“It’s called ‘Godspeed,’ by James Blake.” I rubbed the back of my neck as I tried to keep my emotions in check. “My brother and I would share a song with one another every single day, no matter what. This was the last song he shared with me.”
Her eyes watered over, and she didn’t even try to keep the tears from falling. Her hand landed against mine, and she squeezed it lightly. “I’m so sorry, Oliver. I know you hear that a lot from so many people, but I am so deeply sorry.”
I gave her a tight grin and shrugged. “It’s all right.”
“No. It’s not.”
She was right.
She closed her eyes as she listened to the song, and the tears kept streaming down her cheeks as she felt it. I saw it happening—she wasn’t just listening to the words; she was feeling them. They were being imprinted on her soul, the same way she was being imprinted on mine.
When the song came to an end, she opened her beautiful eyes and took both of my hands into hers. “Can you play it again?”
And I did.
It was crazy how life worked. For the past few months, I hadn’t been able to play that song without feeling as if my heart was being ripped out of my chest. But having someone to listen to it with me, having Emery there to experience the song, the lyrics, the story behind its meaning to me, made it hurt a little less. As if she was sharing the burden of it with me.
When I was with her, I felt less confused, less sad. Less lonely.
“Thank you for sharing that, Oliver. It means a lot to me.”
“Thank you for listening.”
She wiped her emotions away from her eyes and cleared her throat. “So question time? Should I go first?”
“Why do you keep your mirrors covered?”
I grimaced and shifted a bit, but I didn’t drop my hold of her hands. I wouldn’t dare drop her touch. “It’s hard to look in mirrors. Because it feels like I’m looking at my brother.”
“I figured that was it. I get that . . . but . . . and I don’t mean to be offensive or anything, but I feel like that could be a bit of a gift. You know? To see your brother every time you look into your own eyes. It’s as if a piece of him gets to keep living on within you.”
“I’ve never thought of it that way.”
“Yeah. Maybe that’s stupid. That’s just how my mind works, though.”
“I like how your mind works.”
A slight squeeze to her hands.
She tilted her head and didn’t break our stare. “Okay, now your question.”
“Does Reese not know her father? Is he not in the picture anymore?”
Within seconds, Emery sat up straighter, and a somber look found her eyes. Her hands slipped away from mine, and I realized that maybe that was the one question I shouldn’t have asked about.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“No, no. It’s fine. I did say any question,” she laughed. “That came back to slap me in the face.”
“You don’t have to answer.”
“No. It’s fine. I just don’t talk about it a lot, so it’s hard. But, no. She doesn’t know her father. I don’t know him, either. I have no clue who he is.”
My chest tightened as I narrowed my eyes. “Was it a one-night stand or something?”
She shook her head. “No. I mean, I’ve never met him. I have no clue who he is, what he looks like, or anything about him.”
How was that possible? What was I missing?
Emery must’ve seen the confusion in my eyes, since she gave me the saddest frown she’d ever produced. “Reese isn’t my biological child. She’s my sister’s.”
Five Years Ago
They were going to disown her before she even parted her lips. I knew that the moment Sammie told me about her pregnancy. She knew it too. That was the truth about who our parents were. They set their judgmental opinions down before they offered compassion, no matter what. Theo and Harper Taylor weren’t millennials, by any means, but they were well versed in cancel culture. They’d canceled my aunt Judy for getting a divorce. They shunned the gospel choir director for having photographs online of herself at a Drake concert.
They’d belittle children who celebrated Halloween.
I’d never met two souls who placed judgment like they placed prayers—every morning and night.
Sammie’s hands weren’t shaking, because she was frozen still as I sat beside her on the sofa in Mama and Dad’s living room. I’d gone off to college two years before and had felt a heavy amount of conflicted emotions the day I left home to attend a culinary school in Los Angeles. I cried two sets of tears the first night I’d stayed in my dorm room. First, tears of relief from the fact that Mama couldn’t place her words of disappointment over me every single day for random reasons, and Dad couldn’t hold his hand of disapproval up in front of my face.
The second set of tears I shed were for Sammie. She was left alone with our parents now, with no safe haven to escape to when she needed to hide away. In the past when our parents were too harsh, Sammie would sneak into my bedroom and we’d listen to music on my laptop, sharing earbuds. Mama didn’t like when we listened to anything other than gospel music—so we always made sure to listen at night, when our parents were fast asleep.
Our current favorite artists were Alex & Oliver. They were soul music mixed with pop with not a drop of clichés. Sure, they only had two albums out, but those albums were the cure to every broken piece of our hearts.
I didn’t know what my sister would go through without me being home with her. Unlike me, Sammie was sensitive. While our parents’ judgments didn’t affect me, because I had thick skin, I knew how their words slithered beneath my sister’s skin, infecting her thoughts and mind.
From a young age, I’d understood how thoughts created outcomes, so I tried my best to keep my mind clear. Sammie wasn’t like that, though. She cared so much about what people thought of her. She was a people pleaser through and through, doing anything and everything to be loved by the world—mostly by our parents.
The worst part was that she craved love and acceptance from two people who were unable to give her what she was looking for. My parents were two narcissists who hid their true, heartless colors behind their religion. They strove with their religious beliefs to condemn people, instead of showing them love.
Dad’s face was grim after Sammie spoke her truths to him and Mama. My little sister had come to me first when everything unfolded. She called me to her side, and I drove all the way from California back to Oregon to help her during her storms.
She was pregnant at eighteen years old. Even if my sister was deemed an adult by age, Sammie was merely a child herself. There was such an innocence to her that she seemed too gentle for a world as harsh as ours.
She waited a week before she told our parents about the pregnancy. Seven days passed before she felt comfortable enough to share the news that had taken place in her life. I hated that she’d told them, thinking our parents would give her the comfort her soul was begging for. Instead, she received disgust.
“You’re a statistic,” Mama commented. “We raised you well and pushed you hard to make you the complete opposite of this. You were on your way to an Ivy League school, and you threw it away. For what? For this mistake?”
“Mama, be easy—” I started, but I was instantly cut off.
“Stay out of this, Emery. Lord knows you are probably the one who influenced your sister to act out this way.”
“You think I didn’t find the pack of cigarettes under your mattress after you moved out to college? You’ve been a troublemaker from the beginning, and poor Sammie’s probably taken after some of your sinful ways.”
“This has nothing to do with Emery, Mama. Really,” Sammie said, defending me. She was wasting her breath, though. It was no secret that my parents saw me as the troubled child and Sammie as the saint. I’d come to terms with that many moons ago.
“It’s Devin’s?” Mama asked. Dad was standing behind her with his arms crossed and a look of coldness behind his eyes. Most people feared when their parents spoke, but it was quite the opposite for me with my father. His silence terrified me more than any words ever could. My father could make a person feel like nothing, simply with a blink of his eyes.
I’d been nothing to that man more often than not.
It was scary that those looks of coldness were now being directed toward Sammie—his pride and joy.
Sammie didn’t answer Mama’s question, but it was the only thing that made sense, for it to be Devin’s child.
Devin was the pastor’s son, the one who would someday take over the church down the line, and he and Sammie had been high school sweethearts. Out of everyone in the world, Devin was the only boy my parents approved of Sammie being with. I wasn’t allowed to date in high school, but Sammie could, because she found Devin. A boy of God.