I hadn’t actually seen Trevor since we all graduated from college, though I’d seen his face plastered all over the place in recent years. Between magazine covers—thankfully never ours—talk show interviews, news programs, and social media, he was hard to miss, being the CEO and founder of one of the biggest tech companies in the world.
I’d like to say his success surprised me. It hadn’t, though a part of me hated it. I would have loved nothing better than to see Trevor fail at something. He’d even managed to change how he presents himself. In college, he’d been that person who didn’t really stand-out. Slightly nerdy, but not enough to be noticed. Neither severely overweight nor extremely fit. Not bad-looking, but not gorgeous either. He was always that constant presence in the background, without ever taking the spotlight. Even when he was beating all of the rest of the students in the grades department, most students in his classes didn’t know his name. I wasn’t even sure if the professors knew it, beyond the first day role call to make sure everyone was in the same class.
Now he was fit and had embraced his nerdy side to the point where he was now one of the cool kids. He definitely didn’t shy away from the spotlight anymore. Everyone knew his name. And when he spoke, he spoke with confidence. It all annoyed me. Especially when inviting him into our circle hadn’t been my idea in the first place.
A collector of strays, as I often like to put it, Mark had been the one to befriend Trevor in a class they shared sophomore year. I couldn’t even remember which class. Soon after, our duo became a trio, though my interactions were mainly with Mark. Then Lindsay came along and we were four. At least until I overheard, unbeknownst to him, Trevor’s real thoughts about me. Those thoughts hammered the nail into the proverbial coffin of any future friendship. And as far as I was concerned, I no longer owed him the benefit of being nice for Mark’s sake. No, the battle was on at that point and all bets were off.
If we were in the same room, we were arguing. If we were in the same class, we were vying for the top grade. It had gotten so bad that Mark once tried to intervene, and it had turned ugly. It was really the first time I thought our friendship might be at stake. He’d grown tired of it all and said as much. And though he’d stopped short of telling us both that if we couldn’t get along, we could move on, it was still understood.
It was never spoken, our uneasy truce. One day Trevor and I were at each other’s throats and the next day we’d simply avoided speaking to each other unless absolutely necessary. And that’s how it remained until we both graduated and went our separate ways. That’s how we left it and as far as I was concerned, that’s how we could leave it for the rest of our lives.
While neither Mark nor Lindsay ever stated it out loud, I had a sneaking suspicion they’d quietly accepted Trevor and I could never get a long and went out of their way to make sure we weren’t in town at the same time. I found it hard to believe, with both of us still in touch with them, we wouldn’t have crossed paths at some point. But we never did, which told me how important this day was for both of them.
And because it was that important and because we were adults now, I’d made the pact with myself that I would not let Trevor get to me. I’d repeated that mantra in my head all day. I’d even voiced my intentions to Mark, who, to his credit, had managed to contain his laughter.
Even as I’d taken myself to the front porch to escape the chaos outside, partly so I could finally read The Stand which I’d been trying to accomplish for ten years and partly to escape the chaos of family life inside, I’d continued repeating it.
I’d only gotten a chapter in when “Hello, Grace” interrupted my reading and I looked up to find Trevor standing on the steps.
“Trevor. They are all inside,” I said, acknowledging him and dismissing him all in one breath.
He cocked his head to the side and grinned. “Still hate me, huh?”
And before I could stop it from coming out of my mouth, I answered with a simple, “Yup,” then returned my focus to the book. He hovered for several seconds, then walked past me and into the house. Apparently, pacts with myself were useless.
After the fourth time reading the same page with no comprehension, remorse crept in. I slammed the book closed and stood up. Damned guilt.
With a deep breath and a mental scolding, I opened the door and entered the foyer. I heard the chattering before I rounded the corner to find Lindsay, Mark, and Trevor all in the middle of excited greetings. I slipped in quietly and stood off to the side, the book clutched to my chest, and waited for the commotion to calm before speaking.
Lindsay was the first to see me, and I saw her eyes go wide as she looked from me to Trevor. “Grace! Hey.”
“Hey,” I said back, then looked directly at Trevor. “Sorry about that out there. That was rude and uncalled for. It won’t happen again.”
There was just silence with Lindsay looking confused, Mark looking amused, and Trevor surprised. I felt the heat rise up my neck into my cheeks, followed by an irritated “Nevermind,” just as Trevor stepped forward and extended his hand. “No harm, no foul,” he said.
The embarrassment calmed, and with it the desire to lash out, as I took his hand and gave it a pump. “Truce,” I said.
“Truce,” he agreed.
Then I walked out and headed to the basement, where I planned to stay for the rest of the evening. It was safer that way.
I alternated between reading and looking for jobs, not realizing how much time had passed until Mark knocked on the doorframe at the top of the stairs. “Can I come down?”
“Sure,” I said, pushing my laptop off my lap and onto the bed before swinging my legs over the side. He jogged down the stairs and stopped at the banister.
“Trevor is gone, if you want to come up for dinner.”
“He’s not staying here?” I asked, hearing the relief in my own voice. I’d been afraid, no matter how big the house was, it would have been too small for me to hold up the charade for an entire week.
Mark shook his head. “Hotel room. He still has work to do and thought it best he stay at a hotel for the week. I’m sure that hurts your feelings,” he said with a knowing grin.
“I promised I’d try, and I will, but no, it doesn’t hurt my feelings that I don’t have to stay in the same house as him.”
“Yes, you did promise. And I’m proud of you, apologizing like that, even if you didn’t mean a word of it.”
I shrugged. “I didn’t not mean it. It’s one thing to not like him, but I was rude for no reason. And that’s not cool.”
“What have you done with the real Grace?”
I glared at him. “Funny. I’m not generally rude. On purpose, anyway. Unless someone deserves it.”
“True,” he said. “Okay, come get some dinner. The kids want to see you, and we’ve kept them at bay all evening.”
“I’ll be up in a minute.”
He started up the steps, then stopped and peeked down when I said, “Hey, Mark.”
“Just so you know, I’m only being nice if he’s nice to me. He starts in with me, and all bets are off.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Mark said with a wink, then disappeared upstairs.
By the time I made it to the dining room, everyone was already seated at the table. I breathed in the aroma of a homecooked meal, and my mouth started to water. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to cook; I made a mean lasagna. But being only one person and with my schedule, my dinners usually came in a take-out box.
I maneuvered around the table to the empty seat between Thomas and Bryan. Lindsay looked apologetic from the end of the table as I sat down. “Sorry. They were fighting over who got to sit beside you.”
Both beamed smiles at me, and I wrapped my arms around them and squeezed them close. “I’m honored.”
Mark carried bowls from the counter, setting them down in the empty spaces on the table. At each place setting, a bowl of salad was already waiting. I stretched up to see inside the bowls and grinned. “Your mom’s spaghetti?”
“Yep,” he said with a wink.
“Yes!” I said, clapping my hands together. It was just spaghetti sauce, homemade, nothing special, really. But it was the best of my teen years on a plate. The first time I’d eaten it was the first time Mark had invited me to his house. When I’d walked in and the smell had hit me, I couldn’t stop the very loud and very embarrassing growl that had set off in my empty stomach. It had been three days since I’d eaten anything for dinner, though thankfully school was in, and I’d been able to eat breakfast and lunch.
I didn’t even care about the ridiculing that usually went on when I got my free meals. I was too hungry to care. He had side-eyed my growling stomach. “You hungry?”
“Nope,” I lied because that was what I did in those situations. Because that was what I’d been trained to do for fear the police would show up at our house. Lying was a part of my everyday existence. Lying about what happened to the new bike I won at a school raffle (sold for drugs) or saying I was late for school because my mother’s car had a flat (she was still passed out from the night before). I lied about the bruises on my wrists. I told the teachers I just didn’t do my homework, instead of telling them I couldn’t because we didn’t have electricity for three days and it got dark early. Because I’d rather they think I was a slacker than have them call the cops. Or worse, pity me.
The thing about Mark, though, was that he could see right through it all. But he never said it. “Well, hungry or not, you’ll hurt my mom’s feelings if you don’t eat.”
Despite knowing he knew, I still appreciated the effort to allow me to maintain my dignity. I smiled. “I wouldn’t want to hurt your mom’s feelings.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” he said with a wink.
Not only did I eat that spaghetti, I was able to take some home with me, squirreling it away in a Styrofoam cooler in my room so I would have dinner the next night, too. It had tasted like the best spaghetti in the world, and at least once a week, I was invited to Mark’s house for dinner. My choice. And, for some reason, I always chose the spaghetti.
As I got older and more able to take care of myself, the weekly dinners slowed to once a month. Then, when we left for college, they stopped altogether as I often chose to stay on campus during holidays and breaks. Still, that spaghetti recipe and Mark’s mother held a special place in my heart. When she’d passed away, I thought that part of my life had ended with her. It didn’t occur to me to learn to make the dish myself. There’s no way I could make it like her. But Mark had made sure to get the recipe before she died, and while it wasn’t exactly like hers, it was close. Close enough to bring back those feelings of security I’d needed at that time in my life.
“Grace,” Lindsay said in a tone that indicated she’d been trying to get my attention.
“What? Sorry. What?” I asked, stopping the fork with twirled spaghetti at my mouth.
On either side of me, the boys chuckled, apparently finding my focus on my food humorous.
“Boys,” Lindsay warned, then turned back to me. “I said, do you want to hear the plans for the rest of the week?”
I glanced at Mark, who didn’t make eye contact with me. “Do I?”
Mark let out a choking laugh, then stifled it quickly with his napkin.
“Hey,” Lindsay snapped. “I’m trying to pull off a wedding in a week here. Plans are needed.”
“Sorry. Go on,” I said, finally putting the fork in my mouth.
“Okay. Tomorrow, we are going dress shopping with my bridesmaids. Mark and Trevor are taking the groomsmen and the boys for suits.”
“I don’t want to wear a suit,” Henry grumbled in teenage angst, which was immediately followed by, “Me either,” from Thomas and Bryan.
“Too bad,” Lindsay said. “Eat.”
Meanwhile, I was stuck on bridesmaids? As in plural? Apparently, Lindsay’s idea of an intimate affair was completely different from mine.
“After we’re done with dresses, we’re going to swing by the bakery and pick out a cake. It won’t be anything super fancy, given the short notice, but I already called ahead, and they have agreed to make one for me. Then we need to stop at the rental place for tables and chairs and pick up some decorations. It’ll be a busy day tomorrow. You up for that?”
It had broken my heart when she’d finally told me why they were planning the wedding so quickly. Her Dad was sick, and she wanted him to walk her down the aisle and to have a family trip before he died. He was sick enough that she felt the sooner they did it all, the better. In my mind, I’d thought it would be like a quick little ceremony with few people. From the sounds of it, that was not going to be the case. Lindsay was really trying to plan an actual wedding in a week.
“Yes,” I nodded as emphasis, more to make me believe I was ready than her.
“Once we get all that done, that’s it, really. We didn’t do formal invitations or anything. We just called and invited people we wanted there. I have a friend who is doing the catering. Nothing fancy. Barbecue type stuff. And a friend who has a friend who agreed to deejay the reception.”
While she talked, I glanced at Mark. He just shrugged and went back to eating. “Is there anything I can do to help? I feel like as maid of honor, I should be helping. Not that I wouldn’t help anyway,” I quickly added.
Lindsay smiled. “Nope. Just be there. No offense, we both know wedding planning is not going to be in your wheelhouse.”
No truer words had been spoken. To say wedding planning was outside of my wheelhouse was an understatement. That being said, the dig could not go unanswered. “We both know, even if it was in my wheelhouse, I wouldn’t do it to your liking anyway.”
“Touché,” she said with a knowing smile.
“Mom,” Thomas whined. “Can we go play video games? This wedding stuff is boring.”
Lindsay eyed their plates, and satisfied they’d eaten enough dinner, she simply nodded. It was like unleashing racehorses from the gates. Silverware rattled. Chairs scooted. Arguments started. Then they were gone.
“What time are we leaving?” I asked as Lindsay pushed her chair back and stood. Please don’t be super early, I thought, not relishing the idea of shopping anyway. Much less early morning shopping.
Nine was doable. “Sounds good,” I said and followed, picking up my plate to take it to the sink.
“Nope,” Lindsay said, taking the plate from my hand and pointing to the door. “You’re a guest, and Mark cooked. But you two do need to get out of my kitchen.”
Mark stood and nodded toward the backdoor, then rounded the table toward the refrigerator. He grabbed two beers from inside the door, then kissed Lindsay on the cheek and walked outside. After another unsuccessful offer to help, I followed Mark.
He was sitting on the porch chair already, rocking slowly and staring off into the moonlit sky. There was a slight breeze that was immediately calming as I took the beer from his outstretched hand and sat down in the other seat. It had been a long time since I’d sat outside and looked at the stars. I forgot how peaceful it was, looking into that twinkling blackness that made you feel so small.
“So,” I ventured. “Seems like a lot of plans for a small wedding.”
“Just go with it,” he said. “Trust me.”
“No worries. I will.” Again, we sat in silence, with just the sounds of crickets chirping and the occasional clang of dishes behind us. “Thanks for letting me stay here.”
“Anytime. You know that. Found any job prospects, yet?”
I shook my head as I took a drink. I’d applied to five positions at magazines in New York in the last twenty-four hours. Most were at smaller magazines that would no doubt pay way less than I would be willing to take, but I’d decided to test the waters anyway. While I didn’t think she had that much power yet, there was always the chance I’d be blacklisted for a while. Thankfully, I’d never been forced to sign a non-compete agreement. “Not yet. But I’ll find something.”
“You could always move back here and work for the local newspaper. I saw they’re hiring.”
“That’s a hard pass for me. Besides, they can’t afford me.”
“I figured. But it was worth a try.” He took a drink, then continued. “I have something to tell you, but I’ve been waiting for the right time.”
I waited for the punchline, but when I looked over at him and his face was hardened in seriousness, I realized this wasn’t a joke. My anxiety revved into high gear as my brain started flipping through all of the possible serious conversations he could want to have with me. None of them were good.
“Well? The suspense is killing me.” I deflected.
“I saw your brother,” he said quietly. “He wanted me to give you a message.”
Of all the things my brain had processed, that had not been one of them. Anger and hurt I’d managed to keep buried for over ten years exploded to the surface. “I’m sure he did,” I spat, with so much venom it even surprised me. “Let me guess. He needs money.”
“Well, actually no.” I could almost hear him processing his next words in an effort to sidestep any unintentional landmines. “He wanted me to tell you he was sorry and that he misses you. And if you’re ever ready, he’d like to talk. He’s clean, Grace. Or at least he appears to be.”
“Appearances can be deceiving,” I said, taking a sip of my beer and watching the flames dance to avoid looking at Mark—and to keep him from seeing the tears that had started to form.
Since our last argument, I had managed to make Lionel non-existent in my life, both in reality and in my memories. Any time my brain brought him to the surface, I squashed it down until eventually it had given up.
Now, with the mention of his name, all those memories unfolded against the dancing flames of the fire. And with those memories came the pain. The feelings of disappointment. Of fear. Of loss. Feelings of loneliness in the world. There was a time Lionel had been my whole world, the person I could depend on when my parents’ lives spiraled out of control and took my whole world with it.
He was the one who’d made sure I had clean clothes and food, when we had any. That I made it to school on time and was picked up safely each day. More than once, he’d carried me into the house, stepping over my parents’ passed out bodies.
When they would have parties, he’d camp out in my room. He always told me it was just because he wanted to hang out with me. Now, as an adult, I could see the ball bat he kept next to him and the tension in his shoulders for what it was. He had been protecting me.
Then, my freshman year in high school, he started hanging out at home less and less. Started getting in trouble. The first time he walked into the house high, I’d been in my bedroom studying when he burst in, his arm draped over a girl I didn’t recognize. They were both laughing too hard for normal behavior. Then he’d started making fun of me, teasing me for studying. Telling me there was no point. To have fun. Loosen up. The girl, who I never saw again after that day, joined in.
It was uncomfortable and embarrassing. And the first cracks of distrust were formed. But I still loved him, unlike how I felt about our parents. When my mother overdosed my sophomore year of college, I hadn’t bothered to come home for the funeral, and as far as I knew, my father was still in prison and would be for a long time after holding up a store at gunpoint.
But my brother—I tried to hang onto him despite his growing addiction and the small cracks that continued in our relationship. Until those cracks shattered one evening when he let loose a flurry of hurtful comments after I refused to wire him money—again. That was the last time I’d spoken to him. As a matter of fact, until Mark told me, I hadn’t been sure if he was even still alive. For a while, I searched the obituaries of the local newspaper, but then eventually stopped. I didn’t want to know if he was dead any more than I wanted to know now that he might be clean.
And while I didn’t blame Mark for passing on the message, I still chugged down the rest of my beer and simply said, “I’m headed to bed. We have a long day tomorrow.”
I knew I wasn’t fooling him as I stood and walked away. But, in true Mark fashion, he didn’t press. Nor, I knew, would he bring it up again. The message had been delivered. From this point forward, it would be up to me how I handled it. And my plan was to not handle it at all.