Kylie wiped the shower steam from the mirror and leaned in to apply moisturizer to her face. She paused, contemplated her reflection. Lingering exhaustion from her long night with Brayden added to the stress she had been wearing like a mask for the past few months. The loneliness, the anger, had deepened her worry lines, stripped her hair of shine, dulled the brown of her eyes. Some days, she didn’t recognize her reflection at all. She only gazed in sorrow at the faded woman in the mirror.
Nessa had said losing love was like losing your reflection, but Kylie wondered if she had ever truly known the girl mirroring her in the glass. Had she ever admired her strengths? Accepted her weaknesses?
Had she ever felt brave enough to lose control? To lose her heart?
Had she ever dared to close her eyes and fall?
Had she ever trusted someone would catch her?
Had she ever trusted in anyone, for anything, at all?
“Once upon a time…” six-year-old Kylie whispered through the mirror.
“‘Happily, ever-after’ only exists in fairy tales,” twenty-six-year-old Kylie replied.
The child in her laughed and shook her head in denial, but the vibrant innocence of her smile quickly faded, her eyes saddened by the reality of life as she aged. She brought her hand to her face, wiped away the silent tears, the haze of exhaustion from her eyes.
“Stupid girl,” Kylie chastised in whisper. Quickly, she fastened her still damp hair into a hasty knot, skipped the makeup, and escaped the steamy bathroom before the last, weak strand of her sanity snapped.
In stark contrast, the kitchen welcomed her with warm, bright light and the robust aroma of freshly brewed coffee. She sighed in gratitude when her mother poured her a generous mug. “Good morning.”
“Are you hungry?” Martha asked. “I could whip up some scrambled eggs.”
Kylie sweetened her coffee with a splash of cream. “Maybe later.”
“Are you feeling okay?” Martha’s face softened in familiar concern. “You aren’t catching Brayden’s bug are you?”
“I’m fine,” Kylie assured her, though she felt far from it.
Sipping her coffee, Kylie looked out into the back yard as she awaited the first jolt of caffeine to hit her blood stream. A fresh dusting of snow covered the picnic table in the corner of the yard. Wrens hopped over and under the weathered wood, inviting her to watch them play, but Kylie looked beyond the winter morning, into her memories of a late summer evening when the temperature had been pushing a hundred degrees.
That first sighting of Jimmy, sitting there at the picnic table in her mother’s backyard, had flamed her body to a temperature scorching high above the summer air, but the heat of that glance was nothing compared to the fire his touch had driven her body to on those hot summer nights, over and over again.
She missed his touch.
She missed his voice.
She missed his heart.
He had offered to give it all back, promising to catch her if she fell.
Would he catch her this time? Would she ever actually let go?
Martha pressed her cool hand to Kylie’s burning cheeks, flushing hot from her memories. “Are you sure you’re not coming down with something? You look feverish.”
“I’m fine,” Kylie lied, once again.
When she turned away from the window, the torment in her mother’s eyes had her reaching out to return the comforting touch.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
Martha held Kylie’s hand to her cheek. “I’m sorry, baby.”
“For letting you believe a lie for so long.”
Kylie pulled her hand away. “What lie?”
“What about Charlie?”
“Charlie came back.”
“No.” With a slow shake of her head, Kylie asked in disbelief, “When?”
“Quite a few times, actually. In the beginning.” Martha turned her back on Kylie and pulled a loaf of bread from the box on the counter. As though biding her time, Martha untied the bag, removed two slices of bread, and placed them in the toaster.
Kylie didn’t know what to think, how to feel, what to ask, so she waited.
When Martha finally spoke, she started her explanation from the very beginning.
“You were too young to remember, but you were with me the day I met Charlie. It was so hot that day—had been hot all week—and you were fussing something terrible from teething and a diaper rash that had rubbed your poor bum raw. I had a killer headache, the air conditioner had quit working in the car, rent was due by the end of the week, and my hours had been cut at work, again.” Martha let out a laugh and confessed, “I had fourteen dollars to my name, and I was about to spend most of it on diaper rash cream and extra-strength Tylenol. What I really wanted to do was spend every last penny on an hour of babysitting and the biggest margarita I could find.”
Feeling as though she should apologize, Kylie smiled. “I’ve had days like that.”
“I stood in this endless line at the checkout, juggling you and the butt cream, and you were screaming bloody murder in my ear. That margarita was sounding better and better by the second, and I was two heartbeats away from escaping it all when Charlie came up behind me in line.”
Martha’s gaze pulled inward as she slipped deeper into her memory.
“He was tall and dark, with these deep green eyes that twinkled in mischievous amusement as he approached. Speaking directly to you, he held up the box of condoms in his hand, and said, ‘Thanks for reminding me to pick these up, mi hija.’ What he said made me so mad, yet made me laugh so hard at the same time. And when he winked, I was done for. Without asking permission, he scooped you into his arms and held you high. You fell silent mid-cry, your eyes wide in wonder as you stared at him. He smiled that smile of his, you reached out and placed your tiny hand on his lips, and I swear in that instant he fell so hard in love with you I could hear the crash.”
The toaster popped. Martha pulled out the warm toast and started the next two slices.
As she buttered the crusty bread, she said, “I loved that man like I will never love again. I know he loved me just the same, but he had feet made for wandering. He would disappear for days or weeks at a time without as much as a goodbye, and when he came home, we would fight, and we would love, and he would promise me the stars, and then he would leave again and take my heart right along with him. It took me a few years, but I finally opened my eyes and realized he was taking yours, too. The day he left for Albuquerque, I told him if he walked out that door he would never be allowed to walk back in again. I don’t know if he didn’t believe me or if the itch to go was too strong to ignore, but either way, he left. Two weeks later, at just past two in the morning, the hint of a noise woke me up. I found him sitting in your room, watching you and Ashley sleep.
“He followed me out to the yard, begging to be allowed to come back home. We stood under the sweet gum tree and yelled and screamed at each other for what felt like hours. Every time I felt myself wavering, I thought back to you standing on the curb, watching his car drive off. Your tears broke my heart that day, and I swore I would never allow him walk out on you again.”
As Kylie listened to her mother and watched her methodically toast and butter bread, she thought back through her memories, trying to piece everything together. She remembered sitting on her knees on her bed, watching out the window as her mother and Charlie argued in the dark backyard. Their faces had been filtered by the heavy foliage of the tree as they yelled, then calmed and kissed, then pushed away, their emotions cresting and crashing like the ocean waves. She had always figured that fight had happened the night before Charlie had left, but her memories were old, untrustworthy, captured by a young heart and easy to rearrange.
“He finally left, saying he would be back in the morning. I woke you and Ashley before the sun rose, packed some bags, and we hid out at my mother’s house for a week. She had never liked Charlie and she spent those seven days dumping fuel on the fire of my anger.”
She reached into the refrigerator for a jar of grape jelly, her residual anger showing in how she jabbed the knife into the jar.
“He came back a few more times after that, begging to see you and Ashley. Every time, I sent him away. I kept telling myself that if he truly loved you, he would have kept coming back, or he would have asked for custody. I convinced myself that if he truly wanted to be a family, he never would have signed the divorce papers.
“I sent him away, fought with everything I had to make sure he stayed away, and then I was angry and hurt because for the first time in his life, he’d done exactly what I’d asked him to do. I thought I was protecting you girls, and I was, in a way, but looking back, I was protecting myself, and hurting you in the process.”
“Mom…” Kylie started, but a million questions hit her at once, all begging to be asked first. Her tongue tangled and she fell silent.
“Charlie wasn’t perfect, but his love for you and Ashley was. And I stole that from all three of you. Sometimes I look at you girls and wonder how different your lives would have been if I had let go of my damn pride and allowed him to see you. Especially Ashley. She would have benefited from the guidance of a father, even a part-time one.”
“You can’t blame yourself for Ashley.”
“Honey, I’m her mother. If I don’t blame myself, who can I blame?” Martha looked down at the teetering stack of toast on the plate in front of her. “I hope you’re hungry.”
Kylie stirred her lukewarm coffee and tried to push it all back, but one question refused to remain unanswered. “Where is Charlie now?”
Martha straightened the toast, and then ran a knife through it, cutting perfectly on the diagonal. “Last I heard, he was in Arizona. Divorced again.”
She didn’t want to know but couldn’t stop herself from asking, “Any other kids?”
“Two boys, probably high school age by now.”
Martha placed two slices of toast on a plate and handed it to Kylie. She chewed but didn’t taste.
Brayden shuffled into the kitchen, Boo Bear dangling by one arm from his tiny fist. His eyes were sleepy, but clear of fever, as he scanned the room. “Where Jimmy?”
Kylie shot her mother a hopeless glance. “He had to go home, sweetie.”
Brayden’s expression fell. A frown creased his forehead as Martha lifted him up and set him in his booster seat for breakfast. He took a few slow bites of his jelly toast and picked at Boo Bear’s stuffing. Kylie watched his face, waiting for the tears to start, but they never did. He almost looked too sad to cry.
Martha refreshed her coffee and changed the subject to one easier to digest. “What are your plans with Nessa today?”
“I’m not sure we have plans. She called from Chief’s house around six this morning and said not to worry about her. I feel horrible that I didn’t even realize she hadn’t come home last night.”
“You had a lot going on, and she’s in very safe hands,” Martha assured her. “I ran into Old Chief at the fundraiser last night. He said Chief’s pretty smitten with Nessa.”
Kylie dumped the last of her coffee into the sink. “She’s really into him, too. She’s usually really picky about the men she dates. I honestly can’t remember anyone she’s gone out with more than once or twice. She always finds something wrong with the guy. But she’s all smiles about Chief.”
“Aria called while you were in the shower. Stacy somehow managed to talk the doctors into letting her go home yesterday. You should stop by and see her.”
“Maybe I should wait a day or two. She’s probably tired.”
“I’m sure she’s fine. She could probably use some advice. You remember how scary bringing home a new baby can be.”
“You mean terrifying.”
“Besides, you haven’t spent any time with her except before the wedding.”
“You’re right,” Kylie agreed. “Would you mind watching Brayden while I go? I’d hate to have him spread his germs to Stacy and Emily.”
“Not at all. I feel like I haven’t been able to spend any time with my grandson.”
“If he takes a turn give me a call and I’ll come right home.” Kylie kissed Brayden’s messy hair and smoothed her hand down his cheek. “Be good for Grammy.”
He turned away from her, his frown back on his face. He wasn’t saying anything, but Kylie knew why he wasn’t happy with her. His Jimmy was gone, and it was all her fault.