There was no trouble from The Bulk for the next two weeks. As for Emma and I, we’d come to a silent truce of sorts. I no longer had any false hopes that we’d ever be anything more than friends, but at least we were on speaking terms now.
Anyway, it wasn’t as though I had time to think about our complicated relationship. Emma’s big test was coming up in less than two weeks. She was finally going to address the patrons of Splash and Spray in hopes that they would approve her as the future inheritor of the company. And it was our job to help her practice for the big speech. Aside from that, this was the time we’d be finding out which colleges had accepted—or rejected—us.
I was on tenterhooks waiting for the news, but Heath was about a hundred times worse. His zombified looks told me he’d lost sleep worrying about whether he’d made it into art school. To anyone else, Stan and Tony seemed unaffected, but they couldn’t fool me. They were just as jumpy, which I could prove whenever the mail arrived and they sprinted to see if anything had come for them.
One afternoon, we were busy listening as Emma presented her speech in front of us. She’d already memorized the fifteen minute saga of how she’d matured this past year from a socially-awkward, closed-off introvert to a true heiress ready to learn what she could to someday take over the company.
She had every word right, but the problem was she said it like the voiceover on a GPS.
“…these past few months have helped me grow so much,” she was saying. “I believe I have…”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Tony interrupted. “Emma, stop sounding like you have it memorized.”
“But I do have it memorized.”
“But it’s not supposed to sound that way.”
“Sound more like you mean it,” Stan added. “Not like someone wrote it for you to say. Say it like it’s from the heart.”
“It is from my heart.” I could tell from her voice that Emma was getting frustrated. “I don’t know how else to make It sound that way.”
I held my hand up. “All right everyone, let’s take a break.” Things were getting testy, with all the pressure that had built up these past weeks. The others sighed and went to cool down. I made my way to Emma and patted her shoulder.
“I’ll never get this right,” she sighed.
“Yes you will.” I gestured for her to sit. “But you need to stop thinking about the words so much.”
She glanced at me sharply. “What do you mean?”
“Well, I think you’re too worried about saying the right words. But you should be focusing on how the audience feels when you speak. If they can feel what you feel.” I paused, searching for the right way to direct her. “Remember that Halloween night, when you told me how you were so scared that people would be disappointed that the real Emmaline Lockhart wasn’t at all like they imagined?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Well, I believe the real Emmaline Lockhart has finally emerged,” I said. “So show them what I see. A confident, beautiful girl who has grown into herself. Show them your heart.”
Something about her expression changed, and she was gazing at me with such large, soulful eyes that I wondered what I’d said something to make her sad.
“Are you saying all this because you really mean it, Marcus? Can you really see my heart? Or do you see me as money, your means to college?”
“How could you even ask me that?” The fact that she’d even thought for a second that I only liked her for her money made me positively angry. “I don’t want your money.”
“Then why?” Her eyes had gone glossy with unshed tears, taking me aback. “If you really see me, not as a stack of money, but as me, why didn’t you respond to my letter?”
That didn’t make any sense. When had she written a letter to me? I was about to ask, but Marlin entered the room, carrying a bundle of mail. “They’re here!” he exclaimed. “College, here we come.”
I looked up to see the guys already scrambling to receive their letters, but my feet remained glued to the floor. I’d been anticipating this moment for weeks, and yet, I couldn’t back away from Emma. Not when she looked like I’d broken her heart.
But then she sighed, averting those shimmery eyes and turned away. “Go on. College is waiting.”
I reluctantly turned from her, and as I did, I felt those wide, expressive eyes on my back every step of the way.
As it turned out, we all got accepted into our first options. I had no doubt in our own abilities, but Mrs. Lockhart had also pulled a few strings, playing advantage with her connections to some of the schools. Tony and Stan were now rivals, as Tony had been accepted into USC’s drama program, and Stan, into UCLA’s music program. They were already talking arguing over the abilities of their respective football teams. I could already feel them leaving, and part of me wished we were all going to the same place.
And while Los Angeles was only two hours away from here, far enough, Heath was going even farther. San Francisco, to be precise. He was going to the San Francisco Art Institute, which was a five hour drive away from Orchid Beach.
What was ironic was the three of them had all received full scholarships, so they didn’t even need Mrs. Lockhart to pay their way through college.
Which made me feel like a rotten bastard because I still needed that money if I wanted to go to my first choice. And if I accepted the money, I’d move the furthest away from Orchid Beach of all. I’d actually gotten accepted into Columbia University’s biochemistry program, but being out of state, the tuition was ridiculous. I’d received some money, but not a full scholarship, and there was still no way my family could support me with the remaining sum. I blamed it on the B I’d gotten in geometry back in freshman year as well as not having enough extracurricular activities.
But there was no way to change things now. I still needed Mrs. Lockhart to fulfill her side of the bargain. If Emma was accepted by the patrons of Lockhart, I would get my tuition money. But could I really take that money?
That night, I lay in bed, unable to sleep. The way Emma had looked at me—so heartbroken and rejected—just kept haunting me.
She’d asked if I saw her as my means to college. And in a way, she was. But I didn’t want her to believe that was all I saw her as. How could I prove that to her though? Even after all we’d been through this year, she didn’t believe I wanted to be her friend, not because she was the Lockhart heiress, but because she was Emma. It seemed the only way she’d believe me was if I didn’t take the money, but then I’d have to give up my dream school.
Could I really do that? I didn’t know, didn’t know anything anymore. I punched my pillow and then smothered a loud groan into it. Why did this decision have to be so hard?
I must have eventually fallen asleep because the next thing I knew, an annoying buzzing noise woke me up. I looked over to the clock on my dresser. Four forty-two. It couldn’t be the alarm clock. So I looked to the next thing it could be—my phone. It was vibrating like mad.
Only Dad would call me that early. I debated whether to answer it. I knew I couldn’t avoid him forever, although I’d done a pretty good job of that ever since that fateful weekend my mother had come back into our lives. I’d said hi to him over the phone a couple times, but whenever he’d started talking about Mom, I’d handed the phone to my grandparents. I knew he was seeing Mom behind my back—he’d waited fifteen years to see her again, after all.
I decided to answer the phone in the end. After all, even Dad avoided calling me before six AM if he could help it. There had to be a good reason for this call.
“Took you long enough,” Dad said at my greeting. “I thought you were gonna take me to voice mail again.”
Sounded like Dad’s normal jovial mood was in place, which completely contradicted my own mood. “I hope I didn’t make the wrong choice.”
“I wonder if other fathers take this much disrespect from their sons,” he fired back, although there was amusement in his tone. “Anyway, I called to let you know I’m about to take a last minute flight out of Orlando, and I’ll be home in time to pick you up from school.”
“I have chemistry tutoring after school.”
“Oh, come on,” Dad groaned. “Your dear old dad, whom you don’t get to see everyday, is coming home, and you have chemistry tutoring? I’m sure your teacher will understand, so you’d better think of a more creative excuse.”
“I really can’t get out of it.” It was a lie, but I had a suspicion why Dad wanted to pick me up instead of waiting for me to come home, and I didn’t want to do it.
“You’re getting an A in chemistry, according to your Nai-nai, so don’t fuss anymore,” he replied. “If I don’t see you at the drop off curb, I’m coming in to get you, and then everyone at school will know Marcus Lew’s father is a horrible dancer.”
Even though he couldn’t see, I scowled. He thought his threat to embarrass me would scare me? The whole school feared me too much to comment on anything Dad tried to do.
“I mean it, Marcus,” he said, in a more serious tone this time. “I’ve been patient enough already. We need to talk.”
By “we,” I knew he meant Mom included. “I don’t want—”
“We’re doing this,” he said sternly. “Your mother has waited long enough. The three of us are talking this out like a normal family. Do you understand?”
I didn’t think our family could ever be called normal, however much we tried to act like one in the future. But Dad had that dangerous edge to his voice that only appeared when he was on the brink of losing his temper—a very rare, but scary event—and I wasn’t about to set him off. I’d just have to go along with this.
“Yes sir, I understand perfectly.”
I was so irritated that I left for school before the others. It wasn’t a good idea for me to see Emma at the moment. Between believing I only liked her for her money and wanting me to reconcile with my mother, Emma would probably be the one to receive the brunt of my frustration, which would only undo all the progress we’d made towards becoming friends again.
I was mostly annoyed with Dad. He thought we could just go back to being a normal family after fifteen years of Mom’s absence. I didn’t even know the woman, besides what I’d seen in pictures! She’d left when I was two, way too young to have any real memories of her.
If she wanted a real relationship with her son, she should be the one trying to patch things up, not me. Why should I be forced to make the first move?
Brooding, I made my way to the bus stop. I wished I didn’t have to go to school today. I didn’t want to see people I knew, people who were only nice to me because I’d built such a fearful reputation. Everything in my life felt so phony. I wondered if I would have had such a bad rep if my mother had been here. Would I have even made friends with my gang? If I’d had a mother, would I have ended up believing I was better than Heath, Tony, and Stan? Would I have spurned them, judging them to be misfits just like everyone else?
I really didn’t want to go to school. A blue bus pulled up to the curb. It wasn’t my bus but the 238, which drove to the beach. My legs moved before my brain could decide against it. Forget school, I was going to the beach.
It was very quiet by the shore, as it was still spring, too early for the tourists to come flocking by the dozens. There was still a chance of late April showers, and the skies were a bit gray, with the sun making an occasional three second appearance before hiding behind the clouds again. It was the perfect weather for me—not too hot to the point of sweltering, and the breeze was pleasant, bringing with it a light mist from the ocean swells. The gulls soared overhead, culling out in happy abandon. I spread myself out on the sand and closed my eyes, listening to the gentle waves embrace the smooth sand before retreating into the unknown again.
I loved the beach the way Emma loved the forest. This was the one place I could forget how pretentious people could be. The beach was honest—what you saw was what you got. The ocean never lied about how it felt. On sunny days, the waves were kind and mellow, almost playful. But when a storm was about to come, the ocean grew angry, throwing tantrums, thrashing this way and that as it took its anger out on the shoreline. Today, it was in between the two, meaning it was confused—like me.
I stood up and walked along the shore in solitary silence, until I heard the sound of laughter. A child’s laugh. I followed the sound until I saw a toddler running in that adorably clumsy way, her pigtails bouncing to and fro. Her parents chased her around, and her dad caught her, scooping the tiny tot up onto his shoulders. The mom laughed and fondly wiped off a smudge on the little one’s face.
My heart clenched in jealousy. Why couldn’t I have had that? Yes, Nai-nai and Ye-ye had been there to take me to the park, and they’d played with me like they were my real parents. But in all my guilt, I had to be honest. It just wasn’t the same. My grandparents had been like my parents, and I loved them for that.
Still, they hadn’t been my parents. My parents hadn’t been there for me. My dad had been absent—was still absent—almost every day of my life. And my mother, well, I needn’t say more.
It was like such a slap in the face. Why had they bothered to bring me into this world if they were just going to leave me with my grandparents? It hadn’t been Nai-nai and Ye-ye’s responsibility to raise me every day; it had been my parents’ responsibility, and yet, they’d cast me off. One for his job, and one for her lack of courage.
And I knew I didn’t have the right to complain, since my friends’ parents were far worse. But I was angry. Angry not only for what I’d missed, but for what my friends had missed. Tony’s mom had abandoned him for money and power, Stan’s dad for alcohol and the inability to face failure. And Heath’s dad and Emma’s mom were just terrible people.
The young couple and their little daughter noticed I was staring, which was a little embarrassing. I hoped they didn’t think I was some weird pedophile. But to my relief, they only smiled, and to my surprise, the little girl reached towards me, calling, “Go go.”
Her mother laughed. “That’s what she calls my nephew. Probably because you two are about the same age.”
The girl struggled out of her daddy’s arms towards me. In the end, he had to put her down, and she zoomed straight at me. “Go go,” she insisted. She held her tiny arms up, expecting me to carry her.
“You might as well carry her,” the dad said. “She’s a tenacious little thing, just like her mom.” He smiled fondly at his wife.
So I tentatively picked the girl up, unsure what to say. I wasn’t used to interacting with kids. They made me nervous. “Um, hi there. What’s your name?”
She stretched her arms wide and then brought them together again, hugging herself with a gleeful, toothless grin on her face. “E—eee!”
I looked to her parents for a translation. “Evie,” her mom said. “Short for Evelina.”
Evie tugged out of my arms, so I set her down, expecting her to run off again. Instead, she tugged on my pants leg and pointed to the sand.
“She wants you to play with her,” her dad translated. “But I understand if you don’t have time. You look like you’re off to school, although back in my day, I swear I started school earlier.”
“Actually,” I smiled sheepishly. “I’m taking the day off. I don’t do it often,” I added, hoping they didn’t think I was a bad influence on their toddler, now that they knew I was ditching.
But neither of them commented on it. Instead, the dad said, “I understand completely. I had my fair share of ditch days back in the day too. Sometimes the weather’s too nice to stay cooped up at school.” He held out his hand. “I’m Sam by the way, and this is my wife, Holly.”
“Well Marcus,” Holly said, “Since you’re taking the day off anyway, why not spend the morning with us? I packed a picnic lunch, and there’s plenty of food.”
As we were having this conversation, little Evie was getting quite impatient, waiting for someone to pay attention to her. She tugged on my leg again, urging me down to the sand, where she’d already scooped mounds of sand in an attempt to create what I guessed to be a two year-old’s version of a sand castle. “I guess Evie’s made the decision for me,” I said, and then I sunk my hands into the sand.
The morning flew by quickly, and it was filled with a lot of laughter. I really enjoyed the Tang family’s company, and we built a monster sand castle before we watched the tide come in and take it out to sea. By that time, the salty air had triggered all of our appetites, and Sam set up a beach umbrella, as Holly laid out what looked to be a delicious picnic—deviled eggs, turkey and avocado sandwiches, potato salad, and lemon bars and watermelon for dessert. To wash all the goodness down, we had blackberry lemonade.
After the meal, Evie skipped off again, intending to take a dip in the ocean, and her mother followed, while Sam and I sat back and watched.
“Evie’s so lucky to have both parents around,” I said, in what I meant to be an off-hand remark. “It’s a refreshing sight to see in my world.”
I felt Sam turn his gaze towards me, sensing what I hadn’t spoken out loud. “I take it your parents are divorced.”
“That might have made things simpler,” I said, with a bitter laugh. “Let’s just say my parents were never around. My grandparents raised me. And all my friends are either orphans or have terrible parents.” I shrugged. “So it’s just nice to know there’re still normal, nice families out there.”
“Oh,” Sam laughed, “I wouldn’t say our family’s very normal either.”
“More normal than mine,” I replied. And then I couldn’t help it. I just began pouring out my entire life story to Sam—this stranger I’d only met two hours ago. Somehow, this family just felt safe, like I could trust them more than any teacher or mentor at school.
“My dad’s making me meet my mom and him after school today,” I concluded. “I ditched school because I was so angry.”
“Sounds like your parents made a lot of mistakes,” he said. “A workaholic father and a deserting mother. I wouldn’t forgive them either.”
I looked to him in surprise. “Why are you agreeing with me? Aren’t you supposed to be telling me I should forgive them?”
“I have no say in that,” he replied. “It’s your choice. And I can see from a kid’s point of view that it might be hard to forgive. But from a father’s point of view, I would always hope that my kid would forgive me for my mistakes.”
I waved a hand in the air. “Your kid would never have to forgive you anyway. You’re an awesome parent.”
“Hmm.” The puff of air from his lips sounded with self-mockery. “Marcus, we’ve only just met, so of course you don’t know. But Evie isn’t our first kid. We have a ten year-old son.”
I sat up straight in shock. “Really? But you two look so young.”
“I’m exactly a decade older than you.”
I did the mental math. Sam was twenty-seven now, which meant he’d had his first kid when he was my age. Unbelievable.
“Yup, our son, Miles, was unplanned. We were young and scared, but we decided to have him.”
“But that’s not unforgiveable,” I said. “The two of you are still raising him together.”
“Up until three years ago, that wasn’t the case,” Sam clarified. He sighed. “You see, my father owned a business a few cities away from here. We sold lingerie. Used to be called Sensual Secrets.”
The name jolted part of my memory. Back at the Cologne and Beauty Convention, the girl who’d sat at my table, May, had talked about Sensual Secrets. It had been on the verge of bankruptcy until— “Isn’t it called Scentuous Secrets now? The CEO is Wayne Murdove, right?”
Sam’s face changed to fury. “Yes, that lying bastard and his wife took over. But it was my own fault for believing them.”
“What happened?” I asked.
It turned out that Sam’s father had made some unwise decisions the future of Sensual Secrets. After Sam and Holly were married, Sam had entered the company to try to salvage some of the damage.
“I was young, desperate, and foolish,” he said. “I’d just started my family, and I needed money, but the company was broke. Wayne Murdove was one of my dad’s business partners and advisors, so I asked him for advice. To sum it up, he and his then fiancée advised us to fake some numbers to make it seem like our financial state wasn’t as bad as it seemed. The cops found out, arrested my father and me, and I found out the Murdoves plotted the whole thing so they could take over the company. This wasn’t my father’s first offense, and he was sentenced to twenty years. I was let off a little easier with seven years since I hadn’t been tried as an adult and didn’t have a previous record. Meanwhile, to this day, nobody suspects the Murdoves of anything wrong.”
“That’s terrible,” I breathed, and I found myself completely believing the story. The Murdoves weren’t exactly the most honest people, especially Tony’s mom. I’d guess it had been her scheme. But if Mr. Murdove had just gone along with it, then he wasn’t a saint himself.
“Anyway,” Sam sighed, “I made a horrible mistake that cost me to miss seven years of watching my son grow up. And poor Holly had to be a single mom, taking on several part time jobs to make ends meet. When I got out of jail, my son didn’t recognize me, and when he did, he didn’t even want to speak to me. He blamed me because the kids at school made fun of him for having a daddy who went to jail.” He flickered a smile in my direction. “Thankfully though, he finally warmed up and forgave me. It took awhile, but I never stopped hoping he would.”
“That’s not at all the same as my parents,” I said. “You didn’t choose to be away. You were just a teenager. It wasn’t your fault.”
“Wasn’t it? I was a teenager who could have chosen not to commit a crime.” He swirled his fingers through the sand, as though still haunted by his past mistakes. “Murdove just took advantage of my desperation. Maybe your parents were desperate too. Maybe they didn’t know what to do, and so they made mistakes. But the question is, are they reaching out to you now?”
I thought about what he said, and then realized the answer was yes. My parents had shown signs of reaching out to me. Dad tried to spend more time with me when he could. And my mom had sent me those flowers. Then she’d tried talking to me about my problems that one weekend we’d gone camping. She’d never identified herself, but she’d tried to reach out. And now both my parents wanted to talk to me, wanted to become a family again.
“I can tell you have an answer,” Sam smiled. “So in that case, the question becomes, are you willing to give them a second chance?”
I left the beach, not knowing if I should return for the last two hours of school or just go home. I still wasn’t sure I wanted to obey my father and meet up with him and my mom. So I just wandered around a bit, walking up the streets and window shopping at all the souvenir shops. At an alleyway, I came to the end of the pavement and the beginning of a narrow dirt path. Wondering where it led, I decided to follow it. Up a small hill I climbed, and all kinds of colorful foliage surrounded me. It was like I’d stepped into the Lockhart garden.
Finally, I came to the end of the road, marked by a beautiful rose garden, and I looked up.
The sign read Daphne’s Nursery and Tea Garden. My jaw dropped in horror. Surely it couldn’t be. How could I have walked right up to the place where my mother worked? Of course, I’d known in the back of my mind that the nursery was just a few blocks away from the beach, but I’d forgotten that until now.
I looked to the heavens angrily, telling God this wasn’t funny. But then there was a sound of thunder, and three seconds later, it was pouring. If I didn’t want to get wet, I’d have to go inside to seek shelter.
“Fine, be that way, God,” I said. The signs couldn’t get any clearer. First meeting Sam, then walking to the nursery, and now the rain. Since I didn’t want to get struck by lightning, I took the first step onto the premises.
The tea shop was quiet. No one seemed to be behind the counter at first, but the bell sounded as I opened the door, and then my mother came bustling from the back.
“Welcome to—“ She stopped short when she saw me. “Marcus? Your dad said you two weren’t coming until later this afternoon.”
“I can leave if you want,” I said, pretending to start for the door.
“No, no,” she said anxiously. “Please stay.”
“I was kidding. It’s raining cats and dogs out there. Someone apparently wanted me to stay.” I turned my gaze heavenward.
Mom didn’t quite understand the joke. She had this sadness in her eyes that made me feel a little guilty, although I didn’t know why I should feel that way. I’d done nothing wrong. But that look pelted me like a hammer nonetheless, so I walked to one of the tables and sat.
“You wanted to talk right? So let’s talk.”
“Y-yes, of course.” Mom dashed nervously from behind the counter and then back again. “Oh wait, let me get you something to drink.”
“There’s no need—” She’d already disappeared into the kitchen.
Again, I felt a strange surge of guilt, knowing I was responsible for my mother’s unease. I supposed I’d been so difficult with our whole family situation that she wasn’t sure how I’d react now. That made her jumpy as she wanted to make sure she did everything in her power to make me stay.
But now that I was here, I wasn’t leaving. Initially, I hadn’t wanted to talk to her, but now, I realized I couldn’t avoid it forever.
She came out of the kitchen carrying a tray with a pot of steaming hot tea and two teacups. Her hands were shaking so violently I was afraid she might drop the whole thing, so I ended up taking it from her and poured the tea myself.
“Thank you.” She flashed a hesitant smile, which faded when I didn’t return it. Watching her face turn whiter than it already was piled on the guilt.
I knew I was being stubborn, but I couldn’t help it. Looking at her now, I had to wonder again how different my life would have been if she’d stayed, and that made part of me want to hurt her no matter how guilty I already felt.
“I’m happy you’re here,” she began.
“I didn’t want to come.”
“I—I know.” She looked downcast at the table. “But nevertheless, I’m glad you did.” She played with her fingers, another nervous gesture. “Marcus, I know you hate me right now, but I want you to know that I love you.”
“Love me?” I spat, letting out a bark of cynical laughter. “If that were true, you would never have left. You would never have brought our family into debt and then run away. So explain how you could do that if you really loved me.”
I was so angry I wanted to topple over the table and storm out. But I gnashed my teeth and clenched my fists until I was sure blood was drawn from where my nails bit into my skin. I wanted to hear her answer.
My mom finally lifted her head to meet my questioning gaze. Tears spilled down her cheeks and dropped onto her own clenched fists, but she ignored them. “All I can say is I made a mistake. I was young and stupid and your father was gone so often. I was depressed.”
“Don’t go blaming this on him,” I cried. “That’s part of his job description, which you knew when you married him.”
“I’m not blaming him.” Her voice remained low, and she spoke slowly, trying to get the words out without choking on tears. “But that doesn’t change the fact that I was depressed to be left alone so often. I had friends and your grandparents, of course, but it wasn’t the same. I wanted my husband to be home.
“Before you were born, I kept busy with work. Then you came, and I stayed home all the time. It was so lonely. I’m not blaming you either—you were the best thing that happened to me.” She added this quickly, looking at me to make sure I understood. “But I still wished your father could be home. One of my friends told me she’d won a whole bunch of money from online gambling and she didn’t have to leave the house. So I thought maybe I could try it. If I won enough money, maybe your father wouldn’t have to work so much.
“I won quite a bit at first, but I wanted more. And then I started losing and losing and losing. It wasn’t fun anymore, but I couldn’t control myself. It was like drugs, like I’d drown if I didn’t play another game. My brain told me to stop, but my body wouldn’t listen. And before I knew it, I’d accumulated half a million in debt.”
“Dad would have forgiven you if you’d stayed,” I said, not a bit appeased. “I would have too. Lots of people have addictions. You could have stayed and gotten help. But you ran away.”
“I was stupid and scared.” More tears, and her lips quivered, making her words sloppy. “It was so much money—all my credit cards were at their limit, and it was so hard to hide the fact that our bank account was almost dry. I thought he wouldn’t forgive me. I didn’t want him to divorce me.”
“So you hid from him for fifteen years instead?” That was hard logic to follow.
“Because to me it was better to hide than face him. I didn’t want to see him look at me with disappointment and worse, hatred. I didn’t believe he loved me enough to forgive me. Because my own parents ended up despising each other over money issues.”
“He tried to find you for fifteen years.” I was trying hard to understand Mom’s side of the story, but I just didn’t understand how anyone could hide away from their loved ones without so much as an apology. “I had to grow up without a mother. Why didn’t you come back?”
“I came here,” she said. “Ms. Daphne helped me with my addiction, and after about two years, I was finally able to look at a computer and not feel the urge to gamble. I didn’t have any face to go home. I was still a coward. So I thought maybe I could try saving up money to repay all my debts to your father, and when I had enough, I might be able to face him again. Two years stretched into ten, then fifteen. All the while, I was wondering how I could return the money without your father finding me. So I used my pseudonym, Marigold Banks to set up an account and wired some money into his account every month. Then he guessed it was me and realized I was one of Lockhart’s employees. So he asked Emma to find me.”
“Emma?” I frowned, having not realized Dad had also asked her to keep a secret.
“Emma found me by luck. She didn’t realize who I was the first time she came into the shop, but the second time, she heard Ms. Daphne call me Marigold Banks and realized who I was. I begged her not to tell. I told her I might have to run away again if she told because I wasn’t ready to face your father or you yet.”
“And what about the flowers?” I asked. “Why’d you make her give them to me instead of doing it yourself?”
“Because I was scared.” She fidgeted with her clothes uncomfortably. “You came into the shop, and I instantly knew it was you—you look so much like your father. I just wanted some way of telling you I loved you even though I didn’t have the nerve to see you. So I asked Emma to give you the flowers. Emma only did what I asked because she knew I had to take baby steps.”
Suddenly Emma’s intentions became clear. She hadn’t kept the secret from me for my parents’ sake; she’d kept it for my sake. Until that fateful weekend we’d gone camping, and the whole truth had slipped out. First Dad had discovered Mom, and then I’d overheard them talking. And I’d run away without hearing them out. Run away the same way my mom had run away. Because I’d been scared. Scared to find out the reason my mom had left was really because she didn’t love us after all. And scared to find out Emma didn’t really like me.
Now I realized I had wanted to see my mom again. It was probably why I’d ended up in front of the nursery even though I hadn’t intended it. Subconsciously, I’d walked to the place I’d wanted to be, as much as I’d told myself I didn’t want to go.
I was glad that I’d come here today to hear her side of the story today. I wasn’t sure I was quite ready to forgive her yet, but I finally had some answers.
“I’m still not ready to welcome you back with open arms,” I told her honestly. “You betrayed Dad, Nai-nai, and Ye-ye. Not to mention me.” Her face turned away, dejected. “But Mom—” It was the first time I’d addressed her as such out loud, so I made sure to emphasize the title. Her sharp intake of breath indicated she’d heard it. “Please don’t run away again. I’ll give you a second chance, but you have to prove yourself before you earn my forgiveness, and I definitely won’t forgive you if you break Dad’s heart again. I hope you know he’s been celibate for fifteen years, waiting for you to return. To a man, that’s more torture than swimming across the Pacific Ocean in subarctic temperatures. So if that’s not love, I don’t know what is.”
Now the shuddering sobs she’d been attempting to hold back broke the dam, and she wept uncontrollably. For awhile, I sat there uncomfortably, unsure what I should do. Part of me wanted to hug her, while the other part resisted. It was true I wasn’t quite ready to trust her enough to forgive, but she was my mother, and she was sitting right there, and I didn’t even have a memory of ever embracing her.
So the soft side ended up winning out, and before my brain could say no, my feet forced the rest of me to stand, and I crossed the little distance to the other side of the table to rather awkwardly hug my mother. She hugged me back so tightly that I couldn’t breathe and whispered endearments, like my son and my baby, and apologized repeatedly.
I wasn’t sure how long we stood there, with me feeling incredibly awkward, and she crying her eyes out, and I would never admit it out loud, but my eyes weren’t too dry either by the time Mom finished sobbing. What finally stopped Mom’s crying was the sound of the bell as the door opened.
Mom quickly dried her eyes and stood to greet the customer but froze in midair as she glanced behind my shoulder. A second later, I understood why.
“Son, is that you?” My dad sounded shocked to see me. “You’re supposed to be at school.”
“I came early,” I said, surprised to hear a hitch in my voice. I must have been crying more than I thought. “What are you doing here?”
“Picking your mother up, so we could pick you up from school.” He glanced between the two of us, finally piecing two and two together and then grinned. “Marcus, your soft heart won out, didn’t it? You decided to forgive us.”
“I did not,” I protested, swiping at my eyes. “I just decided everyone deserves a second chance, even our messed up family. But you two have to make some changes.” I eyed my father severely, and he looked innocently at me.
“Me? What did I do?”
“You, Dad, are a workaholic,” I said. He opened his mouth to protest, but I waved him off. “I understand you work because we need the money, but the way you leave for months at a time is just ridiculous. I hate the way you go gallivanting off to exotic places as though you’re still a bachelor.” I completely understood why Mom must have felt so insecure about his love fifteen years ago because sometimes I wondered if he liked work more than his family too. “It’s like you’d rather have adventures by yourself than come home to your family, and I hate it.”
He hung his head, ashamed. “I never knew you felt that way,” he said. “It’s not true that I don’t want to come home. I only work so much because we need the money. But I think I have a solution. What if I promise to take you and your mom with me on some of my shifts? Airfare is cheaper for family of pilots.”
“I think that would be a good compromise,” I agreed.
Now I turned to Mom. “And you, Mom. I hope these past fifteen years have taught you to be stronger and not to run from your problems. Don’t disappoint me again.”
She nodded eagerly. “I promise you, honey. I’ll do anything to make you trust me again. I just want us to be a family.”
My father looked at me hopefully. “Can we get a group hug now?” Before I could agree, he swept in, taking my mother and me in a tight embrace.
“Eww, stop Dad. Customers might come in.” I made a half-hearted attempt to push my parents away, but despite my protests, I felt a glow of happiness that I hadn’t felt in a long while. It was like one of the holes in my chest was finally beginning to close.