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Aria’s eyes were sad, the same way Mom’s always were.

The same way mine would be if I didn’t hide it so well.

I’d become great at smiles. I hid behind them to make sure no one ever realized how shitty my life was. Smiling was a way to avoid people asking questions. I hated the questions I was always asked when I traveled into town back in Alabama. I hated them almost as bad as I hated the stares and whispers.

The stares and whispers were the worst of all.

* * *

“It’s about time you stopped by,” Lance said as I walked into Soulful Things. He inherited the music shop right in the heart of downtown Mayfair Heights after my grandparents passed away. Lance was a few years older than my dad, but looked decades younger. He was a weird hippie kind of guy who was married to a weirder hippie woman named Daisy.

I wasn’t sure if Daisy was her real name or if she just did enough drugs to actually believe she was a flower. Plus, she was always wearing bright yellow, which fit with her super bright and spunky personality. She taught 5:00 A.M. yoga classes on the rooftop of the store seven days a week up until winter moved in, when the classes were relocated to the high school’s gymnasium.

Lance sipped on his green drink, which he’d probably made from grass and dirt, while he set up the window display with a new drum set. “How was the first day of hell?”

“School was good,” I replied. “Hellish, but good.”

He smiled. His long brown hair was tossed on the top of his head in what he liked to call a manly-bun, and he kept combing fallen pieces back. “And how’s big brother Kent treating you? Is that going over well?”

“It’s good,” I lied.

“That tough, huh?” He reached into his pocket, pulling out cash. “Here’s some money for groceries. I’m guessing Kent mostly has TV dinners. Just try to buy organic when you can.”

“Thanks, but he actually stocked up the fridge.”

“Really?” His eyes widened. “That’s…that’s surprising. Awesome. But just so you know, you’re always welcome over to our house for dinner,” he offered. “Tonight Daisy’s making meatless meatballs and a kale salad.”

“Oh man, not meatless meatballs and kale salad!” I sarcastically sighed. “That’s totally my favorite meal. I would stop by, but I have way too much homework.”

He smirked. “Don’t knock it till you try it.”

“So, is Dad always so…” I couldn’t think of the right word to describe him. Cold? Distant? Since I’d arrived he’d hardly said two words to me. When he was talking, he was normally cursing out the mailperson or the pizza delivery driver for some reason or another. He was great at finding reasons to be unhappy and grumpy.

Therefore, I stayed out of his way.

Lance frowned. “Over the years your dad has built cement walls. There’s a separation between him and the rest of the world. He’s a hard one to crack sometimes and lives a lot in his own mind. But don’t worry, just give it time. He’s really happy you’re here. He just has a hard time showing it.” He sat on the stool in front of the new drum set and started pounding against the drums. He lit the room up with colors that effortlessly flew off of his sticks. “Listen,” he shouted, “If you want me to talk to him, I can. I’ll do anything to make this easier for you, Levi. Just let me know.” He kept banging against the drums.

He made me feel a little less alone.

When he finished letting loose on the drums, he tossed me a smile. “That always feels good, man. If you ever need a place to escape, you can always come here. Except for when you can’t because we close at nine. But then you could always crash at our pad right upstairs. The door to that is through the back by the alleyway.”

“Awesome. Thanks again for everything.”

He stood up. “You play?”

“Not the drums.”

“Have at it,” he said, tossing the sticks at me. “Music runs through our blood. Bang around a bit and see if you can find any magic.”

* * *

Dad was sitting at his desk inside of his office with the door wide open when I came home from Soulful Things. He was wearing a pair of thick black-framed glasses, studying a stack of paperwork. I paused at his door and greeted him, hoping for at least a hello. “Hey,” I said, giving him a slight grin. He didn’t look up, but said hi.

We’re getting somewhere.

Ever since I’d arrived, I felt this knot in my stomach that if I said the wrong thing to him, he’d send me away. The dad I remembered was much more interested in me. Now, even though I was standing a few feet away from him, there was this strange distance between the two of us.

I tried to keep the conversation going, because it was clear he wasn’t interested in doing much talking. “The first day of school went okay. I like my classes. The teachers are fine. And—”

“Listen, I’m trying to get some shit done. You think we can do this small talk later?” he cut in, still staring at the paperwork. “Shut the door behind you.”

“Okay. I’ll be in my room if you need me.”

He didn’t reply. I shut his door on my way out.

8 Aria

“I’m afraid,” Mom softly spoke after we pulled into our driveway. “I’m afraid for you. I see a lot of kids whose lives are forever changed by things like pregnancies. I’m a bit angry, too—at you, at myself—but we’ll figure this out, okay? I want you to know that you can talk to me. You can talk to me about what happened and with whom, Aria. I promise I’m here.” She climbed out of the car, slowly closing the door behind her.