If only it were that easy to create someone’s favorite song. My record label would’ve been thrilled.
“Oh! Oh!” Emery gasped, pointing out of her window as we drove. “If you were wondering, which I doubt you were, that’s the best Mexican food you’ll ever have. It’s called Mi Amor Burritos, and your life will be forever changed when you get their food.” She nodded her head in pleasure as she thought about it. She was the opposite of me—more like Alex. Conversation came easy to her mind, while I struggled to gather my thoughts. “It’s such a hole-in-the-wall place. I only knew about it because my sister, Sammie, stumbled across it years ago when she came to stay with me for a little bit. She has a gift of finding the best things in random places.”
“Are you and your sister close?”
There was a hesitation in her before she swallowed hard and stared forward. “We were.”
For fuck’s sake. “I’m sorry.”
“No worries. She didn’t pass away or anything. She’s just . . . I haven’t seen her in a few years, since she went off to find herself. We still talk every now and again, but it’s not the same as it used to be. She’s on an adventure across the States, trying to find where she belongs.”
“You think that’s a thing? Having a place where someone belongs?”
“Belonging comes in different forms, I think. It can come from a place, a person, an object, an occupation.”
“What makes you belong?”
“My daughter,” she said without hesitation. “She’s my safe place. What about you?”
I stayed quiet. I noticed the small frown that landed against Emery’s lips as I stared in the rearview mirror. She didn’t push on to force me to give her an answer, and I was thankful for that.
About twenty minutes later, we rounded the corner of the street I lived on and pulled up to a gated community. Steven, the guard, walked up to the car with a clipboard in his hands and a walkie-talkie on his hip.
Emery rolled down her car window and smiled at Steven. Steven didn’t smile back, probably because he dealt with hordes of fanatics and paparazzi trying to crash through those metal gates.
“Can I help you, ma’am? Are you lost?”
“Well, I’m not in Kansas anymore, that’s for sure,” Emery muttered, looking toward the massive homes behind the gates. She then nodded to the back of the car. “I’m dropping off one of your prized possessions.”
Steven looked in the back seat at me and still didn’t smile back. He nodded once. “Hello, Mr. Smith.”
“You created quite the buzz around these parts today.”
I smirked, tossing my hands up in the air. “You’re welcome for the entertainment.”
“Keeps me on my toes,” he said.
Steven walked away, and not long after, the gates began to open. As Emery drove, her mouth hung open, and I swore flies were seconds away from shooting straight into her throat.
“So, there’s really people out here living like that?” she asked, stunned.
“Yeah.” I nodded, looking around at the multimillion-dollar homes. Demi Lovato was rumored to have bought a property a few spots down from me. Alex would’ve loved that; she was his celebrity crush. “This is what we are wasting our fortunes on.”
“Holy crap,” she breathed out as we went up a hill and passed two people on a walk. “Was that a Kardashian? Holy crap, that’s a Kardashian!” she whisper-shouted with her windows still down.
“A Jenner,” I corrected.
“Potato-patahto,” she sighed, seemingly a bit starstruck. I wouldn’t have taken Emery as a Kardashian fan, but I guess people had a way of surprising you sometimes.
“I would give my left boob to have Kylie’s lipstick from her makeup line.”
“I think priorities need to be checked when giving away body parts for makeup.”
“You just don’t understand how good the makeup is.”
As we approached my house, she pulled up the driveway, and I saw two people sitting on my front porch, and I knew I was in for a handful after my night’s event.
“Is that your PR team or something? To do damage control after last night?”
“Worse. My parents.”
She put the car in park, and I hopped out and walked over to her driver’s door and leaned forward on the window frame. “Thank you for helping me out.”
“No worries, really.” She combed her thick, beautiful hair behind her ear and whispered, “Oddly enough, this was kind of a dream come true for me.” I studied her as she bit into her bottom lip and nervously nuzzled against the skin. “Can I ask you something?”
“If it’s too personal, you don’t have to reply.”
I nodded again.
She leaned toward me, growing closer as she placed her hands right beside mine on the window frame. “Are you okay? Like, overall. Are you okay?”
Her question was so gentle and packed with care. That’s what it felt like that morning, ever since I’d crossed paths with Emery. She felt like a weighted blanket of protection that was keeping me from crumbling. In her brown eyes I saw the concern for me that she held.
Why would she care about me?
I was no one of real importance. Then again, perhaps she only cared about the Oliver Smith who was a performer, not the Oliver Smith I truly had been. If she knew my truth, she probably wouldn’t have cared as much.
I knew what I wanted to tell her. I wanted to tell her what I’d been telling the rest of the world. I wanted to lie. I wanted to say I was fine and that everything was okay, but for some odd reason, my lips parted, my voice cracked, and I said, “No.”
That felt good to say.
No, I wasn’t okay. No, I wasn’t going to be okay. No, nothing was getting better.
She smiled a smile that looked as if it were dripped in tears. I never knew smiles could feel so sad. Oddly enough, the sadness in her grin made me feel more at peace with my own despair.
Her hand moved on top of mine, and she lightly squeezed. Her touch was warm and soft, like I’d imagined it to be.
“I’m so sorry, Oliver. I’m going to pray for you to find better days. You deserve better days.”
Was she even real? Or was she just a figment of my imagination that came to tell me the words I so very much needed to hear? I wanted to tell her the truth about prayers, about how they never came true. Before Alex was pronounced dead, I prayed for him to come back, but it never happened. I prayed for healing, and nothing got better. I prayed for the universe to take me instead, yet it’d left me behind to live.
I wasn’t living anymore, though. I was a dead man walking, quietly wishing that the sun would fade forever, and I wouldn’t have to hurt anymore.
I don’t want to be here.
When Emery pulled her hand away from mine, the warmth she’d given me faded away too. Before I could reply to her, my parents were rushing toward me.
Emery’s warmth ebbed from my hands as she pulled away, and she nodded once toward me as if it were our final goodbye as Mom rushed toward me and drew me into a hug.
“Oh my gosh, Oliver! Are you okay?”
“Yeah, Mom. I’m fine,” I lied.
Sometimes it was easier to tell the truth to strangers. Your truth wouldn’t hurt them as badly. I knew if my parents knew I wasn’t okay, it would eat at their souls. I didn’t need them worrying about my well-being after I’d been the cause of them losing the other half of their hearts.
When I glanced back at Emery, she gave me a halfway grin, noting the lie I’d told my parents, and I gave her a lopsided, weak smile back. When she looked my way, it was as if she was saying, I see you, Oliver, and you’ll be okay. Then she nodded once and put her car in reverse and drove away. Unlike how I’d crashed into her world, she slowly retreated from mine in a much classier fashion.
“Why did you fly out here?” I asked as Dad pulled me into a briefer embrace than Mom had.
“Well, we heard last minute you were doing a show, so we figured you could use some family support,” Dad said. “Then, when we landed, we weren’t able to get ahold of you, so we got worried.”
Mom’s eyes watered over as she hugged me again. “I was so scared that something happened to you.”
The heaviness of her words and the fear that was in her made me feel like the worst son in the world. “Sorry, Mom. My phone died, and I haven’t been able to make it back home until now. I’m sorry for the stress. I didn’t mean to worry you.”
She placed one hand against the half heart around my neck and her other hand against my cheek as she smiled at me with tears. Then she smacked my cheek and sniffled. “Don’t ever do that again, or so help me, I’m putting a tracker in your phone. Now let us inside. You look hungry. Let me make you some food.” Mom headed toward the front door of my house, and Dad lingered behind a bit.
My father wasn’t as chatty as Mom. He didn’t really say much, except for when words were needed. I was like him in that way, while Alex was more like Mom. He placed a comforting hand against my shoulder and squeezed.
“You all right, son?” he asked, his voice deep, low, and calm as ever. I couldn’t remember a time Dad ever raised his voice. He may have been the most down-to-earth person I’d ever come across.