He went straight for a hug, and I let it happen, mostly because I was in a state of shock. He completely missed the uncomfortable situation unfolding before us, probably due to the alcohol in his bloodstream. “How have you been?” he asked. “It’s been too long.”
Before that very minute? Pretty great. In that moment? Awful. “I’ve been good, Bobby. It’s good to see you.”
“Shit, you too, Emery. This town’s sure missing your face—and your cooking. Sammie has been cooking the meals down at the church after services, but it’s nowhere as good as your cooking. Maybe before you go, you can whip up some of that mac and cheese you used to make for—”
“Where is she?” I asked, turning straight to Mama as my stomach dropped. It felt as if boulders were sitting heavy in the pit of me, weighing me down from shock.
Mama shifted uncomfortably in her shoes as Dad looked away from me. They didn’t say a word. Guilt sank in Mama’s eyes, yet Dad didn’t show a blink of remorse for the news that Bobby had revealed.
“Where is she?” I asked again. A rage was building up inside me, and I didn’t know how it was going to explode from my system with the news my parents had been hiding from me. “I called you, Mama. I asked about her, and you didn’t say a word.”
“I don’t have to tell you a thing,” she said, crossing her arms as if her stance made any sense.
I turned to Bobby. “Do you know where Sammie is staying, Bobby?”
“Don’t answer that, Bobby,” Mama ordered, scolding him as if he were a child.
“Bobby.” I took a deep inhalation and locked my eyes with his. “Do you know?”
Bobby’s stare dashed back and forth between Mama and me, and his aloof persona was completely drained away as he began to read the seriousness of the situation at hand. “Oh man, look, I didn’t mean to cause any trouble,” he explained, ruffling through his curly hair.
“It’s fine, just tell me,” I said, trying everything to keep myself from shaking him out of fear. Oliver stood behind me with his hands on Reese’s shoulders. He leaned in and whispered that he was going to take Reese off to play a game to give my parents and me space to talk. I nodded in agreement.
As they began to walk away, Mama’s eyes widened in shock. “You’re just going to allow a strange man to walk off with my granddaughter?”
A strange man?
She couldn’t have been serious in that moment. She couldn’t have been questioning my parenting skills, when she’d been lying to me about the whereabouts of my sister for who knew how long.
I didn’t even give her question the answer she was in search of. My eyes stared into Bobby. “Bobby?” I asked again.
He grimaced and rubbed his hand over his mouth and then shrugged. As he was about to speak and give me the information, Dad jumped into the conversation.
“I think it’s about time for you to walk away, Bobby,” he ordered.
Bobby took the command and ran with it. Literally. He jogged away and didn’t look back once.
Acid began to burn at the back of my throat as my panic rose. My little sister had been living in our small town for so long and had never reached out to let me know. She’d made it seem as if she was going off to find herself, not to return to my parents’ chains.
“How did you get that child?” Mama asked, her voice harsh. Her forehead was dripping with sweat, and it was the first time in a long time that I remembered seeing Mama nervous—outside of Dad yelling at her.
“Excuse me? Sammie left her with me five years ago. She said she was going off to find herself.”
“No. That can’t be. Sammie said the baby didn’t make it. She said she lost it, and that’s why she came back,” Mama said, shaky.
“Why in the world would she leave a child in the hands of someone like you?” Dad barked, disgusted by the idea. That hurt me more than he’d ever know.
I couldn’t grasp what was happening, or why it was happening. “Why didn’t you tell me she’s been living back here?” I asked Mama.
“Why would I tell you anything? We don’t speak. Besides, Samantha is fine.”
“No, she isn’t,” I said, shaking my head. Nothing about the situation felt right, and I couldn’t believe that Sammie was okay after everything she’d been through. “She can’t be okay if she’s back in this town.”
“You watch your tongue, talking about my daughter,” Dad cut in.
Same ol’ Dad.
I’m your daughter too.
“Why? It’s true, and you both know it. She can’t be okay after what she went through.”
“That’s why we take care of her. That’s why we see her, because that’s our baby. She came to us when she needed us. Not that any of that is your business.”
I stood flabbergasted by the words that were leaving Mama’s mouth. “You’re insane if you think—”
I flinched the moment Dad’s hand landed against my forearm and he held on tight. His dark eyes locked with mine, and I swore I felt a darkness race over me. “Don’t you dare talk to your mother like that,” he scolded as he squeezed my arm.
My mouth parted as my body began to shake uncontrollably from his grip. “Let me go,” I ordered, even though my voice shook as the words left me. It was no secret that even to that day, I was afraid of my father.
He held on tighter, and I cringed from the pain. “Apologize to your mother.”
Mama’s eyes softened for a split second as she looked down at his grip on me. “Okay, Theo, I think that’s enough.”
Dad squeezed harder. I gasped.
Mama placed her hand against his and shook her head. “Let her go, Theo.”
“Stay out of this, Harper,” he ordered. The hatred that painted his eyes terrified me. “Apologize for speaking to her like that.”
“What?” I cried. “No.”
“Apologize,” he commanded.
The pain shot up my arm, and I was almost to the point where tears were ready to release from my eyes, but I didn’t want to cry in front of him. For some reason, I felt that if he saw me weak, he’d feel strong.
“What the hell are you doing?” a voice barked. I looked over my shoulder to see Oliver standing there, with Reese beside him. He marched directly toward my father and ripped his hold from me. “Don’t ever put your hand on her.”
Dad stood tall, but unlike me, Oliver didn’t shiver with fear. He stood eye to eye with the man who’d raised me and stepped in front of me, protecting me from the first man who was supposed to be my protector.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” Dad snarled, fury sitting against his face. His hands were rolled in fists.
“Someone who will never watch a man put his hands on a woman and do nothing about it. If you ever touch Emery again, it will be the end of you,” Oliver said, cold as stone.
“You don’t know the person you’re defending,” Dad said with spite.
“You think you have the right to put your hands on a woman? Any woman? Why, because they’re smaller than you? Because they make you feel big? Come on, then. Do it to me. See what happens,” Oliver ordered, stepping straight into Dad’s space. “Show me what a tough guy you are.”
“Oliver,” I said, placing a hand against his arm. “Let’s go.”
His stance was firm, and he didn’t seem to be stepping down, so I pushed between him and my father and looked Oliver in the eyes. “Hey, right here.”
He lowered his head to make eye contact with me, and the fire that swam in his stare softened once he was staring my way. “Let’s go. Please.”
His shoulders relaxed, and he nodded slightly.
Reese looked as if she was confused and horrified all at once. I hated that fear that she was feeling. I rushed over to her and lifted her into my arms. “It’s okay, baby. You’re okay.”
She curled into me, and I held on tighter than ever.
“That’s right. You need to get to leaving,” Dad said, trying to be strong, but I swore when Oliver stepped up to him, I saw something I’d never seen in my life—I saw Dad flinch.
I felt defeated as I looked toward him and asked him the one question that had been sitting on my mind almost my whole life. “Why do you hate me?” I whispered, sounding like the hurt child I used to be.
Without hesitation, he blinked once and answered. “Because you’ve always been a disappointment.”
“Let’s go,” Oliver softly spoke, placing a hand on my lower back.
I looked toward my parents and wanted to say so much, yet nothing was strong enough to leave my lips; instead, I turned on my heel and began to walk away.
“You okay, Mama?” Reese asked, wiping away the tears that fell down my cheek.
“Yes, baby, I’m okay.”
“She shouldn’t be calling you her mother,” Mama called out, but I kept walking, even though her words felt like stabs to my soul. “She’s not yours,” she said, making every inch of my body shake with heartbreak. How could she say something so harsh? How could she be so cruel?
I felt as if my knees were going to buckle beneath me any second, and right before I almost fell apart, Oliver was there, linking his arm with my free one. He kept me standing when I felt like falling.
“Keep walking, Em,” he whispered. “Just keep walking.”
We moved on autopilot until we reached the car. I buckled Reese into her car seat and then moved into the passenger seat. Staring forward, I tried my best to control the anger and pain rushing through me.