EIGHT MINUTES. THAT’S HOW LONG it takes light from the Sun to reach Earth. That means every time we look up at the sky, we can only ever see the Sun as it was eight minutes ago, never how it is right in this moment.
The next closest star to our Sun is Proxima Centauri, at 4.2 light-years away. That’s 25 trillion miles. It would take tens of thousands of years to get there. And the farthest stars are millions of light-years away. Far enough that so many of the stars we see don’t even exist anymore; they’ve died in the time it took for their light to reach us. All we can see is the past, but only so far—13 billion light-years. Anything beyond that is simply too distant, and the light hasn’t had enough time to reach us yet.
There’s something about that. Something fascinating. Terrifying. Beautiful.
But sometimes I wish that for just once I could see into the future, not on an astronomical scale, maybe just two or three years into my own life. If I could know ahead of time how this will all turn out, whether I’ll be okay or not, then maybe I’d be a lot less scared, a lot less angry, right now.
That’s what I was thinking about in the backseat, as I stared out the window, watching the scenery on the I-90 turn like seasons, from suburbs to city to suburbs to country and back again. Until now, my parents had only spoken once in two and a half hours, and that was to tell me to turn my music down.
“Chris?” I pretended not to hear. “Chris,” Mom repeated, louder, twisting around in her seat.
My dad’s eyes ticked up to meet mine in the rearview mirror.
I pulled my headphones down around my neck. That was all the response I’d give her.
She stared at me like she was trying really hard to see something in me, see someone in me. “Is this punishment?” she asked. “You’re trying to punish me by doing this?”
“Sure,” I muttered.
Monosyllabic. I learned that word when I was seven, as in Mom hated when I would give her monosyllabic answers instead of full sentences, which is why I used them strategically.
“I said I was sorry, Chris.” She hadn’t, actually. “You hate me that much?” she asked, and I could tell by the sharp edges of her words that I was making her angry. Good.
“Whate’er,” I mumbled, smashing the word down to a single, compact sound. I hadn’t spoken more than one-syllable words to Mom in two days, and I sure as hell wasn’t about to start now.
“I—you—” she began, but stopped herself, realizing we’d had this fight a million times already, not only over the last two days, but the whole past year, and no one ever ended up winning. She turned to Dad instead. “A little help, Joe? I mean, really. God, she just—”
“He,” Dad interrupted. “Okay? Can we just let it be?” He cut his eyes to her, not quite raising his voice. It takes a lot for him to actually get angry, but lately that quality has only seemed to enrage my mom.
“Let it be?” she repeated, this bitter laugh vibrating under her words. “Fine.” She jerked herself around in the seat, crossing her arms and making a point to stare straight ahead, without a sound. But I could see her working the muscles of her jaws, clenching her teeth like she was chewing up whatever words were left over in her mouth.
Dad watched me in the rearview again, his eyes wanting to tell me something I don’t think he knew how to say with his voice. That he was trying. That maybe part of him understood part of me. That he was on my side. Sometimes.
He looked forward again, rolled his head from side to side, and then readjusted his grip on the steering wheel, accelerating to just above the speed limit. I put my headphones back on and closed my eyes.
• • •
All I’d done was dare to leave my house. All I wanted was a little freedom, just a tiny amount of control over my own life.
Two days ago I woke up early, before my parents. The house was quiet and the day was perfect. I started getting dressed, laced up my running shoes. I was planning on heading down to the basement to use Mom’s old treadmill, like I did most mornings.
But somehow, I walked out of the front door instead.
I took three easy steps down our porch stairs, then into the driveway, and then down the sidewalk. First I just jogged. Past our neighbor’s house, then up to the stop sign at the corner. I was going to turn around.
But as my feet hit the pavement, falling into that old familiar rhythm, I ran. Ran the way I used to before school, back when they still let me go to school. I didn’t mean to be gone for so long. Maybe I knew they’d be worrying, but I just couldn’t care anymore. I couldn’t keep living inside their fear, because, as much as I hated to admit it, their fear was contagious and it was beginning to become mine too.
Yes, I forgot to bring my phone, but that was an accident.
When I got back, they were waiting for me in the living room. They’d even called Coleton, my only remaining real-life, flesh-and-blood friend, who was sitting on the couch looking like he’d just rolled out of bed. I walked through the door, and Dad stopped, midpace, stood very still, and yelled, really yelled, “Where the hell have you been?” in a voice that sounded like a stranger’s. Coleton stood quickly, and I distinctly remember the look on his face as he approached me. He came so close, I actually thought he was going to hit me, but instead he just stood in front of me and said, “You’re good.” I couldn’t tell if it was a question or a statement, but I didn’t have time to respond because he shook his head and elbowed past me, slamming the door behind him on his way out.
Mom didn’t say anything.
She marched up to me with yesterday’s mascara streaked in angry black lines across her cheeks, and pushed me. Shoved me, hard, against the door. And then she took a step back, and I remember it happening almost in slow motion. I heard it before I felt it. Like that sharp crack of the door slamming shut again. Except it took me a second to realize that sound was her hand against my cheek. A slap. The feeling spread like a million tiny needles piercing the side of my face one after the other. She had never hit me before; neither of my parents had ever hit me, not so much as a single spanking as a child. I don’t remember if anyone said anything; I just remember Mom backing up slowly, looking at me as if I was the one who’d hit her.
I stormed up the stairs to my bedroom, grabbed my phone, and saw that I had forty-seven missed calls, eighteen voice mails, and twenty-nine text messages from the three of them.
That was when I called Isobel. Because she had promised me she’d be there if I ever needed anything. And I desperately did.
• • •
The chirping of the turn signal woke me. Then the rumble of loose gravel under the tires made me sit up. I looked around as we were finally pulling into the driveway that led up to Aunt Isobel’s house, which used to be my mom’s house too; it was the house they grew up in.
After ten hours of sitting in the four-door pressure cooker that was our family car, I jumped out the instant Dad shifted into park.
“Holy shit,” I mumbled under my breath. This was really, truly the middle of nowhere. People say that, but I always thought it was an exaggeration. Not this time. Nothing but farms and fields and woods as far as I could see. I’d only ever seen this place in old photographs; it felt strange to be here in person. Exactly what I was expecting, yet nothing like it at all. The only thing that resembled civilization was the old, dilapidated house that stood in front of me, the place that would be home for the next two and a half months.
I had the urge to run again—to run and keep on running forever. But just then, I caught sight of Isobel on the front porch. She was wearing her nurse’s scrubs and leaning up against a post that also leaned, supporting an awning that sloped too far downward to be structurally sound. Her feet were bare as she descended the steps, and as she came closer I could tell from her heavy eyelids and her casual smile that she was tired. She must’ve just gotten off work. But something changed in her face when our eyes met, like we were coconspirators and this whole mess, this whole fucked-up year, was all part of some elaborate plan that was working out perfectly because it had brought us together, right here, right now.
Isobel could make me believe in a lot of things.
She was holding her arms open, and as I walked toward her I remembered everything I loved about her all at once. And I felt less like running away. Isobel is older than Mom by three years, but still, I’ve always thought of her as the cool, young aunt. She’s brave. Does her own thing and doesn’t care what people think—like last year, how she streaked her hair electric blue, just because. Or when she got that bird tattoo when my grandma died.
I usually only get to see her once or twice a year. Thanksgiving and Christmas, or sometimes she’ll make the trip for a special birthday or anniversary.
She’ll come for bad things too. Like Grandma’s funeral. Or like last fall, when I was beaten so bad that I was in the hospital—she was there then. She was also there when I got out, and she stayed with us for the six weeks it took for me to get better. She forced me to do all the painful physical therapy, and even let me hate her for pushing me so hard. She wouldn’t let me give up. She made me strong again, even stronger than I was before.
“Chris, my goodness! Look at you, come here.” She gave me a quick, firm hug. Not a long, drawn-out pity hug, for which I was thankful. When she pulled away, she shielded her eyes from the sun as she looked up at me, then took my chin in her other hand and said, like it was no big deal, “So handsome.”
But before I could respond, Mom appeared right next to me, saying, “Hello, Isobel,” her voice all tight and annoyed and disapproving.
“Sheila, good to see you.” Isobel flashed a smile that was so much warmer than my mom deserved, but then she gave me a wink when Mom wasn’t looking.
The three of us stood there, silent, as we waited for Dad to trudge up from the car, struggling to carry four of my bags at once. As he set them down on the ground and looked at Isobel, he smiled—a real smile—for the first time in a long time.
Isobel pulled him into a hug that lasted just a few seconds too long. Definitely a pity hug—poor old Joe and his nasty wife and his screwed-up kid that he doesn’t know what to do with anymore.
Mom looked down at the ground and cleared her throat. As my dad and Isobel pulled apart, Isobel said, “How you doing, Joey?”
“Joey?” He scoffed. “Please, you make it sound like I’m twelve years old.”
“What can I say? In my mind you’ll always be a twelve-year-old.” She clapped him on the shoulder and reached over to mess up his thinning hair, but he ducked away quickly.
Dad and Isobel graduated high school the same year. They used to date when they were my age, and that’s how my mom and dad first met: Mom was Dad’s girlfriend’s little sister. It’s hard to imagine any of them being my age. It’s hard to imagine Dad with Isobel.
Isobel always said they were better as friends. And Dad never said much about it at all. They still had this sibling-like banter that always seemed to make Mom so jealous. All my life, she had made these little comments about it, jokes usually. But there was no humor in Mom’s face now, as she leveled the two of them with her eyes.
Sometimes I wonder if my parents were ever really happy, if it was me who did this to them. Maybe there’s something like the speed of light when it comes to love, too. Like they were doomed before they ever started, but it’s just taken seventeen years for them to be able to see it.
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