By: Beverley Kendall

Hell, what did I expect? The date is officially over. It’s time to call it a night.

* * *

It doesn’t take me long to see Shannon home. Her building is within walking distance of mine. Of course she presses me about my kid. My answer is short and doesn’t encourage further conversation. Yeah, I have a baby, a daughter.

The truth is, I don’t know much more than that. I figured the less I know, the easier it would be to deal with everything. Guess what? Not by a long shot. Not even alcohol can help me to forget.

By the time I get back to my apartment, my sister seems to have lost some of her anger. I wish she hadn’t. It makes it easier to hold on to mine when I’m faced with hers.

“Sit,” she orders when I walk into the living room. I hate that she looks sad, that she looks like she’s been crying. Or maybe she’s just tired.

Without arguing, I take a seat a couple of feet from her on the couch. She immediately angles her body toward me. For several long beats, she simply stares at me, her expression pained.

Right now sobriety is a ruthless monster I don’t want to face, but I don’t have a choice anymore. My buzz is long gone and the life I’ve tried to ignore the past year descends on me like a sledgehammer.

“Mitch, I love you.”

Fuck fuck fuck. I swallow hard. This is the last thing I want to hear. I don’t want her to be kind. I don’t want her to love me. Not when most days I can barely stand being in my own skin.

“Diane, don’t,” I say in a voice that’s not my own.

She scoots closer to me, grabbing my hand in hers. “No listen to me. I love you too much to watch you self-destruct. Right now you’re throwing your life away with both hands and I can’t stand by and watch you do that.” Reaching out with her free hand, she brushes my hair from my forehead like she used to do when I was a kid. “Please come home—at least for the summer. I know you don’t want to admit it but you need your family and we need you. Brianna needs you.”

There’s no way to describe how I feel at that moment. It’s not a hurt. It’s not an ache. It cuts deeper than that. And buried beneath all of it is a longing I’ve refused to acknowledge for over a year. For almost seven months.

I have a daughter. A daughter I’ve never seen, never touched and never held. When the reality of that sinks in, it hits and it hits hard.

I clear my throat. “Di—”

“Don’t give me an answer now. Just think about it.” After a pause, she says in a lightly coaxing tone, “Plus, the kids really miss their uncle Mitch.”

Nothing like a whole lotta guilt and a bit of emotional blackmail to make me feel like shit. Not that I don’t deserve it.

“I miss them too.” No lie. As much as they can sometimes drive me crazy, I never knew until this past year how empty my life would feel without them.

Shit, I miss all of them, even my brother-in-law Dan, who has also called a few times, encouraging me to come home to see my daughter.

Just don’t ask me about Paige. I don’t want to think about her. She’s the reason for all this…crap. The reason for the train wreck that is my life.

During the silence that falls, Diane puts her arms around me and pulls me close. After a moment’s hesitation, I return her embrace. Any anger I felt toward her is long gone. She’s the one constant in my life. The one person I can always count on.

Before releasing me, she gives me a kiss on the cheek. “You need a shave,” she says, affectionately running her hand over my bristled jaw.

“Yes, Mom,” I reply, all mock solemnity.

“Think about what I said,” she instructs softly.

All I can do is nod.

She smiles. “Good.”

I follow her when she rises to her feet.

“Let me get out of your hair. I’ve got to catch an early flight home tomorrow.”

“Where are you staying?” I’d offer to sleep on the couch and have her take my room but my sister would never accept. It has something to do with sleeping in an apartment inhabited by college guys.

“I booked a room for the night at a hotel near the airport.”

As I thought. “I’ll walk you to your car.”

“No, I’ll be fine. I’m a big girl. You, on the other hand, look like you could use some shuteye.”

“In other words, I look like crap.”

Diane laughs. “You could never look like crap. I was actually thinking it looks like you’ve put on a bit more muscle.” Reaching out, she squeezes my biceps. “Been working out?”

Embarrassed, I shrug off her hand. I’m sure as hell not going to tell her it’s usually how I pass the time I should be in class. The same classes I’ve either failed or barely passed. The only way I can sum up my sophomore year is to declare it an unmitigated academic disaster. Which sometimes makes me wonder why I didn’t stay my ass at home.

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