When I graduated from college I had my future completely mapped out: a five year plan for my life, with a more detailed plan for the next twelve months, and of course, a daily plan for each day of the week. Every Sunday I would plot out the next week in my color-coded organizer, using gel pens, stickers, and washi tape, while I drank my coffee and ate my cereal. Above all else, I was going to be prepared.
Nothing could have prepared me for every single one of my plans falling apart.
I parked my ‘67 Mustang outside of my parents’ house. The car made a worrisome rattling sound in the engine before I shut it off. I’d have to check that out tomorrow and see what was causing it this time. Another thing to add to my extensive To Do List.
I got out of the car and sweat immediately started sliding down the back of my tank top. June in Los Angeles was usually pretty mild, but not this week. I grabbed my sweater anyway.
As I walked up the path to the house, my phone buzzed in my shorts pocket. A text that said: Baby, I miss you. Can we talk? I swiped it away and knocked on the door. No way was I dealing with him right now.
The door opened and my mother smiled at me. The setting sun highlighted her bronze skin and the dark waves that cascaded down her shoulders over her little black dress. Even when she was cooking dinner for her family she looked every inch the supermodel she used to be.
“Hello, my angel,” she said, kissing both my cheeks.
“Hi, Mom.” I stepped inside the house and the warm aroma from her cooking wrapped around me. I closed my eyes and breathed it in, feeling my tense muscles unravel slightly. This was exactly what I needed after the horrible week I’d had.
The front hall was immaculate as always, with dark wood floors, patterned rugs, and pictures of our family on the walls. Mom set her hands on my arms and studied my face. “Are you feeling well? You look a bit sweaty.” She reached to touch my forehead with the back of her hand, but I slipped away.
“It’s ninety-five degrees outside.” Although you wouldn’t know it from inside my parents’ house. The thermostat was always set at near-Arctic levels because my dad was perpetually hot. I’d need my sweater to make it through dinner without turning into an icicle.
“Yes, but you look a little tired. Your eyes are red. Are you sick? Any pain?”
My eyes were red, but not from what she thought. “I’m okay. Really. You don’t need to worry.”
“I’m your mother, it’s my job to worry. I simply want to make sure you’re not…” She waved her hands around. “You know.”
“I’m not relapsing, I promise. I went to the doctor the other day and everything was fine.” I didn’t mention the doctor I’d seen was my gynecologist and that I’d been getting checked for STDs. Mom definitely didn’t need to know that.
“Good girl.” She patted my cheek. “My angel.”
It took all my willpower to not roll my eyes. “Where’s Dad?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Probably in the garage, where else? Dinner will be ready in a few minutes.”
Now it was my turn to study her more carefully. Her eyes looked sad, like her bright inner light was dimmer somehow. “Is everything okay?”
She hesitated, but then gave me a smile that looked forced. “Yes. We’ll talk during dinner.”
Anxiety twisted in my stomach. “Smells great. Can I help with anything?”
“No, no. Go relax. Food’s almost done. Give me a few minutes.”
She headed into the kitchen, but I lingered in the hall. Something was definitely wrong, although I couldn’t imagine what it would be. I was tempted to follow her, but Mom ruled over her kitchen with an iron fist. None of us were welcome in there while she cooked. She said all we did was get in her way.
I found my older brother Daniel watching TV in the living room, with his dark, muscular arms folded behind his head and his long legs stretched out across the entire sofa. Since there was no room for me, I sank onto the smaller couch. Like the rest of the house, the living room was tidy and comfortable but also elegant.
“What’s with mom?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“She didn’t seem off to you?”
“Not really.” He shrugged. “But I did hear her giving you the third degree when you walked in.”
“Of course. It wouldn’t be our Sunday family dinner without the constant fussing and worrying over my health.”
“She’s the queen of worrying, you know that.” He gave me the side-eye. “Although you do look tired…”
“You’re just as bad as she is!” I grabbed one of the couch’s throw pillows and launched it at his head.
He caught it easily and laughed. “Sorry, sorry.”
His eyes lingered on my face a minute longer, like he was checking that I really was okay. I scowled at him and reached for another pillow. He grinned and turned to the TV again, which was showing commercials.
“What are we watching?” I asked, relaxing deeper into the cushions.
“There’s a Road Trip Race marathon on.”
Road Trip Race was a reality TV show where teams of two—usually couples, siblings, or friends—drove across the country and competed in scavenger hunts and other challenges to win a million-dollar prize. I’d always wanted to go on with Daniel, even if we’d probably try to kill each other by the end of it. The show was one of our favorites. We used to watch it with our dad in the evenings before we both went off to college, and now I watched it with my roommates.
The show came back on and I recognized it as an episode from three seasons ago. “Ooh, this is the one where the sisters get in a big fight and one drives off without the other and then gets disqualified for doing the challenge alone.”
“You just missed the one where that surfer couple crashed into a tree because they were making out and not watching the road.”
“Oh yeah! That was a good season. Much better than the recent one.”
He flipped the remote over and over in his hand. “The show’s getting kind of stale now. They need to mix it up somehow.”
Dad walked into the living room and his warm presence immediately filled the space. He was a large man, both tall and broad, and I’d always thought of him as a big teddy bear. He sat beside me on the couch, draping his arm behind me. “Hey, sweetheart. How you feeling?”