December 20th, 2015
"Is it weird that I got here before Finn?"
"Honestly? No." April handed me a round colorful ball. "You guys' have been dating for a year and a half, our casa is tu casa."
"Okay, it's weird that you're so accurate about the span of our relationship."
April shrugged, smirking. She opened another box labeled XMAS DECOR. This was my second Christmas at the Matthews' household; any time Finn and I could be in the same state throughout our freshman year had been bliss, because there were hard months when we would fight over me or him being too tired to talk; there had been missed calls, mixed texts and finals… Ugh. Finals had been the worst possible thing. Life at UCLA hadn't been bad, though, I'd gotten close to Kendra and Luck, I even "shocked" Finn by making more friends. He was such a joker; I rolled my eyes with a private grin. The key to our successful long-distance relationship was trusting one another, confiding our insecurities instead of just keeping things bottled up; Finn hadn't just aided me through the baggage of emotional turmoil with Jackson and Mom, I got the chance to support him whenever he felt overwhelmed with pressure at MIT. There was nothing more fulfilling than being able to help someone who helped you—to give back. At the end of my freshman year, though, I submitted a transfer request for Brown. And let's just say… Being two hours away from Finn was heaven.
"You still haven't told me about your promotion."
April swatted a piece of blond hair that got loose from the long braid she was sporting.
"It wasn't a promotion. I'm still an intern."
"But you're a paid intern now." I held out my hands weighing them up and down like a scale. "Can you see the difference?"
April brought her palms together in a prayer, then smiled widely—looking a little creepy, like her brain was turning with a hundred plus ideas at the same time. I loved this girl.
"Yes, okay, being a paid intern is great. I won't lie. It's especially great because my paychecks are reassuring my parent's little hearts."
"You finished high school." I remembered last Christmas tensions had been riding a little high because her parents to finish high school. They didn't care about a college degree, but if she finished high school she could have the option if she ever changed her mind. April had caved to her parents' wishes.
April's face pinched, "Barely." I dug into the newly opened box to extract the Christmas lights. "I'm totes excited for this."
"You should be." I handed her one end of the ropy green wire. We started entangling the lights. "Speaking of exciting news," I began. "Have Johnny and Carly picked a name yet?"
"They've narrowed it down to two: Penelope and Aria." Suddenly, April shook the green wiring; my end slipped like melted butter through fingers, hitting the ground. She beamed an apologetic grin. I shook my head, bending to grab the lights. "They completely ignored my suggestion. Luna is a great name! And it would've kept Mom's tradition of naming kids after characters." April's love for Harry Potter was undeniable as ever; I was wearing the sweater she'd given me last year, she knitted me a white sweater with a V in the middle in different colors, like a rainbow. Because I didn't have a favorite color.
"You need to meet Luck." I mumbled under a breath. I couldn't imagine what would happen if I put two Potterheads together. Would they explode from all the squealing excitement? I snorted softly. "I like Penelope better. It's got an exotic ring to it."
A loud mechanism rumbled outside the loft, announcing the elevator was on the move. Next, there was the distinct clinking of keys against the door, before it was unlocked. The lights crashed on the floor again. The minute Finn walked inside, I practically leaped over the couch and wrapped myself around him like a spider-monkey. He literally dropped his backpack to hug me—or catch me. I hadn't seen him in two weeks because of a project he'd been working on. One way to tell if Finn had been spending his time in the lab, was the presence of a beard; we're talking an actual beard, not the five o'clock shadow.
"You need to shave." Finn pecked my chin.
"I've missed you too, marshmallow." I gave him a stare that solidified the 'not in front of your sister' argument. Finn's head whipped to the side, catching April's struggle with a weirdly complicated knot of Christmas lights. "Hello there—"
"General Kenobi!" I whispered under a breath. Finn cut me a quick exasperated look.
"Hello there, little sister." He finished, not taking his eyes off me. I could tell he was fighting a smile. I heard April protest about Finn's terrible timing because we were working on decorating the tree, but I was busy kissing him. His beard chafed against my cheeks and chin, above my upper lip; that faded into the background once he captured my lower lip between his and teased it with his teeth. My hands clamped down on his shoulders.
"I still remember when you weren't comfortable with displays of PDA." Finn's tongue retreated, and we parted a little too quickly. I rocked back on my heels.
"I wish I could say there was a time when you were less annoying." Finn huffed as April poked out her tongue at him. Then she all but marched over, held up the lights and draped them across Finn's shoulders, smiling at his frustration. Finn did his best to shrug the lights off, but April hugged him—she took after their mother in that department. "A little help?"
I held up my hands, heaving a shrug.
It was Christmas Eve. Finn had pulled me away from the living room—more like from his family. He'd been acting giddy all day and I hadn't seen much of him in the last three days. Then again, we'd both been busy. Sharon invited Ava and I to her new apartment for a "sleepover". There had been a lot of drinking—well, not for Ava. College hadn't loosened her alcohol tolerance. Finn hung out with Thomas and visited his brother over in New Jersey.
"What's gotten into you? You're acting sketchy."
"Being happy is sketchy?"
"It is for you. You're reluctant to show your happiness." I informed him. Finn frowned over down at me, before shaking his head. "It's true." I murmured sullenly, taking small steps around his bed, stopping where Finn was kneeling. "What are you…"
"Sit on the bed and close your eyes." Came the no-nonsense tone.
I drew back from trying to peer around his back. What was he doing? There was a little noise… like a squeak?
"Come on, Valerie, work with me." I crossed my arms over the black sweater. I turned on my heel, making my way to bed.
"Fine. I'm sitting on the bed. My damn eyes are shut. If you throw flour at my head…"
"What? Why would I do that?"
I still hadn't told Finn about my last day before Christmas break. Basically, a couple of smartasses thought it would be hilarious to rig the door to sculpturing class with a plastic basin filled with flour. The unlucky one? Me.
"Later…" I whispered, wondering what my payback was going to be if I ever found out who'd done it.
"Alright." His voice was closer. I bit my lip as I smelled the distinct scent of Finn's aftershave: sandalwood. "You can open your eyes now."
I did and tipped back. Staring back at me was a small face with yellow fur and dark blue eyes. The rest of it was wrapped in a baby-blue blanket—one you'd probably use for a baby. Well, I guess it was appropriate since Finn was holding a kitten. And kittens were babies. Baby cats. The little kitten wiggled around, small paws knocking against my boyfriend's fingers.
"He moves a lot." Finn broke the silence. He lowered the kitten, enough for me to see his face. Grey eyes searched mine, "I got you a kitten for Christmas if that's not obvious." He stated cheekily.
I snapped out of my stunned idiocy. I reached out for the little ball of fur. Finn's lips kicked up, he happily relinquished his hold on the blanket and young cat. Just as I reached out to pet it, the little rascal managed to disentangle itself and walked—a little clumsily—from my legs onto Finn's bedspread.
"Don't let him on the bed," Finn complained. "He might pee on it."
"It's a he?" Finn nodded. I managed to re-capture the kitten. He tried nibbling on my fingers; I… hoped he was trying to play and not actually bite. Because I would hate to have a pit bull type of cat. "You bought me a kitten." I whispered, finally running a finger across the male kitten's head. He stilled, staring up at me with big round eyes. I smiled at him.
"You kept telling me how boring it can be to live off campus," Finn uncurled from his crouching position, taking a seat beside me, instantly warranting the kitten's attention. Finn reached out a finger, rubbing the yellow cat under its chin; he shut his eyes as if telling Finn to keep working. Bossy little guy, I liked him. "And I know you're lonely when I leave for Massachusetts." It wasn't like I was always alone, I'd made friends at Brown, just like I'd done at UCLA. But I wasn't ready to invite Bonnie or Paula or anyone else to stay over. Not like I'd done so many times with Luck and Kendra. "I haven't managed to clone myself yet, so, I thought 'what's the next best thing'?"
"And, of course, you came to the conclusion: a kitten is the next best thing."
My expression shifted into one of fake candor. I rested a sympathetic hand on his shoulder.
"MIT is lucky to have you."
"Hardy-har-har, marshmallow." I leaned our shoulders together. "Did you like the surprise?"
"Yes, I loved it—him. Thank you, Finn." He kissed the top of my head, then my temple. I nuzzled my cheek against the thick cotton of his hoodie. "Is this why you've been avoiding me these last few days?"
"Yes and no. I hung out with Trip and Johnny. Then I roped my sister-in-law to help me procure an adorable, healthy kitten."
I turned a scolding gaze on him.
"Your very pregnant sister-in-law." Seven months along pregnant.
"She just gave me an address. Johnny went with me. A friend of Carly's owns a pet shop." Finn proceeded to tell me information about my new friend: he was a month and a half. He could eat moist kibble. But the only thing I was thinking about was: what am I going to name him?
"Finn," I said very seriously. Finn's eyebrows drew together. "Look at his face. What kind of face is it?"
Finn cut me a dry look.
"A cat type of face."
I rolled my eyes. The little ball of yellow fur meowed. It was a little shrill, like a squeaked yell.
"I think you insulted him." Finn ignored my comment, gently poking the kitten's nose. It lifted a paw to knock off Finn's finger; Finn wiggled it at the yellow cat, who proceeded to nibble the finger pad. "How about Darth Meow?"
"God, no." He sounded so honestly dismayed that I laughed. "Your obsession with Star Wars worries me." wait until I told him where we were going in a few days… To see The Force Awakens, of course!
I cleared any thoughts of wacky space adventures and re-focused on the task at hand.
"How about Vainn?" Finn stared at me long and hard. "It's our names. I took the first two letters from mine and three from yours."
"I got that. You're not couple naming the kitten."
"Why not? It's my kitten."
"Well, yeah, but it's… stupid." I plucked the kitten away from Finn's finger; it meowed, annoyed. A smirk broke across Finn's face.
"Don't look so smug."
"You like it when I'm smug." He whispered in his deep voice, making my belly coil. I knew his eyes were heated oceans of mercury without staring directly at them.
"Not in front of the kitten, Matthews." I admonished, clearing my throat. "Alright. Not Vainn. You're right, it's dorky." I grabbed Finn's arm, startling him. "I know!" Finn waited. "I'm going to name him Kovu."
Once Finn drew a blank, I reminded him of our Disney marathon—AKA, the marathon Finn had to put up with for an entire weekend because I'd been craving… well, Disney.
Finn crossed his arms, skeptical, "Okay. Why not Simba? He's yellow."
"There are tons of Simbas. Besides, Kovu reminds me of you. He was an outcast, then he met the princess and they fell in love…" Finn cut me off with a quick kiss.
I stared with barely contained laughter at the flustered expression Finn was wearing.
"I'm okay with that name. Just don't… explain why you picked it to anyone. Ava and my sister are included in that category. Please." I smiled at the light-pink shade across his cheekbones. Despite what April thought, Finn was still incredibly private about everything and anything related to us. Which was okay with me.
Finn and I rode the elevator to the sixth floor. It was a much lower floor than before. The new apartment my father and Maria bought was in Manhattan, but no longer a duplex. On that account, only Simone and two other maids worked here. It was Christmas day and we were eating with my family. Things were… better. Not fantastic. Maybe they would never be back to that. Which would be very understandable and the most predictable scenario, but... we were a family. After Jackson's suicide, Maria had been in a tough spot, but she hadn't shut herself out. She voluntarily searched for a therapist. She asked me to attend a few meetings with Ms. Coleman; eventually, Dad joined us, and we'd gone through some family therapy before I left for UCLA; we kept going whenever I came home. The past summer, Dad and Maria decided to head to the lake house; Dad invited Finn and I to spend a week with them. Dad and Finn got along like two peas in a pod; while at the lake house, they engaged in a competition for the highest high-score on Ms. Pac Man. Watching my fifty-year old father acting like a ten-year old alongside my boyfriend had been something else; Mom would have laughed the entire time, just as I had, while drinking hot cocoa with tiny marshmallows.
Maria was never mean or resentful. She barely talked about Jackson, which I understood better than anyone. And yet, it wasn't the same thing as it had been for me, with Mom. Jackson had been a terrible person. He broke his mother's heart in more ways than one.
"I raised him the best I could. Some things are out of our control, Valerie," she'd told me in one of our joint therapy sessions. "What I regret most is what he put you through. I'm sorry I never saw… what he was. Who he was." An unbalanced, sick boy. Or just a shit person. It was anyone's guess.
A part of me would always believe Jackson killed himself as a last resort; a last weapon to hurt me—to send me over the edge. He jumped off one of my family's hotels! That in itself was a statement—that his suicide was a deranged punch aimed at me.
There would never be an answer for certain.
Standing here, surrounded by my father, my step-mother, Finn and Simone, I could fully understand what Ms. Coleman once told me. Having someone love you isn't a holy grail. Nor Finn or Ava were a sort of automatic salvation from my insecurities, from my forged identity or a quick fix from the deep grief I'd been carrying around for the better part of my existence. Getting past those problems wasn't someone else's job, it was mine. But having people who love and support you? It's a very positive thing; people like that will help if you reach out, they'll lighten the load on your back.
If my relationship with Finn fell through I would be completely heartbroken, yes, but not because he was a remedy to "make me right". No. It would be because I love him—not only for what he makes me feel, but especially for the person he is: intelligent, witty, devoted, with a capacity to learn from his mistakes and to admit he's wrong. So, yes, when important people leave... It hurts, like being ripped apart. But surviving means finding a way to stitch yourself together and move on—not forget, never forget. The scars stay, changing you forever, building a map of where you've been, of who you've been.
I've been a lot of things: a happy little girl with loving parents, a sad girl waiting for her mother to disappear, a girl drowning in despair and confusion, a bitter girl with an icy heart, a victim of sexual assault. I bore a scar for each of those, some were deeper, uglier, than others. Some would throb from time to time, open and bleed. It wasn't always easy, but now I was something else too, I was a girl who could look at her mother's photographs and smile.
It was progress.
That's a wrap on Unmasked! It's been almost five years since I started this story and I'm very happy to have finally finished it. I finished the first draft of these last chapter back in August but it took a while to proof-read while juggling college work. I understand if some people didn't like where I took the story, I want to say that this was the plot from the start; I try not to write cliches, I try to write things I want to explore, I try to make them as real as possible, I hope I do okay. Finn and Valerie are two of my favorite characters ever, I think they are accepting of each other's weaknesses and they support each other through their low points instead of giving up; they call each other out on their mistakes and I think that's important, because they can become better people for it; what I'm trying to say is that they learn from each other and if they weren't together anymore they wouldn't just revert to who they were before they started dating, they would have learned from that experience, something people don't always do and you see them making the same mistakes in a relationship over and over. Jackson was the antagonist to Valerie from the beginning, they were both pretending to be people they weren't; he seemed like a good guy who was always ready to help and Valerie came of as the stone-cold bitch who liked to boss people around. I wanted to show that while Valerie was getting help through Ms. Coleman, Jackson had no one and no one will ever know if he was just a piece of shit or if he there was something that could've been done to help his obsessive behavior towards Valerie. Nothing excuses the things Jackson did throughout the book, obviously. So, yeah, people aren't always who we think they are and maybe you'll never really know who they were.
That was a really long rant. I would like to thank everyone who's been following, reading and to the people who have left reviews! I absolutely love you for all the support and time you take out of your day/night to read my story; sometimes it's a follow or a review that rescues you from the funk of inspiration you fall in, so thank you.
I'm going to write Gabriel and Sharon's story now; it's called Wrecked (the synopsis is already up) and like what I did with Unmasked it takes secondary characters and makes them protagonists. Trip, Ava, Finn and Valerie will be in it as secondary characters. The trailer for Wrecked is already up, the link is in my profile page.
Best wishes to all of you!