Guy & girl form bond to deal w/their pasts. But neither know how connected their pasts are
|“...at a car crash police responded to yesterday at approximately 4:55 p.m. The driver of the vehicle lost control and ran into incoming traffic on I-80 before landing in a ditch and rolling over. Six people are in the hospital in critical condition and...”
“Hellooo. Earth to Natalie.”
Natalie’s attention snapped back from the dark-haired woman on the T.V. screen as her room mate, Alison, threw a coco puff at her head.
“What time do you think you’ll be back from your last class?” Alison repeated the question as she pulled her massively curly, red hair away from her face and into a messy bun, unfazed by Natalie’s apparent lack of paying attention.
“Uhm,” Natalie thought for a moment. “Probably not till five or six. I’ve got a lab.”
“Perfect!” Alison smiled. “That date with Jared I wanted you to double with me on isn’t till 7:30. You’re going to love his cousin. I promise.”
“That was tonight?”
“I forgot about it... I gotta work tonight.”
Alison gave her a look. Natalie could see the disappointment on her face. She hadn’t meant to forget about it. And Alison had been so excited. Jared was a literary major—and a major step up from any of the idiots she’d dated last year.
“I’m really sorry,” Natalie went on.
“Yeah, yeah,” Alison said, waving her hand, trying unsuccessfully to act mad. “I’ll find a way for you to make it up to me.”
“Thank you,” Natalie said, picking up her bag and heading for the door. “I promise I will.”
“You better!” Alison said. “This is not going to be a repeat of last year.”
Natalie’s first day of her sophomore college year began with, as usual, chaos. First off, her schedule was all wrong. Instead of Sociology 204 like it said on her schedule, she had quantum physics. Why anyone would want to take that class was beyond her, and she had to spend an hour waiting to talk to her advisor to fix the mix up. This happened again with her second class of the day, which was supposed to be Spanish 203 but turned out to be French 305. And so by the time she got to her third class, Microbiology 103, she was just so glad to be in the right place she didn’t even care how hungry she was or how her long, dark hair had regained its curl and frizz from the rain outside after she’d spent and hour this morning straightening it.
The professor, Mr. Tanden, a middle aged man with graying hair who reminded Natalie of a young Albert Einstein with glasses, began the class with the usual first day introduction. An hour or so later she had about a page of notes as well of a list of things she needed to do and get.
“And as it should say on all of your schedules,” Mr. Tanden was saying, “you have lab with me on either Mondays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays. It will be based on what we discussed today so I suggest you make sure you know it. I’ve already set up lab partners so listen for your names and raise your hands so you and your lab partner can find each other.”
Natalie looked around the lecture hall as she waited for her name to be called. There were about fifty other students in this lecture. No one she seemed to recognize. She looked past them to the row of tall windows lining the far wall. Sunlight streamed in through the dark clouds and she could see the water droplets falling from the window sills.
Natalie waited until he got to the J's and listened for her name.
"Jones," Natalie raised her hand as the professor read on, "with Smith."
She froze for a second as the name echoed in her head and her mind flashed back to that awful night, and the image of a young boy’s limp body being carried away, and those two awful weeks in the hospital and...
She shook herself, reminding herself of what a common name Smith was and looked for her partner. A guy with wavy, blonde hair was raising his hand and nodded at her, giving her a half smile. She returned the smile and nodded.
Natalie had about 4S minutes to kill before her lab by the time she got back to her dorm. The sun had come out and shone through the windows, casting a yellow glow in the room. She scoured the mini fridge that she and Alison shared and found some left over pizza. She hadn't eaten since that morning and now she was starving. She sat on the lumpy couch and looked around the room as she ate the cold pizza. They had a bigger room than last year. Alison had been her room mate the year before and they had decided to request each other again this year. Alison was sweet. She had curly, bright red hair and always knew when and where a party was going on.
It was going on four when Natalie looked at the clock and she knew she had to get going. She grabbed her bag from her bed, accidentally knocking over a picture on her nightstand. She picked it up and paused for a moment to look at it. It was a picture on her and her mom at Niagara Falls, about three years ago. Her dad had taken the picture with her little sister assisting him in how to use the new camera. In most pictures of them, you wouldn't be able to tell that Natalie was her mother's daughter. Her mother was Korean with light skin and long, straight, jet black hair, whereas Natalie had dark skin like her father and big almond eyes. But in this picture there was something about their faces that made you know they were mother and daughter. Something in the eyes, maybe. Or in the way they smiled. She couldn’t exactly put her finger on it, but it was one of her favorite pictures of her mom.
She felt a longing right then for everything to go right back to that second in the photo, when everything was perfect. And that pang that she knew so well began to return in her heart and hurt so bad she didn't think she could stand another second of it. She missed her mom so bad. But she didn't have time for that right now. She forced herself to swallow the lump in her throat, and taking a deep breath, walked out the door.
The science building was a little ways from her dorm and by the time she got there the room was filling up. She looked around for her partner, which was not as easy as she thought it would be, seeing that just about everyone in the room was about a head taller than her. Finally she spotted a patch of golden blonde, wavy hair and headed towards it. He saw her coming from across the room and waved her over to the lab station he was at.
"Hi, I'm Nick," he said when she reached him and extended his hand.
"Natalie," she said shaking his hand and noticing that his eyes were this deep ocean blue color that she hadn't noticed from across the room.
"All right," Professor Tanden began as he walked into the room. "Everybody situated? It's four o'clock. I'll hand out the lab booklets. The write up is due next time we meet. I'll be walking around if you need any help or have questions. Do remember that labs count as thirty percent of your grade."
"Shall we get started?" Nick said to Natalie when they got their booklets and all the materials they needed.
"Sure," she smiled. They worked pretty well together, Natalie noticed, relieved. Last year she had one lab partner who hadn't wanted to do any work and another who wanted to do it all because apparently no one else could do anything correctly.
"So, are you from around here?" Nick asked her as they waited for the liquids in the test tubes to form a reaction.
"Naw, actually I came up here from North Carolina," Natalie said taking a step back so she wouldn't have to crank her head so far back to look up at him. He had to be about six feet tall.
"Oh, so how do you like the winters up here in Vermont?" Nick asked with a knowing smile.
"Hate it," she said and after a second she realized how much she meant it. But she shook herself from that thought "What about you? Where are you from?”
"Up here," he said noticing the brief change in her expression, but it had been so fast he thought he might have imagined it. "I live about an hour or two away from here."
"That's cool," she said as they went back to the lab. They talked for the rest of the lab—high school, favorite movies, music. He made her laugh with all the horrible jokes he told.
"So I guess I'll see ya in class," Natalie was saying as they walked out of the science building. It was getting dark now and she glanced at her watch. She needed to get to work soon.
"What you got a date or something?" Nick motioned to her watch.
"Oh. No. I gotta work."
He was about to say something when her cell phone cut him off. She smiled apologetically and looked at it.
"It's my sister," she said and he nodded.
“I’ll catch ya later,” he said she answered it.
"Hello?” She wave goodbye to him, then headed towards the parking lot for her car.
"Hey Keisha." Natalie told her about all the chaos of her day as she walked towards the lot and Keisha told her about the camping trip she was going on with a friend and their family before school started. "How's dad?" Natalie asked as she reached her car.
"He's good," there was a slight change in her sister's voice. "He's working a lot still."
Natalie nodded, forgetting for a second that her sister couldn't see her.
"The house is really quiet now that you're back up there," Keisha was saying.
"I know," Natalie said somberly. "Listen. I have to get to work now. I'll give you a call later this week, alright? And tell dad I love him."
"I will," Keisha said. "Love you."
"Love you, too." Natalie closed the phone and started her car. Her dad had become consumed with work ever since the accident. He had promised her that he was going to work less, for Keisha's sake. It would be bad enough for Keisha to go through high school with out a mother and her older sister living states away. She didn't need to go through high school without a father, too. Why couldn't he just look past his own pain and see how much Keisha needed him? Natalie needed him too, but that might be too much to ask. Because as much as it panged her to think this, it was true:
He blamed her for her mother's death.
One Saturday afternoon a few weeks after classes had started, Natalie was talking to Keisha on the phone. Keisha had started high school this week and had been so nervous about it. But even as Keisha tried to be cheerful and sound strong on the phone in front of their dad as she talked about how big the high school was, Natalie could hear the pain hidden in her voice. Keisha felt it was now her responsibility to make things easier for their dad, so she tried to hide her feelings from him. And Natalie blamed herself for this, because she had done the same and now her sister was following in her agonizing footsteps.
Her father got on for a little bit to see how she was getting along. Her heart had nearly soared when she'd heard him ask to talk to her in the background. His voice had sounded earnest, eager. All signs that led her to hope that he might be coming closer to forgiving her for the accident. But his voice sounded distant now on the phone, and reflected the miles that lay between them, and any hope she'd had of them reconnecting was slowly fading.
"You ready to go?" Alison's smiling face popped in front of Natalie a few moments after she had hung up with her dad. Up close, Natalie could see the freckles covering the bridge of her nose.
"Oooh no," Alison said, setting her movie star sunglasses on the top of her head, revealing her bright green eyes that were slightly upset now. "You are not getting out of this one."
"Look," Alison's tone became sympathetic, "I can tell whatever happened on the phone with your dad wasn't good. But it's not good for you to be all alone up here when you're so down like this. The cookout will cheer you up. OK? I promise."
Natalie sighed. "Alright. I'm coming."
The cookout was nice. There were lots of people there and lots of things going on. And this was going to be one of the last warm and sunny days they would have for a while. So Natalie knew she should really be enjoying herself, but she couldn't get that phone conversation out of her mind.
Things between her and her father had been strained ever since the accident. During the weeks that followed, her father couldn't bear to even look her in the eye. He must hate me, she had thought to herself.
After all, she was the reason her mother was gone.
She was the reason her father had lost his wife and first love. She had read somewhere that loosing a spouse is one of the most tragic things that can happen to a person, so she couldn't blame her father for blaming her. But that didn't make it feel any better.
She walked across the wide lawn to a quieter place under an oak tree and sat down. It reminded her of the oak tree in her backyard next to the swing set where she would go to sit and think. That place had become a sanctuary after her mother's death. The quiet of inside their house had been deafening and she would seek refuge outside where she could hear the birds and the planes and the cars going by. She would go there when she wanted to think about her mother. She really missed it now.
"Hey, I thought that was you," a voice said above her and she opened her eyes and looked up. It was Nick. She'd had class with him a couple times a week and they'd been talking a lot.
"Hey," she smiled at him. "What's up?"
"Nothing," he leaned against the tree. "Just wondering what you're doing all alone over here. Your friend Alison is looking for you."
She smiled. Alison would probably be ticked if she knew she was all by herself away from the party.
"I just needed some quiet to think," Natalie said.
He nodded, understanding. "Mind if I join you?" he asked. "I could use some quiet."
"Sure," she said and he sat down beside her.
"So..." he said after a minute, "what were ya thinking about?"
"I thought you wanted quiet," she said, opening her eyes.
"It is quiet," he gestured with his hand showing no one was around them. She laughed.
"Just stuff," she said quietly.
"Well this must be some pretty heavy stuff," he said and she looked at him, his eyebrow raised, and she could tell he was trying to get her to smile. She thought for a minute, deciding if she wanted to tell him and how much she should tell.
She had hated telling new people about how her mom was dead. Their mouths always formed that same sympathetic "o" and then they would never know how to act around her. But with Nick it was different. She felt comfortable enough to tell him about it, although she had no idea why.
He was still looking at her, patiently waiting for her to go on if she wanted, not really expecting anything.
"My mom," she said finally. And he waited, giving her his wrapped attention. "She died. A couple years ago."
"How'd it happen?" he asked after a minute. She looked at him then and there was no "o", no unbelievable shock, but there was compassion in his eyes, and understanding—a look of deeper understanding than she had expected.
"Car accident," she began as a group of people began a game of volleyball on the lawn. "We were up here looking at colleges. I was driving back. It was snowing and I lost control of the car," she paused, deciding how much to say about the accident. She wanted to tell him more, but she was so ashamed about what happened with the other car—with the little boy—she couldn't bare to take his reaction to that.
"It had been a week before I came to," she continued. "I had a concussion, three cracked ribs, a broken wrist, and a bruised leg. My dad and my little sister had come up and they told me Mom was still in the intensive care unit. The nurse had to put me in a wheel chair so that I could go up and see her. And when I saw her—it scared the crap out of me. There were wires and tubes everywhere. Her leg and arm and three of her ribs were broken. She had internal bleeding and a punctured lung and a major concussion. I stayed with her every day that week and read to her. She loved Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice and all that stuff—those were her favorite books. I read them to her every day as she went in and out of consciousness. Most days I read just to keep myself sane and keep from thinking about what was going to happen. . .
“Then one day when I went up there she was gone. Her bed was empty. I thought, maybe they had moved her out of ICU, but the nurse told me that she had gone into shock that morning. They had tried to save her, but ... there was nothing that they could do."
She stopped, closing her eyes for a moment and felt his cool hand on hers.
"I ran out of the hospital then, and wandered the grounds like a crazy person in my pajamas in the middle of winter. But I didn't care. I wanted to be numb, to freeze—anything so I didn't feel the pain. I didn't care about the frostbite on my toes or the pain in my ribs and legs and back as I walked. Anything felt better than what I was feeling right then ... And it was so stupid," she laughed almost bitterly. "All I could think was, she can't be dead, she can't be gone. I was going to read her the part in Pride and Prejudice where Darcy tells Elizabeth he loves her and she tells him off. It was her favorite part. She couldn't be gone yet ... It was stupid."
"No, no, no," he interrupted her. "That's not stupid. I—I know exactly what you mean."
She looked at him then and saw that he did. Somehow, he understood. The ball from the volleyball game flew towards them, landing at their feet, and distracting them from their own little world they had created in those few moments. He stood up and threw it back to them.
She watched him and wondered to herself how she had told him all of this, especially since she hadn't known him that long. What had it been, three weeks since she met him? She had never been that open before, even with the psychologist she had seen for the little time after the accident. She didn't understand it. But then he looked down at her and she saw the same sadness in his eyes that she felt in hers. It was like looking in a mirror. And it pained her to realize that he, too, had some how experienced this same sort of pain.
"Why don't we go for a walk?" he said giving her his hand. She took it and he pulled her up. Up close she could see the pain hidden in his face as he smiled down at her and she wondered what could have happened to have caused this agony that she saw.
"So?" Natalie prompted as they walked along the sidewalk of the campus. They had been walking in silence for a while since they left the cookout and now she wanted to know what he was going to say before the ball had interrupted them.
He looked at her. "What?" he asked as if she had just awakened him from a dream.
"It's your turn," she said.
He sighed as they stopped at a bench and sat down.
"My brother," he said slowly, staring at the sidewalk as if the words he was searching for could be found right in front of them. "He died, too. A couple years ago."
"I'm so sorry," Natalie said and she hoped he could hear the sincerity in her voice. She didn't want to be just another empty voice that didn't know what to say. He nodded, though, as if he understood.
"Me too," he didn't seem to want to say anymore and Natalie was about to say something when he went on. "After he died, I had a real hard time dealing with it. I kept thinking, 'How could he die and leave me all alone like this?' It sounds ridiculous, but I was so angry at him for dying, and I was angry at myself for feeling like that and... for not being there like I should have."
Natalie could sense there was more to the last part than he was saying, but seeing the hurt on his face, she didn't want to press it. She put her hand on his.
"I guess you could say I started acting out," he continued. "I was always angry and got in fights with my parents a lot, which I knew was bad and felt horrible about because I knew it added to their pain, but I couldn't help it. I had all this anger pent up inside of me and I didn't know how to get it out. I got in with not the greatest group at school and started staying out all night and getting into trouble. I came home drunk a lot. I think I wanted to get caught too, ya know? I wanted to punish myself for his death. The day after my parents had to get me out of jail in the middle of the night they sent me to a psychologist. I didn't like her at first because I thought she was just really into labeling. But in the end she helped me get my act together and here I am. A college student."
Natalie could hear the bitterness in his laugh as he finished and it seemed to mirror her own feelings of anger and guilt. She looked at their hands, intertwined in his lap. It was amazing different they looked—hers a milk chocolate brown and his a light tan from the sun—and how similar they really were without even knowing it. They locked eyes then, and an understanding seemed to pass between them as he smiled at her.
A few weeks went by, and Natalie found herself being more and more drawn to Nick. There was just something about him—the way he looked at her, understood her, the way he got her to open up and let her feelings out—she'd never let anyone so deeply in before, not to mention so fast. But it was more than that. When she was around him, she wasn't just this girl with a traumatic past. Nick, too, had been through hell and back. It was something they shared in common and the bond between them just might be able to heal the wounds.
And Nick could feel the strength of that bond just by looking at her. There was something about her—maybe it was the combination of sadness, and yet, strength he saw in her eyes—that made him want to keep going. He found himself calling her whenever the reality of his brother's death seemed once again to be just too much to bear. And he would be at her door in a moments notice when she called and needed someone to talk to. Through those conversations they had in her dorm room, he seemed to be able to clear away all the layers false strength and years of silence with her father to see the hurt and the pain and the fear that she still kept deep inside.
"It makes you question stuff," she said one night as they sat across from each other on the floor in their usual spots—she against her bed and him against the sofa. "You know? Like does what we're doing—anything that we do—even matter?"
"That night my parents had to get me out of jail," he began, "I thought about how short my brother's life had been. Then I started thinking, what if my life got cut short? If I died tomorrow, what would my life add up to? What would it have meant to others that I knew? Like, where am I heading? What am I going to do with myself?... I decided to get clean after that."
"How did your family handle it?" he asked her a different night. She though for a minute before answering.
"Well, my little sister, she cried a lot, which you know, is normal," Natalie began. "She started making a scrapbook about Mom. She searched boxes and boxes for old pictures of Mom growing up, her and Dad's wedding, our births, vacations, good times—ya know? It was her way of keeping Mom close. It helped her to cope, I guess. To move on. She was only twelve when Mom died—which is a hard age by itself. Then to lose your mom as you're just—you know—the whole becoming a woman thing. That's real tough."
"What about your dad?" Nick asked when she had stopped for a moment.
"He... he had a hard time with it," she began. "I mean he lost his wife, and she was his first real love. That's, like, one of the most tragic things someone can go through, ya know? The days before the funeral he was just in a fog. He couldn't do anything. If I hadn't been making sure that he was eating, he would've gone days without food... Then there were the days that he would just sit cry. Sometimes we would sit with him, but most of the time he would just sit by himself. Nothing was getting done around the house or about the funeral, so I made myself just put my feelings away and take charge of everything. My relatives helped me with the funeral planning and the repast. I played mother and father to Keisha and to myself. I was too busy taking care of my dad and Keisha and everything else to even let myself even grieve. About a week after the funeral, though, something changed. He started getting busy with things again. He felt bad about how out of it he had been before the funeral and he wanted everything to just get back to normal. He reorganized the whole house and got really into his work. It was like he wanted to pretend that the whole thing had never happened." She paused and took a deep breath before continuing. "But there was something different about him now—besides the whole consumed with work thing. He never looked at me the same. He—he hardly ever looks me in the eyes. And when he does, I know that he blames me for the whole thing."
"Wait," Nick interrupted. "What? You think he blames you?"
"I know he does," she said. She was surprised how calmly she was saying this. "I can see it. He hates me. He's never home anymore. We don't talk like we used to. I can't even talk to him about Mom. And it's so unfair! I was the one who took care of everything for those few weeks. I gave up my time to grieve for my mother. I remember when they were lowering her into the ground at the burial. I was like, no, I'm not ready to let her go yet. I'm not ready to say goodbye. I just wanted to hug her one more time and feel her arms around me and hear her say everything was going to be okay."
In the candle light he could see a tear roll down her face. He wanted to crawl over and hold her, but she had already begun to compose herself and the moment had past. "But I guess I can't completely blame him if he blames me," she sighed. "I'd hate me, too. It was my fault."
"Don't say that."
She shook her head. "It's true."
"Do you still forget that he's gone?" she had asked him another night.
"Sometimes," he said, watching as the flame of the candle danced across her face.
"A lot of times when I would come home from school, I would almost call her name when I walked into the house. There'd always be something I wanted to tell her... There are so many things I wanted to tell her."
"If something happened that day, I couldn't wait to get home and tell my brother about it. Then I would remember that I couldn't. The psychologist lady said that was part of my denial, the first part of the whole official grieving process."
"So, what, there's, like, official steps?" she asked.
"Apparently, yep," he said, feeling slightly like a walking dictionary or encyclopedia. "There’s this whole process you go through before you can finally let go and move on.”
She looked at him thoughtfully for a moment and he thought he must have sounded like an idiot, talking about grief like she knew absolutely nothing about it.
But then she said, "What if you don't ever finish?"
"What?" She had said it so quietly he wasn't sure if he had heard her right.
"What if you can't let go?" she said, louder now. "What if you don't want to? To move on would be like forgetting about them, like ... like they never even mattered enough for you to think about them."
"No. No, it's not like that," he said. Then seeing that she was on the verge of tears, he crossed the invisible line between them and made his way over to sit beside her. She let herself fall into him and he held her as he spoke. "Listen, the point of it isn't to just forget about what happened or get over it. It's to find a way to remember the person you lost, to try to understand all the crazy, messed up things that are happening, and then to find a way to move forward—without forgetting the past."
"After they found me outside at the hospital, they made take a few sessions with a psychologist. That's what she kept calling it. Reinvestment... You're not the only one around here who knows things ya know."
Before they knew it, the November break was here. Natalie was flying back down to see her family in North Carolina and Alison was flying to see hers in California. Nick drove them both to the airport, since their planes were leaving around the same time.
Alison's plane had taken off first and they'd said goodbye and Alison already had a list of things for them to do when they got back. Natalie went and stood by the windows of the terminal, watching the planes. They had some time to kill before her plane took off.
"What's with the face?" Nick came up behind her and seeing their reflections in the glass, she was struck again how ironic it was that they could look so different and yet be so similar. Her—short and dark with chocolate brown skin; and him—tall and blonde, his skin not as tan as it had been in September.
"Just thinking," she said, remembering his question.
She shrugged, turning her attention to the magazine rack a few feet away. She picked one up, thumbing through it as she leaned on the glass.
"Come on, tell me," he prompted, walking over to her.
"It's nothing. I'm fine."
"The magazine you're reading is in Spanish," he said slowly, "and it's upside down."
Oops, it was, she realized. Crap. She smiled at him, caught, and he put the magazine back in the rack.
"It's your dad, isn't it?" It was more of a statement than a question.
"Yeah," and he leaned on the glass as she went on. "It's just, I can’t stand being there when I know he blames me for her death."
"He can't blame you for it. It wasn't your fault."
"I was driving."
"Yeah, in weather you've never really been in before. Even an experienced driver could crash in that weather."
"If I hadn't insisted on driving—"
"Who knows what might have happened," he interrupted her. They had had this conversation several times before and he could never make her see that it wasn't her fault.
"You might still have crashed,"
"But she might not have died."
"True, or she still might have, and you too."
“I wish I had... instead of her."
"Hey," he said moving to stand in front of her, but she kept her eyes cast down to the floor. "Hey, look at me." He tilted her chin up. "You can't keep tormenting yourself like this. Okay? All those little 'what-ifs'—they'll drive you crazy. If you keep holding on to this guilt, it's gonna start to eat away at you. It's like poison. Believe me, I know."
His eyes stared off into the glass then, and she could see all the little 'what-ifs' racing through his mind. She tired to imagine what they could be. He had never exactly told her how his brother died. She could tell how much it pained him to talk about it and she hadn't wanted to push. He brought his eyes to meet hers, and for a second she thought she was looking in a mirror—she could see the same guilt and questions sadness and anger in his eyes that she felt in hers.
The North Carolina sun felt good on Natalie's skin as she walked out of the terminal with her sister and father. It was almost warm enough to melt the ice between her and her father, she thought. He had smiled when they greeted her—a smile like the ones she saw before her mom died—and given her a big hug and she had the slightest hope that Nick had been right and he didn't blame her any more. But now as they walked to his car and Keisha went on about the dance that was coming up she could feel the distance between them growing.
He asked her about school and her friends that she had made and she asked him about work. Then they let Keisha fill the silence with a bunch of stuff about school. Keisha had gotten very good at filling the silences. It was now her role in the family and she took it seriously. If Dad wanted things to seem normal, she would make them seem normal, whatever normal was.
Natalie's dad was mainly at work for the next few days and she and Keisha got caught up on everything. Keisha showed her the progress she had made on the scrapbook.
"It’s hard to get Dad to tell me about the old pictures," Keisha was saying. "He still doesn't want to talk about Mom. But Grandma gave me some pictures and told me about when Mom was little...” She went on to tell her all the things their grandmother had told her as Natalie got dinner ready before their dad got home. Some of the things she had remembered their mom telling her about; their first date, how they met. She listed as Keisha went on with their grandmother’s stories. It was nice to think about her mom without being reminded of the crash.
Dinner was quiet, but an acceptable quiet because they were all eating. Keisha filled in some of the silences and Natalie tried her best to make conversation as did their dad, but more often than not there was a silence filling the gaps between them.
After dinner on her last night there, Natalie went out to the back yard to sit on the swings by the oak tree as she did every evening since her mom died. These swings had become her shelter, her place of refuge when the silence in the house became too loud. Here, she would allow herself to cry, even just for a few minutes. Here, she let all the raw emotions that built up out. Here, she could be vulnerable and out of sight.
She remembered when they had put up this swing set. She was five and they had just moved here. They had all put their hand prints into the wet cement, including Keisha who was not even two yet. She liked to come out here when she really missed her mom and would think about all the good times they had had out here. She would watch the sun go down and watch as the different colors danced across the sky.
Her father came out here this night. She hadn't been facing the house and he startled her when she saw him.
“Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to startle you."
“It's okay," she said, her body tense. He never came out here with her. He watched the sunset with her and she felt closeness between them that she hadn't felt in a while. But she noticed how he avoided her eyes whenever she looked at him. He still can’t even look at me, she thought and it made her sad, and angry.
"I thought you were going to work less," she said coldly, not looking at him, "for Keisha's sake."
He sighed. "Some things have come up at work that need my full attention right now."
"And your daughter doesn't?" she spat the words out before she realized what she was saying. She turned around to see his face. He was upset, she could tell.
"You know it's not like that," he said, his voice low.
Yes it is, she wanted to say, but she bit her tongue when she saw Keisha listening at the window. Keisha hated it when they fought and the way this was going, she knew it would be bad. And she didn't want to spend her last night here fighting.
She stood up and looked at him and he matched her glare and she could see the anger in his eyes. Anger at her, she imagined, for what she had done. She shook her head and looked away. She glanced at him again, hoping her expression didn't show the hurt she was feeling, before she walked inside. She was glad she was leaving tomorrow, she told herself, because he clearly didn't want her here.
The ride to the airport the next morning was still somewhat tense from last night. Keisha talked most of the way as usual, and Natalie had to give her credit, for as much as she talked about school and what ever else, she never repeated any information and she always kept it somewhat interesting. She hugged Keisha goodbye at the terminal and then she and her dad hugged—an awkward hug that was mostly for Keisha.
The warmth of the sun she had felt when she first got here was gone and replaced by a bitter chill as she boarded the plane back to Vermont and she glanced behind her, as she always did right before she got on the plane, in the faint hope that she might see her dad running up to her to tell her that he loved her and that he forgave her. But, of course, he was never there and so she entered the plane, telling herself it was stupid to even think that would happen.
Nick and Alison were waiting to great her at the Vermont Airport. She smiled when she saw them and picked up her pace.
"Uh oh," Alison mumbled to Nick.
"What?" he asked her, still waving to Natalie.
"It didn't go well," Alison said. He couldn't hear her over the roar of the airport and she had to repeat herself.
"How can you tell?"
"Look at her. Look at her face."
And he did. Although she was smiling and he could tell she was genuinely happy to see them, there was something hidden in her expression. He could see it better now that she was coming closer. There was pain. And her eyes were red as if she'd been crying.
"I'm worried about her," Alison said.
"Me too," he said just before she came into their ear shot.
"Hey!" Natalie greeted them with a hug. "How was it?" Nick asked.
"Keisha's doing good," Natalie said. "But I was right about the other thing."
Alison looked at Nick for any type of explanation of what this meant, but he shook his head.
"Anyways," Natalie continued, "help me find my bags. Then you have to tell me about your guys' vacation."
End of part 1