I always knew one of them
would be my forever.
I just never knew which one.
And I still don't.
The voice floats past my ears, the words moving over my skin like fog over water. I’m supposed to respond to the girl behind the counter, the one with the tattoo of a robot on her forearm.
Tell her you want the almond milk caramel latte.
Normally I wouldn’t order such an expensive drink, but the five-dollar gift card I received as a gift from a coworker has afforded me this luxury. I work full-time, and I’m broke. I watch every penny with the rapt attention of an elderly person watching their neighborhood for petty crime.
Here I am, finally in a position to order something besides black coffee, and I can’t make my mouth form the words.
If I hadn’t pulled out my phone and checked my email, my order would be effortlessly flowing from my lips. You know whose fault this is? All the people standing in the mile-long line. That’s who. If it wasn’t for the length of this line, I wouldn’t have grown bored and looked at my phone. I never would’ve read the email.
But I can’t blame these strangers. The fault is my own. I’m the one who sent the calls with the Agua Mesa area code to voicemail all day yesterday, and then didn’t listen to the voicemails. I’m the one who forced the person on the other end of the phone to resort to writing me an email.
I open my mouth to answer the girl whose eyes have now grown wary, but I can’t. My heart wallops against my chest like a prizefighter fending off an angry bull.
Thump thump thump.
I squeeze the phone in my hand, the damn email floating through my mind as my fingernails dig into the rubber case. The words are inanimate, stuck behind the screen, but to me, they have a pulse, a heartbeat, like they’d escape and attack me if it were possible.
“Excuse me?” The guy behind me nudges my elbow. I turn and see one hairy-knuckled finger pointing at the barista. “She’s waiting on you. We’re all waiting on you.”
His voice is kind but tight, like he’s holding his irritation in check but the pot is precariously close to boiling over.
“Sorry,” I mutter, stepping up to the counter. I order hastily and hand over my gift card, my gaze floating down to the tip canister with the handwritten sign that reads Why lie? This is for beer.
I attempt a smile at the girl, but I honestly don’t know if it’s a smile or a grimace. My insides don’t feel like my own right now. She hands me back a gift card that now holds fifty-two cents and turns her attention elsewhere.
Stepping to the side, I find an open seat and sink down into it. The man behind me in line has finished his order, and he offers me a perfunctory smile paired with a polite head nod as he passes.
“My mom died yesterday,” I blurt out. Why did I say that? The shock I suppose. I just... I just need to say it out loud. To make it feel like a fact. This new reality has been mine for fewer than ten minutes.
His eyes grow wide and he turns so his body is slightly angled toward me. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he offers.
I shake my head, and my long hair tickles my jawbone. “Don’t be. She was a terrible person.”
His eyes widen with horror. “Uh, okay.” His hands go into his pockets and he hurries away.
Inside, I’m laughing in that maniacal, ridiculous way. I never talk about my mom. Never. But I just told a complete stranger the essential truth about someone most people revere. Maybe I should have kept going and truth-vomited all over his shoes. Guess what, hairy-knuckled man? My first thought after hearing my mom died was not about her at all. It was about them.
I look out, past the line of people with their necks bent as they stare at their phones while they wait to order. That was how I looked too, until I tapped on my email app. I wonder what I looked like after that?
“Lennon,” a barista calls out my name in a loud voice, her Texas accent coloring all six letters of my name. I’d love to have an accent like her, but I didn’t move to Dallas until I was eighteen, and the only change to my speech in the eight years I’ve lived here has been y’all.
I stand and move to the counter, mumbling my thanks. She grins and zips away, her waist-length ponytail swinging like a pendulum. I stare at it; it’s not often I meet someone with hair longer than mine.
On a normal day, I’d linger in the coffee shop, enjoying the exposed piping in the ceiling and the glass light fixtures with their bright Edison bulbs, the sound of fingers tapping on keyboards and the sweet smell of flavored syrup. Today I don’t have time for that. Today I have to go back to the apartment I’m beyond lucky to live in, and pack.
I’m going home to Arizona.
To bury a woman I’d rather not see ever again, even in death.
To face the boys who are now men, the ones who rescued me and ruined me at the same time.
* * *
“Wait, what?” Laine pauses and stares at me, her hand suspended mid-air. She’d been reaching for one of the three metal stools under the overhang of our kitchen island when I’d walked in and told her about my mom.
“Dead,” I repeat. “A heart attack at church.”
Laine is my best friend. My roommate. One of three people who know about my childhood. The fourth person who knew is lying in a chilly morgue.
Laine sinks down onto the stool and tucks her feet on the little bar at the bottom. She chews her lower lip as she absorbs the news. She looks conflicted. If I had to guess, I’d say her conflict lies in the immediate sadness a person feels when they hear someone has died, followed by the knowledge of the kind of person the newly deceased was. Laine stops chewing her lip and asks, “How did you find out?”
I rub my eyes with the heels of my hands and start to explain. “Wilma, who according to her email signature, is the assistant to Pastor Thomas, emailed me this morning and said my mother died yesterday.” I poke at my phone screen with one fingertip and it comes to life. The background picture is a bunch of succulents. It holds no personal meaning for me; I just thought they were beautiful. “They tried calling me, but I sent the calls to voicemail. Arizona area codes.”
“Uh huh.” Laine nods once, slowly, needing no additional explanation. She’s watching me cautiously, her eyes scanning my face.
I’ve been doing the same thing to my entire body since I read the email. Where is the sadness? The grief? The feeling of loss? It’s all missing. Instead, I feel… nothing.
Laine tips her chin at the paper cup in my hand. “And you went to get coffee after you heard the news?”
Glancing down, I study my name scrawled on the cup. Lenin. They misspelled it. For everything my mother did wrong, she got one thing right: my name. I love it. I’ve never met another Lennon. I asked her about it once, and she told me she loved the Beatles and named me after her favorite Beatle. I’ve clung to that memory, because it was uncharacteristically sweet of her.
“I was in line when I saw the email.”
“Right,” Laine says slowly, the word soft and drawn out. “Is there anything you want to talk about?” Her hands gather in her lap and she hinges forward slightly at the waist, waiting for me to talk.
What is there to talk about? My mother lived, she was cruel, then she died. There is no unfinished business. No unmet desire to one day gain her approval. That ship sailed the day I walked out of the house and moved to Texas. Wait, scratch that. The ship sailed the night of my high school graduation when I tried to tell her what happened, and she called me a liar.
Eight years of hard work helped me move past all that. I can only hope handling my mom’s death doesn’t set me back to the place I was in when I left Agua Mesa. Wouldn’t that be just like my mother though? One final, great big middle finger to me on her hot trip to Hell?
I glance up into Laine’s concerned face. “I have to go back.”
“You don’t have to. Why go back to a place that caused you so much pain?”
“You think I should skip my mother’s funeral?”
“It sounds terrible when you say it like that, but yes, that’s essentially what I’m saying.”
Being a no-show would be a thousand percent easier than going back. Forget riding into town on a white stallion, I might as well catch a ride on a black sheep. Still, I have to go. I can’t cower in another state. And I’m so ready to see Finn and Brady. My guys. My best friends, my two greatest loves.
“I’m going.” My tone is adamant.
“Do you want me to go with you?”
I smile. Laine is an amazing friend. Her generosity knows no bounds, and she would give me the shirt off her back if I needed it. But, I don’t want to bring her to the place where I grew up. We moved to Agua Mesa when I was seven, and it was a fine place to be, but it all changed the night of high school graduation. I don’t know what is waiting for me now after all this time, but too clearly, I remember how I was treated after it happened. If I wanted to, I could close my eyes and see the suspicious glances and disbelieving side-eyes. Not just me, though. Finn, too. But not Brady. Not golden-boy Brady.
“Thanks, but no. I’ll go alone. And,” I pause, getting my bearings for what I’m about to say because though I know it to be true, I can hardly believe it. “Finn and Brady will meet me there.”
“What?” Her mouth drops open, forming a perfect 'O' shape. “You called them?”
“Not yet.” I walk to the other side of the island and set down my cup. “But they’ll come. I know they will.”
“The pact?” Laine’s eyebrows are raised. When she finds confirmation in my expression, she says, “You really think it still applies?”
I nod. It definitely still applies. We made that pact the night before we all went our separate ways. Finn to California, Brady to Chicago, and me to Texas. We’d sworn up-and-down that if one of us had to go back to Agua Mesa, all of us had to go back to Agua Mesa.
Laine’s right hand lifts to her ear, where she seizes the diamond stud she wears in between two fingers and spins it. This is what she does when she has something to say, but she’s unwilling to say it.
“Just tell me, Laine.”
She gazes at me. I widen my own eyes and move my hands in a give-it-to me gesture.
She sighs, then says, “I’m afraid you’re going to get hurt.”
“By Finn and Brady?”
She nods. “All of it, but definitely by them.”
I wave my hand flippantly, but on the inside my body is anything but flippant. The possibility of seeing Finn and Brady has my stomach in knots. Feeling the need to defend the three us, I say, “We were teenagers. We took turns hurting each other.” It seems like so long ago, yet I can pluck up the memories as if they’re perpetually lying in wait for me to call on them.
“You still love them. You always have. And I’m sure they still love you.”
“Yes.” Our souls are connected, our hearts formed by the shared experience of growing up together.
I shake my head and Laine falls silent. “I won’t go back there without them.” It’s the simple truth. Finn and Brady own every memory I have in Agua Mesa. The good, the bad, and the hideous. And going back now means I’ll need them more than ever.
Laine holds up her palms. “Fine,” she shakes her head resolutely. “I hope this ends well for you.”
The fear lying dormant in my belly begins to stir. I knew we’d reach this eventuality, and now it’s here.
I’ll go home to Agua Mesa. I’ll face whatever it is waiting for me there, including the love triangle we left behind. I can’t go home without them, even when I know it will force us all into a situation we’ve been running from for so long.