Together We Heal by Chelsea M. Cameron

  I would have killed to have my mother look at me like that even once, instead of seeing me as a piece of garbage. Max released my hand and hugged her back.

  “Oh, I missed you so much.” The hug lasted a long time and then she finally noticed me.

  “Who’s this?” she asked, wiping her eyes and straightening her shirt. It was pretty and flowy and she’d paired it with simple black pants. Small diamond studs winked in her ears and her face had just the barest trace of makeup. The skin around her eyes was a little crinkled, but it was probably more from smiling a lot than from age. She was seriously beautiful and totally intimidating. Now I was the one wishing we hadn’t come.

  “Mom, this is Trish. She’s… um, she’s my girlfriend. Trish, this is my mom, Diane.” We hadn’t really talked about this in the car, but I’d hoped he would tell her that we were together.

  Instead of doing what I thought she would—look me up and down and make a snide remark—she opened her arms and swept me into a hug.

  “Oh, okay,” I said, not knowing what to do.

  “It’s so nice to meet you,” she said in my ear as she patted my back a few times and then released me.

  “Yeah, it’s nice to meet you too.” I could feel my face getting red and I looked at Max to figure out what was going on. He looked just as shocked as I felt.

  She let out a little sigh and looked at Max, her face breaking into a smile.

  “Come on in, make yourselves at home. I’m just finishing up lunch if you’re hungry.” Max and I followed her into the small kitchen. It was just as adorable as the rest of the house, carrying on with the sort of farmhouse/rustic décor. There were report cards and pictures all over the fridge. Max’s face in various stages of growing up grinned back at me.

  I made a beeline for them and Max groaned.

  “Mom, why didn’t you take all those dorky pictures down?” She laughed as she opened the oven and pulled a casserole dish out and set it on the stove.

  “Because the only one who thinks you look dorky is you.” I stared at the pictures. Some of them were from school, the standard posed ones with the weird background, but others were from school plays, sports teams, birthdays. It was like a visual timeline of his life.

  My favorite, by far, was one of his school pictures where he grinned and had at least four front teeth missing. It was fucking adorable.

  “Please stop looking at them,” Max begged and I turned around to find him with a completely red face.

  “Now, stop,” his mother said. I didn’t know what to call her. Mrs. Greene? Diane?

  “I like them. Especially this one,” I said, pointing to the toothless one. His mother came over to see which one I was pointing at.

  “Ah, yes. That was when he lost four teeth in about a month. The tooth fairy was very busy,” she said.

  “I bet,” I said.

  “So, Trish, are you at school with Max?” I knew the grilling was part of the deal, but I’d hoped it could wait until I had some food in my mouth and could chew while I thought about the right answers. I had next to no filter, but I’d need to grow one so I didn’t say something inappropriate in front of Max’s mom. At least until she got to know me better and got used to it.

  “Um, yeah.” I shot him a terrified look. He just came over and put his hand on my shoulder.

  “What are you studying?” She started getting plates down and Max went to help her. Was I supposed to ask if I could help? Or was I a guest? I wished I had asked more questions when we were driving here.

  “I’m not sure yet. I can’t make up my mind.” I was probably making a terrible impression, but I was so nervous. I couldn’t help it.

  The table was set with four places.

  “Where’s Dad?” Max asked, his voice tight.

  “He just went to the store to get some ice cream. He should be back in a minute. Trish, can I get you something to drink?” I opened my mouth to answer, but Max interrupted.

  “I got it.” He went to the fridge and pulled out a jug of iced tea. He filled a glass with some ice and then poured the tea on top before handing it to me. I felt dumb standing by the fridge, so I went to sit down, but I wasn’t sure where to go.

  “Right here,” Max said, pulling a chair out for me.

  “Thanks,” I said. This was probably the quietest he’d ever seen me, which should be an indication of just how nervous we both were.

  “Okay,” his mom said as she bustled around, putting a large bowl with a tossed salad on the table, along with a basket of bread.

  “What kind of dressing do you want?” Max said, pulling a few bottles out of the fridge.

  “Whatever you’re having. I’m not picky.”

  He was about to say something else when the front door opened and his father walked in.

  “Oh, you’re here,” he said, bringing several white plastic grocery bags into the kitchen and handing them off to his wife.

  “Hey, Dad. This is Trish. Trish, this is my dad, Richard.” Richard didn’t look much like Max. Where Max was thin and straight, his father was round and stocky, but their expressions were remarkably similar.

  I stood up from my chair and went to shake his hand. That was what I was supposed to do, right? It seemed right.

  Max’s dad sort of gaped a little at me and then put his hand out and shook mine.

  “It’s nice to meet you,” I said, trying to give him my most winning and non-threatening smile. His eyes flicked between me and Max and then he cleared his throat.

  “I didn’t know you had a girlfriend, Max,” he said. His voice was gruff and my heart was starting to sink like an old balloon.

  “Yeah,” Max said. Now he was in the hot seat.

  “Okay, we’re ready to eat!” Max’s mom broke the tension and we all sat down.

  “This looks really good,” I said. Max’s mother smiled at me.

  “Why thank you, Trish. Guests first.” She motioned to the casserole. I dished out what I hoped was a good portion that wouldn’t offend her, but that I could also eat. I added salad and a piece of bread.

  Once everyone else filled their plates, the talking started again, but at least I could keep my mouth busy for a little while with chewing. The casserole was delicious. Full of chicken and rice with a creamy sauce.

  “How’s work, Dad?” Max asked and I was surprised he was going to ask that.

  “Good, good. Getting into the busy time. Installing a lot of air conditioners.” Max nodded and I kind of wanted to melt into the floor. The tension was hovering over us like a dark cloud.

  “So, Trish, I’m afraid Max hasn’t told us much about you.” Great, now it was grilling time again.

  “Um, well, I’m almost nineteen and I go to school and I have an older brother named Stryker,” I said. That was all pretty neutral stuff. I always had a hard time when people asked me about my family situation. That was definitely sure to cause tension.

  “And your parents?” Max’s mother asked and I felt like I seized up. Max put his hand on my knee under the table.

  “Mom, she doesn’t want to talk about it,” he said and I felt like a total bitch.

  “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” That was a jab at Max for not telling them about me. Man, this was going south real fast.

  “It’s not your fault. It’s just that I don’t really think of them as my parents. More of the people who gave me their DNA and that was about it.” I sounded bitter, but that couldn’t be helped.

  “Ah, what does your brother do?” she asked, not giving up.

  “He’s working as a TA at DU and he also has an internship with the lab on campus. Plus he’s a freelance mechanic. He helped me build Max’s car.” Shit. Shit, shit, shit! I almost smacked myself in the face for mentioning the car. Max’s eyes went wide.

  “Max’s car?” His mom sounded surprised to say the least. He sighed and nodded.

  “Yeah, Trish and my friends all pitched in and got it for me for my birthday,” he mumbled, looking down at his plate.<
br />
  “A car?” his father said, thunderstruck.

  “Yeah,” Max said. I wanted to tell him I was sorry, but there wasn’t a way I could do that without his parents seeing. Well, fuck. This was just about a lost cause at this point.

  “That was very generous of them,” his mother said, but I couldn’t tell if she really thought it was.

  Max sighed and looked up from his plate.

  “Look, I’m sorry I haven’t called or visited and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about Trish or the car, but I didn’t think you’d want to hear about it,” Max said.

  He was going for it. Okay, then. I squeezed his knee under the table and hoped for the best. And hoped that I could keep my mouth shut in this particular situation.

  His mother let out a tense breath through her nose and his father coughed again. They shared a look that I couldn’t really figure out. Guess it was one of those parent looks that I’d never seen.

  “I’m sorry,” Max said again, his voice breaking. His hand reached for mine and I held it. Even though the situation was hard, I was glad that he reached for me. That I could offer support, at least a little bit.

  “I just wish you could understand why I had to do it.” His father leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest.

  “That’s just the thing, Max. I don’t understand. I don’t understand why you would go off and leave your family. Leave the business that I built for you for your future. No, I’ll never understand that at all. Excuse me.” He tossed his napkin on his plate and got up from the table. Max’s mother tried to call him back, but he was out the door and then there was the sound of a car engine.

  “Shit,” Max said under his breath. He put his elbows on the table and rested his face in them. The picture of utter defeat.

  “I’m so sorry you had to see that,” his mother said in a quiet voice, folding and unfolding her napkin. “This has been hard for both of us.”

  “And it hasn’t been hard for me at all. Do you think that I wanted to leave you? That I wanted to have my parents hate me?” Max pushed back from the table and stormed into the living room. I got up and scurried after him. His mother followed a moment later.

  “You know that we don’t hate you. We just want what’s best for you.”

  “And I have no say in that. It’s only my fucking life!”

  “Maxwell!” He paced across the room and turned around. Not sure what to do, I just stood there feeling awful that I’d been the one who forced him to come here and do this. If only Beth was here. She’d know exactly what to say and how to fix the situation. I definitely didn’t.

  “I’m sorry, I just can’t do this,” Max said, turning around. “I keep hoping that one day you’re going to call me, or I’m going to come here and you’ll ask me how school is going and we’ll talk about stupid stuff and it will be normal. You won’t try to guilt me into coming back. You’ll just be parents that are proud your son is in school and trying to figure out his life. But I guess that’s not going happen. Ever. I’m sorry, Mom, but I can’t stay here anymore.” He went to the door, took a breath and then opened it.

  “Max,” his mother said, her voice breaking.

  “I’m sorry,” he said again. “Come on, Trish.” He reached his hand out to me and I went to him.

  “It was nice to meet you. The lunch was delicious,” I said, but she wasn’t looking at me. She only had eyes for her son, who looked so much like her.

  “Bye,” Max said one more time before we were out the door and back in the car.

  “ARE YOU OKAY?” Trish asked as I backed out of the driveway. My hands shook on the steering wheel and I felt like I was floating above my body and not really inside it.

  “Not really, Trish,” I said, and I knew I was being an asshole, but I was so angry, I didn’t know what else to do.

  “Pull over,” she said in a sharp voice. I ignored her. “Pull the fuck over, Max!” She screamed and I wrenched the steering wheel over and we ended up coming to a stop on the shoulder.

  “What the fuck do you want?!” I screamed back at her.

  “Give me the fucking keys right now. I’m driving.” I pulled them out and threw them at her before getting out and slamming the door. We crossed beside each other as we switched seats. I was almost vibrating with rage now.

  She started the car and we started driving again, with me in the passenger seat and staring out the window.

  “I’m sorry that happened,” she said in a softer voice.

  “I knew that was going to happen. That’s why I didn’t want to fucking go, Trish. Shit, why couldn’t you have just listened to me? You always have to push. You never let things go.” A sniff made me look over at her. Great, I was firing on all cylinders today. I’d pissed off my parents and now I’d made my girlfriend cry.

  I wanted to go back to this morning when we’d been lying in bed. We’d been talking about tattoos again. I’d pretty much decided I wanted to get one, so we were talking about what I’d get and location. I’d pointed to her tattoos and she’d told me the pain level of each. Of course, that had led to a lot of other things and the tattoo discussion had been put on hold for another time.

  I just wanted to go back to that.

  “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I just wanted you to fix things with them. They love you so much. I’d give anything to have parents who loved me.” A sharp pain went through my chest. God, what a mess.

  My anger had started to fizzle out, like an open bottle of soda losing carbonation.

  “I know you wanted to fix it. I just… I don’t think it’s fixable. Someday, maybe, but not right now. We’re standing on either side of a wall.” A wall that I had built and refused to tear down.

  “I’m just so sorry,” she said, sobbing over the steering wheel. Now I was the one telling her to pull over. She did and I gathered her into my arms.

  “Your heart was in the right place. I know that. I know you were doing it out of love. I just wish it could have turned out better. I wish my parents could be normal and welcome you with open arms and we could sit and laugh together. You have no idea how much I want that.” In the absolute back of my mind, I’d had a hazy vision of it. Sitting around at the kitchen table, eating my mother’s casserole and laughing about something or other, my parents totally accepting Trish. The four of us totally comfortable with one another.

  A family.

  Now it was like I had two families. The one that was mine due to biology and the one that I had chosen. All I wanted was for them to coexist.

  I stroked her hair and made shushing noises to calm her down. I wasn’t angry anymore. Just sad. Terribly sad.

  She pulled back from the hug and wiped her eyes. Her mascara was smeared. I opened the glovebox and pulled out some tissues that had been part of my gifts when I got the car.

  “I’m sorry for blubbering all over you,” she said as she blew her nose.

  “You can blubber all over me anytime you want, sweets. I love you so much.” I hugged her again.

  “I love you, too.” It was so quiet I almost didn’t hear it, but then I realized she’d said it and my heart seriously stopped for a minute.

  “I love you,” she said, louder and stronger.

  I kissed her so hard our teeth knocked together.

  “Oh, my wild girl, you have no idea.”

  WE KISSED AND held each other for a little while on the side of the road. We were only about ten minutes from my house. For a half-second, I considered going back, but that would only lead to more sadness right now.

  My parents weren’t ready. They might never be and accepting that would probably be the hardest thing I’d ever have to do. If I was alone, I didn’t think I could do it, but having Trish and my friends support me meant the world.

  “You never got your ice cream,” Trish said as I stroked her cheeks with my thumbs.

  “No, but it’s okay.” She shook her head.

  “No, it’s not. I bet there’s a place somewhere around here. Yo
u’ll have to show me where to go.” Actually, if we kept going straight, we’d pass right by the local Hannaford.

  “It’s the least I can do,” she said.

  “Let’s go get some ice cream.”

  WE ATE OUR ice cream right out of the tub with plastic spoons in the parking lot of the supermarket. The sun was going down and the sky was on fire with color.

  “Now, if the rest of the day hadn’t sucked total ass, this would be a perfect way to end it,” Trish said, leaning back in her seat.

  “The earlier part of the day can’t ruin this,” I said. “My girlfriend told me she loved me today and that’s the most important thing.”

  Trish knocked my spoon out of the way so she could go for a huge chunk of cookie dough.

  “I wonder what they make this stuff out of. Because it seriously does taste like frozen dough.” She popped the giant cookie blob in her mouth and smiled at me.

  “No idea, but I bet you could find out.” We finished the rest of the ice cream and then just sat there until the stars came out.

  “There’s Orion,” I said, pointing it out. We’d parked away from the orange lights of the parking lot, so we could see them.

  “Yeah. That’s still the only one that makes sense.” I pointed out a few more to her that I knew about.

  “Still don’t see it,” she said, but she was laughing. “It’s sweet of you to try, though.”

  She kissed my cheek.

  “I really am sorry about today.”

  “I know, hun. It’s okay. It will be okay.” I didn’t know if that was true or not. I just knew that I wanted it to be.

  “THAT WAS THE longest day ever,” Max said, flopping down on his bed. He rolled onto his back and put his arms out for me.

  “Cosign,” I said, lying down next to him. He put his arms around me and held me like I was a lifeline.

  “I’m so tired,” he said around a yawn. It was only six and we hadn’t really had dinner yet. The ice cream didn’t really count as a meal.

  “You want me to order some pizza?” I asked.

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