Did I Mention I Miss You? by Estelle Maskame

  “Pancakes are pancakes,” Tyler says with a warm, reassuring smile.

  His hand is still around mine, and Maria is still grinning at us, and so it quickly becomes obvious that Tyler has told his grandparents the full truth, that I’m more than just his stepsister. Like, a hell of a lot more. It’s a strange feeling being so open, being like this, but I can only hope that it’s a taste of what things could be like between us. We could be honest and accepted, content and in love. One day, that is.

  Tyler leads me over to the garage door, while Maria returns to brewing some more coffee to cater for the extra company. Before I know it, we’re standing out in the garage, the door shut behind us, and our hands are suddenly no longer interlocked. I don’t know if Tyler even realizes, but once again I do. Because the moment his touch is gone, I want it back.

  The garage is cluttered, from stacks of boxes in the corners, to tools spread over makeshift worktops, to a rusty lawn mower leaning unsteadily against the wall. Right in the center, the unmistakable feature of the garage: a car. It’s polished, shining red, with not a single scratch to be seen anywhere on the bodywork, and it’s definitely several decades old.

  “Is that the coffee ready?” a deep voice echoes from the other end of the garage, behind the propped-up hood of the car.

  “Not exactly,” Tyler says.

  There’s a pause, and then a thud as his grandfather knocks his head against the hood. At first, Tyler lets out a laugh, then he quickly shows concern. “You alright there, Gramps?”

  The man curses under his breath, spluttering a cough, and then peers around the vehicle. He’s rubbing the exposed skin on the top of his head, where his white hair is slowly disappearing. Thick wrinkles are carved into his round face and around his features, but his full set of teeth immediately forms a pleasantly surprised smile.

  “The hell are you doing here, kid?” he asks, his voice not yet croaky, but getting there. He wipes his hands, smothered in black grease, on his jeans and then slowly tucks in his shirt. He isn’t Hispanic. “Did I skip a day? Is it Monday already?”

  “I left earlier than planned,” Tyler tells him. He takes a few cautious steps around the tools scattered on the ground, before throwing his arm over his grandfather’s shoulders and gently patting his arm. “And in case you haven’t figured it out already, this is Eden.” The two of them look back at me, their gazes causing me to blush.

  “My, my, my. Aren’t you a pretty young thing?” Tyler’s grandfather nods in what I can only assume is approval. He pulls his glasses from his face and elbows Tyler in the ribs. “Now I get it. No blaming you.” Tyler cringes, covering his face with a hand, but his grandfather only chuckles and props his glasses back on the bridge of his nose, saying, “I’m Peter, but I go by Pete. It’s wonderful to discover that Tyler wasn’t bullshitting us. I must admit, I did have my doubts that you were real.”

  I laugh then, only because Tyler is shaking his head now, his eyes hidden behind his hand, his lips pressed into a firm line. I’m growing to like the thought of Tyler talking about me to his grandparents. I like the thought of my name on his lips, the thought of him smiling as he says it.

  Pete chuckles again, and Tyler gently pushes him away before finally cracking a smile too.

  “Grandma’s probably got the coffee ready now. And the pancakes,” he says, quickly changing the subject. “So how about a break, and then I can help you out with that battery again?”

  Pete agrees, and he leads Tyler and me back into the kitchen, where Maria greets us with a warm smile. She’s prepared multiple cups of steaming black coffee and added an extra two placemats to the table. The pancakes are stacked on a plate, surrounded by all sorts of spreads and fresh fruit, neatly aligned.

  “Good thing you made me buy more than we needed,” Maria tells Pete, and she rushes around the table, pulling out four chairs.

  “Well,” Pete says, “you never know when we might have guests.” He sinks into a chair at the far end of the table as Maria hands him some coffee, which he promptly takes a sip of. Seemingly content, he watches us over the rim of the mug from behind the steamed-up lenses of his glasses.

  “Please,” Maria says, shifting her attention to Tyler and me, “sit.” She directs me back into the same chair she ushered me down into earlier and sets some coffee in front of me. “Is this okay? Or do you drink tea? I can make you tea.”

  “Coffee is perfect,” I say quickly, almost cutting her off to save her the hassle of ensuring that everything is perfect. Besides, coffee is perfect.

  Maria is relieved to hear that I’m satisfied, so she grasps Tyler’s shoulders and pushes him down into the seat next to mine. I don’t think the rose hue has left his cheeks since the moment we walked through the front door, and seeing him so embarrassed is, surprisingly, enjoyable.

  “Have you been driving all night?” Maria asks as she brings him a cup of coffee. She thrusts it carefully into his hand and then places her palm flat against his forehead, furrowing her eyebrows as though she’s expecting a fever.

  “Only a few hours,” Tyler says. Quickly, he moves her hand away, and her expression is not only confused, but also slightly horrified. Tyler takes a quick sip of his coffee before adding, “And no, I didn’t floor it along the interstate. We actually left from Sacramento, not LA.”

  “Of all the cities here in California,” Pete murmurs under his breath, croaking his words, “why in the hell were you in Sacramento? I’ve never stepped foot in a city more ridiculously boring than that damn place.”

  “Long story,” Tyler says. Even though it’s not, really.

  “Hm.” Maria slides into the empty chair at the opposite end of the table, but I can tell by the curious glint in her eyes that she’s thinking something. And that something is in Spanish. “¿Fue duro convencerla?”

  Tyler glances sideways at me. It’s only brief, and then he clears his throat and looks back at his grandmother. “Sí. No pensé que ella vendría.”

  “¿Le has hablado de tu padre?”

  “Aún no,” he says.

  “I hate when they do this,” Pete hisses to me. It draws my attention to him instead as Tyler and Maria continue, their conversation impossible to understand. “Very frustrating.”

  “You don’t speak it?” I ask.

  “Only the basics.” He stretches across the table, stabbing at the pile of pancakes with his fork, his eyes not exactly trained on me. “Do you?”

  I shake my head. “I wish.”

  Both Tyler and Maria seem to revert back to English then, exchanging firm glances with one another before Maria starts to pass the pancakes around. She’s grinning from ear to ear.

  “Tyler says you study in Chicago,” she muses, arching a brow in interest as she slips a pancake onto my plate. Back home, I’d reject it. Here, I don’t want to seem rude, so I quietly murmur thanks.

  “And yeah,” I add. “I’m majoring in psychology.”

  “Psychology,” Pete echoes. “So, like brains and interactions?”

  “Explaining the reasons behind certain human behavior,” I rephrase. Reaching for my coffee, I take a long sip. I’m not the biggest fan of basic black coffee, but it serves its purpose of helping to wake me up. “I’d like to have a focus in criminal psychology one day.”

  Tyler’s head snaps around the moment these words leave my lips. “I didn’t know that.”

  “That’s because you haven’t been—” I bite my tongue to stop myself from saying you haven’t been around. It’s so easy to throw remarks at Tyler without thinking. Controlling my words is difficult.

  I try my best to backpedal, taking a few seconds to gather my thoughts while sipping on my coffee again. “I just find it interesting,” I say, finally.

  “Criminal psychology . . .” Maria murmurs. “What exactly is that?”

  “Examining the possible reasons and triggers that lead a person to commit a crime.”

  There’s an uncomfortable silence around the table, so tense that it’s
tangible. Pete shovels half a pancake into his mouth. Maria traces the rim of her mug with her fingertip. Tyler scratches the back of his neck, dropping his gaze to his lap. Only then do I realize what I’m saying, and who exactly I’m saying it to.

  “I mean, every aspect of psychology is just so interesting,” I blurt, attempting to steer the conversation in a different direction. I opt for the humorous route. “Like figuring out why people do irrational things, such as travel to Portland with their stepbrother.”

  It’s a relief to see Tyler roll his eyes, watch Maria exhale, hear Pete chuckle. It’s a relief just to see them relieved.

  The rest of the conversation over breakfast flows, which is nice. It would be unbearably awkward if it didn’t. Maria asks a lot of questions. Pete does a lot of nodding in agreement. Tyler and I do a lot of answering. Tyler ends up explaining why we were in Sacramento, and Maria’s expression floods with sympathy when she discovers the sad excuse behind the trip. Even sadder is that the trip didn’t make the slightest difference to the state of our family. Except for Tyler and me, which definitely wasn’t the intention. But I’m glad it’s the outcome.

  I tune out for a while, cutting my pancake into a handful of smaller pieces so that it doesn’t seem so much, and I wonder if Dad and Ella are awake yet. It’s almost nine. They are most likely awake and arguing. Ella could be fighting our side on her own, defending us against Dad, stuck in the middle yet again. It makes me feel so guilty, so selfish. It makes me want to turn around and go back.

  But I shake that thought by the time breakfast is over, because Ella knows how to handle herself. She’s a damn lawyer, after all, and Tyler doesn’t seem worried, so I shouldn’t be either. In fact, he appears to be more focused on helping Pete out with the car, because they both immediately head back to the garage the second Maria stands to clear the table.

  “We can get back on the road before ten. We’ll be in Portland long before it even gets dark,” Tyler tells me, hesitating at the door to the garage. I hate how effortlessly attractive he is. He glances over his shoulder, and I hear Pete asking him to grab a flashlight. When he looks back at me, his smile seems apologetic. “Do you mind?”

  “Go ahead,” I say, because I really don’t mind hanging around here for an hour. I don’t want to be the one to drag him away, and Maria looks like she could use a hand cleaning up, so once Tyler disappears, I join her at the table.

  “So have you always lived here?” I ask, because I’m curious, as per damn usual. And I don’t exactly know what else to talk to her about. “In Redding?”

  “No,” Maria says with the shake of her head. She carries the empty plates over to the dishwasher, her back to me. “Just over seven years. We lived in Santa Monica too.”

  As I gather up the cutlery scattered over the table, I find myself raising my eyebrows. “Really?”

  “Sí,” she says.

  I join her over by the dishwasher, placing the forks and knives inside, watching her out of the corner of my eye. “Why move up here?”

  “Ah.” She gives me a closed smile and leans back against the worktop. “With everything that was going on at the time, we didn’t wish to stay. It was very hard. So we came up here to Redding because we wanted somewhere peaceful, but we also loved living in the city. It’s nice here.”

  I think about the timeframe for a second. “Everything going on . . .With Tyler’s dad?” I question, my tone soft, my voice cautious. Maybe I shouldn’t press such a delicate subject, but I just can’t help it. I hate not knowing. “With your son?”

  “Ah,” Maria says again. “Tyler did mention that you know the full story.” She bends down to shut the dishwasher, and when she straightens up again, she heads over to the sink to wash her hands under the faucet. I worry that I may have upset her, so I remain quiet.

  “But yes,” she finally says, eyes trained on the stream of water, “it was a very difficult time for us. Very hard to deal with. Very hard to accept.”

  I can imagine, I think. I glance around the kitchen, feeling suddenly out of place, like I’m intruding. “Do you mind if I head to the bathroom?”

  Maria looks at me, slightly confused at the quick change in subject, yet she also has that look of relief in her eyes again. “Upstairs. Second door. On left.”

  I waste no time in getting out of the kitchen. I feel uncomfortable, so I make my way up the stairs as quickly as possible. And at first, the walls seem like nothing more than a replica of the walls in the hall downstairs, with old frames holding even older photos. It’s on the excessive side, and it’s also creeping me out having so many faces looking back at me, up until I spot Tyler among them.

  My heart does a little jump, and I have to squint at the photo first, stepping back to examine it from afar before I move closer again. It’s taken on a beach, and it’s a beach I recognize all too well. It’s Santa Monica’s beach, with the pier far in the background, but I’m more focused on the three people on the sand. Maria on the left, Tyler in the middle, Pete on the right. All huddled close together, arms thrown around each other’s shoulders.

  Only Maria is much younger, with a slimmer figure but the same round face. And Pete has hair. Thick, dark hair. But he still has his glasses, and both of them are definitely not in their sixties. Their early forties, more like.

  Yet Tyler’s there, maybe sixteen, maybe seventeen, with hair that’s much longer and much more wild than I ever recall it being, and I don’t understand how such an old photograph is even possible for him to be in.

  And that’s when it hits me.

  Holy shit.

  It’s not Tyler at all. It’s not Tyler at all.

  “I bet I know what photo you’re looking at right now.”

  My heart stops as I physically jump back a step, startled. Leaning against the wall halfway up the stairs, arms folded across his chest, is Tyler. And for real this time.

  “You scared me,” I whisper, my voice almost inaudible. I’m breathing so heavily and so deeply that it makes talking difficult.

  “The one on the beach, right?” Tyler asks, continuing. He drops his arms and approaches me, climbing the remaining few stairs and falling into place by my side. “Everyone always said I was his double. They said I should have been his brother rather than his kid. Personally,” he says, tilting his head as he studies the photo, “I don’t see it. That hair? So not cool. What the hell was he thinking?”

  I twist my face to look at him. “Your dad,” I say. It’s not a question, because I know the answer. I know that’s his dad in that photograph, and I realize that for the first time, I can actually put a face to the man I’ve developed such strong contempt for. Even if it is only a young, innocent face.

  “Mm,” Tyler says. Slowly, he leans back against the wall again, so casually and so nonchalantly and so calmly that I begin to wonder if Portland really has changed his entire mindset. “His name is Peter, by the way.”

  “Peter? As in . . . Your grandpa?”

  “As in Peter Junior,” he says. “And Peter Senior. And luckily, Mom refused to follow the tradition.”

  My eyebrows knit together as I analyze him closely. A year ago, I had to stop him from kicking his dad’s ass. Now, he’s talking as though he couldn’t care less about his dad. It’s a huge contrast, a big change. When I run my eyes over the walls again, I realize there’re a lot of photographs of his dad. “These don’t bother you?” I ask.

  “A year ago they did,” he admits. “I actually stayed here for a couple days last year after I left. I didn’t know where to head at first, so I came here, and trust me, I tried to tear every single one of those frames off the wall. But Gramps made me leave.” He laughs, but I don’t. “And then I dropped by again on Wednesday on my way back down to LA, and none of these photos bothered me anymore. They really don’t.”

  I’m squinting at him even more now, but it’s impossible to deny that there’s sincerity in his eyes, honesty in his smile. There’s nothing less these days. I suddenly have an overwhelm
ing desire to hug him.

  “And in case you couldn’t already tell, my grandma’s kind of a hoarder,” he tells me, taking a step closer to the wall, to the photos and the faces. “She never wants to let go. Even of the things that everyone else has already let go of.” He reaches up then, tapping his knuckle against a particular photograph in a gold frame, and he rolls his eyes and says, “Like marriages that ended eight years ago.”

  It’s a wedding photo. His parents’ wedding. Ella and Peter, both so young, not much older than we are now, with Tyler grinning in the middle of them. He’s just a kid, adorable in a tiny tux, with the same huge grin that hasn’t changed at all and the bright round eyes that I later fell in love with. Ella once told me that he walked her down the aisle, even showed me a similar picture, and it’s such an awful thought to realize that he walked her down that aisle and handed her over to the man who would later shatter their lives.

  I almost feel sick.

  “Why do they . . .” My throat feels too dry, like my words are stuck, so I swallow hard and take a deep breath. “Why do they have all these photos of your dad up? Aren’t they mad at him? I know that it’s not my place to say anything, but it seems a little . . . I don’t know. Too forgiving, I guess.”

  “Of course they’re mad, Eden,” Tyler says, shaking his head at me. “But at the end of the day, he’s still their kid.” That’s when he shifts, slowly stepping between the wall and me, blocking the photos from my view. The expression in his eyes seems to soften, and the emerald seems to brighten. “So we got the car started a lot quicker than I thought we would,” he informs me. The subject change is sudden. “Turns out Gramps left the headlights on all night. Totally drained the battery. So,” he says, “we can get going again.”

  “Okay. Give me a minute.” Slowly, I back away from him and push open the door to the bathroom, suddenly acutely aware of his presence.

  “Wait,” he says. “Can I ask you something?”

  I lean my weight against the bathroom door and watch him closely, trying my best to mirror his relaxed expression. “Sure.”

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