“Where are you from, Cade?”
“Oh, where at? We live in Oklahoma!”
“I grew up in Fort Worth.”
“And your parents are still there?”
I fidgeted, scratching at the back of my neck.
“My grandmother, actually. My mother died, and my dad isn’t really in the picture.”
She stopped, her hand still shoved up inside the turkey, and looked at me.
“Oh, honey. Bless your heart.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I was young. I don’t really even remember her. Besides, I have my grandmother. That’s enough.”
She used her turkey-free hand to gesture me closer. “Come here.”
I took a few steps, and she kept waving me closer until I was right beside her. Then with one hand still intimately exploring the inside of a turkey, she wrapped her other arm around me in a hug.
She said, “It doesn’t matter if you don’t remember your mother. I’m still so sorry for the things you had to face. It must have been difficult.”
It was weird, but the awkward turkey hug did make me feel better. I got why Max was so weird about her parents, but I would have given anything to have parents that would show up unannounced and intrude upon my life. Grams was too old to do anything like that, though I’m sure she would if she could.
“Um . . . what is happening right now?”
Mrs. M released me and I stepped away from her and the turkey. Max stood at the end of the hallway. I guess she decided against the shower. Her choppy red hair was styled calmer than I had ever seen it. She was wearing a turtleneck sweater that covered her multitude of tattoos. She was wearing less makeup, too. She looked like herself, still, but at maybe 25 percent of her normal vibrancy.
I missed the real her.
“Oh, nothing, dear,” Max’s mom said. “Cade just told me about his parents.”
“Right. His parents,” Max said. She shot me a wide-eyed look.
So, I changed the subject. “Mrs. Miller, tell me what Max was like as a child.”
Max groaned. Her mother practically cheered.
“I just happen to have baby pictures with me! I keep a photo album with me at all times.” Max stalked into the kitchen and threw herself down on the stool beside me.
“Yay. Baby pictures. What a great idea, sweetheart.” She laced her fingers with mine, and then lightly dug her fingernails into the back of my hand in warning. All I could think about was what it would feel like to have her fingernails dig into my skin under different circumstances.
I pulled her hand up to my mouth, and kissed the back. Her eyes widened, and she sucked in a breath. I smiled evilly and said, “Oh, honey, you can’t blame me for wanting to see your baby pictures.”
While her mother was distracted in the living room finding the album, Max leaned into my ear and said, “You bet your ass I can blame you. You’re not funny, Golden Boy.”
“Really? I thought it was hysterical.”
“Later, when we’re alone—”
“—I like the sound of that.”
She laughed loudly in the direction of the living room, totally fake, and then turned on me. “Don’t think I won’t murder you, pretty boy.”
“So, I was golden and now I’m pretty?”
She took another deep inhale, and I imagined she was counting to keep her anger under control. I liked her like this. With her cheeks pink and her eyes sparkling, she looked like herself despite the major style change.
“I can’t help it. It’s just so much fun to get you riled up.”
“You really want to play that game?”
“Here we go!” Her mother flitted into the room and slid the album in front of us.
The first picture was of the day they brought Max home from the hospital. The nursery was a mishmash of different pinks and had MACKENZIE painted across one wall. Max looked like most babies—small with a pink, pinched face, and no hair. Mrs. Miller had fluffy, curled bangs and looked like something out of I Love the ’80s.
“Mrs. Miller, I have to say, you don’t look a day older now than you did then.”
She giggled, and swatted me on the shoulder. “Oh, stop.”
Max untangled her hand from mine and said under her breath, “Really, please stop.”
Max took control of the album and flipped through the book quickly, giving me barely any time to look at the pictures, but one thing was obvious. Max’s parents never let her be herself when she was younger. They dressed her in pink, frilly things that you could tell she didn’t like. Her hair was blond and always curled in perfect ringlets.
I leaned into her ear and whispered, “You’re naturally blond? It’s getting easier every minute to picture you in that cheer uniform.” If looks could take physical form, the one she gave me would have been a bitch slap.
She looked picture-perfect in every photo. Like a Barbie doll, and her smile in each was just as plastic. She was beautiful, but sad. She flipped the page, and I was treated to the real Cheerleader Max mid toe-touch.
“And now I no longer have to picture it.”
Her glare stayed firmly in place, but her lips curled up at the end slightly.
“Did you play sports?” Mrs. Miller asked me.
“I did, yes. Football and basketball.”
Max paused in turning the page and said, “Really?”
“I did grow up in Texas. Plus, I was good at it.”
She laughed. “Of course you were.”
“I bet you were a great cheerleader.”
“Great? Not really. Nearly homicidal? Sure.”
I got to see her in a bubblegum pink prom dress and graduation robes. We were approaching the end of the book, and I kept waiting for a more recent picture of her with her new, non-Barbie look. They never came. The album just ended, as if the last few years had never existed. I saw the relief written across her features when she flipped the last page. It was replaced by shock and something else I couldn’t identify when she saw a final picture taped to the inside of the back of the book.
It was a family photo, and she looked twelve, maybe thirteen. She had that distinctive preteen glare down pat. Behind her was a guy I assumed was her brother. He had the same blond hair and wore a letterman jacket. On the end was a girl, probably sixteen or seventeen that was the spitting image of Max. Or I guess it was the other way around, since her sister was older.
“Your brother and sister?” I asked.
Something in Max’s expression fractured. She spun to face her mother, and her expression was terrifying and terrified.
“No. We’re not doing this! Do you hear me? If this is why you came, you can leave.” She slammed the album shut, and stormed back into her bedroom.
I expected her mother to act shocked or upset, but she calmly picked up the album and returned it to her things, like she was picking up a book and returning it to the shelf. She walked back into the living room and took down a picture she’d placed on the coffee table, too.
I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, but I knew it had something to do with what Max mentioned about holidays the night before. And whatever it was, it had Max broken up into tiny little pieces that I hadn’t glimpsed until just now.
I didn’t know whether to scream or cry, throw things or collapse to the ground. There was something about my mother that made me feel fourteen and pissed off all over again. I hated it, but I couldn’t seem to turn it off either. She just couldn’t ever leave it alone.
I didn’t need pictures of Alex all over the place to remember her. I saw her on the subway, at concerts, passing me in the street. I saw her when I closed my eyes. I used to see her when I looked in the mirror, before I’d changed my hair and inked my skin. I could see her reflected in Mom’s eyes every time she looked at me, like if she just wished hard enough she could make us trade places and get the good daughter back.
It didn’t matter how many times I said it, Mom always tried to make the holidays about Alex. She wanted to talk about the time Alexandria did this or when she said that. Mom brought her up so much that she was like this phantom sitting there at the dinner table that sucked all of the happiness and all the normal conversation into the realm of nonexistence with her.
Forget wishing I were dead. Mom made me feel that way already. Hell, she already had the photo album ready to show the world her other blond princess, never mind that I hadn’t been that girl in a long time. No one wanted to see pictures of this Max. Just Mackenzie.
What was wrong with letting the past stay the past? Why did we have to drag all our issues with us into the future? I couldn’t breathe out there for all the ghosts Mom hauled in with her. I didn’t fit in that world, and the more I tried, the more I felt like I didn’t fit anywhere.
I was lying on my bed, my face pressed into a pillow when I felt the mattress dip. I knew it had to be Cade. Mom never followed me after fights, easier to pretend they weren’t happening. And Dad steered clear of all things that involved emotion. I pulled myself up on my elbows and looked over my shoulder to see him seated gingerly on the very edge of my mattress. He’d left several feet between us.
I rolled over onto my back and waited for him to say something. To ask questions.
He didn’t. He lay down beside me, still careful to keep a buffer zone between us. He put one forearm behind his head, and stared up at the ceiling in silence. This close I could see how broad his shoulders were. I mean, I’d felt them, but I hadn’t gotten a chance to really look at him. His arms were muscular and his chest wide. I watched the way his body moved as he inhaled and exhaled. The rhythm was calming.
Watching his chest rise and fall was soothing enough that my anger just kind of drifted away. His eyes were closed and his face relaxed when he said, “I let people go.”
I sat up on my elbow and looked at him, but his eyes remained closed.
“Um . . . if you’re referencing the Bible and that whole let-my-people-go thing . . . I’m not getting the connection.”
One side of his mouth quirked up, and he sighed.
“Last night you asked why I didn’t fight for the girl from the song. It’s because I let people go.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I approved, as long as we didn’t have to talk about me.
“These days, yeah. When I was younger, I fought and lost too many times.”
I wanted him to open his eyes and look at me. This somber, closed-off Cade was disconcerting. I was in a dark enough place by myself, and seeing him like this pushed me even deeper. I never knew what to do in situations like this, so I decided to take his lead and stay silent.
I wasn’t thinking about the attraction between us. I was only thinking about comforting him when I slid closer and laid my head on his chest.
Maybe I was thinking of comfort for myself, too.
After a few seconds, the arm he’d had beneath his head came down around me. His fingertips rested on my hip, and I released a breath I’d been holding captive.
Just when I’d settled into the silence and the comfort of our closeness, he said, “My first memory of my dad is of him leaving. I was five and I asked him not to go. I begged him actually.” He breathed out in something that was almost a laugh . . . a sad one anyway. “He was gone by morning. My mom died less than a year later.” He closed his eyes, and I could tell he was somewhere else. He wasn’t with me anymore. “She had cancer, and it was like she just . . . stopped fighting. I wasn’t enough to make her want to stay.”
The grief came out of nowhere and knocked me sideways. Tears pressed at my eyes, and my throat burned with the effort of fighting down the emotions. I hadn’t cried in a long time, but the thought of Cade as a child, probably just as good and perfect as he is now, facing those things . . . it hurt. I was used to turning a blind eye to my own emotions. I was so practiced in the art that it came easily. But I’d never had to worry about anyone else’s. I’d never been close enough to someone for it to matter. It took all of my self-control to push the emotions back behind my walls.
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