“For your best friend’s parents?” she asked, with an incredulous tone in her voice.
“Yeah, I mean, so that I guess . . . so they’d have someone to check in with. So that I hadn’t abandoned them, too.”
“Wow, Daniel that’s really . . . selfless.”
“Selfless? I just . . . I’ve been filled with so much guilt, I figured it’s the least I could do,” I said. “But that doesn’t really answer your question. It certainly doesn’t make my life worth living. Not really. I don’t know what the fuck does anymore.”
“I hope when you figure it out you’ll call back and let me know,” she said, like she wanted me to make a promise. And maybe in her mind, it was a promise to keep me alive. Even still, for the first time in a long time, it was one I was willing to keep.
She gave me the names of a couple of therapists in the area. She asked me to at least set up an appointment with one of them. I wasn’t sure if I would, but I took the information anyway.
“Oh, and Daniel?” she said. “Thank you.”
“For letting someone in. I feel privileged that you chose me.”
It was as if the noose around my neck had been loosened. And I’d been allowed a few clean breaths. Maybe going home for spring break would be tolerable after all.
Yeah right. I might need to have Gabby on speed dial.
I flipped the light on in my parent’s garage and inhaled deeply. It was the smell I’d come to love most—besides a certain mysterious almond scent. It was like a mix of oil, metal, and paint—and, fuck, how I’d missed it.
I stepped farther inside and allowed my fingers to grasp the sheet that covered and protected one of my greatest accomplishments. I gently hauled the cloth over her bumper and my breath caught in the back of my throat. She was a beauty and I’d helped restore her.
And it had been too damn long since I’d laid eyes on her.
I squatted down, picked up the can of paint near the rear wheel, and blew the thick layer of dust off the top. I’d had such big plans for her. Had I continued my renovation the last couple of years I’d be taking her for joy rides by now.
But after the accident it just seemed wrong to refurbish the same kind of machine that was instrumental in my best friend’s death. And for me to find any kind of solace in it. All I could see was Bastian lying in the wreckage on the side of the road. The desire to rebuild anything, especially cars, had been zapped away. As if my livelihood, my spirit, had been vacuumed out of my soul.
But standing here now, I couldn’t keep the foreign feeling welling up in my chest at bay. As if it couldn’t be contained any longer or it would consume me. Permeate my skin, latch on to my bones, and flow through my veins.
I’d been too damn afraid all this time. Terrified it would taint Bastian’s memory. Make me a disgrace.
Instead, it was slowly killing me. I was withering away to nothing. A hollow shell.
As I rolled up my sleeves and reached for the screwdriver on the worktable, I allowed a singular emotion to take hold and it was so fucking potent that I felt tears burn the back of my throat.
I didn’t bother to swallow them down. I just knew I had to do this. Take this first step.
In order to survive.
The two days I’d been home, I’d been busy with an endless list of chores to help my mom ready our house for Saturday-night dinner. We always celebrated with relatives the day before Easter because my parents believed Sunday should be reserved for church and immediate family. The Easter Bunny didn’t figure into our traditions anymore, but there was plenty of food and sweets to keep us satiated.
One of the reasons I’d decided to leave home to live with Avery was because our family was close. Too close. Like know-all-of-your-business close. And they’d always set high expectations for us. And that’s why I didn’t know how Christopher could have slipped past us undetected. We were very involved in each other’s lives.
My father admitted that he sometimes suffered from bouts of depression. I wished he hadn’t been too proud to come clean earlier. Maybe Christopher wouldn’t have felt so alone. According to the journal I’d found after his death, he’d been depressed for a long time. He’d felt like he didn’t belong to our family. The only thing that had made him feel halfway sane was playing soccer. Because he’d found something he was good at.
My parents had certainly changed since Christopher’s death. Especially my father. He was more quiet, introspective, and protective of us.
One of the reasons I’d become a psychology major was because I’d wanted to understand why my brother had taken his own life. And in the process, I had helped heal my family. As much as a family could mend when one member was lost to you forever.
That morning, I was helping my mother prepare dinner. We were having all the Polish fixings—sauerkraut and kielbasa, cabbage and noodles. Each year, Mom made pierogies from scratch by rolling out her own dough at the kitchen table. One of my jobs was to add flour whenever the consistency became too wet. And later, to indent the dough with the bottom of a drinking glass, so it could be formed into soft pillows of goodness.
This was our routine and some days we performed our tasks in silence. Today, Mom wanted to know all about my classes. I hadn’t told her about Joel and me yet. I’d just said that he wouldn’t be coming for dinner because of other obligations. She hadn’t pressed me and neither had my father. Maybe they already knew. They could always read me pretty well.
My twin brothers, James and Jason, were in the garage helping dad change the oil in my car. My father insisted on inspecting my vehicle each time I came into town. It was his way of making sure I was safe.
“You bring Avery the leftovers,” Mom said. “And tell her I expect a visit from her and her new boyfriend soon.”
“I will, Momma. She already told me she’d miss your cooking.”
The past several years, Avery and her brother, Adam, had come for Easter dinner. But this year they were headed to celebrate with Bennett’s family for a couple of days. Adam would be attending TSU next year and Avery was relieved to have her brother closer so she could keep a better eye on him.
Even though Avery’s mother was having a better year in the parenting department, she wasn’t up for any mom-of-the-year awards yet. She still shacked up with different guys, but at least she had curbed her alcohol and drug usage, according to Adam. She had even kept a decent-paying job.
Two hours later, a couple hundred pierogies were pinched at the seams and ready to be boiled. They were filled with sauerkraut, ricotta, plum jam, and my favorite—potatoes and cheese.
After we cleaned off the table and washed the dishes, we headed out the door to Aunt Karina and Uncle Roman’s restaurant. The diner was busy and Aunt Karina had called and asked me to pick up dessert along with a side dish she’d made, in case they were running late.
Basia’s Diner sold freshly baked pies, and I was glad that Mom had decided not to make hers from scratch. Truth be told, I liked Aunt Karina’s pies the best, even though she and my mother used the same recipe—my late grandma Basia’s. She taught them everything they knew about cooking.
The diner was located in the next town over on a busy thruway, and, no surprise, the lot was full. It was always packed during the holidays as people passed through town to get to their destinations.
I spotted a familiar car taking up two spots in the far corner of the lot. I don’t know my classic cars like my father did—or like that other person did. The one who I was trying extra hard not to think about.
We were greeted by Aunt Karina as soon as we stepped through the door. She wore the same light-blue apron with purple embroidered flowers that she refused to retire no matter how many replacements we’d bought. It had once belonged to Grandma Basia.
“Look at this beauty-queen niece of mine.” Aunt Karina pulled me in for a strong hug while my mother walked behind the counter to greet Uncle Roman.
“Hi, Auntie.” Our parents were so close, she’d almost become a second mother to me. “Been craving your banana cream pie for weeks. I can’t wait to get my hands on a slice.”
She kissed the top of my head. “I loaded it with extra whipped cream just for you.”
She grabbed my cheeks and pinched lightly. “How are things?”
I looked into her bright-blue eyes and saw myself in thirty years’ time. “Good, Auntie.”
She peeked over my shoulder to make sure my mother wasn’t listening before whispering. “How about with that boy?”
I shrugged. “It’s all right.”
It was nearly impossible to lie to my aunt. She’d always had excellent radar for boy troubles. “You’ll tell me all about it tonight?”
I nodded and looked around. “You guys have a crowd this afternoon.”
My eyes scanned across the red and silver booths in the restaurant, landing on a lone diner in the very back. I nearly fumbled over my own feet trying to get a better look.
Quinn wore a black baseball cap and a dingy white T-shirt with black smudges across the front—like he’d been working in the yard or maybe on his car. When he looked up, our eyes met and he jerked back, visibly shaken.
Like this was last place he’d ever imagined seeing me. On spring break, at Basia’s Diner.
Yeah, no kidding. The feeling was mutual.
“What the hell?” I said, louder than I’d intended.
“What is it, honey?” Auntie asked, following my gaze. “Ah, that handsome boy at table twenty? He comes in every now and again.”
“I . . . um . . . I know him,” I said, trying not to sound so thunderstruck. I would have never guessed I’d see Quinn while I was home, let alone in my family’s diner. “I’ll be right back.”
Walking over, I raked my fingers through my hair to remove any flour residue and silently cursed myself for not changing out of my faded jeans and T-shirt.
A cup of coffee and a piece of cherry pie sat in front of Quinn and upon closer inspection, a few days’ worth of stubble had grown on his chin.
“Is that your favorite flavor pie?” I tried to control my quavering voice at the thrill of running into him.
His eyes roved over the landscape of my body from the top of my head down to my worn red sneakers. “From here, it is.”
“So you’ve been here before?” I looked around to make sure I hadn’t said that louder than I’d intended.
“Yeah, a few times,” he said, adjusting his cap on his head. I noticed how his russet strands curled around his ears. My fingers itched to touch them. “You know the owner?”
“We’re related,” I said. “My aunt and uncle own this joint.”
“Small world, huh?” he said as he looked around the place, as if for the first time—taking in the old world fixtures, the menu on the chalkboard, and something seemed to click in place in his mind. Maybe Joel had told the guys about my family background.
“Tell me about it,” I said while he studied the kitchen and counter staff. “How come we’ve never run into each other before?”
“Good question.” He turned his warm gaze on me and it heated me from the inside. “So, how long have you been home?”
“A couple of days,” I said. “You?”
“Same.” He was playing with the saltshaker, making wide circles, like he was trying to work something out in his brain.
I heard the clucking of my mother’s tongue behind me. She could make her presence known just by walking through a room. Her thick black hair was always worn in a bun, and she asserted an ample figure. I’d always prayed I’d get her boobs and not her hips. But I’d been blessed with both. Not that my mother was overweight. She was just all woman.
The only girl in a family of boys, it’d been hard dealing with my brother’s relentless teasing about my bra size. Unless someone outside the family tried it. Then they were protective to a fault—especially Christopher. He’d gotten his ass beaten once defending me when a senior tried to cop a feel in front of the lockers at the gym.
“Darling daughter,” my mother said, rolling her Rs dramatically. I used to be embarrassed of our eastern European background, because we didn’t sound anything like my friend’s parents. Now I cherished how unique our family was. “Who’s your friend?”
“Quinn, this is my mom,” I said. “Ma, I know Quinn from TSU. He plays baseball for the university. And he, um . . . is also Joel’s frat brother.”
“Nice to meet you, dear,” Mom said, extending her hand. “A friend of Joel’s is a friend of ours.”
Quinn’s eyebrows shot up and I gave him the slightest shake of my head.
“Thank you,” he said, recovering quickly. Before reaching out to shake her hand, he apologized about his appearance. “Sorry, I’ve been working on my car all morning. It’s hard to get all the grease from beneath my nails.”
Mom gave him a warm smile. I could tell she liked his manners. “Does your family live nearby?”
“Yes, just over in Jefferson.”
“So you’re home to celebrate the holiday with your family?” I almost nudged Mom with my foot for prying too much, but I had to admit, I was curious myself.
Besides, Mom wouldn’t have listened anyway. She loved to interfere in other people’s business. Especially my friends’. That’s why she’d allowed Avery to practically live at our house the last year of high school. We were all in the haze of grief, and having Avery there broke us out of our fog from time to time.