Kisses of orange paint the silver wings of the plane as evening settles on the horizon. Memories dance in the clouds, sirens calling me into the past. Ten years. It started as one, faded into another, and soon staying away was easier than facing the past. My life officially migrated from my little sandwich town back to Seattle. Being gone was never hard, not after the last semester of junior year, but staying gone, sometimes it burned my soul. I'd spent years masking the pain with studies, sharp objects, too much alcohol and when it all crashed in around me, well…I push another memory down along with the nausea flying always brings and draw my focus back to the book in my hand. I can survive two weeks in Flatwater, Georgia. I mean, it's Flatwater and I still have a few hours to change my mind. I could get off of the plane and right back on another. I could go home and pretend I never got the call. She said she needs me though and my mother hasn't needed me since I was nine years old and writing checks for the bills. Before Clay, there were good memories mixed in like bits of chocolate in the batter of my unconventional childhood. Then the good times were replaced by fears and monsters down the hall. I spent years making excuses, trying to justify the pain, but I always knew forgiveness would be a fleeting goal. Silencing the demons raging in my mind, I open my book back to the page I've already skimmed six times. Distracting my brain doesn't stop years of suppressed memories from bubbling in my belly until finally the plane touches down.
We slowly deplane, the other passengers finding their own paths as we leave the terminal, wandering through the throngs of people who are waiting...waiting for something. I should have let my husband come with me, to come see how I grew into this woman he thinks she knows so well. I should have sent a letter to relay all the things I want my mother to know and stayed a home. I shouldn't have answered the phone three days ago and let her manipulate me back to my former life. Within an hour of exiting the plane, I'm tossing my suitcase into the white SUV I rented. Mom said I could use the van once I arrived, but it was old when she dropped me off at that bus stop and I doubt any more reliable now than my mother herself. After the long flight a nap sounds wonderful, but parking garages have never been my favorite location for relaxation so I turn over the engine and type the address into the GPS system. The two hours drive is filled with new landmarks, at least one new exit, and a long list of old worries. Flatwater is a blink of a town with its depressing name being the most interesting thing about it. People know each other, a lot of people stay, and a lot of people still remember the girl who was shamefully banished a decade ago. The compact house we moved to three weeks before my ninth birthday, the one I fell apart in, is aged with life. The yellow paint has dulled. Even in the bright glow of the headlights, the dusty white shudders flake in the moonlight. My breath hitches in my throat, the anticipation of seeing my family without the security of a computer screen and a thousand or so miles pressing on my lungs, making each breath burn. She had told me never to come back, but with the rise of social media, my younger brother had found the sister he barely remembered. I glance toward the back, deciding that the bags can wait at least until I know if I'm going to stay. Watching for cracks in the sidewalk and the step that has always creaked under the weight of a toddler, I inch just close enough to allow for a brief knock.
Voices beat out from within those walls I've avoided even in my memories. One bursts forth from the murmurs, preceding the swinging door by a breath, "Maddie! Riley! Jameson! Wait where're Riley and Jameson?"
Looking up to my second youngest brother, one of a pair, I take in the warm smile and offer one of my own as he peeks around me. "Home. She can't miss a week of school."
"Seriously? We don't get to see the kid?" The male version on myself wanders down the stairs with a scowl, "Sometimes I wonder why I even bothered to find you online."
I bite back the retort that our mother knew exactly where I was the whole nine and a half years before I received his first contact and brace myself for the remainder of the greetings, "Hey, Logan."
Alec, Tyler, and Blake say brief hellos before dispersing once again, none of them very interested in my existence or presence in the house. Logan and Cade follow as soon as my mother finds time to greet me. She's aged more than time that's passed since I've seen her. It makes her look much more than seventeen years my senior, the greying hair, lines from too much smoking and too many shots to cover bad decisions. Her thin arms wrap awkwardly around my shoulders in some sad attempt to melt the years of separation. "I thought you were bringing Riley and that man you married."
"My husband, Jameson, yes, well, I'm here to help you out. She's got school and he has work. Maybe another time."
"As if that'll ever happen. If I hadn't practically begged, you wouldn't even be here now. It's like you've got some morbid curiosity or something." Her dulled green eyes roll as she just stands there like it's my job to figure out how to proceed. My fears of returning grow as she leads me from the entryway. Turning toward the kitchen, my eyes land on the stairs again, tumbling to the bottom. The tan carpet, long ago replaced with a hunter green, flashes red in my mind.
"It's just a staircase, Madalyn." Her voice draws my incredulous glare, eyes searching for a deeper lie. Years of repetition have rewritten her memories, erasing all hope of moving on. For her, there's nothing to move beyond. It's just a staircase. My step-father killed himself because money was just a little tight. I just decided to go live with my aunt the summer before senior year. It makes me wonder if there's more to the just a simple surgery story.
"Let's have tea." The world could be in its final hours and my mother's solution would be to have tea. No matter how many cups of her favorite brew we ingested over the years, our problems still surfaced, though only long enough to be buried again. Now the scent of tea makes my stomach churn.
"I'll just have water…or coffee if you have it." My voice has already softened like I'm still apologizing for being here. How does she manage to diminish me with a simple suggestion? When did I become an inconvenience rather than her first born?
A thin hand places the kettle on the burner, turning up the fire and digging in the cabinet for a green labeled jar. In the world of Starbucks and designer lattes, instant coffee seems more of a punishment than a welcoming gesture. Befitting, I suppose. The heaviness of the past settles like heartburn in my chest as I watch her analyze the knob on the stove, study two spoons, examine two floral cups. I'm all too content to pretend the silence is comfortable. Quietly scanning the photos hanging on the stairwell wall, I watch my brothers grow in height and bulk from left to right as the frames scatter. They all look like him, all but one, sandy blonde hair in various lengths, caramel eyes, and lightly tanned skin, looking like they're in a race to reach standard basketball player height. I search each photo from some hint of an inner monster, grateful to find only the occasional disconnectedness all kids get when they're trying to do something while mom insists on taking pictures. One set of dark green eyes snatch my matching gaze, daring someone to notice the pain hiding behind the ridiculous black mop. His smile never reaches his eyes, body never relaxes. He's me ten years ago and I'm desperate to know why. As I flit my gaze from the snapshot to the boy, my fingers rove over the stories etched in the worn wood of the kitchen table, some I made as a kid, others my brothers wrote after I left, a few I wish I could forget. It's the only piece of furniture she's kept from her life before Clay. The only evidence other than me that my father ever existed in her life. His handiwork surrounded me at my aunts, so much that I nearly forgot this remnant of him still existed. My fingernail absently digs into a short gash in the marred flesh of the top, one that reminds me of my own stories written in pink on ivory skin, never fully hidden from view, ever in my memory.
"I need to tell you why I called." Her voice slices through my thoughts as a steaming mug of wannabe coffee slides over my memories. Experience tells me, this is where just surgery becomes I'm secretly an international spy and they have to remove a mind controlling chip from my brain so I need you to watch the boys for a few weeks. "The boys don't know, but it's cancer."
An international spy story would have made it easier to respond. Ten questions into my mental tirade, I blow out my frustration in a slow whoosh, "It must be serious."
She doesn't notice the tension seeping into my jaw as she twists the knife, "I wouldn't have called if it wasn't."
I should have known. Ten years and I've only received two other calls. One a year and a half after the bus ride, a call that only lasted long enough to tell me what a horrible person and to never send another card. She yelled and told me I should search my soul for...something. Probably something to do with Jesus. Unlike my mother I hadn't spent years trying to find Jesus in the bottom of a bottle, so I obviously hadn't found him at all. The other call came six years ago. It was short, pleading, broken. The same tone that sent me from Seattle to Flatwater had asked for help. In my anger and hurt, I was happy to let that voice drown in its own grief. "How long?"
She stares through her own reflection, staring past the darkness, searching for something I doubt she actually wants to find, "A few months, year at best. I'll know more tomorrow."
"I'll tell them when I know more."
I've always loved my mother, even when I hated her, even when even thinking about her felt like acid in my stomach. That little girl inside always believed the woman who patched skinned knees and gave butterfly kisses would return. That sweet little optimist believed we'd have time, time to reconcile, forgive, mend. She thought there'd be ice cream and some hallmark moment that would make it all okay, but even that little optimist knows her fairytale ending just vanished into the stars. To keep her from breaking, a wall is clumsily erected, unstable and ugly, but it's just enough. "What happens to them?"
Her voice cracks, the whisper echoing in the stifling space, "You. It's all in writing."
"Me?" My next words are more of a hiss, "Writing? My gosh, Mom, you barely speak to me for a decade and now you want…what? Me to move here? Play house?"
"You left, Madalyn Grace. You left…just like your father."
"Just like…he died mother. He died and then you sent me away and Clay killed himself and it's all my fault, because it's always my fault. You put me on that damn bus and made me promise never to come back and now you're telling me you want me to stay? Is this a joke?"
The death glare is intercepted by Cade toting my purse into the kitchen with measured steps. He looks like he's carrying an armed bomb, "Your purse is ringing."
I'm surprised he didn't answer it, but glad to have an excuse to leave the room. "It's probably Riley. She should be going to bed soon."
My fingers text a quick reply that I'll call her right back as I climb the stairs and step into my old bedroom. Logan and Alec offered it up when they found out I was actually coming. The lavender walls have been coated with an obnoxious shade of blue that may possibly glow when I flip the light off, my full bed traded for two twins accompanied by a pair of dressers, the stained carpet covered with a thin black rug, a small wooden desk standing in the corner, nearly blocking the entrance to the tiny closet. Years that taught me how to truly hate another human being bounce between the walls, mocking me for thinking my return wouldn't bring back a flood of memories. My fingers instinctively seek out the uneven patches of drywall, punishments echoing through my mind, nightmares I thought I'd secured in my past. Not all the memories brought tears though. My little brothers brought some relief and stolen moments with my high school sweetheart covered some of the pain, but my worst moments still live within these walls, unleashed by an overactive memory. Dialing my reason for surviving, I wait for her that reminder that I'm safe.
"Hey Momma! How was your flight? How's Uncle Logan? Does he miss me? And Uncle Cade? Did Uncle Tyler say anything? Last time I talked to him he just kept telling me about some breakfast thing. Did Nana Carol ask about me? She never seems to ask about me, but you're there so, hey…" A few hours away and I'd already forgotten the speed talking abilities of a nine-year-old with a lot on her mind.
"Riles, seriously, slow down. Your uncles are good. Logan is not happy you're not here and Uncle Cade wanted to meet you. Tyler's quiet. I don't think he's very comfortable with having company. Nana says hi." No matter how many times I lie to her about our family, it never hurts any less that it isn't the truth. Her grandmother shouldn't have ignored her for most of her life. It shouldn't have taken my brother seeking me out on social media for her to finally meet them, at least through Skype. Her family should have more blood in it, but that's not something I could offer her, not if I wanted her to be happy. "Are you being good for Daddy?"
"Yeah, we had cold pizza and chocolate…oh, I mean we had spaghetti for dinner and, uh, apples?" I know my husband is coaching her on what they should have eaten for dinner, likely while making odd hand gestures. "Tomorrow we're going to a concert thing at Daddy's school. Not like a Taylor Swift concert though so Sarah Quinton said it's lame, but then I told her I get to eat with college people and now she thinks it might not be so lame. I think she's just being mean because we both like Cole. I don't know though. Girls are super weird."
I try to remind myself that liking someone at nine when you're heavily chaperoned and raised as a child rather than a miniature adult is not something I need to panic over. She is not going to come home next week and tell me I'm going to be a grandma before thirty. It probably means she shares her pudding with him at lunch, which actually makes me want to dump pudding on his perfectly gelled little head. "Boys are weird too. Don't forget that, just ask Daddy."
"Oh, mom, you're so old fashioned." I hear her blue eyes roll through the phone and wonder how anyone, parent or child, survives the preteen years. She doesn't even make sense most of the time. My husband makes some remark about being respectful, quickly changing her tone, "Sorry."
"Yes, I am and it's your bedtime. Love you, Monkey."
"Love you, Momma." Another sigh, "Daddy wants to talk to you. He's doing that thing."
"Hey Babe. Kiddo, teeth, now." Less than twenty-four hours and he's already turning our daughter into a junk-food addict, "So, how's it going?"
"Well, my mother still believes I'm Satan's spawn and as such I have my very own condo in Hell."
"That's fantastic, I'm I invited? I could think of lots of things we could do alone in a condo."
This is why I married him. No matter how horrible things get, he can always make me smile. "She's dying. That's why she called. She's dying and she wants me, us, to take care of the boys when she's gone." The silence on the other end is all I need to know that my own incredulity is not misplaced. I have every right to be annoyed, angry, livid. "There are five of them, Jay."
"I hope she has one heck of a life insurance policy." He mumbles, quickly sucking in a breath when he realizes that was one of those thoughts that's supposed to stay in your mind not one that's supposed to sneak out of your mouth, "Sorry. That was insensitive. I'm just a little surprised."
"A little? Jameson, you've already been through so much with me. I can't ask you to do this with me." I hadn't even thought about what gaining custody of the boys would actually mean for my living situation, or theirs. Moving to Flatwater is out of the question. I would rather drown myself in a public toilet than live here again. I can't very well fit five teenaged boys and a rapidly maturing little girl in our two bedroom Seattle apartment. I won't even let Jay and Riley get a dog. Five boys need more than a dog, more room, more food, more supervision. A dog would be much easier. "I could refuse."
"But you won't. You'll take them in because they're family and you have tried desperately since I've known you to protect your family at all costs. It's not their fault your mom is a whacko or that your step dad was some abusive dickhead."
"I don't have a dollar for the swear jar."
Steaming tears burn my eyes as the severity, the all-encompassing impact, of the mess I've gotten myself into. I thought I was past this kind of life altering mistake pattern. I thought I had learned my lessons, but this woman will continue to play me until her death and even then her ghost will torment me. She'll be up there in heaven, because God is far more forgiving than I, and she'll be making snide remarks about my lack of ability to live my life without drama. "Why can't I hate her? I really want to hate her. I hated him. I hated him so bad that when I got that call, I smiled. I laughed. You remember. I hadn't felt so relived, so alive since my mother brought him home from that stupid grief support group. And I should hate her. I should hate that she brought him home and she made us move and she let him…I really, really just want to hate her, but she's my mom and she's dying and that means this is as good as it gets. This is what I have to make peace with…and I don't know if I can do that."
"Listen to me. Okay? You listen. You do not have to figure this out tonight and you certainly don't have to do it alone. I'm calling my sister and I'll be on the next plane, okay. You do not have to do this alone. Now you have to stop crying because I can't hold you right now."
"I love you."
"I love you too and we'll figure it out. I promise."
"I'll be there tomorrow. We'll figure it out." The click feels like a slice to an artery. All the security I've built up since I left slowly leaks out staining this room again. The blood and tears have faded or been covered by threadbare rugs, but all of those scars, all of the pleas, all of the years of hating myself, those stains are still here, befriending these new ones. Silent tears drain my strength until collapsing into a catatonic slumber is the only option I have left.