Chapter 9 — Jen
"Portman, it's Clark. Might have something."
"There was a chat window still open, between him and the best friend. They were getting together Tuesday night."
"Not much. Just that he'd be picked up around 9pm."
"Picked up? Carl doesn't have a license. Or a car."
"So there's a third party here."
"Talk to the mother again. Friends with cars."
“...I wasn’t sure if you were still coming,” said Sara awkwardly, the front door half-open.
“‘Course I came,” I said brightly. “It’s Thursday, isn’t it?”
“But nothing.” I gave her the best lopsided grin I could manage. “You gonna make me stand out here all day?”
I was just outside Sara’s door, at the end of a stone path lined with little lanterns and flowers, plus—no joke—a white picket fence at the edge of the lawn. Could’ve been a painting. After a long afternoon spent in in the woods recovering, I finally worked up the courage to return to civilization. I was lucky it was Thursday; any other day, I’d probably still be out there paralyzed with worry.
But it was Thursday. Thursday was dinner at Sara’s. I never missed Thursday at Sara’s.
It took me a long time to bounce back from that conversation with Carl. I’d spent hours just poking the ground with a stick, tracing out long and increasingly incomprehensible rants in Etoline about Reynir Cellman and incredibly specific insults about his henchmen. Worthless stuff, really, since there wasn’t a thing I could do about it anymore, but it made me feel better. Scratching out Etoline in the dirt was as nostalgic as I’d allowed myself to be since coming back. I grasped those threads of identity like a drowning woman, pulling myself out of despair.
And it worked, dammit. I was here, I was alive, and I was eager to hang out with my best friend.
Sara finally opened the door fully, still bemused.
“Anybody home?” I asked, walking past her and kicking off my shoes into the neat pile by the stairs.
“Mom’s out back.” Sara shut the door quietly. I glanced around, remembering what the house looked like.
The staircase wall was packed with pictures of their family—Sara and her mother and father. Real, professional stuff, every one of them. Proper lighting and framing and all that. Her dad worked in computers as a something-something-engineer. Something really typical for our area, but he was on the upper end. They were rich, but they didn’t flaunt it very much. He drove a normal car, so did his wife, and their house really wasn’t that much bigger than ours. From the outside, it was all neat and well-kept, but very middle-class.
Inside? Gizmos and gadgets galore. I couldn’t tell you what half of the stuff in their house even did, but I knew it was all pretty expensive. Her dad loved his fancy toys.
A hand touched my shoulder.
Despite everything, despite knowing exactly who she was and what she meant to me—I flinched. My hand shot up and knocked hers away.
I turned, prepared to apologize, but her expression was… satisfied?
“You’re still hiding,” she prompted.
“Sara, look,” I started, but she just shook her head. Her hand took mine, and she dragged me up the stairs two at a time.
In moments, we were in Sara’s room, door closed tight. This room I remembered perfectly. Sara’s bed, the most comfortable bed I’ve ever felt, tucked into the corner. Posters and drawings stuck all over the walls (some by me, the better ones by her), and a closet full of clothes, way more than I’ve ever had. In the other corner, near a window, a wide desk with a line of screens (three, count ‘em), along with speakers, keyboards, and everything else you could ask for as a techie.
Her computer, more expensive than possibly everything I owned combined (I’d never asked—don’t think I really want the answer, either…) sat underneath, with wires trailing away in every direction. A bookshelf near the bed was stuffed with great novels (my personal borrowing library. The gaps in it were probably books I had back home right now), and “my” laptop sat on top, where I’d probably left it the last time I was here.
Sara let me use it. She called it mine, and promised nobody would ever be able to look at it or get into it without my permission. Not even her. Even so, I never took it home. I guess I didn’t want Mom to feel guilty that she couldn’t afford to get me one.
Sara close the door behind us, then plopped down onto her chair. I took my usual spot on the bed facing her. For a moment, we were both totally silent.
I fidgeted awkwardly, glancing around, avoiding her gaze. I didn’t want to speak first. I wasn’t sure what she was going to bring up, or what she’d heard or figured out. I wanted her to make the first move, so I could be smart about what I said. Matt’s words about trust echoed through my head. That, along with my own personal experiences with betrayal, meant I was pretty reluctantly to open up to anyone. Even Sara.
Not that she was gonna let that stop her.
“You know, people talk a lot…” Sara said, very formally. Like she was about to give a speech.
“About what?” I asked innocently.
“Screw it,” she snapped. “What the hell happened after second period?”
“You’re gonna have to be more specific…” I didn’t know why I was stalling. Clearly she already knew.
“I heard you took down a varsity football player like it was nothing. Dropped him straight into a locker.”
“Oh. Yeah, I did.”
“Jen,” said Sara, her voice weirdly high-pitched. “Last I remembered, you were scared to slap a guy for being too aggressive a flirt. Now you’re beating up jocks for fun?”
“Not for fun,” I said quickly. “Definitely not for fun.”
“So, what then?” Sara sounded seriously concerned, which made me feel all the worse. “Did he do something to you?”
“No. Nothing. It was an accident.”
“That’s not an accident,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “God, Jen, what is going on? You’ve been acting crazy for days now, and not just you. Matt’s suddenly super confident and outgoing, which is great and all but still—bizarre. And now that guy Carl, the one you’re suddenly super buddy-buddy with even though I’ve literally never heard of him before?”
I nodded slowly, wondering where this was going. What did Carl do? Oh man…
“Well, Carl—a guy so quiet and out of the way that I never knew he was even in my class—suddenly chews out the teacher in the middle of APUSH. Goes on and on about some really awful things.” Sara shook her head in exasperation. “Jen, something’s going on with you three. It’s obvious. So… tell me?”
“I can’t,” I murmured, as my eyes darted away. I couldn’t look at her when I said it.
Sara got up and knelt down in front of me. Her hands grasped mine tight, holding on desperately.
“Jen, please. You’re my best friend. I just want to help. Tell me what’s going on.” Her eyes were sparkling. She looked like she might cry. All I had to do to stop her was talk.
Oh, stars, did I want to. I wanted her to know everything, without me having to actually tell her. To skip right past all that mess and go straight back to being best friends again.
And why not? came the little voice in my head. It’s Sara. If there was a single person in the whole world besides Matt who could know my secrets, it’d be her.
I could feel my entire body sharpen to a single point, as if I were about to take off into a sprint. It felt like the entire world was quivering as I turned back to face her. There was enough anticipation in the air to stop time itself.
“I went to another world.”
Sara’s eyes blinked. They blinked again.
I didn’t say another word. I just watched. Waited.
Would she think I was crazy? Would she believe me?
Did I want her to think I was crazy? Maybe I wanted to be crazy. To have imagined this whole insanity.
I couldn’t say for sure. All I knew was that I wanted my best friend on my side again, with me through thick and thin, us two against the whole universe.
“...Run that by me again,” she said finally. I couldn’t tell if she was sarcastic or serious. Her face looked serious. Kinda skeptical, but definitely not annoyed or amused. I decided I’d just go with it. I trusted her.
“On Tuesday night. We—err, me, Matt and Carl—we were all… taken. To another… vack, I can’t think of the word.”
“Planet?” Sara guessed. “Dimension?”
“Dimension, yeah.” I nodded. “A place called Cyraveil.”
“Like the forest?” Sara sounded dubious again. She sat back on the floor, leaning against her desk. Her water bottle was nearby, like it always was, and she took a deep sip, still watching me carefully.
“That’s where it happened,” I replied, nodding again. “We went out to the forest that night. The four of us found a—”
“Wait, four of you?” Sara interrupted. I gulped audibly before I could stop myself. “...Jen?”
I couldn’t leave him out, but I definitely couldn’t talk about it yet. Someday, I promised her in my head. I’ll tell you, I swear. “I’m sorry. Do you know Blake Svartholm?”
“He’s a friend of Matt’s and Carl’s. Nice guy. Kind of goofy, but really nice.”
“And he went with you too,” she concluded.
“So where’s he hiding then? I feel like I’d have to run into him by now with how crazy this is.”
I looke down at my feet, concentrating very determinedly on my toes while a rushing wind filled my ears. “He didn’t make it back,” I mumbled. Against my will, against every nerve in my body shouting at me to avoid the drama and keep calm—my eyes welled up.
“Oh… oh God.”
Sara was on her feet and next to me in an instant. Even in my current state, even in this place, damn it all, I still felt an instinct to recoil away from the sudden physical presence, but I suppressed it. I don’t know how I managed it, but I am forever grateful to whichever star decided to grant me the mental fortitude in that moment—to just let Sara take care of me for a minute.
She put an arm around my shoulders, and my head instinctively found a spot on her shoulder, where the tears flowed free. For the first time since I’d returned—for the first time in a very, very long while before that too, someone else actually saw me crying.
Was it talking about Blake? Nah, as heartbreaking as that was.
It was simpler than that. Sara—no matter what she might be thinking right now—had seen my expression, and without a second thought, she’d leapt up to try and comfort me.
Do you know what it’s like to have a friend like that? Somebody who’s instantly on your side, no matter the circumstances? I missed her more than anything while I was gone. More than showers or normal clothes, more than microwaves or chocolate cake or anything: I’d missed my best friend.
I sat up again, brushing at my eyes. Sara found a tissue box and handed me one.
“Vannen,” I choked out.
“No sweat,” she said, smiling. “I’m guessing that meant ‘thanks’.”
“Top of the class.”
“So you can speak another language now?”
I nodded. “Etoline. The language of the Sylvandar.”
“Sounds super high fantasy.”
“Okay, yeah, they were basically elves. I mean, there’s a lot more to it than that, but yeah, elves.”
Sara raised an eyebrow. “Elves?”
“Well, Sylves. Calling them elves was kind of racist. Sara, it was a full-on fantasy world. Sylves and dwarves and everything. No daphut, I met a dragon once.”
“...How the hell do you meet a dragon?”
“Very, very carefully.” I laughed. “They’re actually not all that bad. That one wasn’t, anyway. I dunno about the rest, they all died out a long time ago.”
“Hang on.” Sara cocked her head to the side. “You said you left Tuesday night. How long—”
Sara’s mouth seemed to stick open in mid-sentence. It took her a while to recover, while I just stared at the pile of stuffed animals in a basket in the corner. “...Seven years?” she whispered, incredulous.
“I think so. Likav silan.”
“You don’t look twenty-three,” she said, sounding skeptical again.
“I definitely feel twenty-three,” I grumbled. “Getting shoved back into my sixteen-year-old body really, really sucks, believe me. One silanev not exactly the same as a year though, so it might be off a little. Plus, when I got there, I didn’t really have any way to keep track of time. I don’t really have a clue how long I was lost in the country before Tethevallen found me.”
“So you came back and no time passed. Very Narnia. You’re mixing up your fantasy worlds here.” She laughed.
“Don’t make fun,” I said defensively. “I’m trying to be serious here.”
“I know,” she said, shifting back to thoughtful and relaxed. “It’s just… a lot, you know? I’m catching up here.”
“...You believe me, right?” I said, very nervous. I didn’t know what I’d do if she said no. I don’t think I could have gone on living if she didn’t believe me. But… Sara wasn’t the type to take people at their word. She always wanted proof. It was a family thing, right in her blood. I couldn’t predict how she’d react to all of this, when it was so… outlandish.
“It’s like this,” Sara said, very deliberately. “Either you’ve suddenly grown a hell of an imagination overnight—”
“—and you’re lying to me, which you never do. Or you’re batshit crazy, which is pretty reasonable, but you don’t really seem like it. Mostly.” She shrugged. “So, I’m pretty much down to believing you.” She tossed her hair back out of her face, before looking me eye-to-eye. “Sound good?”
I could have kissed her. “Thank you,” I said, while a warm glow spread out through every vein in my body.
“Right,” Sara said excitedly. “Now: explain how a girl who basically failed French class two years in a row is suddenly the master of another language.”
I shrugged. “I lived with the Sylves for years. None of them spoke a single word of English. Between that and a bit of magic, I learned Etoline pretty quick. Kinda had to.”
“...Magic?” Sara’s eyes sparkled. Now she was really interested.
So was I. I got to explain my whole world to her, to my dearest friend. I always liked to tell stories, even if I wasn’t very good at coming up with them. Suddenly, I had a great, true story to tell, and the perfect person to tell it to.
“Details. Right now.” Sara spoke so fiercely, I was taken aback. But I felt it, just as eager as she was. The desire, the longing for a real fantasy. One I’d actually gotten to live.
“If you… ugh.” I frowned. “I can’t word it right in this language.”
Sara looked sympathetic. “Did you really forget English?”
“I didn’t forget,” I said, a bit indignant, “but I went without for so long… I only started speaking English again about a year ago. When I started—” I paused, searching for the right word. “—interpreting. For the treaties.”
“...’Interpreting for the treaties’,” Sara repeated incredulously. “Okay, this isn’t fair, you just gave me like fifty more questions to ask.”
“Well, I was the only person they had that spoke English at all. I was the first member of a suunsyl to ever negotiate with humans. They even made up a special title to mark it.”
“Okay, now you’re just bragging.”
“Yup,” I laughed. “No joke, they named the position after me. The ambassador to humans is called the Sylajen. Even the sesylf who took over after me, she’s the new sylajen.”
Sara grinned. “So you got immortalized. Way to go. At least this explains your weird accent.”
I suddenly felt very self-conscious. “Is it really weird?”
“Nah. Okay, yes, it is, but not bad-weird.” Sara tried to give me a comforting smile. “I like it. Don’t lose it.”
“Selnou.” I stopped trying to correct for it after that, to my throat’s relief.
“Wait, aren’t elves—err, Sylves—immortal?”
I sighed. I figured this was coming, as much as I hated thinking about it. “Nah, but everybody assumes that. They do live hundreds of years though, thanks to etola.”
Sara was too sharp not to pick up on the possibilities. “So if it’s the magic, and you were living with them and had access to it… were you gonna live that long too?”
I hesitated. “...Probably,” I said quietly. “Every time I did the ritual, I felt it. You know, healing me.”
“But, when you tried it yesterday…” Sara trailed off, connecting the dots in her head. “Oh.”
“I’m so sorry, Jen,” she murmured.
“S’okay.” Truth be told, I didn’t really know how I felt about it yet. It had taken a long time to adjust to the idea of living more than a hundred years past normal, if not even longer, and staying young and healthy that whole time. To have that suddenly snatched away was pretty unsettling. Plus, I had to take care of myself way more carefully now.
I really hated having to brush my teeth in the morning again, or watching what I eat, or dealing with periods. Don’t even get me started on the rest. Sometimes, being human really sucks.
“Wait, so you could do magic, then? Etola, I mean?” Sara’s eager tone was back.
As she spoke though, her cat peeked out from the closet, where he’d been lounging on a pile of clothes tucked inside. It was his customary spot, and the only thing Sara ever left on the floor. Her room was totally spotless otherwise. He sauntered over and leapt up to the bed, where he promptly found his way right into my lap. I smiled, petting him, and was rewarded with a satisfied purr. He was napping again in moment.
“Nuh-uh,” Sara warned, “he’s not letting you off the hook.”
“I could,” I said casually. “A bit, anyway.”
“Oh, a bit. Right.”
I grinned. “Okay, so I was pretty good. Tethevallen said I mastered a lot faster than anyone he’d ever taught, and even better than some of the legit masters. In some etolev, they called me the best in the entire forest.”
“And so humble,” she teased.
I laughed. “They think it’s ‘cause I’m human. I dunno. They could last way longer than me any day tossing out etolev. I got burned out way faster than they did.” Her cat shifted in my lap, prompting me to keep petting.
“So what were you so good at?”
I frowned, glancing down at the cat. “What’s his name again?”
“Qwerty. Dad named him. Pretty lame to name a cat after the keyboard but whatever.” I could tell I was supposed to know that already, but Sara explained it as nicely as she could. It didn’t sound irritated at all. She just looked concerned again. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” I cleared my throat. When I continued, I felt a bit more subdued. “I was the best at fire. It was fun, tossing it around, splitting it up and combining it, changing colors, making fireworks and explosions and stuff. Once I studied and practiced and meditated enough, I was really able to get into the etolendei of fire. I could even make it from nothing. They thought that was impossible.”
“Etolendei?” Sara asked. I winced deliberately at her pronunciation, although it really was pretty bad. She picked up a stress ball from her desk and threw it at me. I dodged it, grinning. “But seriously.”
“Really hard to describe,” I said honestly. “It’s like… the true knowledge of something, I guess? Until you really know something, you can’t do anything to it or with it.”
“Huh,” Sara said, her eyes coolly analytical, just like whenever she was working through some programming problem. Of course, cold analysis wasn’t really helpful for magic, so after a few moment, she was back again, looking frustrated. “I was hoping for something more concrete.”
“Sorry. I can’t really explain it well in English.”
“Damn elves,” Sara intoned. I grabbed the ball and chucked it back at her, nailing her in the chest. “Ouch.”
“Did that really hurt?” I asked, worried. I hadn’t paid much attention to how hard I’d thrown it.
“No,” she said, realizing how serious I was. She squeezed the ball for a minute, thinking. “...I can’t help but feel like there’s a dark side coming here.”
I looked away again. “Yeah,” I said, talking to the wall.
“Look,” she said. I looked. Her eyes seemed so friendly and warm. I hadn’t seen eyes like that since I left Naeflin on the field outside Candir, covered in blood, but still ready to give me a hug and tell me everything was gonna be all right. “If you don’t want to say—”
“I do.” I had to. It was the only way I was ever gonna get past the gnawing feeling in my heart. “There’s a reason they were so happy about my skills with fire.”
“...And I’m betting it also has to do with those treaties you were helping translate,” she filled in. Her voice got thin and nervous. “There was a war, wasn’t there?”
“And you fought in it?”
I nodded again.
Sara didn’t speak. Her eyes studied me carefully. The silence stretched out, more awkward with every moment.
What would she think of me? I couldn’t say. Even as my best friend, with the things I’d done? I did what I had to do to survive, right? That’s what I told myself every night before I went to bed, every time the memories came back to take over my mind for a bit.
Not that I actually got to sleep. A full night’s sleep was something for normal people. I wasn’t normal, and I sure as hell never got a full night’s worth. Naps scattered throughout the day, that was my life now. Even that fifteen hour stretch the day before was full of panicked moments where I woke up, white-knuckled, ready to slash at an opportunistic cell-mate that wasn’t actually there. Sleep wasn’t relaxing for me, it was a terrifying state where I was at my most vulnerable.
I couldn’t keep going on like this. Please, Sara. Don’t abandon me now.
I was praying furiously in my head, to all the stars closest to my soul, that she’d accept what I’d become. If you can still hear me on this planet, send some of that wisdom into Sara. Let her know what to do, because I’m clearly not in the running anymore.
“Look,” she started again. My eyes found hers, desperately hoping, but I forced my face back into a passive expression. I couldn’t let her see my emotions right now. “I can’t possibly understand what you went through—but I can try to listen. As much as you need me to. Anything you need to say, any time. Okay?”
Oh, Sara. How can you possibly exist. How are you so perfect and what benevolent twist of fate delivered you to me? I felt like crying, laughing smiling. I wanted to dance, I wanted to sing, I wanted to hug her, I wanted to curl up in the corner of her room and bawl my eyes out while she hugged me. I wanted to pour my soul out for her, confess every foul deed I’d ever committed, the men and women I’d killed, the friends I’d failed, the laws I’d broken and people I’d loved and lost, and the entirety of my forlorn existence I’d come to accept. I wanted her to see me and tell me I was okay.
I said none of those things. I did none of those things.
I just waited, staring at Sara, with the guarded, lonely eyes that were permanently affixed to my face forever more.
“Thank you,” I said, and I smiled. She smiled back—but she too carried a sadness, something I’d never seen in her expression. Or… had it always been there, and I’d never understood it? Never recognized it for what it was?
I didn’t know, but I could tell in that moment. I wasn’t the only one in the room harboring a secret.
Sara’s mother called us to dinner. We’d been talking again, and thankfully we’d gone back to happier, easier topics. I tried to answer truthfully and thoroughly. Sara loved fantasy books, but even so, I still underestimated just how much she’d want to hear about all my adventures.
It was really fun, actually, telling her everything else. She was just so fascinated. I could have talked about the weather and she’d probably still eat it up. She wanted every little detail, and I was happy to share them. Mostly stories of the Sylves and how they’d adopted me, but also tales of the world at large, of the different people and their cultures (as much as I knew, anyway—Sylves didn’t really get out much), and of course, of etola and Etoline.
Despite the names, they aren’t really all that connected. I mean, speaking a phrase related to whatever sort of etola you’re trying to cast might help you focus, but at true levels of mastery, saying it aloud is considered amateur. So long as you know exactly what you’re about to do, in every sense of the world, you don’t need to say anything.
Hand gestures, though, are pretty much required. As Sara had noticed, I’d been acting like a very confused mime over the last couple days, either from my midday ritual or the meal ritual. While some etolev don’t require handwork, most do, especially anything external. I couldn’t say if it was just another thing to help focus the mind or not, but I’d never gotten anything good to happen without a gesture or motion to direct the etola. Trying pretty much just ended up in disaster.
My fingers were singed many, many times before I figured out how to move flames around in tiny, precise movements.
I’m sorry, I’m getting distracted again. There’s a more important story to tell here, and it’s not me fooling around with fire.
Sara and I were headed downstairs, laughing and chatting like normal. Her mother was setting out the plates for dinner. I smelled pizza, and I was excited. I hadn’t had pizza in—well, you get the idea by now. But seriously. Pizza. Is there something more real world than pizza or what?
“Shasii, selaval,” Sara called out casually as we walked into the kitchen. I giggled and elbowed her.
“What was that?” asked her mother, glancing up from the oven.
“Oh, nothing,” she said very seriously, stifling a laugh along with me.
“Doues danadelasec dena masateva atev Carl,” I whispered in her ear. Not exactly true, she and Carl were both pretty bad. But I’d just taught her the line; she managed to still get it wrong just a minute later.
“Huh?” she asked aloud, but I only smiled innocently in reply. “Oh, two can play at that game. Vous êtes une pomme de terre avec le visage d'un cochon d'inde.”
“Play nice, Sara,” her mother chimed in absently as she pulled out the pizza. It was home made and looked absolutely perfect. Not that I had much to compare it to lately, but seriously, I was frothing at the mouth for this pizza.
Her mother started slicing it up while we took our usual spots at the table. Just as she brought over a piece to each of us, I heard the garage door begin to slide open.
Now, this was unusual, but not exactly unheard of. Her father wasn’t normally home from work by the time we ate. He tended to work late more often than not. When he was there, the conversation died down a bit, but he was always polite, asked after my family, how I was doing. He seemed like a nice guy. Yeah, he was kind of cold sometimes, but he was also super exhausted and stressed from work. I couldn’t blame him not wanting to put up with two high schoolers right when he got home, and even so, he never failed to act like a proper host.
This time, something was wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Some detail had changed. Except… I’d been here last Thursday, and on Monday too for Sara’s mom’s birthday. It was just three days ago, and something felt very different. Besides me, obviously.
I looked around the room. Sara was still talking about something that happened at school today. Her mom was nodding along, continuing the conversation like nothing had happened… but I could see it. The way she started moving ever so carefully. She was measuring every single step she took, choreographing every movement, deliberate and cautious.
Sara, too, seemed suddenly guarded. She was staring very intently at her plate—her empty plate, I should point out. Her hand fiddled with her fork. As my eyes swept across though, I could see how tight she held it. It was subtle, and it came and went, but the intent was clear.
It hit me like an arrow to the gut. I was an idiot. How had I missed this?
They hadn’t changed at all. I was just finally able to recognize what was going on.
They were afraid.
As the door to the garage door opened, it became even more clear.
“Welcome home, hon,” Sara’s mom called out. Perfectly normal.
Her father looked down the hallway, and saw me at the table. He smiled and waved, putting away his coat. “Evening. It smells delicious, dear.”
“How was work?”
“Exhausting. I’m glad to be home.”
“Want anything to drink?” asked Sara, still staring at the plate. Her voice was as casual as could be.
“Thank you, Sara, but I can get it. Do you want anything?”
“Coke sounds good. Jen?”
Stars, were they all acting? The whole damn time? I spluttered back to life as I realized both Sara and her dad were looking at me expectantly. I gulped, trying to clear my throat.
“Uhh, root beer for me?” I asked awkwardly. Was I supposed to play along with the script? I was a terrible actress. I can hide things if I need to, but I’m bad at faking being normal. I barely even know what normal is anymore.
“Oh, is it Jen now?” asked her mother, sliding a slice of pizza onto my plate. Her hand still clutched the pizza roller, the sharp silver edge sparkling as it caught the sunlight streaming through the window.
“Yeah. Just time for a change.” Sara nudged me under the table, trying to get me to focus, but I was still fixed on her own hand clutching the fork like a dagger. “No more Jenny.”
“That’s too bad. I liked the name Jenny.”
“Now, dear, it’s her name. She can do what she likes with it,” said her father. He threw me a wink. “No more Jenny from the block.”
“God, Dad.” Sara rolled her eyes. “Please don’t try to reference pop culture. Ever again.”
I felt so horribly confused by what was going on. I couldn’t process the absurd contradiction of the conversation going on, and the physical reactions of everybody in the room. The instant her father had spoken up, Sara clutched the fork again. As he looked toward her mother, she seemed to recoil ever so slightly—but when he looked back toward me, her knuckles turned white as she gripped the pizza roller.
If I hadn’t had this exact dinner a hundred times in their kitchen, in almost the exact same circumstances, I’d think we were about to throw down.
Except this was the suburbs in Oregon, not some back alley tavern or decrepit dungeon. A fight here was as likely as a portal opening up and dumping us all into an alternate universe.
Sorry, bad joke.
It kept going through the entirety of dinner. Like they were putting on a show, just for me. The normal, happy family. They’d tease each other about old habits, argue politics, discuss movies and TV shows. It was so perfectly, totally ordinary that I found myself reaching for my knife, still tucked under the hem of my shirt at my back, the one thing I hadn’t told Sara.
When was the curtain coming down?
It never did. After dinner ended, as Sara’s mother cleaned up, I headed straight out the back door into the yard to get some air. Sara followed a moment later, after her place was clear. Only once the door was closed, and we were around the corner and out of the light, did I turn to confront her.
“Dov nara vack was that?” I asked, halfway between confused and angry.
Sara looked genuinely confused herself. “Huh?”
“That. The whole dinner. All of you.” I was on edge. Very on edge. Sara was lucky I couldn’t conjure up some fire right now, or the neighbors might’ve called the firefighters.
“What are you talking about?”
She was determined to keep the play going, I guess. I wasn’t sure how to react, what to do, how to respond. I wanted to be angry at her for hiding this from me, but how could I? After what I’d been hiding from her for the past couple of days, wouldn’t that make me a massive hypocrite?
This is different, I convinced myself. This was control and fear. This was actively happening, and clearly had been for some time.
Without warning, I grabbed the hem of Sara’s shirt and lifted it up. No, I’m not thinking about anything like that. Get your mind out of the gutter. I was looking for bruises. Marks of any kind. Evidence.
“Uhh…” Sara glanced around, making sure no one could see us. “Well, this is weird.”
Mentally, I agreed. There wasn’t a sign of abuse anywhere on her. Was I just imagining everything? Had that actually been perfectly normal dinner?
Was I going completely insane?
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. I let go and backed up into the wall of the house.
“No worries. Just… warn me next time?” Sara looked weirdly comfortable with the whole situation.
“I’m sorry,” I repeated, turning to leave.
Before I could go, Sara reached out and grabbed my hand. “Hey, it’s okay,” she said quietly.
I felt my eyes begin to well up again. I couldn’t even spend a single night with my best friend’s family, without my past springing up to haunt me. My instincts had almost lead me to attack Sara’s father, in his own home and in front of his family.
Could I really live here again, the way I used to?
For the second time that night, I cried, but there wasn’t any joy in it anymore. Joy was reserved for people not actively losing their minds.