I had two choices. Turn the key left, turn off the ignition, go inside and try to fix what was broken. Turn the key right, switch on the engine, drive away from all of this, and build a new life atop the ashes of the old one.
After letting out a deep sigh, I finally turned the key left.
Stepping out of the car was the hardest part; my car door had felt like a barrier between my current world and the old one…now I stood on the brink of the two. Your family home is meant to be a warm place to come back to – a safe place. Mine was, it always had been, the only thing that changed was the way I saw it.
I took measured steps towards my house, the evening air was just cold enough to keep my breathing steady and calm, the sky just dark enough to hide my progress. That shouldn’t have been important to me, but it was. If this reunion was going to happen at all – it had to be on my terms… No nosy neighbours peering out of their windows, no one judging me for things they didn’t have a clue about.
One foot in front of the other. My house loomed closer and closer with each step; it wasn’t a big place – just a typical suburban house – but right now it felt as ominous as Dracula’s castle. I shut my eyes and kept inching forward, doing my best to steady my breathing. By the time I reopened them, I was face to face with a poster on a lamppost. On it was my name and an image of me. I looked more or less the same, maybe a little thinner in the face? My hair was certainly a bit longer. Still, it hadn’t been that long, had it? Two weeks, maybe three? Was that really long enough for a person to be considered ‘missing’?
Another door, this time it was to my house, my home, my family home – where my mum was sure to be waiting. Dad took night shifts, which would make this whole experience a little easier, I hoped.
I just stood with my hand pressed to the front door for a minute, occasionally turning back to look at my car. I’d made my choice, I couldn’t turn back now.
I slowly opened the door and stepped into the narrow hallway. “Mum.” My voice cracked. “Mum… I’m home.”
Within seconds my mum appeared at the top of the stairs, her face contorted into the shape of absolute misery and bewilderment – she looked deathly ill.
“Em?” she half swallowed my name before shaking her head repeatedly. “You can’t be, it isn’t…”
“It is, Mum,” I said softly, trying to sound chipper. “I’m back. I’m home.”
There was a brief moment of silence before Mum raced down the stairs and grabbed hold of me. I honestly thought she might be trying to hurt me at first – punishing me forever going away. Then I realised she was hugging me, holding me as tightly as she could – making sure I could never leave her again.
“I’m sorry, Mum,” I said quietly, drowned out by the sound of her sobbing. “I shouldn’t have left, I’m so sorry.” I started sobbing, too.
We did nothing else for a few minutes, we just held each other and cried uncontrollably. I had never expected to react like that; I thought I’d be apologetic and perhaps a little defiant? I certainly never thought Mum would be anything but angry. I guess I was wrong?
I suddenly became aware of Mum pulling away from me and I instinctively tried to hold her tighter.
“Come on,” she whispered, “let’s sit down.”
I was almost disappointed with that. The whole moment had been so euphoric, weeks of pent-up emotion just melting away in a minute of total, unconditional love. Now it was as though I had just come home from school or something, being invited to sit down just felt so…casual?
I allowed Mum to lead me into the lounge, and let my eyes wander around the room. Nothing had changed since I left, I don’t know why I really expected it to? I think part of me thought she might have moved on, taken the pictures of me off the wall in protest…or something equally dramatic. It was if I didn’t really know my parents at all.
“Tell me everything when you’re ready, Emily,” Mum said seriously. “I don’t want to rush you, it’s just…” She started tearing up again and began stumbling over her words, “I’m just so glad you’re back.”
Another embrace, although this time I was already safely down on the sofa. I let this continue for a while before I took Mum’s hand and held it gently.
“Mum,” I began, “it wasn’t you…” That was a lie. It was Mum, and Dad, and, well, everything. It had all been too much. “I fell in with a bad crowd, I made mistakes…”
As soon as those words left my lips I felt like such an embarrassing cliché. I think Mum felt the same way, too, because a small smirk spread across her face. Maybe she was just happy I was opening up to her for the first time? Or maybe it was just because I was admitting a fault for a change?
“So, you’re staying with us?” Mum asked, her eyes taking on a pleading quality.
“Of course, Mum,” I said, astonished she’d even asked. “If you’ll have me?”
“It’s all we’ve wanted since the day you left.” Mum paused for a moment and then glanced quickly towards the kitchen. “Are you hungry?”
“No, I’m all right.”
“Okay.” Mum paused again, looking at me as if she didn’t quite believe I was really there. “Your dad will be home soon, he’ll be…amazed.”
‘Amazed’, it seemed like the perfect word. Mum hadn’t reacted the way I’d expected but I was sure Dad would. He’d finish his night shift, rush down to the pub, and then slowly stagger off back home. Only this time he’d probably think he was hallucinating…it wouldn’t be the first time, actually.
“Do you think he’s even missed me?” I asked, briefly looking down at the floor.
“He’s cried about you every day!” Mum exclaimed, lifting my face up to hers. “Who do you think put all those posters around town, and all the neighbouring towns, too?”
I was left completely speechless by that. Dad was worried about me?
“I bet his drinking’s got worse…” I muttered.
“At first, yes,” Mum said firmly. “But then he stopped.”
“Because of you.” Mum paused for a moment as if considering her next words carefully. “Because I couldn’t cope with you being gone and him doing that as well.”
“But you’d never tried to stop him before.”
“I had you before.”
I didn’t even try to respond to that. I just said nothing and held Mum again.
“I said to your dad the moment I first had you in my arms,” Mum whispered in my ear, “this girl will always chase her rainbow.”
“What?” I said, utterly confused.
“I don’t know,” Mum said, laughing through her tears. “You just had such a look of determination in your eyes, as if you were just going to find whatever it was you were looking for.”
“A great job I’ve done of that,” I said, flatly. “All I’ve found are rainclouds…and a whole lot of them.”
“What were you even doing all this time?”
“I thought you were going to wait until I was ready?” I said, a slight hint of irritation in my voice.
“No,” I said, my voice softening again, “you have a right to know.”
So I told Mum everything. It wasn’t very exciting, or even particularly long. I’d run off with a girl from school who seemed really cool at the time. I don’t even know what I saw in her; really she was just a bit of an outcast. Still, she told me of all the far-off adventures we were going to have and given how things were at home – I slipped out one night and ran to meet her. Then she drove me away from everything I’d ever known.
Then I came back. What happened in between that didn’t really matter, even if the look of concern plastered all over Mum’s face suggested otherwise. I was home, and I wasn’t going away like that again.
“Is it yours?” Mum suddenly asked, pointing to the car outside the window. From here it was perfectly illuminated by a streetlight – almost like the star prize on a game show.
I found myself clutching tightly onto the keys in my pocket. “Yes. Yes, it is.”
Mum’s eyes gave me a searching look, and I could tell she was biting her tongue from asking a thousand questions. “I’ll go and put the kettle on,” she said softly.
As soon as Mum was out of the room I checked my phone. Seven missed calls and a new text message – all of them from her.
‘Where the hell hav u gon? Wheres my car?’
I didn’t have the stomach to start trying to reply to that just yet.
I lay back further on the sofa and I could hear Mum busying herself in the kitchen, it was such a simple set of sounds but I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed them. Waking up in the morning to the sound of the kettle boiling and Mum clinking all of the cups together as she moved them around the room – it was hardly birdsong, but it meant I was home.
“Here you are, love,” Mum said as she handed me a steaming mug of tea.
“Thanks, Mum,” I replied, my gaze still transfixed on the car outside the window.
“It’s a nice car,” Mum suddenly said. “You’ve done well for yourself, clearly.”
I nodded faintly in response, then turned to Mum and flashed a weak smile. “Yeah, I’m just glad to be back.”
We talked for a while longer as we sipped from our mugs. Neither of us said anything particularly profound to each other, and I was grateful that Mum didn’t try to probe any more into what had happened before.
Then came the sound of the front door opening.
“That’ll be your father,” Mum said, quickly standing up.
How could I have missed him? I purposely kept one eye on the window the whole time to see if he walked past. Mum may have told me that he stopped drinking, but my body had already tensed up in anticipation of the sound of him slumping through the door and landing on the floor.
By the time I turned around to peer over the sofa, Mum had already dashed over to the door to greet him. For the first time in years, I saw them hold each other. They really meant it, too, there was no way this was just for show – Dad couldn’t have known I was home yet.
“George, I’ve got a surprise for you.” Mum nervously wiped her hands on her dress and then pointed in my general direction. There was a flash of panic in Mum’s eyes as if she’d lost me again until she realised I was just ducked down amongst the sofa cushions.
“Emily?” Dad practically breathed my name, his eyes instantly tearing up.
I raised myself on my knees to make myself fully visible over the back of the sofa. Dad slowly walked towards me as if I were a wild deer who might get spooked and run away again.
“It’s me, Dad,” I said as calmly as I could. “I’m back.”
Dad made a final dash over to the sofa and lifted me up into his arms. He had to put me down more or less immediately – as he quickly realised I wasn’t six anymore.
“Have you hurt your back?!” Mum said, rushing over to Dad and rubbing his spine up and down.
“No, I’m fine, it’s all right,” Dad replied. “Stop fussing!” His voice took on a much darker tone and it was suddenly laced with a latent rage. “Why did you leave?!” Dad exclaimed, turning his attention back to me.
“George, please,” Mum said softly, gently laying a hand on Dad’s shoulder. “Just leave it for toni–“
“Shut up!” Dad bellowed at Mum, pushing her hand away.
I stood speechless, staring at a man whose mood had just flipped like a light switch. Something in my face must have reflected how I felt because he started to calm himself again.
“Sorry, Jill,” Dad mumbled.
“It’s okay,” Mum replied, clearly stifling a sob. “She’s back now, that’s all that matters.”
“You’re right,” Dad said, nodding absently. “Celebratory drink?” My face must have shown my inner horror again because Dad quickly added, “Joke! It was a joke.”
As I looked over at Mum, it was clear to see she didn’t think it was a joke either.
After that, there was an awkward silence in the room for a minute, and I could see Dad’s mind ticking over, wondering what his next words should be. I found my eyes wandering back to the window and at the car again. I’d made my choice – I still couldn’t just turn back.
“Celebratory tea, then?” Dad finally said, momentarily melting the icecaps materialising in the room.
“We already had some,” I said, flatly. A second later I glanced over to Mum in the hope she should confirm my story, but her eyes were downcast to the floor.
“I’m glad you’re home,” Dad said, smiling.
“Me too,” I replied, as if not quite believing my own words.
Dad nodded several times to himself before looking over at Mum. “Jill, go put the kettle on.”
“I told you we already had some!” I said impatiently.
“There are people other than you, Emily!” Dad snapped, his voice taking on that frightening tone again.
“It’s fine,” Mum mumbled. “I’ll go.”
Mum dashed out of the room, not even glancing at either Dad or me. The sound of her preparing tea in the kitchen didn’t have the comforting quality to it this time – it was cold and hollow. It didn’t feel like I was home anymore.
Dad looked at me as if he expected me to say something, but I didn’t. All I did was just stare back at him, silently judging him like I’d done a hundred times before. I could see in his eyes the controlled joy he felt at having me back, but like some raging, raving giant – he just didn’t seem able to express it in any way but destructively. I knew I was partly to blame, making him panic every day for my safety had to have taken a toll on him; he was bound to be anxious and angry, to begin with. That was going to wear off eventually though, wasn’t it?
“Here we are,” Mum said as she came back into the room, handing Dad his ordered cup of tea.
“Don’t I get one?” I said, bemused.
“You’ve had one already,” Dad said, before blowing on his tea and causing a plume of steam to fog up his glasses. “So, are you going to tell us where the hell you’ve been?”
“George!” Mum exclaimed, her hands completely tense – held down flat to her sides.
“What?!” Dad shouted, turning quickly to Mum. “I’m her father, I have a right to know what she’s been doing this whole time!”
It was like we were stuck on a broken film reel, the same piece of footage just going around and around – projecting this horrible family drama over and over again. Last time I changed the picture, I altered the dynamic – I ran away. It seemed like it really helped, too. Mum and Dad hugged – I hadn’t seen them do that for so long…
Now I was back, the projector had been switched on again – the footage would just keep spinning until one of us died and would finally change the scene forever.
My phone suddenly buzzed in my pocket. I had forgotten about this new character in our family film until now.
‘Em cum bak. Ill wait 4 u @ the park. Bring my car. Miss u. Xxx’
“Aren’t you going to answer that?” Mum asked, looking down at my phone.
I switched off my phone and pushed it deep into my pocket. “No. It can wait…”
“Damn right it can!” Dad exclaimed, his eyes bulging like a demented frog.
I couldn’t just up sticks and walk out of the picture again. I had come back the first time; I was sure for a second time, too. There was only one way I could change the scene – I had to alter the script myself because Mum was never going to. Despite what she told me before.
“Dad.” I swallowed hard. “I left because of you.”
It was as if I’d just fired a bullet directly into his chest, he physically recoiled, and stared vacantly at me.
I began again, “I left because o–”
He cut me short, “You didn’t.”
“I did, Dad.” I leaned over the sofa, and my entire upper body felt as if it were teetering on the abyss. “I couldn’t stand what you were becoming!”
“I’ve given up drinking,” he said, as if to himself – then he looked at Mum for reassurance, to which she nodded agreeably.
“You can’t treat her like that,” I said, pointing at Mum as if she were a wounded puppy.
“Like what?” Dad replied, his voice still distant and disconnected.
“Like a doormat,” I began, “that’s why I left. It wasn’t just the drinking.”
I steeled myself for a backlash, tensed my whole body and subtly shrank down into the cushions. It was either going to come in a torrent of abuse or a physical attack, but I was prepared as I could be for either.
“I’m not that man anymore,” he finally said.
“You’ve done a great job of proving it,” I said sarcastically. “Right, Mum?” I looked over at Mum and she nodded faintly, as though she were thinking of something else.
“I mean it, Emily.” Dad paused again, his eyes focused on nothing in particular; it was as if both my parents’ souls were to be found elsewhere. “If I had known…”
“You knew!” I shouted, thumping my fist down hard on the sofa’s armrest. “You’re not the victim here – we are!”
It was as though my slam to the sofa had awoken both my parents from their souls’ slumber. Dad just looked back and forth between Mum and I, his eyes tearing up, the gravity of what I was saying finally seemed to be dawning on him. It felt as if I might actually be re-writing the script to our lives.
“I’ll be better,” Dad whispered to Mum, before glancing at me with a look of vulnerability I’d never seen from him before.
As I was about to reply with another scathing attack on his character, I could see he was rubbing Mum’s back affectionately. At first, she flinched – as though she were being pinched. After a second, though, a smile spread across her face and she looked up at Dad – like the young woman I’d seen in their wedding photos. The happy girl in her late teens that looked just like me.
A moment of silence spread throughout the house, only this time, for the first time – it wasn’t oppressive and frightening. Dad brought Mum over to me and just held us both wordlessly.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, almost under his breath. “Never leave again…either of you.”
As I looked up at my parents I could see a calmness in Mum’s eyes, as if seventeen years of living in fear had been washed away like sand on a beach. Dad’s heavy tears showed me it was real this time – it had to be…
Still, I found my eyes wandering to the window again, and outside towards the car. It seemed I’d finally moved our family film reel forward, but I still couldn’t help wondering… Who might leave the picture next?
Runner-up in the Wicked Young Writer Awards: Gregory Maguire Award 2016, Laurence Sullivan’s fiction has been published by such places as: Londonist, The List, Amelia’s Magazine, Crack the Spine and Drunk Monkeys. He became inspired to start writing during his studies at the universities of Kent, Utrecht, and Birmingham – after being saturated in all forms of literature from across the globe and enjoying every moment of it.