#BookTour “Stages” by Lamar K. Neal


Contemporary Romance

Date Published: 03-04-2022


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Hendrix and Victoria live two different lives. He is a senior in college, who lives with his terminally ill father, and has no idea what he wants to be when he “grows up.” She is a young wife and mother in a failing marriage, her two sons being the only reasons she is still devoted to her household. But after both learn of family secrets, not only does the shape of their daily lives change forever, but their worlds collide, sparking an unlikely interest in one another. With their lives at a free fall, their
relationship is the hope, inspiration, and strength to help them persevere through it all. Although love is getting them through the bad times, what
will happen to their relationship when they realize they are still at
different stages in life?



Almost every blanket and sheet in the house draped across the boy’s room. Two nights ago, I never, in a million years, imagined I would kiss someone other than Hershey. I sure as hell never imagined that the same man would have made us a blanket fort.

I stood in the hall, outside the bedroom door, watching him crawl inside the fort with his plate in hand. Inside, he reached for mine, and I reluctantly gave it to him, and like that, he disappeared back into the fort.

“I thought you were joking,” I said. “But you were serious.  You really made a fort.”

He stuck his head out. “I never play about my blanket forts.” He extended his hand. “Come on in. You’re letting all the cold air out.”

I took his hand. Looking at the childish grin on his face and feeling how firm he held my hand, I felt at ease. I crawled inside as I giggled like a little girl.

His head barely cleared the bedsheets when he sat up straight.

“So, we’re here,” I said, “inside a blanket fort.”

“It kinda has a club vibe.”

“What? Dark and cramp?”

To the melodies of the most ratchet song—so ratchet I presumed it a parody—he scarfed down his food. Every few bits, he hiccupped, holding his chest as the food went down; I thought he was choking. Right after, he went right back to eating like he hadn’t in days.

I thought it was interesting that he didn’t touch his lasagna or salad until he finished his breadstick. But it was just weird that he was eating his lasagna before his salad. I covered my mouth to hide my laughter.

“Not you too,” he said.


“You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

“What are you talking about?”

He stared with a deadpan look. “You find it weird I’m eating my salad last.”

I burst into laughter. “Why are you eating your salad last? It’s not like the greens are going to wash away the carbs. I can’t get over how weird you are.”

“I take offense to that. I don’t think I am weird at all.”

“But weird is good. You aren’t afraid to be yourself in a world that tells us who to be.”

“Do you consider yourself weird?”

“I’m sitting inside this fort with you, aren’t I?”

“You are. I can’t take that away from you. A lesser man would call you out for your hesitation to join this beautiful palace of the highest thread count.”

“You got me there.”

“Come on, you gotta give me something. Show me how weird you are. Show me how spontaneous you can be.”

He kept insisting, with his head tilted to the side and a mischievous grin. After the third or fourth time, he stopped, but the smirk stayed on his face while gazing at me, hopelessly. His gaze was as vibrant and welcoming as the other day.

My only desire was to feel his lips against mine a second time. My heart slammed intensely against my chest, throbbing harder by the second. My breath thinned. Then he called me a name that he never used before: Vita.

“Hmm?” I asked.


My desire to feel his lips turned into a longing after I kissed him. Our lips barely stayed together before he moved his head back. His eyes stayed locked onto me, going from wanting me to confusion. I kissed him again, still without force to our kiss; our lips rested upon one another’s. I moved my head back, and he came closer, gently running his bottom lip across mine. No longer restraining ourselves, we kissed with passion, desire, and lust. I held his face, and he firmly grabbed my thighs.

Time didn’t exist in the moment.

He stopped kissing. I took a deep breath that smelt like sauce, moved my face closer to his so I could feel the warmth of his breath on my lips. I opened my eyes. He kept his eyes closed, and just when I thought the moment was over, he moved his tongue into my mouth. Like our hands, our tongues couldn’t refrain from touching each other.

When we finally stopped kissing, we kept our lips inches apart.

“Vita?” I asked, breathing heavily.


“Where did you get that from?”

“There’s a Playstation Vita on the dresser. I always thought the name was cute, so I said to myself, ‘Hi self. Victoria is cute. The name is cute. Why not give the cute name to the cute girl?”

“You’re such a weirdo.”

“From what I heard, being a dork is a good thing.”

I caressed his cheek. “It is.”

“Oh, by the way, I meant to say ‘beautiful.’ You aren’t cute. You’re beautiful.”


The sun glared down on the back of our necks, and our clothes, soaked in sweat, stuck to us. One cloud looked like it waded through the sky, and Hendrix swore that it looked like a mouth, but I didn’t see it. In true Southern California fashion, the mid of November felt like a summer day.

We finished our fourth lap around the park, filled with screaming kids as they swung on the swings, hung from the monkey bars, went down the slide, or ran around aimlessly. It was the same park I took Daniel to let him burn off some energy, and he spent most of his time rolling around in the grass. On Saturdays, we took Martin.

Today was Saturday, and I wasn’t with my boys.

Maybe Hendrix could read my mind, or maybe my face told just how distraught I was. Whatever the reason, he let go of my hand, put his arm around my waist, and pulled me closer.

“We got this,” he said. “Even if it is us vs. the world. We got this.”

He sounded so positive. It was always like he knew something I didn’t. Like most times where he amused me, he smiled.

We walked down the street before we came to a McDonald’s three blocks down. As we passed, I saw a We’re Hiring sign in the window.

At that moment, I heard Hershey’s words, and they cut just as deep the second time.

“Are you going to apply?” Hendrix asked.

“You think I should?”

“That depends. Do you mind smelling like French fries all day?”

“I need the money.”

“There’s your answer.” He groaned, biting down on his lip. “I’m kinda in the mood for french fries now.”



It was almost midnight when I made it home. For the past few days, I drove around the city after class, going nowhere in particular, in hopes of getting back home as late as possible. My dad wasn’t sitting in his wicker chair on the porch, and there was no lingering smell of smoke. The air was still, and even at night, there was an essence of summer. A moth flew wildly across the porch, hitting and bouncing off the wall beside the light, which detected me as I came up the lawn. From the outside, it looked like every light inside the house was off. The sight of the palm tree arching over my house drained the little energy I had. Walking felt involuntary. I went inside and stopped, noticing my family at the kitchen table. They sat there, hunched forward, long-faced… worried.

“You didn’t come home for dinner,” Eve said. She got up and sat my backpack on the floor from over my shoulder.

“Sorry,” I said, walking into the kitchen. “I didn’t know you were cooking dinner.”

“She didn’t,” Vanessa said. “I did, and we told you this morning.”

“Now that I don’t remember.”

“You have been having quite the memory lapses lately.”

“Not to mention, you haven’t been looking well,” Eve said.

“Well,” I said, “I’m sorry to worry everybody, but I’m fine. Everybody can go to bed now.”

“You know we don’t believe that, right?”

“You don’t have to believe me.”

“I wish I could. You can take all that somewhere else, Hendrix. You don’t look fine. You don’t seem fine.”

I rested my hand on Eve’s cheek. We stared deep into one another’s eyes, and she squinted in an attempt to read my mind. “I’m good. I promise.” As she smiled in relief, I squeezed her nose and ran away before she could hit me. “You moved away and took our magic twin bond with you. You, of all people, shouldn’t have to ask how I’m feeling.”

“Our magic twin bond would be fine if you weren’t a little jerk.”

I opened the refrigerator, letting the cold air brush against my face, and pulled out containers of leftovers from that night’s dinner.

The smell of food didn’t overtake the house for hours, as it usually did. There wasn’t even a smell coming from the containers, which I found odd.

Eve rushed over and moved me aside by hitting me with her hips to fix me a plate of Turkey wings, yellow rice, and yams. She used the fork to tear pieces of turkey from the bone.

“Come sit down, Hendrix,” Vanessa said.

I sat beside dad. He stared down with his elbow on the table and his head in his hands.

Eve microwaved my meal and sat next to Vanessa on the other side of the table. Afterward, they stared at me as I used my fork to sort the turkey pieces from the rice.

My thoughts drowned out dad wheezing.

“You need to stop eating so fast,” Eve said. “When acid reflux has you up all night, I’m not bringing you tums.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Of course, you’ll be fine. You were fine yesterday. You’re fine now. You’ll be fine tomorrow. You do know we’ll love and support you even if you aren’t fine, right? If life slaps you across the face, Vanessa and I will slap it back because you’re our brother, and we love you. Don’t let pride leave you miserable, alone, and with your chest on fire.”


They wanted a long, drawn-out response about how I felt so much, they kept watching me. Their stares went from concern to eagerness while they still waited for me to say something.

“What?” I asked.

“Do you like the food?” Eve asked. “It’s like dad made it, right?”

“You’re slowly morphing into dad in the kitchen.”

“I’m slowly morphing into dad in the kitchen,” Vanessa said.

“Vanessa made a bet with dad. She said you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” Eve said to me and looked to our dad. “See, Dad, I told you. You better look out. You have some competition.”

“I guess so,” dad said, without looking up.

I looked at our dad. “What’s wrong with you?”

“You know what’s wrong with him,” Vanessa said. “He’s worried about Hendrix. What else?”

“We’re all worried about Hendrix,” Eve said.

“The difference is, dad can’t afford to be this stressed out.”

“He isn’t a child,” I said. I ate the last pieces of turkey from my plate and moved on to the rice.

“Want to know what’s worse than being treated like a child? Being terminally ill.”

“Can you not say that?” Eve asked, covering her ears. “No one is dying.”

“Grow up. This is real life we’re talking about, Eve. We can’t sit around and act like none of this is happening.”

“Why do you have to be so insensitive?”

“Why are you so sensitive?”

“Okay. Okay. I’m sensitive. Can we stop arguing now before we stress dad out more?”

“He’s already stressed out because of your twin!”

“Vanessa,” dad said, standing. The base in his voice startled Eve and made me look up from my plate. “Being unnecessarily extra won’t get us anywhere, sweetheart.”

“Can you stop protecting him? He isn’t a baby.”

“All of you are my babies.”

Vanessa, shaking her head and sighing, stood and walked towards the back door. Halfway, she glared at me from over her shoulder.

“Can you just stop being difficult and tell us what’s wrong with you?” She asked. “Nobody can help you if you don’t tell us what’s wrong. If it’s because of dad, I get it. Eve and I aren’t okay, either. We can get through this together.”

“I’m not upset about dad,” I said.

“Then what’s wrong?” Eve asked. “I know when there’s something wrong. I’m your twin, remember?”


“You’re fine, I know.” Eve sighed. “Look me into my eyes and tell me you’re fine.”

I kept my eyes down.

“Hendrix, look me in my eyes.”

“Alright,” dad said. “Alright. I let this go on for too long. But we’re done. Vanessa. Eve. Drop it. Now.”

“I’m not dropping it,” Vanessa said, “because you’re going to keep working yourself up over Hendrix. He’s acting like a goddamn baby. He needs to grow the fuck up and realize that there are more important things than his problems!”

“Okay, now I’m stressed and pissed off. If your brother says he’s fine, drop it. Why are we pressing the issue?”

“And I’m stressed too. I have been working my ass off, cooking and cleaning because you can’t, and Hendrix won’t, but he has the nerve to be walking around like the world is against him!”

“Who says anything is wrong with him?”

“He looks like shit, dad! You know it. I know it. Eve knows it. For the last week, he hasn’t been eating, he hasn’t been sleeping, his memory has been shit, and he has barely said a word to anyone-you said so yourself. He comes home after school and sits in his room all night. Does that scream, okay?”

“And when I come into the room, he leaves,” Eve said.

If I ate any more, I would have thrown up from fullness. I still had enough yams and rice for a meal. I looked around to catch their gaze.

The air turned on, and the vents made a popping sound. The breeze went through me, and I shivered. I kept grinding my fork into the plate, and occasionally, I looked up to see if they were still looking. They glared. Vanessa looked upset, while Eve looked concerned.

“Let’s have a talk outside,” dad said, pulling me out by the elbow.

We walked outside, and I sat in the iron chair, crossing my arms.

“Is it your mother?” He asked.

“It’s everything.”

“You gotta be more specific than that.”

“Pick something. You, your health, the smoking, school, life, mom.”

“What about her?”

“She isn’t dead!”

“Hendrix, bring it down.”

I shot up from the chair, throwing my arms in the air and screaming. All my thoughts and emotions came out together, and I struggled to speak.

“Calm down, son.”

“Why did you tell me that? It’s like you wanted to mess with my head.”

“I wasn’t trying to mess with your head, son.” He reached out and grabbed my hand; I snatched away.

“Come on, dad.”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Some things you should take to your grave. I didn’t need to know my mom was still alive.”

“You’re right. You’re right. I shouldn’t’ve forced you to carry my burden. I’ll tell them.”

“It’s not even that, dad. Keeping the secret isn’t what’s killing me-it’s the secret itself.” I winced. “Dad, our mom-your wife- is still alive. She never died. Dad, we had a funeral and everything. I try to wrap my head around it, and I just can’t. Mom left us. Why the hell didn’t she give us a chance?”

“She didn’t deserve you.”

“But, I deserved a mother!”

When he pulled me into his arms, I couldn’t hold the tears in any longer. “You did. All of you did.”

“I can’t lose you too, dad.”

“You have me.”

“But I won’t.”

“You’ll always have me.” He held me tighter. “You’ll always have me.” His voice cracked.

His week-old beard, black with patches of white, scraped my face. He let go and gently tapped my right arm with a fist. He slapped my left arm. Then my right arm again.

“Come on,” he said, “give me a smile.”

For whatever reason, I laughed. Then he joined along, but his wheezing stopped me immediately.

I pushed past him, purposely bumping shoulders, and walked towards my car. I patted myself down, searching for my keys. Since they were inside, I walked down the street. He followed. The spark wheel rotating and him inhaling and then exhaling sounded like a score in a horror movie.

“You’re more like me than I’m willing to admit,” he said. “A nice little walk always calms us down.” He inhaled.

I turned around, snatched the cigarette from his mouth, and took a puff. Bringing in too much smoke, I choked. After a few seconds, I still coughed, which turned into gagging—gagging into vomiting. After throwing up the only meal I had eaten on our neighbor’s lawn, I dry heaved. The ground seemed to move under my feet, and I leaned forward with my hands on my knees. Each breath burned and irritated my throat.

“That is hands down the worst thing I ever tasted,” I said and then coughed.

“Smoking is a disgusting habit for disgusting people.”

“How do you smoke those things?”

“I lost free will a long time ago. The first time was horrible. That didn’t stop you, old man. Curiosity brought me right back onto the road of addiction.”

“You make it look so relaxing.”

“It is, once your lungs are a little black.”

“I think I’ll stick to my walks.”

“Those are nice too. A man like myself needs to inhale and exhale.” He pulled a cigarette from a carton in his pants pocket, lit up, and inhaled in love. Smoke trailed behind him.

“And all it does is kill you,” I said to myself.

The smell churned my stomach and pulled more of my dinner into my throat. He was halfway down the street when I no longer had the urge to vomit and had the strength to stand upright. Under the streetlights, the smoke looked like clouds, radiating and captivating.

“Dad,” I said.

He stopped to let me catch up. “Son.”

“Tell me about her.”

“You know what I know. I may have lied about your mother dying, but she’s the woman I described through and through.”

“I get that, but how was she with me? What was she like? Was she ticklish? Did she put sugar on her grits? Who the hell is she?”

He thought long and hard before he spoke. With his eyes closed, he took a drag and let the smoke drift from his slightly opened lips. The smoke, burning my throat and nose, made it harder to breathe.

He smiled. It wasn’t long before that smile turned into a frown and then laughter. After, he grunted. He went to speak but laughed again just as he put the cigarette to his lips and inhaled. Smoke wildly burst from his mouth. When he found his words, he went on forever about her, finally having the chance to talk about the woman who left him all alone with three kids and a cigarette addiction.

He told me things I never knew about my mom. She was an esthetician who moved from New Hampshire to California on her 18th birthday with more hopes than dreams. Piss her off, and she would think about it every day for a week, not before cursing you out in the politest way possible. If it were up to her, she would have never listened to a Jimi Hendrix song. Like me, she was musically ambitious yet far from inclined; that never stopped her from singing original songs when working around the house. Dad couldn’t remember any of them.

Dad went on about her obsession with ice cream when she was pregnant with Eve and me. On Eve and I’s first birthday, mom let us try ice cream for the first time, and I spat up across her brand new dress. He wouldn’t stop talking about ice cream. My mom only ate it in a cone; they went to an ice cream parlor on their first date; the day she left us, I ate ice cream without throwing up for the first time and had it every day until high school.

“Demons could have crawled from the depths of Hell, and everything was A-Okay as long as you had your ice cream,” he said. “You had to have your ice cream. If you couldn’t, oh boy, you cried crocodile tears. That’s all you wanted. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Rainbow sherbet in a cone. It was like she was your ice cream. That’s one habit I wouldn’t mind having. Obesity and diabetes don’t sound as bad as cancer.”


“I could’ve sworn you saw her leave.”

“I would’ve remembered my mom leaving me.”

“You could’ve blocked it from your memory for a good reason. You wouldn’t stop asking for ice cream, especially the morning after. You woke up, begging me to get you some. So I did.”

He rambled, but I listened to everything he said. According to him, whenever I cried, mom sat in the laundry room because the rumbling sounds of the washer and dryer calmed me down.

There were owls out. Sometimes they would sit on the windowsills, hooting.

The neighborhood was like a maze. Many of the streets were dead-ends or cul-de-sacs. When I was younger, back before technology ruined our sense of fun, Eve, Vanessa, and I, along with all the other kids in the neighborhood, would watch cars backtrack, looking for a particular address.

Dad, yawning, dragging his feet across the concrete, and slurring his words, went back home around 1:30 in the morning. Not long after, I followed behind him.

Eve sat in bed, with her back against the wall, munching popcorn from a bowl.

“We used to make so many forts in here,” she said.

“Dad hated Fortlandia.”


“Oh yeah. If you paid attention, you could tell how much he hated us using his good sheets. It was all in the cabinet slamming. If he slammed a cabinet, he was pissed. That and smoking.”

“It’s not easy raising three kids on your own. He had every right to be stressed.”


“Remember that time we refused to take down our fort? We had it up for like four days before dad took it down when we were at school.”

The floor in the hall creaked from the weight of footsteps. I glanced over my shoulder at Vanessa walking down the hall, scratching her head.

“I smell popcorn,” Vanessa said.

“Please spare me from all these calories,” Eve said.

“What’s the password?” I asked, looking at Vanessa from over my shoulder.

“The sweetest strawberries picked on Wednesdays,” she said.

I let her in, and she sat beside Eve. She ate one popcorn at a time.

“I can’t believe you remember the password to the fortress of Edrix,” Eve said.

“Like you two made it easy to forget. I couldn’t come in here without saying it. Trust me; it’s permanently imprinted in my brain. It might just be the last thing I think about before I die. Thanks, by the way.”

“Thank Hendrix. That was his genius at work.”

Vanessa looked at me. “How did you come up with such a ridiculous password?”

“Does it matter 15 years later?”

“Has it been that long?”

“Eve and I were ten.”

“Can we stop walking down memory lane? I’m starting to feel old.”

“Scary, right? Our childhood is drifting further and further away, and the crazy thing is, we don’t even notice.”

“It seems like yesterday I was standing outside that door and saying that silly password for the first time.”

“I remember making it up.”

“So, are you going to share with the world how you came up with it?”

“I saw it on a show. Well, kind of. It was a documentary about a woman who lost her vision. The lady was talking about everything that she still does with her husband. One of them was picking strawberries every Wednesday morning. I assumed they would be sweet.”

“The sweetest strawberries picked on Wednesdays,” Eve said and smiled.

“The password is so ridiculous,” Vanessa said.

“It’s better than ‘The pizza place on Parkway pleasantly pleases Peter,” I said.

They, scrunching up their faces and looking off, tried to repeat the saying. They messed up and started over. Vanessa said it correctly first, but she spoke slowly. Her efforts to say it faster only ended with her getting tongue twisted.

“That’s a stupid password,” Eve said.

“The pizza place on Parkway pleasantly pleases Peter,” I said.

“I’m glad you went with the other one.”

“The pizza place on Parkway pleasantly pleases Peter.”

“Okay, I get it. You can say the password, and I can’t. No need to rub it in.”

“Hey, Eve,” Vanessa said. “The pizza place on Parkway pleasantly pleases Peter.”

Eve threw popcorn at us; she missed me-not even coming close. I ate it from off the ground, and grinning, winked at her.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Now that’s the Hen-Hen I like to see,” Eve said.

“Can you not call me that?”

“But that’s your name.”

“That’s not my name.”

“Aww, you don’t like your name? Stop acting like this is brand new. It’s been your name for years.”

“And I hated every minute of it.”

Vanessa threw popcorn at me.

“What’s wrong, Hen-Hen?” She asked.

“How did we go from the pizza place on Parkway that pleasantly pleases Peter to this?”

Vanessa shrugged and then got up and went downstairs. She came back with three bottles of water, one tucked under her arms. I stopped her at the door. She rolled her eyes at my sheepish grin.

“What’s the password?” Eve asked.

“The sweetest strawberries picked on Wednesdays,” Vanessa said. She handed me a bottle of water. Then she sat back on the bed, giving one to Eve.

“It’s nice that she can still enjoy life after everything that happened.”

“Who?” Vanessa asked.

“The woman in the documentary.”

“You aren’t wrong. There’s worse things than being blind.”

“It’s more than nice; it’s beautiful.”

I thought back to the look of satisfaction on the woman’s face after saying she still picked strawberries on Wednesdays. Everyone with a heart who had watched the documentary probably smiled and called her strong.

In the alternative universe that featured our dad in the documentary, viewers, looking for a feel-good story, shook their heads at his selfishness and poor decision-making.  He lived his best life at the cost of his health and family.

“I wish I could go back,” Eve said. “It was so much easier back then.”

“I’ll be right here in the present day,” Vanessa said.

“What? You wouldn’t kill to be a kid again. Us three in the backseat of the truck on our way to Toys-R-Us.”

“I’m not too big on living in the past.”

“I don’t want to live in the past. I just want to visit.”

“Be careful not to get lost. You’ll start asking ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes.’ Those are never good.”

“What if mom never died?”

“That’s the shit I’m talking about–That right there. A what-if isn’t going to dig mom from that grave.”

“But, hear me out, what if she never died?”

“Stop being stupid.” She spoke sternly.

Eve watched Vanessa eat popcorn. The owls hooting and Vanessa eating made the only sounds. When the owls weren’t hooting, and Vanessa wasn’t chewing, it was dead quiet. Eve moved the bowl as Vanessa, looking forward, reached inside.

“Why do you have to be so rude?” Eve asked.

“I’m not trying to be rude. I’m trying to save you from yourself. Stop worrying about something you can’t change. Mom died. Why are we wondering about life if she didn’t?”

“The point is to dream.”

“Excuse me if I don’t concern myself with something that has no bearing on life whatsoever.”

They went back and forth about the purpose of dreaming. Eve thought dreaming was healthy for the soul, and Vanessa believed it was detrimental.

They are both right, I thought.

Since dad told me the truth about our mother, I saw her in my dreams every night, holding me so tight in her arms as she rubbed my head and kissed my cheeks like I was a child. Daydreams carried me through the day. The more she appeared in my dreams, speaking in a voice that was not her own, the more energy drained from my body. The dreams never stopped. I saw and heard her when I brushed my teeth, ate, showered. Everything. She clung to my life and made it her own.

I stood over them, took the bowl from Eve, and handed it to Vanessa.

“Life is all about balance,” I said. “You can’t do that, and you’ll fall. Dreaming is equally as important as air or water. It’s essential to our sanity. Life has its ways of knocking you to the ground and punching you while you’re trying to get up. Sometimes dreaming helps the dirt taste like cake.”

“If that doesn’t sound like something dad would say,” Vanessa said.

“He probably got it from dad,” Eve said and laughed. “There is no way he made that up himself.”

“Aww,” I said. “You two are just jealous.”

“Jealous of what? You? Please.”

“That’s right, jealous. You can’t stand seeing me flaming you with the quotables. It’s eating you up inside.”

“Whatever. Did you make that up?”

“I did. Right on the spot.”

“Oh, God. You’re becoming Dad.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“No, it’s not, Hen-Hen.”

Vanessa left again, hurrying down the stairs, and came back with three cups and a bottle of cinnamon whiskey. She uttered both passwords, pushing me to the side. They drank cup after cup like water. I couldn’t bring myself to drink, too afraid of losing myself in the process.

They kept asking and nudging the bottle closer. That never changed my answer.  It wasn’t long until they could barely hold their glazed-over eyes open as they swayed from side to side. Eve fell across Vanessa’s lap. Vanessa nearly fell forward off the bed several times. Luckily, she caught herself.

Eve ate popcorn as Vanessa drummed on her head. They slurred their words, and I couldn’t understand what they were trying to say, but it had to be a joke because they laughed. Their laughter turned into silence as they dozed off mid-conversation.

Vanessa was still sitting up.

I sat the bowl of popcorn on the nightstand and laid them down in bed. Afterward, I lay on the inflatable bed and tried my best to fall asleep.  Eventually, I did.

The dreams about my mom woke me up.

When I ventured downstairs for a late-night snack, I stifled my fear at the sight of Vanessa standing in front of the refrigerator in pitch black. Her demeanor, calm and unbothered, settled on the same certainty she had the night before she moved away for college. Before I could acknowledge her with a hey or a smile, she slid over a pint of chocolate chip ice cream as she asked about graduation and if I planned to attend grad school or find a job. The day before, the Harper residence experienced the typical ups and downs of a dysfunctional family, where we took it as a personal challenge to bicker and fight. Thinking back on it all kept my mind in a fog, and before I knew it, I asked, “so, are you going back home?”

“Damn. Tell me how you really feel.”

“Not like that. You asked about my career plans, and then I thought about yours. This is coming from a place of concern, really. Vanessa, you’ve been here for a minute. Do you still have a job?”

“I graduated high school with an associate’s degree, finished undergrad with a 4.0 GPA, completed both my grad and Ph.D. programs before thirty, and rarely, if ever, took a day off work. I think I put in the work to afford bereavement.” She gingerly brushed the countertops with her fingertips, and in the low visibility, she resembled our mom with her downside turned lips and square-shaped face. “Besides, what do I look like leaving my dad and my annoying little twins?”


Plagued by guilt and a fear of never living up to Vanessa, I hobbled to the kitchen table and gorged on ice cream fast enough to cause a brain freeze.

Vanessa tapped my shoulder with a firm slap, which turned into a massage when I glanced up with the fakest of smiles.

“I know I act like I’m mom sometimes-”

“You aren’t mom. You’re far from it.”

Her eyes glazed over to fond and untainted memories of my mother that I would never have. With her voice jumping in volume and adoration every second, Vanessa shared untold stories about our mother, and right there, when she had so much love for the mom who eventually abandoned us, I understood why dad chose to lie over the years.

If only dad let me live in that lie.



About the Author

 Lamar Neal is an author of three poetry collections and one novel. When he’s not writing, you will most likely find him at home, playing video games, online shopping, or trying to decide his next hairstyle.






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