“I had a feeling I’d find you up here.” As soon as I heard his voice, I knew who was coming up: Mark Bradley, my childhood best friend. It may have been a while since I last saw him, but I feel like I would recognize him anywhere. At one point in time, I knew him like the back of my hand, maybe better.
“Look at that, you’re right,” I reply with an attitude I know my mother would’ve hated. She would’ve said that’s not the girl she raised, and I would’ve disagreed. I’ve never entirely been one for the ‘proper good girl behaviour’ like she wished. Mark settles down beside me and the treehouse feels smaller than it already did, with his long legs stretching out in front of us.
He’s silent for a minute, but I can feel the question on his tongue. “Why did you walk out on people who just want to help?”
“Story of my life,” I mutter to myself. “I just couldn’t be there anymore, okay?”
“Okay. But they’re just trying to be there for you,” he tells me, stunning the attitude I’d worn all day like a shield. If Mark had a superpower, it had to be either his patience or the way he emotionally disarms me so easily. It’s almost alarming.
“I just couldn’t be there anymore. Everyone feeling sorry for me, while I can’t tell if they’re actually mad.”
“Gemma, they’re not mad at you,” he tells me. When I look over, I can see the sincerity in his brown eyes. I just don’t believe it. So instead, I turn my view back to the window, a glass-less wooden frame capturing a screenshot of the house I grew up in, the same one I just abandoned because I couldn’t deal with all the emotions. The grief of everyone who knew her, who is currently milling around the house sharing stories. My grief, for every second chance I just lost with the woman who raised me, and the guilt that weighs me down like an anchor in an ocean.
“I left. I was the daughter who left, and the only thing that brought me back here was my mother dying.”
He’s quiet again, quiet enough to make me risk a glance at him. His eyes capture mine as he starts to speak. “No one blames you for leaving. It’s not like there’s a lot going on here.”
The feeling of oncoming tears sting my eyes as I turn away from him again. I can’t tell who he’s talking about, but it hurts all the same. My mom, him, the family members who couldn’t believe a girl born and raised here would leave so easily, never to return by choice. Each person and every broken feeling adds to the war going on in my soul and the weight that feels like a chain, dragging me deeper into a mess I’ve been avoiding for years. “Maybe if I hadn’t left, things would’ve been different.”
“You can’t think like that. That’s not fair to yourself.” The drops of truth in his statement leave a bitter taste on my tongue. I do know better than to think this way, but I can’t help feeling like I’m at fault.
“Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
“It’s not like she was alone out here. Sure, maybe you tried your best not to come back and everyone knew it, but she always said you were destined for great things, and she didn’t want to hold you back.”
“I was only an hour away.” In the back of my mind, I remember hearing her talk on the phone, occasionally saying that Mark helped her with this or that, things like house repairs that she didn’t know how to do. Last summer, I remember her telling me that Mark had built her a small shade structure after she had complained about the heat of direct sunlight. It gave her a nice place to sit. From my view in the treehouse, I could see the shadows of it standing in the garden.
“But you had a life outside of here, and she didn’t want you to worry.”
“You mean she didn’t want to fight?” I’d grown up in a small country town, but the city where I currently lived had much better healthcare, and if anything ever happened, she would get better care faster if she moved. But then again, I’d always wanted to move. I wanted to live somewhere exciting, with more to offer than town-wide gossip. But my mom was from here, and she always told me she would never leave. In the end, she was right.
“You guys just had different opinions.” Even now, Mark’s words land on the middle ground, trying to be a cooling point between the two of us. After my parents divorced, I was a little difficult, to say the least. I was a teenager who wanted to go out in the world, and my dad was from the city. My mom and I fought until I went off to university, where I came home for maybe one reading week. Otherwise, she came to visit me at my dad’s house. If I could help it, I spent all the longer breaks there anyways.
“That’s for sure,” I sign, remembering our last conversation. It was only half normal because the other half was occupied with a level of snark my teenage self would’ve been pleased by. My mom had wanted me to visit, and I refused. “We fought last time we talked,” the regret slipping out of my mouth before I can stop it.
“I know. But you guys fought a lot.” Somehow, just like when we were in high school, Mark is a piece of calm in a storm of my frustrations. Once upon a time, I’d tried really hard to hold on to that feeling, it just didn’t work out. The storm came back and stripped the calm from my body time and time again. “That doesn’t mean she didn’t love you.”
“I know she loved me-”
“And those people in there, they love you too.” He must be able to see my hesitation because he continues. “Just because you fight or you disagree, doesn’t mean there isn’t love there. They’re not just going to stop being your family or trying to be there for you. That’s not what family does.”
“Is that what you’re doing? Not giving up?”
“We were friends once,” he says, “And your mom was like my second mom. Just because we ended, that doesn’t mean I stopped caring. No one did.”
“I always thought you were mad at me.” My eyes see figures moving inside, people who are both familiar and foreign. Since I steered clear of this town a lot in the last five years, they’ve changed just enough to notice. But then again, maybe none of us are the same. Since university, I moved in with my dad and started working in the city. I thought everyone inside had given up on trying to win me back with small-town charm, considering me as our family’s newest black sheep in an almost completely white flock. When I was in town, I always felt like they kept me at a distance, just like I made sure to keep my distance from Mark. My mom was my go-between with basically everyone else in town, and now she was gone. As if I blinked and she just disappeared, life sweeping her away.
Mark chuckles, a deep rumble in his throat. “I forgave you a long time ago. You needed to be somewhere else.”
As if it came from nowhere, a thought breaks into my mind. Maybe I just never forgave myself. “I’m sorry.”
“Like I said, you’re already forgiven. You can’t change the past.” His statement settles over us as we stare at the sun-covered lawn, and all the other people trying to grieve an irrecoverable loss. For the first time in the last week, I feel more like them, instead of so disconnected. Family is family, maybe I felt like they were holding me at a distance because that’s what I was doing to them.
“So how did you find me?”
“Easy,” he says, “You always used to hide in the treehouse when you felt overwhelmed.” He’s quiet for a minute as if he can feel the storm dissipating in my head. “How are you feeling now?”
“Less overwhelmed.” I turn to him, staring at the boy who was always wiser than his age, and who seems to have kept growing that way. “Thanks.”
“Anytime.” He smiles at me, and somehow, it’s the calmest I’ve felt in weeks, despite the hurricane that was just taking place in my body. “You ready to go back inside?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Taking a deep breath, I grab his hand and emerge back into the afternoon sun, for once feeling more healed than scarred.