Stirring shit up. It was what I was good for. Hell, it was all I was good for.
Aunt Peggy and Uncle Joe stood in the kitchen arguing. No, not arguing. According to them, they were having a discussion. Loudly. And what had I done to deserve all this attention? I had shown up on their doorstep on Christmas after not having had contact with them for 13 years.
Although, I’m pretty sure this would’ve happened anyway. So, if I’d given them 13 comparatively quiet years, I should really be congratulated. Especially for not being dead. I liked not being dead. My parents had died in wit sec 10 years ago and the being who’d caused us to run died two years ago. So why am I just now seeing family who’d thought I was out of their hair for good?
I’ve told myself many reasons. That there’s no way they’d let me come back after everything. That I couldn’t take the next train up because it was the fourth one of the afternoon and 4 was unlucky in Chinese. If someone wanted revenge for The Architect’s life and eventual death behind bars, they could be caught in the crossfire. I liked that one; it made me feel like a martyr, a hero, someone they’d feel guilty over not helping if I died protecting them. It made me feel redeemed a little. I mean I’d worked for The Architect after all. And when the shit inevitably scattered in a magnificent spray after being introduced to the fan, my parents had chosen me over the rest of our extended family. They had died away from family because of me.
I stood to leave. It wasn’t safe here. Not for them or for me. Two years dead did not gaurantee safety. I grabbed the handle of my backpack and reached for my coat where it hung on the coatrack. I’d figure something out. I always did.
Having a big family was great when you wanted to sneak out unnoticed. I’d done so many times growing up. I’d go out to friends parties where adult supervision was the name of the neutralized teddybear nannycam. One time, I had convinced four drunk jocks, three of whom were in mechanics classes while the other took robotics, to help me disassemble a school bus and reassemble it on the auditorium stage. Unfortunately, being a 15 year absentee member of the McCormicks gave me a kind of in-family fame. Or maybe it was more like infamy. There was a pun in that.
“Ashley Raphael Keelan McCormick,” a voice boomed behind me. The house fell silent. Which was amazing considering the sheer number of adults, not to mention the mass of constantly active kids, that had crowded in for the party. “You take one more step toward that door, child-”
Hunching my shoulders a little, I turned slowly to face Aunt Peggy where she stood in the entrance to the kitchen, her arms bent so her fists rested not-so-calmly on her hips. She was angry for sure, but I thought I saw flashes of worry, sadness and fear in her cornflower blue eyes. They were the same shade my mother’s eyes. I froze like a deer sensing danger. For a deer it only lasted a moment, though, before they turned tail and fled for their life. I, on the other hand, thought I might be turning into a gargoyle. I’d be more use as one, I’m sure.
“And I’ll,” she continued. “I’ll-” She never finished her threat. It was like she suddenly understood that there was nothing she could really do to make me stay. She couldn’t say she’d wash her hands of me; I’d lived for so long on my own, I could do so again. She wouldn’t confine me illegaly, she couldn’t for more than a day or two with all these witnesses. There was nothing she could say to stop me. Then a tear escaped the corner of her eye, sacrificing itelself to tug at my heartstrings. I tried looking at the floor as if pretending I wasn’t here could make it true.
Then she opened her arms. Just that. They spread to each side of her as if to accept all the pain, all the lonliness, all the fear and guilt and suffering that I’d gone through, that I’d put them through. It was forgiveness. And I so desperately wanted someone to forgive me.
I was out the front door, down the sidewalk and at the bus stop before I could think at all, let alone clearly. I sat on the bench and sighed, an opaque mist streaming from my mouth. I shivered and went to grab my coat to put it on. I squeezed my eyes shut at the realization I must’ve left my things back at the house and debated whether to go back and get it.
“Forget something?” I jumped to my feet and pivoted while lowering my center of gravity by spreading my feet apart, one foot a little more forward than the other for balance. A fighters stance. George, my favorite cousin way back when, put up his hands in mock surrender. “Woah, hey there, killer. I came to release the hostages.”
I let out a long breath, drawing another in deep as I relaxed. My hands and knees were shaking with adrenaline. Mostly adrenaline, I acknowledged as I slipped my arms into hostage number one and zipped it up, accepting the backpack next. “Thanks,” I mumbled as I turned slightly away and began breathing on my hands to warm them up some before tugging my gloves on as I sat on the bench again.
“What was that all about?” George asked me as he settled on the bench as well.
I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. “What was what all about?”
He scrunched his face up and squinted at me. Yeah, he knew I was playing dumb. “You know what I mean, dickhead. What was that with mom? Why’d you leave?”
I cleared my throat. “I’m sorry for disrupting everyone’s Christmas. I shoulnd’t have come. I-” A sudden pain in my shoulder caught me offguard and I looked fully at George as he withdrew a loose fist. It hadn’t really hurt but I rubbed my shoulder anyway as I glared at him. “What was that for?”
“For thinking that being gone longer, or forever, would be better. For thinking that leaving now would fix anything.” He paused, his brows drawing even closer together as he looked me right in the eye. “For thinking that you don’t belong here.”
“What should I think?” I practically whined, giving up the pretense of being dumb. “I already caused Aunt Peggy and Uncle Joe to argue. I can’t drag anyone else down. It’s best if I-”
“Stop right there.” George seemed to have a thing for interrupting me. “They weren’t arguing. They were discussing sleeping arrangements.”
“That was not a discussion,” I said, flabbergasted.
“Sure it was.” He paused. “Come to think of it, you may never have been around for any of their real fights. Now, those are truly something to behold… or hide in the treehouse from.” He grinned as he said the last part. “So, is there someplace you gotta be,” he motioned at the bus pulling up, the last one of the night, “or are you willing to give us a second chance.”
I choked on a surprised laugh, making it sound like a bark. Me give them a second chance? He so had that bass ackward. But the words made me feel warm in a way physical energy couldn’t touch. At that moment I couldn’t speak so I just nodded. For further elucidation, I stood and walked away from the bus stop.
When we got back to the house I didn’t even notice another car had been added to the menagerie of metal surrounding my aunt and uncle’s house. But even if I had, I’d still have been stunned by their newest guest. He’d been standing where the foyer opened into the living room, at the end of the low wall that pretended to separate the two rooms, when I walked in. He was a beast of a man, and I’m not just talking about his bulk. My cousin Kate was the tallest person in the house and had to be the tallest woman in town and even she stood just shy of shoulder height to him. Then he looked at me.
“Haven,” I swollowed. I opened my mouth and had to swollow again. Damn, something was lodged in my throat. Oh, yeah, that would be my conscience, wrapped in memories and stuffed with guilt. I’d left him when I went underground. I hadn’t even told him, but I’m sure he figured it out. Who could miss a nationally televised trial where the key witness was your ex. The one who’d worked for a terrible person. The one who’d done terrible things in the employ of said terrible person. The one who’d abandoned you. Even if it was for good reason. That’s what I’d told myself, at least.
There was something in his eyes as he took two steps toward me. That’s as far as he got before George stepped between us facing Haven, speaking as if to the room in general. “Ash has had a long day. I’m going to show him where he’ll be sleeping.”
“That’ll be on the trundle in Tony’s room until we can turn the storage room into a bedroom for Ash-”
“I go by Keelan, now,” I interrupt, resituating my backpack straps.