“Better”—Max’s story [start]
A short snippet from my novel “Better”.
The sound of the highway was quite loud in the rented little Ford car.
I shifted in my seat. It angled into my back leaving me feeling like a squished giant. I peered over at Cheryl before double-checking the GPS mounted onto the dashboard. We were about ten minutes from the airport. Ten minutes of silence, I hoped.
Cheryl skimmed through her Facebook feed, per usual. She sighed repeatedly, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to have to say something. My right ear started ringing. Only the right one, how annoying.
She sighed again.
“Yes?” The word seethed through my clenched teeth.
She scoffed. “Oh, nothing.”
It was never nothing.
My body tensed. I continued looking forward, watching the sepia-flushed roadway ahead. After Allison left, I went through her computer, looking for clues as to where she might go. I checked the “Projects” folder containing all her recent designs. They were beautiful, artful.
She could do so much with a laptop trackpad. It made me regret not getting her the iPad Pro she wanted.
It was her third change of careers and although I loved her creativity, I just couldn’t trust that she’d stick with graphic design long enough to justify the expense. Twelve years she’s been designing now. My throat thickened.
I should’ve bought her the iPad.
Bleary-eyed, I blinked rapidly, hoping no tears would escape.
Allison had her phone on her, likely until she got to the airport. I found it beneath the house key in the center console of our car. She just left — no note, nothing.
She paid cash for her flight, she must’ve because our account was down twenty-four hundred dollars and I barely paid the mortgage that month.
I took in a deep breath.
Why am I doing this?
Emma moved on. Katie could’ve tried to find her mother after college, why am I doing this?
You love me. I heard her voice whisper in that sultry attempt to seduce me. I’ve heard it for years, beckoning me to find her although I know now, she didn’t want to be found. At least not by me.
I swallowed the thickness at the back of my throat.
“You know,” Cheryl started, “When a woman says there’s ‘nothing wrong’, there’s always something.” She tutted. “I was hoping by now you’d figure that out — “
“Why are you being so hostile with me, Cheryl?” Why did I let her come with me? I should’ve lied, said it was a work trip or something.
She huffed. “Why did you even invite me — “
“I didn’t,” I blurted. “You invited yourself. ‘Let’s make it a vacation!’” I mocked. I went to clear my throat again but it came out like a watery growl.
“In two kilometers, keep right at the fork, follow signs for Granville Street East…” the GPS continued.
Cheryl mumbled something under her breath. My heartbeat quickened. We’re too close. I wanted to fight—the heat rose in me, begging me to let loose, but we were too close. The girls would know something was wrong.
I could feel her eyes on me, boring in. I couldn’t tell if they were regretful or fierce. I refused to look at her, to give her that satisfaction just to find out. Cheryl was never one to fight — she hates confrontation. I do too, but it’s different.
She fears it, I dislike it.
A couple turns later and we were approaching the Alaska Airlines Arriving flights area. We wound up doing two drive-arounds. Cheryl teased that it was Katie and “her checked bag for shoes”.
She must be kidding. I was certain my girls didn’t pick up any of Cheryl’s ridiculous tendencies.
A whole suitcase for fucking shoes.
“Ahh!” Cheryl gasped. “There they are!” She was bouncing about in her seat. I smiled and shook my head. Cheryl’s a good woman, she’s been a good surrogate mother to the girls, I just —
I shook my head, sighing heavily and pulled up to the curb.
Katie was radiant. Her natural blonde hair emanated a halo around her in the bright spring sunlight. Her smile hugged her face in suspended bliss.
Emma was beautiful, even clad head-to-toe in black — jet black hair, black eye makeup, nude, shiny lips. She seemed to have grown since the last time I saw her, maybe two months ago. The right side of her mouth curled slightly, but didn’t smile — not like Katie.
Katie ran into my arms, embracing me like she hadn’t seen me in months. Emma one-arm hugged Cheryl and they chatted for a moment.
“How’s it going?” Katie said into my shoulder.
“It’s been — “ I sighed. “It’s been a trip, that’s for certain.”
“How does she look? Is she beautiful? I know she’s beautiful! What does she — “ Katie grunted and rolled her eyes dramatically. “I’ll shut up.” Katie gave me one last squeeze and I peered over at Emma and Cheryl.
“How was your flight? You two get to chat at all?” I picked at a strand of hair that stuck to her pale pink lip gloss.
“With Emma?” She scoffed. “A little, I guess. She’s got a new — “
I tutted and held my hand up. “I don’t want to know, Katie.”
She’d told me all about some threesome Emma had with her boss and another waitress she worked with. I haven’t been able to go into her restaurant since, not that Cheryl would ever want to be seen there anyhow.
Allison wouldn’t care.
“It’s not what you think, Dad.” Katie squinted at me, her brow almost folding over her eyes.
I shook my head. “It’s none of my business, Emma’s…life. If she wants me to know she’ll tell me.”
Katie rolled her eyes. Cheryl and Emma came over.
“How’s Daddy’s College Girl?!” Cheryl squealed, holding her arms wide to collect Katie.
Katie giggled and lightly hugged Cheryl. I smirked.
Katie didn’t like her much as a child, I doubt she changed since she stopped talking to me about her. “Well, not a ‘college girl’ yet. There’s over a month before summer, so…”
Emma sighed. “Dad,” she said, nodding to me, acknowledging my presence.
“Emma. You look beautiful.” I smiled, eyes as soft as I could make them.
“Yeah.” She looked away, toward the rental car and grimaced. I lowered my head. She’s definitely my kid.
“I’m hungry. What’s good around here?” Katie piped.
Cheryl took off toward the passenger door. Katie followed, quiet.
I grabbed Katie’s suitcase and headed for the hatchback. Emma came around with her suitcase while Katie and Cheryl got into the car.
“You’re a fucking idiot,” Emma whispered harshly, as soon as Katie’s door shut.
My eyes widened and I could feel every muscle in my jaw and neck tighten. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me. You’re an idiot. How could you do this to her? Fuck. To Katie?”
I stepped back, chest heavy. “Wha — watch your tone, young lady. I’m under a lot of stress right now — “
“Stress? You fucking put all this shit on yourself, Dad. And you dragged Cheryl with you. Are you even thinking about her? Can you imagine how fucking stressful this is for her?”
I shook my head, jutting my chin. “Emma, we’ll talk about this later.” I yanked open the hatchback and popped both suitcases into the concave little trunk, then slammed the door. I started around the car, then turned. “I know you’re not a kid anymore, but please, show a little respect.” I got into the driver’s seat and drew in a deep, unsteady breath.
Why did she come if she didn’t want to be here? I wanted to ask but swallowed the words.
Emma stood outside the car for a beat. Katie said something but I didn’t make it out.
I didn’t intend to talk about this, this thing with Allison. Not yet. Maybe not at all.
I squeezed my eyes shut.
What did I expect? My daughters are adults now. It’s not like when they were kids, when you could just do whatever you needed to do with little to no explanation. They deserved to know.
The rear passenger-side door flung open and Emma rocked the car as she got inside, slamming the door behind her. Cheryl was quiet. I kept my eyes forward as they pulsated in my head.
“Buckle up,” I said as softly as I could muster, and clicked mine into place.
I took another deep breath and started the car.
“So,” Katie started. “When are we going to see Mom?”
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