“So . . . what brings you back?” My father’s tone is pleasant, but his eyes squint as he studies me in the blue-green twilight of early evening.
The truth is complicated.
“Been gone long enough,” I say on a long exhale. “Thought maybe it was time to come home.”
I use the word for his sake. It makes him smile.
While I resided at 372 Magnolia Drive the first ten years of my life, calling it “home” would be a stretch at this point.
His dark eyes turn glassy, and his fingertips twitch at his sides. He wants to hug me, I’m sure, but he knows me too well. At least that part of me.
“Your room’s exactly how you left it,” he says instead of asking more questions. I imagine he’ll space them out, fishing casually for tidbits until he has the whole picture. An investigational paint-by-numbers. “Good to have you back, Grace. I mean that. Stay as long as you need. We’ll catch up whenever you’re ready.”
I thank him before grabbing my roller bag and climbing the winding staircase in the sweeping foyer. Every step rustles an unsettled sensation in my center, but I force it down with tight swallows.
I’m here on a mission, and as soon as it’s over, I’m leaving again.
Stopping at the top of the stairs, I’m greeted by an outdated family portrait—the original McMullens dressed in coordinating navy-blue outfits, the children hand in hand, grinning against the autumnal backdrop of some local state park.
There we are.
Frozen in time.
Blissfully unaware of fate’s cruel plans for us.
We were beautiful together—enviably happy from the outside.
My attention homes in on my parents, the way my mother gazes up into my father’s handsome face, her golden hair shining in the early evening sunset, his hand cupping the side of her cheek. If I didn’t know better, I’d think their love for one another was equal and balanced.
I trace my fingertips against the burnished-gold frame before pressing it just enough that it tilts, off-center. Noticeable only if you stare too long.
I have no desire to rewrite history, and I have little patience for those who feel the need to do so.
When I reach my old room, I flick on the light and plant myself in the doorway.
My father’s right. It’s exactly how I left it: Dark furniture. Blue walls. Pile of stuffed animals in the corner. Perfectly made bed complete with an ironed coverlet and a million pillows.
Aside from the fresh vacuum tracks in the carpet, no one’s set foot in this room since the last time I was home my senior year of college.
I lock the door and collapse on the bed, digging my phone from my bag and pulling up the Instaface account for my ex from college and staring at his profile picture for the tenth time today—the hundredth time this week. Same coffee-brown hair trimmed neatly into a timeless crew cut. Same hooded, almond-shaped eyes the earthy color of New England in autumn. Same dimples flanking his boyish smile like parentheses. He’s exactly how I remember him, only with a decade of life tacked onto his face. Shallow creases spread across his forehead. A deep line separates his eyebrows. Maybe there’s a little more hollowing beneath his jovial gaze. But other than that, he’s the same as I remember.
I could describe Sutton Whitlock fifty thousand ways, but at the end of the day, I can sum him up in five words: he was a good man.
Eight years ago, I broke his heart—and not because I wanted to.
I had to save him from a lifetime of disappointment.
I had to save him from me.
But a handful of things have come up online recently—things that indicate he’s not okay.
I need to rectify what I’ve done. I need to apologize for hurting him. Explain my reasons. Give him permission to move on, to be happy.
And then I’ll disappear . . . again.