Chelsea mulled it over, chewing on the inside of her cheek as she stared unseeing out the van window.
With her stockinged feet up on the dashboard, her toes grazed the bauble dangling from the rearview window.
With a strangled yelp, she kicked at it with disappointingly little effect. It swung back and forth, swaying in tandem with how she felt. Her world had shifted on its axis, leaving her perilously close to falling off the face of it into oblivion.
The words were still ringing in her head from the voicemail her sister had left. The truth had clung to every syllable. She gritted her teeth as she stopped herself from forming the words that would change everything. The words that would rattle the foundations of the very narrative she had built her life around.
He had given that bauble to her, and she had borne it proudly ever since, bedecked her beloved van with it as it watched over her adventures like a cheerful little copilot. But now…Now she saw it for what it was, what he was, and what he had always been.
No. No. This was the kind of thing that happened to other people. Sadder people with even sadder stories. The ones whose lives had an unhappy ending. The ones whose stories appeared in a compact little hour on the news where you could safely envelop yourself in their despair but could neatly flip the TV off and luxuriate in the fact that you weren’t them.
You could send up a prayer to the heavens and pat yourself on the back for how very good and kind you were. So considerate to pray for mere strangers.
Her fingernails dug into her hands as she clenched them as if she were physically clinging to the last remnants of herself. But it was no use. She saw behind the curtain. Everything was different now. There was no going back.
With a sniff, Chelsea wrenched her feet off the dash, flipped down her visor, cleaned up her smudged eyeliner with the side of her index finger, and gave her best attempt at the unwavering smile that everyone knew her for. But the smile didn’t reach her eyes.
Something new to practice she thought, bitterly slamming the visor closed. How very novel.
Because in all honesty, it was getting old. Being on the road, doing the same speaking gig over and over, maintaining that cheerful disposition her readers paid her for.
She shoved up her sleeve to check the time and groaned. There never seemed to be enough time to sort through the muddy waters of other people’s messes let alone her own.
She yanked on her Converse, silently cursing her numb, clumsy fingers, coaxed the van into gear, and merged out into the road. Almost instantly, she felt the relief that came from the simple act of forward motion, of putting stretch after stretch of asphalt behind her. And if she was being honest with herself, maybe there was a tinge of relief in knowing the truth too.
Perhaps there was a feeling of validation as though something she knew wasn’t quite right all along had come to fruition. She had been envied her entire life for her sunny disposition, her effortless way of cruising through life, devil may care.
Because her life had been innocuously uneventful. So mundanely…suburban. Or so she had thought. What else didn’t she know? What lurked beneath the surface now that this truth had been set free? Free to wreak unending havoc on every last memory, casting a much hazier light than the truth she thought she had known. Thought she had been living.
Maybe this could be the scapegoat that could be to blame for every last bit of dissatisfaction that was her life now. How easy it would be to place the onus on him. How effortless.
How cowardly, she chastised herself.
She wasn’t ready to face the next crowd as the outskirts of the small town loomed up too quickly. The handful of chain restaurants passed by in a deeply familiar blur.
She steered the van into an angled spot across the street from the quaint downtown bookstore, a near carbon copy of the last one she had spoken at. She threw it into park and reached out automatically to grab the bauble, as she had done countless times before.
As her fingers closed around the well-worn cord, she paused, looking at the inscription that she knew by heart but felt compelled to read anyway. As if that would change things. Make the words etched permanently upon it true.
My Beloved Chelsea
All my life
No other but you
World unending together
The terrible words crept back in. What he was. What he always had been. What she couldn’t avoid any longer. The panic began to choke her, and she looked frantically around as though there was a lifeline somehow within reach. The street materialized around her.
How long had she been sitting out here? She looked across the street. The bookstore was nearly packed at this point. The crowd was shoulder to shoulder. Standing room only. People were waiting for her. Counting on her.
The realization washed over her. How badly she needed him. How she couldn’t do it without him. I mean, what did this truth actually change? Perhaps she wasn’t so different and perhaps neither was he. And so neither were they.
One last glance in the mirror told her all she needed to know. The face looking back at her was the same. Perhaps a little changed, perhaps there was a new hardness around the eyes. But the same, nonetheless.
With a resigned sigh and acceptance of her crutch and perhaps her fate, she plucked the bauble off the mirror, stuffed it into her leather tote bag, closed her eyes, and held it to her chest in relief.
Her narrative would be what it always had been, she decided, rose-tinted glasses and all.