go home tomorrow. There are things I need to take care of, job hunt mostly.” His puppy eyes pierce right through my heart. Damned those dimples and hazel eyes!

“Oh. I was hoping you’d stay a bit longer. We barely had time to catch up and spend time with each other.”

Partly because his fiancée kept us apart, but I don’t say that out loud.

“Yeah, but I couldn’t know you would want that when I planned my stay here, could I?” Our banter lacks lightheartedness though. And genuity.

“So, what are you going to do today? I mean, you’re still coming to the party, right?”

“Yeah, I will. Until then… I don’t know, probably just killing some time.”

He walks silently a few steps before his face lights up again.

“If you have no other plans, how about coming with me? I’m off to baseball practice and I think you would like it.”

It’s not as if I have anything better to do but it takes almost a block of him trying to convince me before I say yes.

And it turns out to be the right choice. It’s not High School baseball, it’s a Little League team, boys and girls around seven or eight. They are enthusiastic and energetic, albeit chaotic. Still, they make me feel better with their fresh faces and softball jerseys. In the end everyone gets a snack and a softdrink, proud moms and dads come to pick them up. Some even come to talk to me, want me to join them for a game.

Once everybody is gone I help Ben picking up the balls and bats, equipment strewn across the field and the benches.

“You are good with kids. Very patient,” I say and hand him a kid’s bat.

“Thanks. I hope you had fun. The kids like you.”

Of course, probably because I’m hardly taller than them.

“They were great. A bit rowdy maybe, and definitely loud enough for me to hear even without hearing aids.”   I brush my hair behind my ears, stretch a bit. “But thanks, that was a great idea.” The energy of the kids, the sun and the fresh air cleared my head a bit, if not my heart. I did the right thing, telling Mom. Should have done this sooner, but in person was the right choice. Despite the yelling and that she kicked me out. From now on she has to see what she does with the information, I did my part. At some point my heart and guilty conscience will get the memo, too.

“Hey, you wanna go and grab something to eat? There’s no lunch at Dad’s today, the kitchen is swarming with catering staff.” He directs his sunny smile at me, no filter or place for me to hide.

My stomach churns, anxiety and excitement battling for dominance. And hunger.

“Come on, Jayjay, we could get just a sandwich or burger.”

And a tall glass of water. I’m just too thirsty.

“Hey, why do you keep calling me Jayjay? Sounds a bit – I don’t know, silly now that I’m grown up.”

“Huh.” He scratches the back of his neck, the adorable crease between his eyebrows. And just like that I’m not grown up, I’m a lovestruck teenager again, speechless, with weak knees.

“I guess I just like to call the people I care about something else than everyone else does. Like with my brother.”

I never heard him call Jake anything else but his name. “What do you call him?”

“Jerkface.” He laughs, good-natured and without malice.

“You guys really get along, huh?” Despite the obvious differences between them, I never saw them argue either. Unless Jake did something that harmed others. Mostly me.

“Yeah, I mean, he’s my brother. I can’t say I’m always happy with all of his stunts, but at the end of the day he has my back and I got his. No questions asked.”

“So it’s more ride than die.” Sometimes I’m sad that I don’t have a brother or a sister, maybe they could have helped with the whole Mom disaster.

All the baseball equipment is stored away in some shed, Ben acts like he always does. Friendly, polite, a buddy.He’s even back to carrying my luggage. And I follow him like a sheep, it’s easier than thinking myself.

Until my phone rings. Miho.

“Sorry, I have to take this.”

“Sure thing, go ahead.”

I take a few steps away from him, answer the phone.

“Yes?”

“Where are you?”

“Right now? Uh, at the baseball park.” Did I forget something? Did something wrong?

“Okay, you gotta haul ass and get over here. I have a clothing related problem and I need your help.”

“Oh god, please don’t tell me he tied you to the bed with a satin tie and somehow knocked himself out and now you can’t get free anymore.”

The short moment of silence gives me the chance to recapitulate my words.

“I think we have to talk about some of the things you do in your free time one day, but right now is not the time.” She’s serious, and so I turn back to Ben, shrug at him.

“Sure, if it’s that urgent I will be there in-” a quick glance at my watch follows “-15 minutes, tops.”

“Good, clock’s ticking.” She hangs up, not aware of my bewilderment or she simply doesn’t care.

“Sorry, something came up, I have to go and help a friend.”

“Is this one of those faked emergency calls? Because it would wound me deeply if you would ditch me here and not even tell me why.” He tilts his head, a silent prompt for me to say the truth.

“No, it’s real. Miho Fujiwara. We hang out all the time since I’m back and she just had a date so I guess something went either really bad or incredibly well.”

“So it’s nothing I did, right?”

I assure him that nothing he did today could make me fake an emergency call and he offers me to take me to Miho’s place by car. I’m ringing her doorbell after less than ten minutes.

 

I halfway expect her to welcome me in a satin robe, overly dramatic with a cocktail in her hand. The robe was a good guess, but it’s cotton and an unflattering grey, probably once white before too many rounds in the washing machine dyed it its current color.

“What took you so long?” she grumbles and I follow her into her bedroom, shocked by the sight of what seems to be an exploded closet. Clothes are strewn everywhere, blouses, pants, dresses, skirts. Even a few Halloween costumes.

“What happened here?!”

“I told you I need help.” Unladylike she plops down on her bed, sends a few pieces of clothes towards the floor in a small avalanche.

“Yeah, but that could mean anything from ‘I can’t choose between the red and the blue dress’ to ‘help me lace up my leather corset’.”

At least one piece of clothes I haven’t seen lying around here. Yet.

“Jared asked me to be his date for this dinner thing and I have no idea what to wear. Something with his business partners, but everyone can bring dates.”

“You are moving fast.” I pick up a nice lavender dress but Miho shakes her head before I can even say a thing.

“That doesn’t fit anymore.”

“It’s easy to get lost in this heap of fabric so we put back the things she rules out from the start, slowly fill her closet until the floor is visible again.

“I like that blue one,” I point at a dark blue shift dress. “Do you know what he’s going to wear?”

“A suit, I guess.” Hey eyes glass over briefly, I can practically see the inappropriate thoughts running through her head.

“Yeah, figured. I mean what color.” Although matching outfits might be a bit much at this point.

“No clue. Should I ask him?”

“Nah, it’s not the prom. You just pick something you like and feel good in.”

“The burgundy one?” The dress she shows me is nice, but unspectacular.

“No. It should be classy and wha-wha-whoom enough to make his head explode.” I throw a black one towards her. “Try this on.”

While I’m looking for matching shoes she throws it over, turns her back to me so I can zip her up.

“Put a push-up bra on and he won’t be able to walk straight.”

“But black?”

“It’s a classic. Get some colorful accessory, a bag maybe or a shawl. You’re looking like a million dollar and a million reasons to do stupid things.” She’s still turning this and that way in front of the mirror when I’m handing her a pair of strappy heels with some crystals on them. “And paint your toenails red. That’s going to be fantastic.” A dash of color, still classy though.

“Mhmm… yeah, I think that’ll work.” Satisfied she nods, tells me to unzip her again. “Don’t want the dress to get dirty, do we?”

“Not sure. What are you planning?” I lazily throw the remaining clothes on a pile on the bed, my job here is done.

“I’m hungry. Lunch?” Dressed in a light shirt and some shorts Miho ignores the mess and rushes into her tiny kitchen.

“Hungry? You just come from a brunch date!”

“Don’t be silly, I didn’t really eat there.” Her head in the fridge she tsks at me.

“Of course, because you gotta keep up appearance and a girl that eats in presence of a guy is lacking self control.” I trudge after her, take the things she hands me.

“What? Nah, not because of that.” A box with cheese in her hands she turns back to me. “I was – a bit nervous, okay? Could hardly eat, but now I’m starving.”

Fine with me, I haven’t had lunch either so we make some omelets and a salad, lounge on her couch with our plates.

“How was your talk with your Mom?”

And there goes my appetite.

“Loud. And unfair. Both sides, I guess.” I poke at my omelet, push some mushrooms over the plate.

“I hate the idea that your father gets away with this. Should we jam a potato into the exhaust of his truck?”

The idea paints pretty pictures in my mind, but I shake my head.

“Nah, that won’t bring back my money or Mom’s dignity. Plus, it might force him to stay here longer. And I definitely don’t want to give him an excuse for that.”

Begrudgingly she impales a cherry tomato, stares at it long and hard.

“We could go and throw salt into his stew.”

“That would only make it better.”

Giggling like some school girls we plot petty acts of revenge and by the time my plate is empty I’m laughing again. I have to learn to simply let some things go in life, holding grudges won’t help me on the long run. If that also applies to the biggest grudge I hold I cannot say, not yet.

“Will you stay here again tonight?”

I blink, only now emerging back from my drifting thoughts.

“I don’t know. I mean, I already ruined your date last night, I don’t want Jared to hate me. Or you.”

Miho snorts, sets her plate on the coffee table.

“I never said I would stay here, too. I can just give you a key and spend the night at his place if I want to.”

It sounds more tempting than spending god knows how many hours at the station, waiting for the first train out of town.

“If it’s really not too much to ask…”

“I wouldn’t offer if it was. So stop being so humble, it’s no big deal.”

It’s cute how prickly she acts while doing the sweetest things.

“You are aware that you keep checking your phone every five seconds by now, aren’t you?”

She’s right, my phone hasn’t left my hands for anything but eating so far.

“Still waiting for Sam to call me. We have agreed that I shouldn’t be the one reaching out first, because Sam’s schedule can be really hectic and erratic. Responsible job and all.”

“Sounds like a great guy. Good job, principles and not afraid of commitment.”

“Yeah, what is someone like that doing with someone like me?” For a while I almost managed to push the nervousness aside, the nagging voice telling me to give up and move on, I’m no match for Sam anyway.

“Well, as far as I can tell he’s in love with you or he wouldn’t have asked you to move in with him.”

But why can’t I simply accept that and say yes? Move in with Sam and have a happy life?

Without an answer for that question I unlock my phone only to find no messages or missed calls.

“I’m not sure that’s even an option anymore.”

“Well, in that case you still have Ben and Jake up your sleeve.” Miho screeches when I hit her with the pillow, but she definitely deserves it. And she gives as good as she takes.

Homecoming – Day 12-4

Could that person be him?

That question takes me by surprise and it must show on my face because he immediately backtracks.

“You don’t have to answer me right now. I know you’re stressed out and feeling sick, but – think about it, okay? We can talk about this tomorrow. I…” He pauses, scratches the back of his neck without looking at me. “I would like it if you could sit next to me during dinner.”

It’s still warm outside but that must be some illusion. After all hell just froze over and hell, that is here. At least for me.

“I will think about it.” My words sounds strange to me, like in trance I nod, get up and turn to leave.

“Jazz?”

“Hm?”

He follows my example, gets up from the bench and peers into my face.

“Will you get home okay? Or should I take you?”

The image of me and Ben in that small Ferris Wheel car pops up and I shudder.

“No, thanks. I need a bit of fresh air now.”

“Okay, but call me if you need anything.”

I nod, stare right past him and stalk off, away from him and this strange festival.

Only a few minutes later I realize that I don’t know where to sleep tonight. I don’t want to go back to Mom’s place, not as long as Dad is still there, playing his sick impression of a good husband.

But I don’t have enough money for a hotel, not even for a hostel. Besides, I don’t know if the town actually has one by now. There is no one I could call, despite his offer I won’t ask Jake for help. He could take that so very wrong.

In the end I sit down on a bench, far enough from the festival ground not to run into Mom and Dad but still in walking distance – after all I walked here and in my current condition I’m not very fast. At least the dizziness has faded a bit, only a slightly unpleasant sensation left, a tickle in my throat. The headache is still raging, though.

“I should have never come back home,” I let Domo know, use him as a small pillow. The night air is warm enough and I my exhaustion drags my eyelids down. I mustn’t fall asleep here, in this public space. What might people say tomorrow? Just because I plan to hightail out of here after the dinner party doesn’t mean that I don’t care.

I hear footsteps and laughter, hushed talking, and sit up straight, blink the sleep away.

“Jazz?”

The footsteps come closer, I turn to see Miho and Jared, arm in arm, with a huge pink unicorn dangling from Jared’s free hand.

“Oh, hey… you had fun?”

If I look only half as bad as I’m feeling it’s a miracle no one bolted at the mere sight of my sorry state. Miho furrows her brow, rushes over and peers at me.

“Holy, what happened to you? You look like crap!”

“Well, thank you.” I would be miffed if it wasn’t true. “I got a migraine after we split up.”

She looks back to Jared, tilts her head and raises both eyebrows.

“We can take you home,” he offers with a nod. “My car is just around the corner.”

“Ah, yes,” I slowly answer. “That’s nice but – I can’t go home. Sorry, but-”

Miho pats my arm, shares another glance with Jared.

“Yeah, I get it, don’t worry.”

Of course she does, she has been there when I yelled at Dad and witnessed my small meltdown afterwards.

“Okay, it’s decided. You stay with me tonight.” Her tone leaves no room for objection but I still shake my head.

“No, it’s fine. You are having a date, I don’t want to butt right in.” I just have to stay awake long enough for the sun to rise. And find a nice secluded spot to nap there. No biggie.

“Nope, we are not playing this game. Running into Jared here was a lucky coincidence, it’s not a real date. Hell, I wouldn’t have walked away with him if I had known you crash that hard when I’m not looking anyway. Besides,” she winks at him, grabs my arm to help me up, “who is talking about butting in? We could just ask you to join us.”

That at least makes me laugh, I stop fighting and just give in.

“Fine, thanks. Hey, can we stop at my Mom’s place and get my dress for tomorrow?” That way I wouldn’t have to face her at all. But this suggestion also gets quashed by Miho.

“Sorry, hun, but you have to talk to her at some point. Maybe not tonight since I guess you are both still angry, but eventually it’s necessary. Running away, turning a blind eye to your problems won’t solve them, you know?”

“‘Hun’?” I raise my eyebrow at her. “Do I look like Attila?”

Miho snorts a brief laughter, pulls me closer. “Nah, but you do look knackered. So move your ‘not butting in’ butt, Jared can take us home.”

I still feel bad for ruining their evening, but Jared smiles at me, jingles his keys enticingly.

“What about the unicorn?” This thing is huge and looks completely out of place, even if Jared’s not wearing a suit for a change.

“Its name is Cornisparkle McFluffbutt and it’s a present,” Miho lets me know, flashes Jared a smug grin. “Tell Jazz where we got it?”

He sighs, shoulders slumping, but he still smiles. “Miho won it at the shooting gallery. A solid 100 percent. No misses. I guess she was a sniper in a past life.” The affection shines through his words, lights up Miho’s face.

“Close. I was an assassin, but go on. Tell her how amazing I was.”

Their banter isn’t as annoying, rather amusing. A nice distraction from my screwed up life.

“It’s not as if I haven’t won anything, mind you,” he just explains, jingles his keys again. A small key ring dangles from it, cheap plastic in bright colors.

“What’s that?” I squint, in the low light of the street lamps it looks misshapen.

“It’s an octopus. See? Those are the tentacles and that’s the head.”

“It’s pink. Why is it pink?” I would even say it’s fluorescent.

“I have no idea. It was what I got after Miho scooped the big price.”

I can’t stop laughing until we are at his car.

 

Back on Miho’s couch she feeds me some pain killers and makes me drink a glass of water tall enough to pass as a vase. I apologize for cutting their night short and she for letting me walk off alone. It’s stupid, we were both the ones to make a decision while the other went along with it, but with that out of the way we can talk more freely now. And Miho isn’t one to mince words to begin with.

“You smell awful,” she informs me, nose scrunched up. “Hey, is – is that carrot in your hair?”

I duck away, screech in embarrassment, comb my fingers through my hair to find the offending piece of regurgitated vegetable.

“You wanna take a shower?”

The clock tells me it’s past 11pm and I feel like shit. Perfect time for a shower indeed.

 

Dressed in a shirt, courtesy of Miho, and with a slightly mellowed migraine I stumble out of the bathroom and onto the couch where Miho awaits me with a cup of tea and some cookies.

“Eat if you can, but you should definitely drink something.”

I groan and make a face, take the tea nonetheless. Hydration is key after all.

“Rooibos and ginger. Great for headaches, migraines and hangovers,” she explains, sips from her own cup. I nibble at a biscuit, without much of an appetite.

“Okay, you wanna tell me what happened? Did you just get a migraine out of the blue?”

“More or less. I mean, the stress of the last few days – very different to my normal stress – and those pesky emotions, it’s kinda overwhelming.” Like the taste of the tea. I’m usually pretty adventurous when it comes to tea, but this is not a pleasure.

“And that’s all?”

Dammit, she’s sharp.

“I had some – let’s call it triggers.” The tea doesn’t get better with every additional sip, but I am stronger than some boiled, colored water. “I ran into Ben.”

“Oh.” Her eyebrows shoot up, expectantly she stares at me over the rim of her cup.

“Yeah, ‘oh’.” I have troubled wrapping my head around the whole scene with him. “So I thought he was my secret admirer in school because – well, it made sense, he knew so much about me and some stuff in his room that just fits. Turns out he’s not. I asked him.”

“Ouch. Now that’s embarrassing.”

My hum sends small waves through the cup, stirs up the steam and directs a new waft of the aroma directly into my nose. It tickles, probably the ginger.

“Yeah, I thought so, too. But it turns out that despite him not being my secret admirer, he wants me to be his date for tomorrow. Oh, and he tried to kiss me.”

The clack of her cup being set down on the table is loud in the otherwise calm living room.

“He ‘tried’ to kiss you? What does that mean?”

“Exactly what I said. He tried to kiss me, I turned away, he let it go. Said he liked me, now that I’m hot and interesting.” Sounds shallow now that I say it.

“Not exactly a smooth talker, that Benjamin.”

“Yeah. And he doesn’t waste any time with moping after he got dumped.” The question is, was it Maddie or Ben who didn’t put enough effort into their relationship so it doesn’t have a lasting impact on him? Either way, if Sam was that indifferent after our – let’s call it breakup, it would be all the proof I need to know that the feelings weren’t that deep to begin with.

“Classy.” She grabs her cup again, no steam is rising from it anymore. “And?”

“And what?”

“And will you be his dinner partner?”

If he had asked me that five years, hell, even one year ago, I wouldn’t even hesitate.

“I do like him. I mean, I dreamed of him for years. He’s pretty much my ideal of a man.”

Her eyebrows knit in confusion. “Ben? Really? Not Sam?”

Oh.

“It’s complicated.” It always is. There’s no easy explanation for feelings and attraction after all. My gaze drops to my cup again, the pressure in my head increasing again.

“Okay, then… if you’re curious and just want to find out if he’s really the boy of your dreams, just go for it. You get this chance presented on a silver platter, don’t even have to get rid of his girlfriend anymore.”

From the corner of my eye I can see her still looking at me.

“Maybe that was your problem with Sam all along. You’re still hung up on Ben and what could have been. So now you can find out if it’s him holding you back – or maybe just you.”

She shrugs, downs her tea and makes a face. At least I’m not the only one bothered by the taste of it.

“You know what’s even worse?” I ask with a chuckle, a wry sound that scratches my throat.

“It can get worse?”

I nod, prompt Miho to shake her head.

“Goddammit… okay, should I get a drink? I mean, something with a bit more umph than tea?”

“Can’t hurt. At least for you.” And it gives me a moment to gather my thoughts. I have been stumbling from one disaster into another tonight, I haven’t really had the time to analyse every word. But even after mulling them over and over again I can’t make much sense of what Jake has told me.

“Okay, I’m ready.” The glass in Miho’s hand is half filled with a clear liquid, I’m not even asking what it is.

“So after I had my little – I don’t even know how to call it, but after I rode the Ferris Wheel with Ben-”

“Wow, Ferris Wheel. Very romantic,” Miho pipes up but motions for me to go on.

“Yes, very.” I rub my temples, the pain sharpens again. “Anyway, after he invited me for tomorrow and I left him hanging without a real answer, I already felt miserable. Sick, not guilty,” I quickly elaborate. She nods, lets me talk.

“So I tried to find a place where I could rest, ran into some bloke who made a fuss about spilling his beer all over me and while I was still dealing with him Jake showed up, playing some strange ‘hero rescues damsel in distress’ act.” I snort, slump down on the couch into a nice slouch.

“He wanted to help, so what?”

“No, he didn’t want to help me, he just didn’t want to miss the fun of me being in trouble. Too bad for him that I’m all grown up now and can take care of myself.” I’m just so tired of all of this mess. Especially Jake.

“You might be wrong about his motives, but okay. Go on.”

I roll my eyes, but continue my strange tale. “He dragged me to safety and spilled his guts after I had spilled my dinner – more or less over his shoes.”

Her loud laughter makes me wince, I really need to sleep soon.

“Turns out that – surprise, surprise – Jake wants me to be his date, too. So now I have two Rosenfeldt guys wanting me to spend that dinner party with them. The one I used to dream of when I was younger, who turned out not to be my Prince Charming, and the other one who made my life hell but just told me that he loved me for years already.”

“Oh my god! What if Jake was your secret admirer!” Totally invested into my story now Miho bounces on the couch, glee and excitement fueled by the booze.

“Thanks for pointing out one of my biggest fears.” It makes sense, he was also always around, even after school at their house. And most of the presents back then came from someone who knew me well enough to give me a new pen in my favorite color or a notebook without lines so I could doodle.

“I just don’t get it,” I say after letting that possibility sink in. “He always teased me, called me ‘short stuff’ and ‘pipsqueak’ when I was younger. When his friends were around he ignored me completely. He humiliated me countless of times in front of my Mom, my friends, the whole damned school and suddenly I should believe that he loves me?”

“You’re preaching to the choir here, I’m not a big fan of him either.”

“Yeah, I noticed. Why not?”

She downs the rest of her glass, leans back in the couch.

“Well, he’s just another privileged prick. Always managed to get away scot-free. One time he got detention for the whole drama class by swapping our prop bottle of wine with some real cider. And whenever Pat got into trouble you can bet your sweet ass that Jake wasn’t far. Oh, and you know that stupid nickname? Mount Fuji-wara? He was the first to call me that.” She scoffs, rolls her eyes.

“Stupid prankster,” I sum it up, earn an agreeing hum. “What bothers me most is that he never even apologized for anything he did to me.”

“Lemme guess, that thing at school with the coffee and your blouse, that was him, right?”

“Ding ding ding, we got a winner.” Absentmindedly I scratch the skin of my cleavage until it’s red and tingling.

“Sounds like him. Screwing up, but not taking the blame.”

“And that wasn’t the only time. Or the worst.”

“Wait, worse than scalding you with hot coffee?” She sits up straighter again, eyes a stormy grey that would make every sailor tie up the boat in the harbour.

“Yep.” The pressure in my head now also takes hold of my throat, it gets tighter with every breath. “My ear. The hearing loss. His fault.” Panic claws up its way to my chest, deeply rooted in the pit of my stomach. And just like that words rush out of my mouth, as if getting rid of them is the only way to save myself from getting dragged into some abyss. Making me lighter.

“I told you about my secret admirer, right? Well, he sent me an invitation for Jake’s graduation party. The one at his home, after the official one. Everyone who was somebody went there, half of the school was invited and the other half tried to sneak in somehow. So I had this invitation and a note saying my admirer would meet me there and like the stupid idiot I am I went there. Secretly hoping it was Ben who invited me.” My fingers play with the hem of the shirt, I find a loose thread I can tug on.

“In every teenage movie he would have,” she comforts me but we both know that teenage movies are crap. The outcast won’t become the prom queen, the scrawny nerd won’t become the secret weapon of the football team and the nice guy certainly won’t date the poor but ambitious wallflower.

“I showed up there late, had to sneak out after Mom was in bed. Everyone was already drunk.” I have no idea where Jake got that much beer and booze, but bottles and cups were everywhere. If anyone had found out that the mayor’s son engages in underage drinking and also provides drinks for his friends, that would have been a scandal that could have ended Elias’ career.

“I was there, too. For a while. But then Pat and I – let’s say we had something better to do.” Miho clicks her tongue and winks at me, but it’s not enough to ease my tension.

“Can’t remember if I saw you there,” I admit, but in retrospective I can’t remember that much of the party anyway. “But there were tons of kids and I had no clue how to find the one I was looking for. So I tried Ben’s room first, but there was a bunch of guys playing some video game. Everyone was older than me and I wasn’t that popular at school anyway, so I didn’t know anyone. I knew some names and some more faces, but that’s about it.” Back downstairs someone had spilled their beer and as my mother’s daughter I took it as my duty to clean that away.

“I found Ben eventually – in the broom closet. He didn’t see me and that was good because he was – he was just…”

“Uh-oh… I don’t like where this is going.” Miho jumps up from the couch, paces the floor with aimless strides.

“Yeah, me neither. I walked in on him getting a blowjob from some cheerleader.” That was the exact moment my teenage dreams and my heart shattered, millions tiny pieces I never manage to put fully together again.

“I knew it!” Miho points a finger at me, shakes it once, twice. “Goddammit, that stupid manwhore!”

“What? Just because of one blowjob?” She has lost me during her triumphant march.

“Huh? No! Don’t tell me you haven’t heard the rumors back then?”

I shake my head, nothing had ever prepared me for what I saw in that closet.

“That baseball coach was really strict and the boys weren’t really allowed to date if it impacted their performance. Mind you, that didn’t mean they weren’t allowed to date at all, just that they could get into trouble if they got too distracted during a game or something like that. So some guys started seeing girls in secret, not because they had to but because they wanted to. That way they had a good excuse to dump the girls in case they got too clingy. Rumor has it that Ben was especially tricky. He only dated a girl long enough to get her into bed and afterwards he told her the coach had found out and would kick him out of the team if he didn’t break up with the girl. And that she was not to tell anyone under no circumstances or he would lose his spot in the lineup.” Miho’s couch pillows get a good punch and she flops down again.

“That – that can’t be right. Ben isn’t like that.” I refuse to believe it, some rumor won’t change the image I have of Ben.

“Sorry to be the one to tell you that, but he did that with at least four girls I personally know.”

With a sharp tug I rip off the thread I have played with, cut my finger in the process. Not my biggest concern now.

“Are you sure? I mean, one hundred percent? Not just gossip and hearsay?”

“Totally sure.”

“Shit.” I feel sick again, force back the gagging with slow, deep breaths.

“Doesn’t mean he can’t have changed, you know?” she softly points out, rubs my back comfortingly.

“Yeah, I – I know. Sorry, I need a moment to process that.”

Once I calmed down again I nod, bob my head up and down to answer a question no one posed.

“Anyway, back to Jake.” It’s easier to put my feelings for him into words, I have lots of practice with it after all. “I was a bit – rattled after seeing Ben like that and someone handed me a cup and I thought: ‘Why the heck not?’ and downed it. In one go. Second mistake of that night.”

“And the first was…?”

“Going to the party in the first place, thinking my stupid teenage dreams would come true in some Hollywood worthy scene.” I can’t believe I was that naive. “It was the first time I had alcohol. You can imagine that it hit me like a truck. Not even in college I was drinking much, and back then I was completely clueless. Stumbled into the kitchen when I got dizzy, looking for some water. Instead I found Jake.” And a bunch of his friends, boys and girl, playing some game.

“Truth or dare with drunk teenagers, some of them even high on weed – not a good idea. Someone dared Jake to kiss me, all of them giggling at the mere idea of it. And he did. Kissed me right on the lips, I could taste the spliff on him. Full on, with tongue and everything, until I managed to shove him off me, slap him as hard as I could and run off.” He chased me out of the kitchen and into the backyard. Yelled after me to stop, still chuckling manically.

“End of the story, I slipped and fell into the pool. Hit my head and panicked. Jake panicked, too, left me underwater until I lost consciousness. I woke up in hospital, with a busted eardrum and a nice infection that caused my hearing loss.” And cemented my conviction that he is indeed the worst thing that could happen to me.

“Whoa.”

It’s a heavy silence, coupled with my migraine it’s almost pulling me under.

“But – you know, a shitfaced teenager in such a situation, there wasn’t much he could have done.”

“You mean besides getting me out of the pool? Yeah, not much.” We never told my Mom or the mayor the truth about it, but Jake and I know what happened. “He never apologized…”

I sit up straighter again, chase the gloom away. “But enough of me and my tragic backstory. Did you have fun with Jared?”

Changing the topic, running away, everything but facing the actual problem – that’s me. I mastered this technique long ago.

“Yes, sure.” Suspicion shines through her words, slowly uttered, and her eyes narrow slightly.

“Yeah, I can tell.” It’s my turn to point a finger at her now, directly at her neck. “You got something there…”

Her hands flies up, slaps over the patch of skin in question. “What? Dammit, I told  him not to-”

My laughter is hint enough that she fell into my trap. “There’s nothing, don’t worry. But there could be, huh?”

A smile blooms on her lips, the storm in her eyes gives way to sun. “We – got a  bit closer.”

“How close? I mean, you didn’t bang outside in the woods, did you?” It’s my turn to be curious now.

“No, but we made out a bit. Under that old oak, you know which one?”

I nod, every kid who grew up here knows the old oak. It’s just out of sight enough to be without an audience but close enough to the actual city that you don’t get lost.

“He’s picking me up for brunch tomorrow.” Her glow dims when she starts chewing on her bottom lip. “I’m thinking about telling him how my last relationship ended.”

“What? No!” There is being honest and slapping someone with a truth they don’t even need to know.

“You’re not even really dating yet, why don’t you save the heavy stuff for when it comes up?”

“Shouldn’t he know what he gets himself into?”

I give her a pointed look, a raised eyebrow and a snort. “And you think he’d know after you give him this one detail about you and your past? Miho, I have spent the last few days with you and I can already tell that you are absolutely unpredictable. In a good way,” I hurry to add. “You are a human, not some cyborg. Yes, you made a mistake, but does that mean you will repeat it over and over? Did you ever cheat before Pat? Or after that?” She shakes her head, still chewing on her lip.

“And do you plan on doing it again?” For such a smart woman she’s pretty stuck in a loop of stupid thoughts and guilt.

“No. I didn’t even plan to do it the first time around.” Her breath whooshes out through her nose, her lips pressed together tightly.

“Then why did you?”

“I was stupid, okay? Everything was fine with me and Pat and suddenly there was this guy and everything was like a dance. Stirred up the same old, same old.”

I mull her words over, there’s more to it than just a guy with a nice smile and a firm booty. “Everything was fine, you say? And was that all? Just fine?” ‘Fine’ and ‘the same old’ doesn’t sound like a very happy relationship to me.

With a groan she slumps further into the couch, trying to melt into the pillows, hands covering her face.

“Sometimes – on some days I woke up in the morning, thinking: ‘This is it? This is all, for the rest of my life?’ and it scared me, you know?”

I know. I know it just too well. I pat her leg, lean over and rest my head against her arm.

“But cheating was a shitty move and I hate that I did it.”

“Not gonna argue about that.” Breaking up is always hard but forcing your partner into taking action like that is definitely not the right way.

“Half of the town hates me now for hurting Patrick like that.” She sniffles, rubs her nose, exhales deeply. “But he’s happy now with his new girlfriend who will probably never cheat on him or even put the empty milk carton back into the fridge or – I don’t know – leave her worn panties on the bedroom floor until laundry day.”

“Ha! Now that’s something you should warn Jared about.”

She emerges from her pillow hideout, wipes her face with her hands.

“I guess he will find out eventually. Or not. We’ll see. I want to take it slow.”

“Like not knowing his name for four months slow?” My quip earns me a slap on my arm and I laugh, finally laugh again after this trainwreck of a night.

“Hey, I’m sorry for cockblocking earlier.” It’s really time for me to go to sleep now.

“That’s fine, helps me with the whole going slow thing. But you better go and sort your life out, at least the part with your parents. First thing tomorrow morning. I might cave in and bring him here after brunch.” She hands me a blanket, gets up from the couch.

“Well, you better go and pick up your old panties from the floor. If only to make room for new ones.”

My laughter follows her into her bedroom where she hopefully cleans a bit while I catch up on sleep.

Homecoming – Day 12-3

Turns out eleven dollar are nothing when visiting a fair. I consider riding the Ferris Wheel but it’s a small one, rather fast and not providing a really good view. So I stroll through the aisles of stalls and small shops, food trucks and bars. My buzz is fading, not helping keeping my mood light at all. On the other hand all the drinks I had now steer my steps towards the not so fancy island of port-a-potties, idyllically located at the far end of the festival grounds.

The line is still reasonable and not long enough for me to consider disappearing into the bushes, but enough to check my phone and see that Mom tried to call me. Several times. I’m not keen on that lecture right now so I ignore her, get into the first stall that’s open and get out again, a bit lighter and even more sober.

“Hey Jayjay!”

Is there anything more embarrassing than someone catching you while you come from the loo? Well, yes, having toilet paper stuck to your foot or something. At least I’m spared from that but I can’t share the excitement obvious on Ben’s face by the huge grin. Did he already forget about this morning?

“Hey Bennie,” I lamely greet back.

“You here on your own?” He jogs up to me, dimples in full display.

“On the toilet? Yes, I can manage on my own. I’m a big girl, you know?”

His smile wavers for a second before it turns into a smirk. “Yeah, I noticed.”

My answer gets stuck in my throat when I find myself under his hazel gaze, wondering why he looks at me like that.

“Uh, I was here with a friend but she met another friend and I didn’t want to get in their way. And you?” If only I could not stammer now, thank you, brain.

“I’m here with a couple of friends, too. Well, at the festival, not on the toilet. ‘Cause like you said, I’m also a big guy now.”

‘Don’t think about it, don’t think about’ runs like a warning through my mind but of course I’m thinking about it. Does he only mean he’s grown up now or is he referring to-?

“Hey, how about you wait here for a sec and we can – I don’t know, ride the Ferris Wheel or something?”

“What about your friends?” The Ferris Wheel sounds more interesting when he mentions it. Strange.

“Most of them are wasted already and I don’t want them to puke on my shoes. But I want to see the fair from above, so if you’re game…”

There just enough alcohol in my blood left to nod.

“Great. Be right back.” He gets in line and I start to panic. What am I doing?

Waiting, at least for now. After a couple of minutes he comes back, wraps an arm around me. As a friend. A slightly drunk friend as I notice now that he’s close. The image of the sheet music for ‘Bittersweet symphony’ keeps popping up and with it the realisation that he once had a crush on me like I had on him. How am I supposed to act around him now?

“So, your friend ditched you, huh?”

“Not really. I told her to go and enjoy some kinda date with her crush.” Dammit, why did I say crush?

“Well, works for me. That way I can have you all for myself, right?” He squeezes me tighter, leaves me out of breath for more reasons than just his firm embrace.

“We hadn’t really a chance to catch up yet, always getting interrupted by Jake or-”

“Maddie,” I offer the name of his maybe fianceé.

“Yeah. Honestly, I thought you two were friends.”

“We were. Not sure what happened, we just didn’t have the same interests anymore after I – after I stopped playing the piano. By the way, why didn’t she become a teacher like she had planned to?”

“She had wanted to become a teacher?” His wide eyes show no mockery, his shrug no interest. “I guess she didn’t want to spend that much time in college. She went to community college but didn’t graduate, started working pretty soon as far as I know.”

“She hasn’t a college degree and works in a medical field?“ I don’t think that a college degree says a lot about people except far that they spent some time in a college, but I do think that some professions need a certain qualification.

“Medical field? Nah, she’s a receptionist in the clinic. You know, answering the phone, scheduling the appointments, filing stuff. She still plays the piano a lot, but pays her bills by doing desk work.”

There’s a short line for the Ferris Wheel, Ben still has his arm over my shoulder while I ponder his words.

“She’s a secretary?” Didn’t sound like that when she talked about her job.

“Yeah, more or less. Not a general one, though, but assigned to this specialist for – stuff. Can’t remember his speciality. She talked about quitting after we got married. I mean, I won’t stay a High School baseball coach forever, it’s only the first step on my way to become a coach of a mayor team. She’s gotta support me on that, moving with me and such. Can’t be bound to one job forever anyway.”

It’s weird that he talks about the girl he intents to marry while his hand is dangerously close to my breasts. I’m just another friend to him that happens to be female nowadays, his crush probably long forgotten, that must be why he’s so at ease right now.

“Hey, what did you study at college?” I just realize that I have no idea what his major was.

“Sports management and sports medicine, but I didn’t graduate in the medicine part. Just know enough to make sure how to avoid injuries and treat minor ones.” We reach the ticket booth and he buys two tickets without skipping a beat.

“I can pay for mine,” I offer but he just brushes me off.

“Can’t let a girl pay, can I? It’s okay, with the wedding off the table I got some money to spare.” He grins, but the jokes leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

“I mean, I see how hard you work for your money,” he corrects his last statement.

“Thanks.”

This day is so weird, I’m wondering if I had a stroke last night when Dad showed up and all of this is only some crazy coma dream. But the weight of Ben’s arm over my shoulder – yes, he put it there again after buying the tickets – is real. Solid. And I can smell his cologne, something soapy and clean.

We move further up along the line until it’s our turn. The cars are tiny, just big enough for three, maybe four people sitting around a center pole. Not sure why it’s there, but I haven’t been on many Ferris Wheels so far, maybe it’s a normal thing.

Ben helps me inside, basically holds my hand until I can scoot over far enough for him to join me and then some. He’s still keeping my hand in his.

“As a kid I never liked Ferris Wheels,” he casually says when it starts moving. “Not thrilling enough.” His free hand grabs the pole and he puts some effort into setting our car into motion. It slowly revolves around the pole, the night view changes constantly. I can see half of the festival grounds flying by, a blur of lights and shadows.

“And now?” I ask, eyes turned towards the night sky.

“I think it holds exactly the thrill you bring with you.”

The car sways when he scoots closer and while I still wonder what he’s doing he puts his free hand on my cheek and turns my face towards his.

“Uhm… Bennie…?”

He shushes me with a smile, leans in and everything switches to slow motion. The rotation of our car, lights and sounds far below us, his face coming closer and closer. Just my mind is going into overdrive, thousands of thoughts running through it on high speed. And in blaring red one question: Do I want this?

No. I turn my face just enough for his lips to connect to my cheek and just the tiniest bit of the corner of my mouth.

“It’s cute how you play hard to get now,” he whispers, his breath washing over my face. The clean and soapy scent of his cologne is drowned out by the smell of beer and greasy fast food.

“What?” I jerk my head back, try to get up only to remember where we are. Shit. Still I bring enough distance between us to glare at him.

“What ‘what’? I mean, I thought you want this.” Brow furrowed he stares at me as if that alone would transfer an explanation into his brain.

“Well, you’re mistaken. I don’t want just anyone to kiss me,” I point out.

“But I’m hardly just anyone, right? I mean, come on.” He raises his hands, gestures once up and down his body.

“No, you’re not ‘just anyone’, you’re a friend. And I’m sorry you’re having a rough time with your girlfriend right now, but I’m not just some ego boost or rebound girl or whatever you’re looking for.” How small can I make myself to not offer some excuse for him to try something, calling it an invitation?

“Hey, that’s not what I’m looking for here! I figured after the thing with Mads went south like that I should try dating someone who – I don’t know, someone who actually knows me better. And since you definitely have a thing for me-”

“Whoa, slow down, buddy. First of all, you really didn’t take a long time to get over your breakup. And second, what makes you think I have a thing for you?” True, I once had a huge crush on him and yes, seeing him and his ridiculously cute dimples and smile makes my heart race a bit, but that doesn’t mean – dammit, it doesn’t mean anything. I also crush on celebrities and wouldn’t actually jump at them if we ever met. Probably.

“You don’t really think you’re so secretive about the whole ‘oh my god, Ben is so cute’ thing, do you? We know each other for years, Jayjay, and I know you had a crush on me for probably the whole time.”

As cute as his usual smile is, as infuriating the smirk he wears now is. He looks a lot like Jake in this moment, with this expression, and I’m torn between wanting to jump out of the Ferris Wheel in embarrassment and wiping that smug grin off his face.

“Fine, I had a crush on you in school, but I’m not in school anymore and let’s be honest, I just discover a side of you I definitely don’t like.”

“And yet you are still doing this thing chicks do when they want to get kissed.” With that his deduction is finished but it’s not enough for me to understand.

“What? What thing?” I don’t twirl my hair, I don’t play with my keys, I don’t lean into his personal space. Those are the only flirting moves I know. Sad, isn’t it?

“Come on, you know what I mean. You keep staring at my lips. Girls do that all the time when they want me to kiss them.”

There are a lot of questions, for example how many girls he is actually referring to and when did he become a player like his brother?

But first of all: “Are you stupid? You know I’m hearing impaired and I do rely on lip reading a lot when my tinnitus gets stronger, and guess what? With all the stress lately it’s loud enough to drown out whole conversations. I’m not begging for a kiss, I’m just trying to get what you say!”

This is so twisted, Ben is more like Jake now then the Bennie I used to know. And admired.

“Oh. Really?” His shoulders slump, the crease between his eyebrows deepens but is smoothed out the moment his face lights up with his usual smile. “Well, I think I might have been to rash. I thought you would be happier about this thing between us but you are right, it’s been a while since we saw each other regularly. Maybe we need more time to reconnect. So how about this? We just enjoy the festival tonight, no more awkward moves from my side. And tomorrow I would like you to be my date for the dinner party.”

I look around, the Ferris Wheel is still moving. Is this one of these prank shows? Will someone suddenly pop up and point at a bunch of cameras around us? If it wasn’t Ben but Jake I would be certain it’s just some prank, but Bennie never did something like that to me.

Oh my god, what if he wanted us to get closer in school already, just how I wanted it? This could be our second chance!

“Tomorrow…” There was something else tomorrow, not only the dinner party. But my head is a mess and the constant up and down of the Ferris Wheel doesn’t help with my dizziness at all.

“So, what do you say? Will you accompany me to Dad’s party?”

My mouth opens but there is no sound. My voice fails me, just like my hearing. The lights are just a blur, my tinnitus loud as a horn. The shallow breaths I take can’t get enough oxygen into my lungs. A tingling in my fingertips and toes are the first warning of a rapidly approaching hyperventilation. How dramatic would it be if I fainted now, into the waiting arms of my year-long crush, just after he asked me out on a date?

The Ferris wheel jerks to a stop, saves me from giving Ben an answer and also from my panic attack. With solid ground beneath my feet I feel much better, let Ben lead me over to some benches. Did he notice that I’m not well?

“I know, it’s all a bit sudden,” he says after sitting down next to me, close but not too close.

“That it is,” I agree. “Why haven’t you said anything sooner?” Why did you hide behind that secret admirer mask? My school life would have been so much better with Ben as my boyfriend. Although I remember some kind of no dating policy his coach established.

“Sooner? You mean when Mads was still there?”

“No, I mean sooner. Before Maddie. Before college.” Maybe even before Jake ruined my life by taking parts of one of my senses away.

“But – I wasn’t into you back then,” he points out, eyebrows knitted.

“What? But – I thought – aren’t you my secret admirer?” There it is again, the shallow breathing and the racing heart.

“You had a secret admirer at school? Now that’s a surprise.” He huffs a laughter, shakes his head.

“Why is that a surprise?” The only surprise right now is that it wasn’t him.

“Come on, let’s be honest. You weren’t exactly a looker as a teenager. I mean, don’t get me wrong, you were kinda cute, but not the kind of girl to drive guys crazy. Oh, but you are really pretty nowadays.”

“Huh.” Ben isn’t the one. And he thinks I was an ugly teenager. Great. Just great. “You know what? It’s been a long day and I’m a bit dizzy and confused. Too much alcohol, I guess. So, I think we call it a night. Go and see if you can find your friends here somewhere, I better go home now.” Shaking knees are not exactly helpful while trying to get up looking graceful and poised.

“You sure? Did I say something wrong?”

“I’m sure. It’s just – I’m not feeling well and I’d rather get some rest so I’m fit tomorrow.” I flash him a weak smile, suppress the need to just bolt. My fight or flight is broken, all I ever do is fleeing.

“Okay, yeah. Sure. So, I will see you there tomorrow?” He gets up and leans in just for me to flinch backwards. Again he presses a kiss on my cheek, this time on purpose, his hand on my upper arm, squeezing lightly.

“Yeah, tomorrow.” It’s not a real answer but he nods and smiles at me. We part ways here, he is off to search for his friends and I’m trying to find my dignity and reason.

 

I find something else instead. My dignity is probably long gone by now anyway, but I hoped to find at least my wits again. In the end it’s me being found rather than finding anything. Still avoiding the area around Dad’s food truck I wonder what to do, Ben’s words are still ringing in my ears.

Or maybe it’s just the noise around me paired with my tinnitus; whatever it is I’m getting a massive headache and don’t pay much attention to my surroundings. So I only notice that guy in my way when I bump into him with half of his drink spilling over my arm and my shirt.

“Eh, Missie, look where ya walking!”

“You better look where you’re standing! This is a footway, not a pub!” Living in a bigger city has taught me to bitch right back when I get talked down to like this.

“What did ya say?!” The guy turns out to be huge. I mean, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson huge. At least taller by two heads and about twice my weight. But I’m a cranky girl with a very confusing day so far and I won’t back down.

“You heard me!” My shirt is dripping, the smell of beer tickles the back of my throat. I might not be able to fight him but I can puke on his shoes. That’ll teach him.

“Whoa, calm down, tiger.” That’s the last thing I needed. Somewhere behind me a guy comes running over, the voice already giving him away.

“Hey buddy, sorry, she’s a bit clumsy sometimes. Here, have a new beer, it’s on me.”

Jake shoves a few bills towards the fake Rock, grabs my arm and drags me away. Or better, he tries to. But I dig my heels into the ground and refuse to move.

“I don’t need a savior, I’m not a damsel in distress,” I hiss, but he jerks me along.

“You need a lot of things, and maybe a savior is not among them, but some common sense for sure.” He only stops once we are out of sight. “Dammit, Jazz, you don’t pick fights with some bloke pumped up with anabolics!”

“I wasn’t picking a fight!” Besides, most guys don’t actually hit girls anyway.

“Well, you weren’t exactly de-escalating there, so…” He lets that hang between us, scowls when I break free of his grip on my arm.

“That’s none of your business,” I snap at him. My head feels like trapped in a vice, the pressure unbearable. I wish I could drill a hole in my skull just to get rid of it.

“Goddammit, why are you so stubborn? I just put my ass on the line to prevent you getting drilled into the ground and you keep bitching!” He crosses his arms in front of his chest, glares at me. I glare right back.

“I never asked you to butt in!”

For a second I think he might hit me after all, but he throws his hands up, cards them through his hair.

“You think I would just let some bloke rough you up?”

“Oh come on, he wouldn’t have! Too many people watching and I’m just a girl! Worst case scenario he would have pushed me around a bit.”

“Or he would just have pushed you and your condition you would have fallen, hit your head and lost the remaining brain cells you have!”

He’s really angry. Eyebrows drawn together, lips in a tight line he stares at me.

“What do you care? Are you mad because you’re the only one who should make me suffer?” Get in line, boy, those times are definitely over.

“You are really stupid,” he barks, makes me take a step back. “I care because – because I care for you, okay? Always have.” The tension leaves his body in a huge sigh, shoulders slumped he shakes his head lightly. “And you were always too dense to see.”

Wait, what?

“You care for me like a friend, right? Or a brother.” Fights between siblings are normal after all and I can imagine that there are more love/hate relationships than anything else. Only that there’s no love between me and Jake.

“See? That’s the kind of stupidity I’m talking about,” he growls, runs his hands through his hair again. “I’m in love with you, okay? For years already.”

Jake. Jacob Rosenfeldt, the nightmare of my high school days, is in love with me?

“Is this another prank? Some stupid joke?” The throbbing in my head is overwhelming, every single one of my racing heartbeats pounds against the insides of my skull, sends small waves of pain and nausea through my whole body.

“It’s not. I’m serious. I love you.” The anger has vanished from his voice, left it small and sad.

When I open my mouth to tell him exactly what I think about his confession my body gets the better of me. I double over, retching, stomach turning, and release an onrush of vomit, directly in front of him. A few more heaves and all that’s left is bile and misery.

“Holy-! Are you okay?”

Do I look okay? I can’t ask him, still struggle to breathe.

“Here, let me help you.” His hand on my arm is steadying this time, not dragging me away but helping me to a bench. “I’m going to get you some water. Wait here.”

I only nod, my head is still killing me but at least I don’t feel sick anymore. The water helps settling my stomach, I sip it slowly. Jake sits silently next to me until I have enough and set the bottle down.

“So … about what you said earlier…” My voice is raspy, my throat hurts. But we better talk about it now. Not that I’m keen on this conversation, I had more than enough surprises for a week already today.

“Yeah. Well, I wanted to tell you sooner already, didn’t think it would make you sick like this, though.” His chuckle grates at my nerves, fingernails on a blackboard.

“Not the right time for jokes.” My fingers are knotted together, nails digging into my skin, but the pain is fleeting, only a hint of what my head causes me. “Since when?”

I just can’t make sense of it.

“A couple of years. I guess when your retainer came off.”

That was a long time ago. And of course he wouldn’t fall for me with retainers, my sarcasm news ticker provides.

“You dated a lot of girls back then,” I point out, mercilessly tug at the threads to unravel his statement.

“I never said I didn’t like anyone else. But you – I always thought about you.”

“Now that’s a dubious compliment.” With my head tilted back I can see the stars above us, twinkling so far away.

“What? You are one to talk, with your boyfriend drama all the time,” he scoffs, tips his head back to have the same view like me.

“But I don’t claim to be in love with someone else for ages already. I’m only in love with one person at a time.”

The light touch of his hands on mine prompts me to look at him, just in time to see his next words because I can barely hear them.

“And could that person be me?”

Homecoming – Day 12-2

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.

Okay.

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.

“Shit.”

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.

Homecoming – Day 12-1

“Please, please, please, pick up…” I jump from one foot to the other, pray to every entity for the dialing tone to change into a click. When it comes my heart stops, soars high and hits the ground again when the recorded message tells me to talk after the peep.

“Hey, uhm, hi Sam. It’s me. Jazz.” I clench my eyes shut, why do I have to sound so stupid? “I wanted to apologize for not calling last night. My whole week has been crazy but yesterday, gosh, yesterday takes the crown. I had some kind of family emergency and I know it’s not an excuse for cancelling our conversation. Anyway, I really hope you give me a chance to apologize in person and not to your voicemail. So, uhm, let me know when it’s a good time for you and we can chat.”

My throat is so dry, I have troubles swallowing. Especially my pride.

“I – I miss talking to you.” It’s good that there’s no video to my audio, I don’t want appear weak but that’s what crying usually is. Showing weakness. A last deep breath and I keep talking, I’m almost done anyway.

“Yeah, so, gimme a sign when we can talk. Have a nice day. Bye.” I slam the button to end the call, just in time to burst out in tears. I fucked up. Again.

 

“Shouldn’t you be polishing something?” Miho asks when I trudge into the café. At least my eyes look more or less normal again, nothing I couldn’t blame a shitty night for.

“Shouldn’t you be making me a coffee? A big one? Like, really huge?” I ask back.

“Still hungover?” Her hands fly over the levers and buttons of the chrome monster but all I can see is the stream of black liquid filling an extra tall cup.

“Nope. Even worse.”

There’s no one else in the café at this time so I rest my head on the counter.

“Wanna talk about it?” She slides the cup over to me and I sit up properly. “And take some sugar for it, you are extra sour today.”

“My Dad showed up last night.” I stir my coffee, without putting in sugar though.

“And that’s bad?”

“You have no idea.” My spoon makes a soft noise when I place it down on the counter. “Not only did I find him elbow deep in my Mom’s blouse, no, he had the audacity to actually act as if I should be happy to see him!”

It only dawns on me that Miho has no clue about the very – let’s call it unique – relationship Dad and I have. I love him as a person, but he was and is a shitty Dad. Most kids are upset when their parents break up, I only ever prayed that it would be the last time every time it happened. I love Dad, I love Mom, but not together.

He was never violent or abusive, just completely focused on himself and his needs, his wishes. He still is.

“Yeah, finding your parents making out is always strange. I mean, they are people and they probably have sex and all, but I don’t want to know about that.” Miho shudders, probably just thinking about her own parents.

“It’s not only that, although that’s already bad enough. It’s just – you know, my Dad has always these visions of grandeur. Thinks he’s a master businessman. Comes up with a new great business idea every few months – after the last one failed. He comes back, crashes at Mom’s place, clears her bank account and runs off again to his next crazy idea.” I shouldn’t talk about him like that, but ever since I was a kid he never cared much for us, never helped Mom. Instead he comes to leech off her and otherwise stays god knows where.

“I couldn’t afford a prom dress because Dad needed money for his realtor license. Mom hasn’t been on vacation for as long as I can remember and we always, always lived on a very tight budget. But he keeps travelling all over the country, burning through his own money and once that’s gone through whatever Mom was able to save up to that point.”

The whole frustration of the last few years makes my throat tight, I take a sip of my coffee to buy some time and push the tears back.

“Wow. Sorry, I didn’t know it’s such a touchy topic for you.” Miho squeezes my arm lighty, I nod my head without looking at her.

“Sorry for venting that early in the morning. It’s just – the worst is that Mom still loves him, no matter how often he fucks up. He keeps leaving her alone and all she does is patiently waiting for him to come back.” That’s her idea of love. Wasting her life waiting for someone who would never stay.

“And when he’s back they are all lovey-dovey for a week before they start fighting all the time.”

Great role models.

“So it’s the ultimate on-off-relationship?” Miho sums up my explanation.

“More or less, yes. Dad’s latest stupid idea is a food truck and he took all of Mom’s savings to buy one. And since we’re having a festival here…”

“Food truck, festival – yes, I get it. How convenient for him that he can crash on your Mom’s couch, huh?”

“Anyway, this whole ordeal took me off guard and so – I forgot to call Sam last night. I apologized this morning, but so far…” I shrug, hang my head. This day is only a couple of hours old and it already sucks.

“Is Sam the unforgiving kind?” Miho busies herself with some cleaning. I glance at the clock, it’s almost time to leave.

“I certainly hope not. So far we got along just great, no major fights and all. Except for me storming off when it got too serious of course.”

“Which wasn’t the most clever thing but not really despicable. So no need to beat yourself up because of that.”

“Thanks. But the point is, I have no idea of Sam is the type to hold a grudge. We haven’t been in such a situation before and now I’m hopelessly lost. Should I call again? Send texts? Just wait for Sam to contact me again?”

She has no answer, of course not. She doesn’t know Sam at all.

“I know that sounds like some stupid bla bla, but I’m sure whatever you do, it will work out in the end. I mean, I never believed in rules saying you shouldn’t call within a certain time to keep the upper hand or stuff like that. If you guys are actually in love, some misunderstanding won’t be the end of it.” With an encouraging smile and nod she shoos me out of the café, but one questions still lingers, clings to my every breath and step. What if I am the only one truly in love?

 

Tomorrow is the party and I won’t have to come and clean the house, so I really have to make sure to get it spotless today. Jake greets me with a grunt, his morning must have been coffee-less so far. At least I had my first dose already or even the sight of his smug grin at my tired face had me in tears. But not today.

“So, you’re going to the festival later?”

This seemingly innocent questions ring all the alarms in my head.

“Not sure yet,” I deflect, focus on scrubbing the kitchen sink.

“It’s been ages since I last was at a fairground,” he muses. The coffee machine splutters, less intimidating than Miho’s machine from hell, but the coffee is hot and strong. Just how I like it.

“Must have been in college.”

I hum as a sign I heard him, not wanting to encourage him to continue this conversation, but not exactly planning to be rude. Not yet.

“You like the fireworks, don’t you?”

I shrub harder. How does he know that?

“They are okay, I guess.”

“I know a good spot to watch them.”

I straighten up, keep my eyes on the sink. “And?”

“Nothing ‘and’. Just saying, if you want to watch them from a good spot, I know one.”

When I look at him he’s already watching me, doesn’t even pretend not to. Very suspicious.

“Why? You wanna light up some firecracker next to me?”

“Why do you always think the worst of me? No, that’s not my plan. But you worked hard the last week and I thought – you know what, forget it. I never even said anything.” He grabs a mug and pours himself a coffee, stalks off as if I insulted him. Honestly, after all that time he still acts as if he’s the victim. But I am the one with the scars and the deeply rooted distrust!

I rush through Mom’s list of chores and the whole house, dusting, vacuuming, picking up things on the way. After battling the huge vacuum cleaner up the stairs I go through all the rooms. Elias’ bedroom is the first, after that down the hall until I reach the rooms of the boys. Whatever has gotten into Jake, I can’t just ignore his room so I knock, wait for an answer. There is none so I knock again, call out to him that it’s me and that I need to get inside. A few more seconds tick by so I carefully open the door, ready to slam it shut in case I see something I don’t want to see or get yelled at. But nothing.

He’s not there.

I quickly take care of his carpet and make his bed, pick up a dirty shirt and socks. Once out of the door I breathe easier again, take the clothes to the hamper before I continue cleaning the floors. Ben’s door opens easily, I push against it with my hip while vacuuming the doorstep and the area in front of the door on the hallway.

Someone taps me on the shoulder and I jump, scream, my heart leaps and beats furiously. With a clatter the vacuum cleaner drops on the floor, misses my foot only by a few millimeters.

“What the-!” It takes a few seconds for me to recognize Ben, in a T-shirt and shorts, hair disheveled and eyelids heavy with sleep.

“Goodness, what are you doing here?”

He motions towards the vacuum cleaner and I turn it off, the silence between us awkward now.

“I was sleeping until you came and woke me up.” He was never an early bird and his morning grumpiness reminds me of an adorable bear after hibernation. Like a teddy.

“Sorry, I thought you went back home last night.”

He scratches the back of his neck, hides his yawn behind his other hand.

“Nah, I figured Mads might need some more time to cool off. She’s got quite a temper.”

Oh, yeah. They are living together. Or better, they were. At least if Maddie was serious about breaking up.

“You know she really hates that nickname, do you? I mean, I remember her screaming at this one guy in her class to wouldn’t stop calling her that.”

“Actually she never told me that before.” He shrugs, a movement that threatens to ruin his shirt. God, those biceps are straining against the fabric and I wonder why he even wears a shirt. Not that I want to see him without it, but the one he’s wearing is just a tad too tight. The good way.

“Well, she must really like you to let you call her that until now.” I bent down to pick the vacuum cleaner up again. “Sorry for waking you up, I try to be more considerate now.”

“Don’t sweat it. Wasn’t on purpose anyway. Besides, it was time for me to get up, I have to work later.” He stretches a bit, still sleepy. I can’t drool over him now, not when he can still see me.

“Okay, I’m off. Cleaning somewhere else now.” If he notices that I’m practically fleeing he doesn’t comment on it.

I try once more to reach Sam but talking to the voicemail isn’t lifting my mood. After finishing the floors I follow Mom’s cleaning schedule which tells me laundry has to get done – including ironing shirts. So it’s back upstairs to get the laundry from the hampers, on my tiptoes to not disturb Ben again.

I know Jake’s not in his room, but I have picked his laundry up already so I make a beeline to the bathroom to get the towels. Bad idea.

I notice the moment I open the door – the air is humid and warm. Someone’s in the shower. In the huge shower with the glass enclosure, and although the panels are fogged I can clearly see who it is.

“You just wanna stand there gawking or do you need something?”

Jake turns to look at me and I fight the urge to drop my gaze, instead I tip my head backwards, stare at the ceiling.

“Uh, sorry, this – holy, this is embarrassing. I didn’t hear the shower and the door wasn’t locked and I just wanted to get the towels and-”

“Well, I hope you will leave at least one here for me. Otherwise go ahead, take what you need.”

Since the shower is turned off no new steam comes and the old steam starts to settle. Tiny droplets run down the glass panel, taking the cover of fog with them. Oh boy.

“What? Changed your mind? You can also join me if you want.”

No witty response comes to mind, not even an indignant refusal. My mouth opens and closes, like a fish, and no sound comes out.

“Or would you want to sneak a peek first? To make sure it’s worth your time?” He opens the glass door and that sets me into motion.

I squeak a high-pitched ‘no, thanks’, grab the towels off the rack and rush out, followed by his laughter.

In the hallway I pause, lean against the wall to catch my breath. My heart is racing, my complexion betrays me by broadcasting my feelings in scarlet all over my face. I am officially an idiot.

“Jayjay, you okay?”

For the second time in less than one hour Ben makes me jump. I’m afraid he can read from my expression what happened so I keep my eyes on my shoes, towels tightly pressed against my chest.

“I’m fine, just – tired. Don’t worry, I just need a quick break.”

“Okay, but if you need something else, just tell me, okay? No matter what.” He steps a bit closer, tries to peer into my face but I shake my head.

“No, I’m good. Really.” My shaky smile does nothing to reassure him, the crease between his eyebrows proof of his doubt.

“You want a glass of water?” One step closer and I’m trapped between him and the wall, the towels the only barricade. I just want to decline when the door to the bathroom opens.

“Oh, hey, Jake.” Ben looks up, his eyes going wide.

“Dude! You can’t run around butt naked here! We have a girl in the house. Cover up your junk.”

I want to die. Right now, and please quickly.

“I guess the girl you’re referring to wouldn’t mind a peek given that she took all the towels with her,” Jake points out. I can hear his footsteps coming closer but I’m mortified, can’t move my head to look at him – or better, to look away. The heat from his shower still surrounds his body, I can tell he’s close without looking.

“Did I interrupt you guys somehow?” Confusion sneaks into Ben’s voice, he takes a step back from me again.

“Yep,” Jake says the exact moment I shout: “No!”

I push all the towels into Ben’s arms, bolt from them before I see more than I want of Jake.

Still jittery I hide in the laundry room, fight tears and screams and the urge to kick something, someone. I really want to hear Sam’s voice now but can’t leave a message of me sobbing on the voicemail. Not very attractive after all. A few deep breaths, some nervous pacing and I can pull myself together enough to cram the part of the laundry I already have into the machine. Just when I open the bottle of detergent the door opens.

“Hey, you ok-”

With a shriek I spin around, spill half of the bottle over Ben’s shirt. That’s it, I have to leave the town now. Better leave the country altogether.

“Oh shit, I’m so sorry!” Frantically I wipe at his shirt with what turns out to be another shirt, dirty of course.

“It’s okay, calm down. Geez, I just wanted to check on you. Are okay? You look as if you’re that shy from melting down.”

My hand stops moving, I throw the shirt back into the laundry machine.

“Do I? Because I feel as if I’m already just some puddle.” A choked out laugh hides my first sob.

“What’s wrong?” The shirt still clings to him, the smell of the detergent pungent, tickling my nose.

“Life sucks right now, but I feel like I shouldn’t complain. I mean, you don’t exactly have it easy either, huh?” I sniffle, blame it on the detergent though.

“Huh? Oh, you’re talking about Mads. She’ll come around.” He shrugs, strangely unburdened while I’m still blaming myself for that scene last night. “And you know, never hold up travelers.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if she wants to go I won’t stop her. I mean, if she just stays for my sake, that won’t be the same, will it?”

I mull his words over in my mind, wonder how he can be so nonchalant about this. I can’t just let go of Sam and we haven’t planned to get married. So how can he?

“Okay, that stuff starts to itch. You don’t mind, do you?” he asks and takes off his shirt. “You can put this in the machine, I don’t think you need any more detergent, though.”

What’s up with the guys today for them to casually walk around half or fully naked in front of me?

My 17 years old, thirsty teenage self would probably die of blood loss now, although I occasionally caught glances of Ben at the pool with only swim trunks on back then. But I never saw him up close. His abs, right in front of me, those biceps – I’m sure he wasn’t in that good shape in school anyway.

“Jazz?”

I realize I’m staring, but who would blame me? Well, besides Maddie maybe, but she’s not here.

“Yeah?” I blink, shake off that daze.

“Are you okay now?” How can he be that sweet and that hot at the same time? I shouldn’t even enjoy this view, not when I’m still trying to win Sam back. I’m a horrible, horrible person.

“Yeah, thanks. I just – I’m really, really tired. You know, my finals, the graduation, coming back here only to start working for your Dad…” I shrug, pray that he would cover up a bit and dread it at the same time.

“And your situation with your boyfriend,” Ben points out, ready to help.

“Yes, that’s part of it, too. But I don’t have to tell you about heartbreak, huh?”

He shrugs again, now better visible for me without his shirt. Dammit. I’m going to burn in hell.

“I try not to dwell in the past too much. Life changes all the time, I’m going with the flow if I can.”

Nice philosophy, just not for me. I’m fighting tooth and nail for what I consider mine. And I hate losing something I have worked for so hard.

“Must be nice,” I muse loudly. “Being able to let go of anger and pain. I hold grudges forever.”

“Like with Jake?”

That works better than a cold shower. I straighten up, slam the door of the washing machine shut with my foot.

“Okay, anything else you need from me?”

He realizes that whatever mood it was, it’s gone now.

“No, not really. I guess I should wash off that detergent. Gonna hop into the shower real quick. Can I get a towel or do I have to air-dry, too?”

My mind stutters to a halt at the image, I force it aside so I can stalk out of the laundry room towards the linen closet. Once he has a towel he winks at me and leaves. I need a coffee and a break, but since I can’t have neither I pick what comes closest: I call Miho.

 

“If you’re not dying right now keep it short, the place is packed,” is her greeting.

“I’m kind of dying, alright. Or I’m already dead and gone to hell. Feels like it at least.” I sniffle, a sound that gets Miho’s attention.

“What’s wrong?” I can hear her walking around, she tells someone she’ll be back soon – probably her part-timer.

“Everything! I messed up with Sam, can’t even apologize because I only ever get the mailbox. Jake keeps driving me nuts and Ben – ugh, everything is such a mess and I can’t stop crying.”

The sounds of the café in the background fill the line while Miho is silent. She clears her throat, hums briefly.

“Okay, how far are you with your work? Do you still have a lot to do?”

“Almost done. Just the laundry.” A hiccup cuts off my words. I have planned to dust some more, pick up some stuff here and there.

“Tell them to take care of the laundry on their own and get your ass over here. As soon as the fairground opens it will be dead in here anyway.”

“I can’t,” I meekly object. “It’s Mom’s job on the line, not mine.”

Mom. God, how I hope that she won’t fall for Dad’s tricks again. I’m still miffed that he had the guts to show his face here, food truck or not. He promised not to come back, not to pester Mom for money again. That liar. And now she will need even some more money, he will take whatever she has without a care what she will do afterwards. Just like last time. Just like every time so far.

“Sorry, it’s – I’m fine. Just needed to talk to someone. Vent a bit. I don’t want to keep you from your work. Will call you later again, okay?”

I take a few deep breaths, force the tremble in my voice down.

“You sure?” She sounds suspicious. I shouldn’t have called her, now she will worry and although it comforts me that she cares about me that much, I also feel guilty.

“Yeah, of course. Thanks for listening. Go back to your coffee machine.” I laugh to lighten the mood again, not sure if she buys it, hard to say without seeing her after all.

“Fine. How about you swing by when your work is done?”

“Only if you pour a good swig of booze into my coffee.”

“Deal. Send me a text when you leave there and I can make sure there’s a drink waiting here for you. How does Espresso Martini sound?”

Fancy for sure.

“Perfect. And again, sorry for disturbing you at work. See you later.”

After her goodbye I end the call. My eyes still sting but the tears have stopped. I only have to make it through one more day and I can go back to my old life – minus Sam.

My fingers type a short “I miss you” but I don’t send it. Won’t change anything after all.

Homecoming – Day 11-2

Back in the townhall I’m still fuming, inwardly cursing myself for enjoying that time with Jake and Kimmy before he decided to be an ass towards Miho.

Kimmy shuffles along next to me, I pay only half a mind to her. Jake’s presence is too much for me right now, every sound he makes, every move annoys me to no end.

Unfortunately I would be totally lost in these hallways so I can’t even just storm off without him. So I grit my teeth and follow him, answer to Kimmy’s question curtly, but I tell her it’s not her fault that I am so upset now. I can’t wait to get out of there and away from Jake.

Only that I can’t actually get away. He drove me there and he will be at the mayor’s home later. Just great.

Once we step through the door into the same small room we picked Kimmy up in she yelps and rushes forward, into the arms of a man I never saw before. He looks good, tall, broad shoulders, his hair just a tiny bit too long. Brown eyes look warmly at the child. She talks to him in a flurry of gestures and I can make out just enough to understand it’s her dad.

“Hello, sir, I’m Jacob Rosenfeldt.”

Caught up in the moment I keep translating although it’s not necessary, Kimmy’s father isn’t deaf after all.

“Ah, yes, the mayor told me about you. I’m Robert Pavel. Thank you for taking Kimmy out, I couldn’t make it sooner.” He has a nice voice and when his gaze sweeps over me I’m blushing lightly.

“I’m Jazz, I had the pleasure of talking to your daughter a bit today,” I introduce myself, hands still putting my words into signs.

Kimmy tells her father about our short outing, he repeatedly has to tell her to slow down to the point she turns to me with pleading eyes and I interpret for her. That’s why I’m here for anyway, I can keep doing it until the mayor relieves me of my duty. I should have asked if this is a paid favor, although I’m sure Mom will kick me out if I take any more money from Elias. After everything he has done for us, yada yada.

“Okay, Kimmy, say goodbye to your new friends, Mom is waiting for us already.”

She waves at us and I show Jake how to say ‘bye’ before I turn around and leave without another word. I can take a bus back.

Not going back is not an option. Too much is still not done and my list is longer than the walk to the bus stop. Halfway there Jake catches up with me. He has the audacity to ask why I’m running off like that and I would love to explain it to him in detail if it wasn’t for the fact that his father is my employer right now.

“Hey, I asked you a question! Why did you just run off?” His hand lands heavily on my shoulder, warm and far too real to ignore.

“I figured my service isn’t needed any longer so I want to get back to my actual work asap. Can’t let Maddie polish all those things, can I?”

His eyebrows shoot up, he blinks once, twice, just long enough for me to slip out of his grip.

“What the heck has gotten into you?”

“You!” No, wait, that sounds dirty. “I mean, that stupid stunt you pulled at the café.” He has no right to be angry now, I am the one pissed at him, not the other way around.

“What? That I paid for you? Are you one of those militant feminists? A walkure?”

My mouth opens and closes again, I bet I look like a fish out of water.

“There is – there is so much wrong with you and what you just said, I can’t even-” A frustrated squeal cuts off my short tirade and signals me it’s better to just leave now before I say something I actually regret. A deep breath and I manage to press out a ‘Nevermind, I make it back on my own’ and this time he doesn’t follow me.

 

Jake’s car is already in the driveway when I arrive, I march past it, ignore the sudden urge to kick it, knowing it would only hurt my foot.

The back door leads directly into the kitchen where I find Maddie and Ben busy with a list and the whole table covered with dishes, glasses and boxes filled with napkins and table clothes.

“There you are! You took so long, I thought you ditched me here!” Maddie is in my face the second I set a foot into the house.

“Well, looks like you found a good way to kill some time. What’s all this?”

“The caterer brought this over earlier. So they don’t have to carry it all in on the day of the party.” Ben grins and easily hoists up a huge box, sets it down next to a wall.

“Oh, good. Is this all clean or do we have to polish that, too?” I point to the plates and cutlery on the table, pray to every entity out there that the answer is in my favor.

“We? Who is we? If anyone cleans all this it’s you,” Maddie points out, much to my dismay. Like always Ben comes to my rescue.

“Don’t worry, it’s all clean and Sunday morning they will send some people here to get the preparations done.”

That’s a relief, but it’s short lived since Maddie pushes a rag into my hands and points towards the hallway.

“You still have to clean the windows and mirrors. I can’t take care of everything here on my own after all.”

Five minutes later and I’m convinced that she didn’t clean anything at all. I pick up where I left earlier, cleaning windows and mirrors all over the floor. One of my least favorite chores, I’m just saying.

“Bennie? Can you bring me the ladder, please?” I call into the general direction I believe him to be, stretch up as far as my arm can reach to get the upper edge of the mirror over the chimney sill. “Bennie?”

“Can you stop calling him that?”

It’s not Ben but Maddie, without the ladder of course.

“What? I call him Bennie ever since I was twelve. You want me to stop that now because…?”

I catch her expression in the reflection of the mirror, lips curled up in a snarl.

“Because he is MY fiance and I don’t like that familiarity.”

“Well, tough luck. As long as he doesn’t tell me to stop that, I won’t. He might be your fiance, but he’s also my friend.”

“Exactly, and that is all he will ever be to you.”

She looks as of she wants to spit on the floor to drive her point home, but luckily she doesn’t. I have just polished the wooden floors after all.

“I know. And I just asked my friend to bring me a ladder so I can finish my work here. If you are not going to get me one, you better tell him to do it. Because I’m so close to dropping this rag and leave you with all the cleaning. For real this time.” My patience is on its last leg, today already took more strength than I actually have.

“Your ladder, ma’am.”

Again it’s not Ben, but Jake. He acts as if nothing ever happened and sets the ladder down, winks at me.

“Ready to take orders, ma’am. What is my next task?”

“Just stay out of my way, that’s all,” I coolly dismiss him and roll my shoulder, my right arm is so heavy from all the cleaning and polishing already.

“Awww, are you still miffed? Next time you can pay, I promise.” He grins, completely at ease.

Maddie grunts, crosses her arms in front of her chest.

“Hey, where are you all?” Ben finds us in a tensed atmosphere, but oblivious to it – or deliberately ignoring – he stops next to Maddie, wraps an arm around her.

God, how I wish I could just disappear now so I don’t have to see her smug grin.

Well, it’s not exactly a hole in the floor but there is another exit opening up for me. My phone rings. I take it out of my pocket but my fingers are so cramped, I drop it. Cursing loudly I bend down to pick it up but Jake is faster, snatches it from me.

“Sam? Who is Sam?”

“Give me that!” My blood rushes once to my face and right back to my toes, the urgency in my voice not lost on Jake or the others.

“Ohhh, someone important? Hm, what do I get if I give you that?” Jake dangles my phone over my head, makes me jump for it.

“Jacob! Give it back!”

He keeps me away with one arm, the other still above us, holding my phone.

“Nope. First you have to say ‘pretty please’.”

“Dammit, Jake!” I struggle, the burning in my throat and behind my eyes not a good sign. Keep it together until you have the phone!

“Wrong. You can do that better.”

I hear Maddie’s snicker and Ben’s annoyed sigh, and in a desperate attempt I step on jake’s foot, hard. He cries out, his posture drops so I can grab my phone from his hand, just in time to see the display telling me that I missed a call.

“No…” My bottom lip trembles, I slump down on the floor, so tired of this day that isn’t even over yet.

“Geez, stop acting so dramatic. It’s only a call, you can call him back.” Maddie rolls her eyes, snuggles closer to Ben.

“Besides, can’t be that serious. I never heard you talking about that Sam before.”

“Because it’s none of your business,” I growl and wipe my nose with the back of my hand. Don’t cry now, don’t cry.

“Oh, come on. Aren’t we all friends here?” The way she says ‘friends’ could cut metal.

“Sam is kinda serious and so am I and that is all you need to know,” I snap back, trying not to actually yell. I can’t afford to rise to her bait, not after pissing Jake off already.

“And who is Sam? Does he have a last name? A job? Anything?”

“Why would you want to know? So you can stalk all the social media or what?”

Again that stupid smirk. “Maybe. I mean, we have to make sure that you don’t end up with some weirdo, don’t we? Or more that some nice guy doesn’t end up with you.”

“Mads, I think that’s enough,” Ben interrupts her interrogation/insults and comes over, offers me a hand to help me up on my feet again.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Ben is the younger brother. While he takes care of me Jake stands at the side, sulking.

“How about you try to call him back now? Don’t worry, we take care of the rest here.”

I stumble out of the room, stare at my phone. Should I really do it? What should I say? Is it even possible to fix what is broken between us? That’s exactly why I keep stalling and running away – too many questions, not enough answers. And the almost certain possibility that I won’t like the answers I could get.

“For someone who even got violent to get the phone back you don’t seem eager to make that call.”

Jake stands with his hands in his pockets, flashes me that grin that used to make Maddie’s knees weak before she rammed a pole far enough up her ass to also serve as hat rack.

“You,” I press out, my voice wavering while I still try to stay calm.

“Me?” he asks, pointedly looking around to make sure that yes, I’m talking to him.

“You braggadocious, banana-washing, weedcutting bighead! You think you are funny, snatching my phone like some third grader? That was a very important call for me and YOU kept me from it and NOW you have the audacity to judge my for not calling back?!”

“What’s wrong with you today? I tried to cheer you up since your mood is so damned sour and all you can do now is yell at me?” He snorts, eyes narrowing at me.

“I never asked you to ‘cheer me up’. I want you to stay away from me as far as possible!” My voice reaches a pitch that hurts my own ears but I’m not backing down now. “There’s a friggin’ heart emoji next to Sam’s name in my contact list! Even a blockhead like you should be able to figure out that it’s probably not my dentist calling!”

“You don’t need a dentist anyway, your teeth are perfect now!” he yells back , catching me off guard.

“What the heck is that supposed to mean? It doesn’t change the fact that you made me miss a call I was waiting almost a week for!” I’m not going to let him distract me with his random remarks, this is not a joke for me.

“Then go already and call him back! Dammit, this was the last time I tried to be nice to you.” He turns on his heel, storms back to his brother and future sister-in-law.

“Nice? NICE? You wouldn’t be able to be nice if – if – dammit!” The lack of a witty response has me yell in frustration and annoyance, in this state of mind I definitely can’t call Sam back. Constantly cursing under my breath I write a short text that I’m currently unable to talk but that I really, really want to have this conversation. Maybe later today?

Anxiety bubbles up in me while I stare at the screen, waiting for the little icon to tell me that Sam has at least read my message, albeit not answered.

A simple ‘OK’ has never given me so much joy before. I would love to call now, hear the familiar voice, but that would be the last straw today to simply break down. I can’t afford that, neither getting sloppy with work now nor not giving that conversation my whole, undivided attention. I better take some notes later so I won’t go unprepared into this battle for my relationship.

My resolve is strengthened and my emotions have calmed down enough so I can face the unholy trinity of temptation, annoyance and ignorance in the dining room again I pocket my phone and brace myself for whatever torture awaits me there. I’m sure that both Jake and Maddie won’t pass up the chance of making me run the gauntlet, but once I step back inside they are actually engaged in a lively – almost heated – discussion.

“That’s not your decision!” Maddie just shouts, chin jutted forwards, hands on her hips.

“Well, it’s not only your wedding after all.” Jake shrugs, looks at Ben for affirmation while he absentmindedly throws my rag from one hand into the other.

“You won’t get much cleaning done like that,” I point out, only to find myself under the glare of the squabblers and the much friendlier gaze of Ben. “What?”

“Nothing, we were just talking about you.” Maddie’s voice is icy, with a hint of accusation.

“Wow, that makes me feel better.” I roll my eyes, plop down on a chair. “Care to fill me in?”

“I was just thinking that maybe you want to come to our wedding if you are free that day,” Ben says and my jaw drops. I want that about as much as a root canal treatment without anesthesia.

One glance at Maddie tells me she feels the same about that.

“Benjamin!” I expect her to stomp her foot but she doesn’t, instead she throws her hands up. “Now that you said it we can’t just take it back.”

Don’t I have a say in this?

“Why should we? Jazz is a friend, why can’t we invite her?”

“You know why!” Maddie screeches, a very unpleasant sound even for my ears.

“Because it ruins your zen-like number of guests? How many are it so far? 120?” Jake mocks her, a loopsided grin on his face.

“If you keep talking to me in that tone you’re not invited either.”

The brothers share a short glance, a nod from Jake and a quick shake of his head from Ben replaces a whole conversation.

“Mads, this is also my wedding, you know? And I want my brother to be there, so could you please calm down a bit? Both of you?”

Poor Ben, trapped between them as voice of reason.

“You always take his side! I’m your fiancée, you should just agree with me.”

Watching this is better than some telenovela, at least as long as I’m not involved. I would love some popcorn now, but I dare not to breathe to draw no attention on my presence.

“Maddie, you got your way with everything else so. We booked the venue you wanted. There’s no limit for your dress. You will get your band and your menu, your cake and all the other things. So could you please let me at least invite the people I consider friends?”

And I’m back in the focus.

“But not her.” Maddie’s accusing finger trembles just a few inches away from my face.

“Attention: Bridezilla sighting in the dining room.” Even when he whispers, Jake can be heard clearly. Maddie’s head spins around, she glares at him, takes a step closer.

“What did you just call me?”

His hands raised in an appeasing manner Jake backs off, but Maddie doesn’t relent.

“I asked you a question! What did you call me?!”

“Nothing you actually want me to say again,” he points out, looks past her at Ben who hangs his head, shakes it lightly. A broken man.

Maddie is in full fury, spins back again to face her fiance. “Why do you let him talk to me like that? Why do you never defend me?!”

“Mads, I-” he tries to get a word in edgewise, to no avail.

“And stop calling me that! I hate that stupid nickname! And since you keep choosing other people above me, I guess you don’t even want to marry me!” The engagement ring hits the floor and bounces off with a dull sound, the carpet muffles the impact and I lose sight of the shiny metal and diamond while watching Maddie storm off.

 

“So she broke up with him? Over a fight whether or not you should get invited to the wedding?” The coffee Miho sets down in front of me holds a good swig of cream liquor.

“Yep. I officially ruined a marriage.” With my head on the counter I whimper into my sleeve. “This was not my plan for the day. Or, you know, at all.”

“But now the guy you crushed on during your school days is free again. Isn’t that a good thing?” On the other side of the counter Miho mimics my posture, rests her head on the polished surface.

“No, it’s not! Just because he’s free doesn’t mean that I have a chance and even if I had one, doesn’t mean I want it.”

How long might it take in a small town like ours before people start gossiping and point at me when I walk past? Not long enough.

“And how did Ben take it?”

“No idea. I guess he’s in shock.” He pretended that everything was fine, even told me that Maddie often overreacted and that she surely would reconsider. One or two days, a week at the longest. And then he went and made himself a sandwich, even asked me and Jake if we wanted one, too. That’s not what I tell Miho, though. Everyone has their own way of dealing with things after all.

“Didn’t you say they weren’t even engaged for long yet?” She straightens up again, stretches a bit.

“Does that matter? He wants to marry her, whether he put a ring on her finger a week or a year ago doesn’t change anything.”

I also perk up a bit when she slides a plate with cake over, pick at the creamy, chocolate-y ganache covering it with my fork.

“And Jake?” With her own fork she snatches a bite of my cake, grins when I scowl at her.

“Couldn’t stop smirking. No idea what his problem with Maddie is, but they don’t get along at all.” The bitterness of the chocolate and the sweet cream distract me for a second, I let the cake melt on my tongue, add some spiked coffee flavor. This is how my days should be, filled with cake and coffee instead of cleaning and drama.

“At least Maddie won’t bother you anymore,” Miho points out the bright side.

“Perfect timing, too. Tomorrow I have to scrub the toilets and bathrooms. And I don’t really want her commenting on that.”

Tomorrow is also the festival and a good chance to just enjoy some fun and games.

“By the way, do you know what job Jared has?”

I pick some more at the cake.

“No, just that he is working for some company. You haven’t really told me what happened today anyway.”

She perks up a bit, but still feigns some indifference.

“Well, obviously he’s working with or for the town hall on a regular basis.  Water supply or something like that, according to Kimmy. Her mother is his co-worker AND it seems she’s the one who was in the club with him last night.”

“Huh…” A smile tugs at her lips, she covers it with another forkful of cake. She really has to learn to talk to people and not jump to conclusions, but to honest, I consider it funny how easily she’s thrown out of the loop by Jared when she’s still pretending to be not really interested.

“Are you going to the fair tomorrow?” I ask Miho between two bites of chocolate heaven.

“Nah, probably not. Too many people and I’m not that into greasy food and cheap games.”

“Too bad, I just wanted to ask you to come with me and watch me lose at can knockdown and whack-a-mole.”

 

Slightly tipsy but in a much better mood I make my way home. It’s time to tell Mom how much I love her and how grateful I am for everything she did for me. And of course I can’t wait to call Sam. When I told Miho about it, only the basics and not the full story with me kicking Jake to get my phone back and chickening out afterwards, she talked some confidence into me. I got my notes, I got my goal clear in sight and I got a light buzz – the perfect combination to win my lover back.

With a spring in my step I dance up the stairs, unlock the door and make a beeline into the living room where the lights are still on and voices indicate that Mom is watching TV. As a peace offering I brought a slice of Miho’s incredible cake, I swing the paper bag and waltz into the room just to stare at one of the most disturbing scenes I ever saw.

Mom, with her wrist bandaged up, sitting in a chair, eyes closed, head hanging low, moans and sighs at the very enthusiastic massage she is getting. From my father.

One of his hands is unfortunately not on her shoulders, but busy in the front of her blouse.

“Dad?” My head spins. “Mom?”

They jump apart, Mom sheepishly fixes her clothes, Dad simply beams at me.

“Jazzy-bee! How’s my big girl doing?”

My father is here. My father, the man who only remembers that I exist when he needs something. My father, who somehow manages to string Mom along for decades now. The same man who called me a few months ago to tell me about his latest business idea. And now he’s asking me how I am. So I tell him exactly how I feel.

“I think I’m getting sick.”

Homecoming – Day 10-2

Turns out that Jake is staying in his Dad’s house for the time being to help with the part preparations. That means for me that I have to cook for three instead of two persons – not a big deal – and that he is around all day. Wordlessly he helps me polishing after a while, keeps carrying trays and boxes with glass and crystal bowls into the kitchen and back.

My arm and wrist hurt by the time I’m finished. The last task of the day, hanging up the laundry, takes up the last shreds of my strength and all I want is taking a long, hot bath.

The thought of going out later is less than tempting, but Miho will mercilessly hunt me down if I cancel now. So it’s coffee, a quick shower and a short prayer that dressing up will get me into the right mood after all. A sundress, a light cardigan, strappy heels, not too high. A glance in the mirror and for once I actually feel good about myself. I apply some mascara and add a hint of blush on my cheeks, brush my hair and stagger out of the bathroom just in time for Mom to ask me why I’m dressing up like that.

“I’m going out with a friend,” I explain, grab my purse and make sure I have everything I need.

“And does that friend happen to be Jacob?” The small smile on her face, the slightly raised eyebrow screams ‘I knew this would happen eventually’, but then again I never told her about all the stuff he did to me.

“No, Mom, it’s definitely not Jake. I want to have fun after all.”

Her expression changes, her smile turns into a frown. “Oh, honey, you’re not still hung up on Benjamin, are you? I mean, I know you liked him a lot when you were younger, but he’s engaged now.”

“Mom, it’s not Ben either. I’m going with a girl friend. Miho Fujiwara. I think you have some insurances from her Dad.”

“Oh yes, I remember her. Her mother told me when she came back here after college. I mean, she’s a good example that you could have it both. Studying somewhere else and then coming back here and work and live here.”

And here it is, motherly guilt-tripping over my decision to leave this town and try to find my happiness somewhere else.

“Yep, I bet her Mom is really happy.” No matter how Miho feels about it. “Okay, I’m off now. Don’t wait for me.”

“Jazzy-bee, take care, okay?”

Take care. I love you. I don’t want you to go. I don’t want to be alone.

Maybe it’s my imagination, but that’s what I’m hearing. For once it’s not my ears playing tricks, but my guilty conscience.

I hug my Mom, kiss her cheek and run off before she can say anything that would change my mind.

 

Miho picks me up as promised and we walk through the early summer night.

“It’s not that far and since I figured we both would drink the car’s not an option,” she explains and I agree. My heels aren’t that high that I would mind either and after sitting on that chair most of the day I’m happy to stretch my legs a bit. The click-clack of our steps makes a nice rhythm and we reach the club before I can even start complaining about walking. I fill her in on everything that happened that day, including my little stunt with Jake and his bed.

“Well, I bet he had something else in mind when he thought about getting you into his bed,” she dryly states, making me snort in laughter.

“Yeah, as if. He’s gotta have a very specific kink because all he ever does is spilling drinks on me and making me cry.” I can’t even imagine him thinking of me like that. He has seen me during my retainer days, during puberty when my body was completely misproportioned. He has basically watched me growing up and unfortunately that wasn’t a pleasant sight. That’s why I also know that Ben will never fall for me. They might not see me as their sister, but still as a kid. Not that I’ve grown much ever since I was 12, height-wise at least.

“Well, he always stroke me as a kinky bastard.” Miho shrugs and drags me across the street, waves me off when I reach for my purse to pay for my entrance.

“My turn. You buy the first round of drinks, okay?”

“Sure. But don’t you dare ordering something like a 40 years old whiskey!”

She laughs, greets the bouncer and pays for us.

“It’s like an after work club, but not really. I mean, it doesn’t open at 6 and closes at midnight, but most people don’t stay really long either. Most have work tomorrow, but at least they do work. Not go to school anymore.”

I had my fair share of college parties and although I just finished it, I’m not keen on running into a crowd of High Schoolers either.

“Works for me.”

I have to shout already, the music is overwhelming, bass booming and pounding in my ears. It startles my heartbeat out of its own rhythm. One of the few perks wearing hearing aids brings is that I can just turn them off, the instant relief of a slightly muffled volume makes me sigh. Feeling the music more than hearing it was strange in the beginning, but after all my clubbing nights in college I’m used to it by now, the tingle it leaves pleasant to me.

Miho motions towards the bar and I follow her, shout my order at the barkeeper and wait for her to add hers, too. The barkeeper nods, a few practised strokes of work and he sets two glasses down on the counter, takes my money and turns to the next customer.

The drink is strong, but good. Exactly what I need right now. I always liked sweet drinks, slightly fruity and fresh. Orange juice is my favorite. Add some vodka and I’m good to go. We find a bar table in the back, with view on the dancefloor and the bar.

“You wanna dance?” I have to focus on Miho’s lips to understand her, shake my head at her question.

“Not yet. Lemme finish this before. And maybe get another.”

She nods, taps her foot lightly to the music. It’s actually nice to be out again after the last week only going back and forth between Mom’s place, the café and the mayor’s home. The alcohol helps me unwind a bit together with the almost hypnotic beat of the music.

Two more glasses later and I’m happily tipsy, actually consider dancing now that the floor isn’t empty anymore. Miho keeps yelling and the dim light and loud music makes it almost impossible for me to understand her. We come up with an impromptu sign language that only works half of the time because I throw in some actual sign language every now and then when I forget who I’m talking to.

“I’m going to get us another round!” she shouts, points at the empty glasses and doesn’t even wait for my nod or my order before she pats my bum and walks off. She gets handsy when she’s drunk, alright.

I watch the dancers for a while, wonder how some of that still passes as innocent dance and not already as dry humping in public.

A tall glass appears in front of me, but not Miho. She’s standing behind me, loops one arm around me, the glass in her hand. I take it from her, sip carefully – delicious. Fruity and with a hint of rum. Perfect.

She rests her chin on my shoulder, together we keep watching the other guests.

Something’s off. She smells nice, but wrong. Clean, like soap. Or shaving cream…

Her free hand settles on my hip and now I’m sure. This is not Miho. There shouldn’t be anything digging in my lower back if this was her. She’s wearing a dress, no jeans. So no belt. And no belt buckle.

My brain lags a second behind but my body moves the moment whoever is behind me pulls me closer. I stagger, turn and already shout profanities when I recognize the smug grin.

Jake raises his hands appeasingly, his laughter loud enough to make it through the noise and my buzz.

“Stupid asshole, you think this is funny?” I’m seething, this feels worse than back when he –

“Hey, calm down. Your own fault for not checking earlier. I mean, do you let everyone get that close to you?”

For once the drink between us doesn’t end on my clothes, but on his. And his face.

“Fuck you!” I scream, turn around and stomp off. Before security gets me. I scan the bar for Miho, find her in conversation with another familiar face.

“Hi Jared, bye Jared,” I rush out, grab Miho’s arm and drag her with me. “Gotta go now.”

“What’s wrong?” she wants to know but we are already half out of the door.

“I might or might not have dumped my drink on Jacob Rosenfeldt.” Ushering her out I check if he’s following me, with another drink just to get even.

“I’d say he deserves it, but why now and here?”

Outside I turn my hearing aids on again, look left and right to find out where exactly I am. My brain takes a short break but soon enough provides me with the necessary information to find the quickest way out of here.

“Ehh, long story,” I stall and lead Miho through a small alleyway to the next bigger street.

“Yeah? Well, I guess we won’t go back there so we have time enough for you to start talking.”

I must have interrupted at a crucial moment for her to get that agitated.

“He kinda snuggled up to me, I thought it was you and when I noticed I freaked out and threw my drink at him.”

“What drink? Your glass was empty.” At least she’s not laughing.

“He brought me a drink. And it’s a shame, it was a good one.”

Now she bursts out laughing and the adrenaline and alcohol in my blood drags me with her into a laughing fit, until my eyes water and I need to pee.

“You wanna grab another drink at my place?” she asks, still wheezing.

Tomorrow will be hell, facing Jake with a hangover doesn’t sound appealing at all. But having another drink does.

“Please tell me you have some pastry at home.”

She grins, waggles her eyebrows. “I know what you need, baby. Rum and cake. I got both, come on.”

 

Miho lives in a nice little apartment only a few minutes away from the café. Bedroom, living room, the tiniest kitchen I ever saw but a balcony with a view to die for. Lots of books and trinkets make me feel welcome and at home the moment I set a foot into the place.

“Have a seat, I’m just getting all we need.”

I sink into her couch, flex my toes that are cramping a bit after being crammed in those shoes all night.

What have I done? After all those years holding back so that Mom doesn’t get into trouble with her employer I have just assaulted his son.

“Oh god…” I wail, not too loud to not alarm Miho’s neighbors, and hide my face in my hands.

“You look as if you need a strong drink.” A glass with juice and – as I find out after the first sip – gin appears in front of me like a beacon in the night.

“When Jake goes and tells his father what I did-” I mutter, shiver at the implications.

“Not ‘when’, ‘if’,” Miho points out. “If Jake goes… and I don’t think he will.”

She plops down on the couch next to me, pulls her leg up and under her, leans against me.

“I’m not so sure about that. I mean, he’s the biggest snitch I know.” How often did he run off to my Mom or his Dad when something happened when we were younger? How often did he blame me for one of his stupid stunts? Too often, that’s for sure.

“I don’t wanna apologize to him,” I whine and drown my sorrow in more gin.

“Then don’t. Wait what happens and if he gives you trouble because of that, tell his father that you acted on instinct and that it was your free time. You couldn’t possibly know it was him but he definitely knew it was you. So whatever excuse he has, if you don’t have an established physical relationship – and I assume you don’t – it’s his own fault for basically assaulting you.” She sips her drink, motions towards the coffee table and the two plates of cake there.

Two bites of delicious cake later I calm down enough for other thoughts to enter my mind.

“Hey, was that really Jared earlier?”

Miho stabs at her cake, crumbs fly off the plate. “Yep.” The ‘p’ is very prominent. Explosive almost.

“Bad topic?”

Another stab. “Yep.”

“Didn’t you agree on a date for Sunday?” I scoot over a bit, the cake crumbs litter the couch and my lap.

“Not sure if he still wants that. He was there with some other woman after all.”

“Oh.” I thoroughly chew my bite of exquisite cake.

“Yep.”

I fumble for a different topic, try to save the mood somehow.

“The cake is great.” Another huge bite vanishes in my mouth, I give her an enthusiastic thumbs up, eyes wide.

“Pffft!”

At least she’s laughing again, even if it is at my expenses.

The risk of choking on her cake is real so we eat up, wash it down with more booze.

“He’s not that great anyway,” Miho grumbles after a while.

“Hey, just shut me up if I’m overstepping here, but weren’t you dating this guy in High School?” I remember her running around with this basketball dude, one of Jake’s friends.

“Mhm, Pat. Yeah, that one… I kinda messed that up.” She stares into her glass, avoids my eyes. Okay, so that break-up was definitely not amicable and mutual, a concept that seems foreign to me anyway. At least after I saw what my parents did in the last years, on and off again with lots of drama every single time.

“For whatever it’s worth, I kinda crashed and burned my last relationship, too.” A huge swig and my glass is empty again, leaves me with nothing to cling to. “Spectacularly.”

Admitting it doesn’t take away the pain and heartache, but eases the weight nonetheless. I haven’t really talked to Sam since our huge fight, kept the feelings and worries buried under a never-ending stream of work and duties. Sure, every now and then the pain bubbles up like carbon dioxide in a soda you shake too much, but as long as the cap is on the bottle it’s fine. So to speak.

“Did you sleep with a coworker in your own home so your significant other walked in and caught you?” She sips again, out her lips are curled into an annoyed pout.

“No? I mean, who would do that?” I know that there are people stupid or reckless enough to get caught in the act, but no matter the circumstances, I wouldn’t do that to Sam. Not that what I did was any better, though. Definitely not less hurting.

She lazily raises her hand in an answer to my question and my tipsy brain needs a few seconds to catch up.

“Wait, what? He cheated on you in your own home?! That’s so low!”

“Nope. Not ‘he’ did.” Her head tipped back she empties her glass, sighs once she has swallowed the alcohol.

Oh. Oh!

“You? You did that?” I can’t really believe it. Sure, back in school we weren’t close or anything but in the last few days Miho has definitely become a great friend, as if we have more of a past than we actually do.

“I sure did.” The bitterness in her voice doesn’t match her tired expression, she rubs her eyes and I’m not drunk enough yet to have lost all my tact so I interpret it as sign of weariness instead of crying. Not sure if she’s already comfortable enough around me to let me see her cry.

“Wow. Ehh, that’s… I bet you had a good reason.” My offer of an excuse is lame and she snorts, shakes her head.

“Not really. I know it’s what everyone says, but it just happened. I hadn’t planned it and I regretted it the moment my brain kicked in again.” She now rubs her temples but I let her talk. Maybe it helps.

“Patrick – Pat – we have been together for ages. He was my first serious relationship. Not my first love and not my first guy, but he was the first one I was serious with. And he loved me. A lot.” She stares at her glass, purses her lips. “I need more booze for that.”

I remember Patrick only from some times when I ran into Jake and him somewhere. They were friends of sorts, not the closest but getting along.

Miho’s rummaging through her kitchen while I try to come up with a mental image of Patrick because every time I’m close it’s Jake’s stupid grin I see.

“Okay, so he was the first guy I actually saw myself with in 10 years, heck, maybe even in 50 years. One to go steady with, you know?” She walks back in, her drink less opaque than last time. More liquor, less juice.

I nod.

“And we were dating since I was 17, and I figured I’d grow tired of him eventually but surprisingly I never really did. We had our ups and downs but then he followed me to the college of my choice and I kinda knew that he’s the one. Things were really good for a while.” She curls up on the other side of the couch, as if being close to someone else now was making it harder for her to talk. “So we actually graduated college – not without any troubles at his side but he really knuckled down and passed his exams the last year. We moved into a nice apartment, he got a job, I got a job.”

Water condenses on her glass, her free hand is busy scratching up the fabric of her couch, as if there’s a stain bothering her.

“I expected him to propose any time now and I was ready to say yes. People say it’s stupid to marry the first real partner, but if you know it’s the one, it’s the one, right?”

I shrug. How to tell if someone is the one? I mean, it’s so subjective, feelings and no reason.

But I motion for her to carry on.

“So at my new job there was this guy. He reminded me a lot of Pat before we settled into our life together. Fun, flirty, just a tad unpredictable.”

I inwardly groan. Not hard to see where this is heading.

“So when your relationship to Patrick got stuck in a rut-” I begin but she shakes her head.

“No rut. No fights. Nothing. We were the same as always, only that I started to think: ‘What if you slept with the coworker? Just once? Pat didn’t need to know.’” She gnaws at her bottom lip, scratches with the nail of her middle finger at her thumb. The clock on her sideboard ticks, slices the times in handy little pieces, seconds adding up to minutes.

“And did he really find out like that? Did he catch you in the act?”

She blinks, her gaze focuses on me again.

“No. Thank goodness it wasn’t that dramatic. I got a drink with said coworker, it was planned to be a bigger group but in the end it was just him and me. We had some wine, I went home with him and in the morning and I went back to my own place. To our place.”

I’m not sure if I really want to hear what happened next but I don’t stop her.

“Pat was furious. No, first he was relieved, he had tried to call me again and again. And then he got furious. And I just told him. Said I spent the night with another man.” She swallows thickly, flashes me a wry smile. “So much for ‘he doesn’t need to know’.”

She sighs, sets her glass down. “He’s living with a very nice girl now. I think they plan to marry soon, at least from what I could gather from his social media accounts. I know I hurt him a lot but it ended all well for him.”

“But not for you.” No questions needed, it’s easy to see how much this still weights on her.

“Nope. I guess I don’t deserve happiness after what I did to him.”

“Now that’s bullshit. You made a mistake, you are sorry for it, the universe has probably punished you enough. The only one punishing you now is you.” It’s always amazing how easily we can come up with sound advise as long as it’s not for ourselves.

“Oh yeah, the universe punished me plenty.” She rolls her eyes, sits up straighter. “Of course it wasn’t enough that I ruined my relationship and had to move out of my home. When I came to work the next time people were whispering and gossiping. Turned out that the guy told everyone that he had ‘climbed Mt. Fuji-wara’ and enjoyed his 15 minutes of shady glory.”

“No!” I spill a bit of my own drink when I lean forwards, closer to her. “He did not!”

“Sure he did. So the gossip started and he made all these innuendoes and when I couldn’t take it anymore I quit. Left everything behind and – of course – ran home to Mommy and Daddy. Taking over the café was just an emergency solution at first, but after the old owner retired and offered me to take over, I kinda liked it. Now it’s my own business and if there’s an employee causing drama, I can just kick them out. Not that I have many employees anyway, just two part-timers.”

I would have never thought that Miho would cheat in a relationship. Her story reminds me that we don’t know for that long, it just feels like it because we clicked instantly. Hard to believe it’s just a bit more than a week.

“So seeing Jared with some other chick – I deserve it, I guess.” She slumps back, curls up a bit. “And you know what’s even worse?”

“What?”

“I made a total fool of myself when I saw him there. I mean, at first I was really happy, but then I saw him flirting and whispering with her and when he noticed me…” She huffs a breath, half laughter and half sob. “He came over and asked me if I was there on my own and I told him I was with my girlfriend. I panicked and all I could think was that I would look even more pathetic if I was there alone instead with someone else.” She rubs her eyes again, I really worry about her lashes by now. Time to lighten the mood. I bat my lashes at her, give her my best bedroom eyes.

“Soooo… we are dating now? Will I get a friendship bracelet? Will we braid our hair and paint our nails?”

I laugh when she swats into my general direction, but to my relief she joins in.

“You’re only my girlfriend until I find someone better. Once Keira Knightley accepts my advances we’re done.”

“I’m only a stopgap? Story of my life.” I take another sip and when I look up again I catch her gaze.

“Is that what happened to you? Is that why you don’t want to talk about it?”

Dammit, she’s sharp. I rather listen to her than talking about my own misery.

“No, actually that’s far from it.” The remaining cocktail is meant to give me courage but I guess heartburn is more likely.

“So when I started my internship there was this supervisor. Pretty young, pretty pretty, very smart. I had a crush from day one, but as a good intern I toned it down so it wouldn’t get in the way of work.”

“Hmm, an office affair. How scandalous.” She winks at me and I chuckle with her.

“No, we didn’t do anything until I left the company again. I mean, I dreamed of it, naughty stuff on the desk or the copy machine, but I figured someone like Sam would never fall for someone like me anyway. The best I could get was some casual fun and honestly, I would have died for that alone. Turns out dying wasn’t necessary.” I grin wryly, slide down on the couch until I can stare at the ceiling. At least that isn’t judging me.

“The day after I finished my internship I got a text – from Sam. Asking me out for coffee. Obviously our attraction was mutual and the timing couldn’t have been better. I wouldn’t actually date my supervisor and Sam is very serious about not mixing job and private life. So we had that coffee, talked a lot about everything and nothing.” I instantly knew that this was the one. “I fell so fast and so hard, it was scary. A few months everything was great, it was like a dream. And then graduation was close and things got complicated.”

I turn on my side, knees drawn to my chest.

“So he dumped you?”

“Not really. We were discussing what to do next, after my graduation. And suddenly there was this key to Sam’s apartment and I-” A helpless shrug is hard to manage while lying down so I push myself up again.

“I ran. Didn’t even explain why, just grabbed my purse and fled home.”

“Wow. I wish I would still smoke, I feel like a cigarette now.” Miho stares out of the window, there’s hardly any light pollution here.

“I never smoked and even I feel like a cig now.”

Her answer is drowned out by a fit of giggles, everything seems so silly.

“This whole confession thing is really, really exhausting.” Still chuckling I snuggle into her couch, wait for the world to stop spinning.

“Do you miss him?” She throws a blanket over me, grabs one for herself.

“Who?”

“Sam. Do you miss him?”

I throw my arm over my face, enjoy the sudden darkness.

“With every fucking heartbeat.”