I had no hope.
My fingers pulled the sleeve of my jumper over my left wrist, hiding the white bandage that seemed to have its own spotlight. It was a constant reminder, a constant mockery of one of my weaker moments. It proved that I wasn’t strong enough to cope without her.
Uncle Jensen looked at me, and his eyes seemed to be drained of all hope. His expression was resigned as if this was the last time that he would ever see me.
“Take care, kid,” he sighed, leaning down to kiss me on the head.
I brushed a piece of golden blonde hair from my eyes and nodded, too afraid to speak as to make the already painful situation worse for him. As far as he was concerned, he had failed me, he had failed himself, and he had failed my mother. As far as I was concerned, he had it all backwards.
“Call me when you land,” he said, rubbing my back soothingly. “And make sure you stay in touch.”
“Someone will pick you up at the other end?” he asked.
He was unable to hide the worry in his voice, and I could see that he wanted to snatch me and run but worked hard to keep his feet planted.
I nodded. “The university is sending someone. They’ll take me directly to the dorms.”
“And you have enough money?” he continued.
I imagined that this was how my dad would have sounded. Maybe, if he’d cared enough to stick around.
“Yes,” I replied. “The settlement came through a couple of days ago. I’ll be fine.”
He swallowed and leant in to wrap his arm around me again.
“It’s only for a few years,” he said, more for his own benefit. “And you can come back whenever you want. You don’t have to do the whole degree over east, you know. You can study some of it back here, maybe at South Coast Uni?”
“It’s fine, Uncle Jensen,” I answered, working to get the flat, dead-tone from my words. “I want to go.”
I needed to go. I couldn’t be here anymore. I felt like my life had been tipped over and emptied of meaning. I felt like my heart was staggering over its beats – like maybe there was a bullet wedged in one of its ventricles. I was bleeding internally but still alive. Beyond all reason, I was still standing. Nothing made sense, and nothing was right. I didn’t want to be here if she wasn’t. She wasn’t here, and she would never be here again. If life was a game, then she lost it. No, she was struck out without reason or warning. That one last moment with her would haunt my nightmares for as long as I stood breathing.
Jensen nodded and glanced up at the screen filled with the flight times.
I followed his gaze and saw that my plane was boarding and sighed with empty relief. This was it, I was getting out, and it would just be me from now on. I would be the only person that I could rely on. I wished that I had some religious influence to pray to a God who could help me. My mother had, but that didn’t help her much in the end.
“I’d better not miss my flight,” I murmured.
“Okay,” he sighed, wrapping his other arm around me. “I love you, Hope.”
“You too,” I whispered, hugging him back. “I guess I’ll see you in a few years.”
Jensen nodded, and a sheen of thin tears glazed his eyes. “Maybe sooner?”
“I’ll see how it all goes. I promise to email when I can.”
He exhaled. “Okay.”
I looked up at him and instantly wished that I hadn’t. His eyes, his clear light blue-green eyes were begging me not to go. His lips were turned down in a permanently carved pout. Whatever was left of my feeble heart shattered at the snapshot of my young uncle looking so hopeless. I was letting him down by going. He was all that I had left, and I was all that he had left, and I was letting him down.
I sucked in a breath. “Bye, Jay.”
His eyebrows furrowed with emotion. “Take care of yourself, kid, for my sake.”
I cringed at his words because they gave me no wiggle room. Clearly, I couldn’t take care of myself for my own sake.
I nodded silently and turned to make my way to the shortening line at the terminal. I handed the flight attendant my boarding ticket.
“Goodbye, Hope,” Jensen called. His voice sounded thick.
I glanced over my shoulder at him and pressed my lips together. Goodbye hope. That sounded about right.
“Enjoy your flight, Miss Hadley,” the flight attendant said with a smile that could melt ice caps.
It bothered me that she could smile when the world seemed so dark to me. It felt like a betrayal.
I glanced back at Jensen, raised my right hand in a small wave, and then turned and continued, risking one last look over my shoulder. I had only seen my uncle cry once before, and it wasn’t too long ago. But this time, it was so much worse because it was me that he was crying over. His head was hung, and his hand lifted to shield his eyes. It was that image that gave me a reason to make it through these next few years alone. It was then that I promised myself that I would live to see my uncle smile again.
Walk On By
I forced out a yawn that would release the blocked pressure inside of my ears. The carriage beneath me rattled as the plane hit the runway, and the loud vacuum-sounding noise that echoed made me wish that I hadn’t just unblocked my ears. To my disdain and relief, the pressure increased again. I reflexively half-yawned to relieve them.
“Thank you for flying with East Air, we trust you enjoyed your flight, and we hope to see you again soon,” the female voice over the P.A. said. “Just a reminder to all passengers that it is eight-thirty p.m. western standard time, so please don’t forget to adjust your clocks accordingly. Whether you’re returning home or just visiting, we hope that you all enjoy your stay here in South Coast.”
I exhaled. South Coast was the sunny south-western city where I grew up. I suppose it was also known as home, but I had somewhat gotten used to calling the east coast home after living there for five years while studying on scholarship. It had been the best break that I had ever been given, and it was a needed break for more than one reason. I had tried to prolong the day that I would have to fly back to the western shores, so I’d added a master’s degree to my bachelor’s degree. But I knew that I couldn’t avoid returning here forever. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the place. South Coast was as nice as any. Some might say it was a place that even the toughest critic could fall in love with. But to me, it was all very different. It wasn’t even that I had bad memories here either, just the opposite. I had good memories here, but they all seemed like they were from another lifetime. They also felt a little out shadowed by my last memory here, which wasn’t so good. That one had literally left me scarred for life and made me want to leave this place to start afresh. It made me terrified to face familiar surroundings again. That was why I stayed away. I couldn’t face it. I still didn’t want to. But it was too late now.
The seatbelt light disappeared, causing a flurry of movement in the vessel. The gentleman on the aisle seat to my left stood up and popped open the overhead compartment, taking down his laptop and suit jacket before making haste to the exit. The gentleman to my right against the window rose to his feet and impatiently waited for me to move. If it were up to me, I would have waited for the majority of people to leave before attempting to join the crowd. Instead, I reluctantly rose to my feet with my one bag of hand luggage and powder grey-blue trench coat and shuffled towards the aisle.
A small elderly woman stepped forward to close the gap that I aimed to squeeze into, but the younger man behind her politely let me in. I tried to arrange my features into a grateful smile, but the muscles in my face didn’t seem to want to cooperate. They hadn’t had a lot of exercise over the past few years.
The flight attendant at the door nodded to me politely as I passed. Her chestnut brown hair was braided tightly down her neck, and it made her features look more severe. I pressed my lips into a tight smile and continued out the aeroplane door, following the herd of people who seemed to know where they were going. It had been a while since I’d flown. I rounded to the right and then to the left, following a long corridor that seemed to end abruptly, and then followed the elderly woman out into the main part of the airport.
I saw him first, standing a foot in front of the congregation of other people’s loved ones, and his rugged face lit up as recognition hit.
I swallowed and worked harder than before to return a smile and was pleased when he stepped forward to meet me, so I didn’t need to hold it there longer than necessary.
“Hope,” he sighed, his voice dripping with warmth and what sounded like relief. “It’s so good to see you, kid.”
“Hi, Uncle Jensen,” I answered, giving him a gentle squeeze back. “It’s good to see you too.”
Jensen exhaled as he released me. My weight rolled off the balls of my feet to my heels, nearly making me lose balance. He rested a hand on my shoulder to stop me from staggering and then cleared his throat. It looked as if he was getting a little emotional.
“How was your flight?” he asked.
“Uh, great,” I replied as enthusiastically as I could manage. “A little uncomfortable since I was squashed between two guys. But, otherwise, it was fine.”
He nodded, letting his gaze pass over me as if gauging whether I was as broken as the last time he saw me.
“Come on,” he sighed. “Let’s get your bags, and I’ll take you home.”
“Okay,” I breathed, brushing my tangled red hair over my shoulder.
Jensen looked down at me again before resting his hand on my back. He led me through the mass of people, not making any effort to hurry, and I didn’t either. I felt like a zombie, half asleep but half awake, drifting through life unseeingly and without feeling. Pretty much. I wasn’t focusing on where we were going. I only registered that there were people everywhere, and they were pushing past me, knocking my shoulder, and brushing my arm as if I wasn’t there. A long time ago, I wished to be invisible, to go by unseen. I guess I had finally gotten my wish.
“Do you have many bags?” Jensen asked, breaking my reverie.
I looked up at him and only just realised that we had stopped in front of a large conveyer belt. His light blue-green eyes looked down at me, and I could see the same concern still swirling in them from the last time we were together. Only then I was leaving instead of landing. I had hoped that the five years I’d spent away might have made that look disappear, but nothing seemed to have changed. He was just as anxious about my wellbeing as he’d always been. I didn’t know why I thought that anything would be different. Parents never stopped looking at their kids as anything other than kids, and Jensen had always been like a parent to me.
“No,” I answered belatedly. “I don’t have much, just one case.”
He smiled. “We might need to add to that since you’re going to be staying here.”
I shrugged one shoulder. “Clothes don’t mean a lot to me. They’re just possessions.”
“Wow, once upon a time, I never would have thought it was possible to hear those words come out of your mouth.”
“I’ve changed,” I replied, a little more intensely than I intended. I was just afraid that he would keep watching me as if I was about to break at any moment.
“Mm, I can see that.” He nodded. He didn’t look as if he was too pleased by the fact.
I exhaled and looked back at the conveyer belt as the luggage began tumbling out. The bystanders pushed past each other to get their belongings.
“So, what does your case look like?” he asked.
“It has a padlock on it,” I answered, craning my neck to see around the people in front of us.
Jensen laughed. “Well, that narrows it down, kid. Every bag has a padlock on it. What colour is the case?”
“It’s that one there.”
I pointed to a charcoal grey-coloured bag with a gold padlock, and Jensen reached out to grasp the handle before it passed.
“Oh, well, let’s get home, shall we?” He smiled. There was that word again.
“Great.” I nodded and forced the smile that I knew he was waiting for.
He smiled back and led the way out, glancing back over his shoulder at me every few steps to make sure I was following.
“So, when did you colour your hair?” Jensen asked.
I blinked and ran my hands through it. It was still long but a bit tangled. I had forgotten that I’d also changed physically since the last time we met.
“I dyed it a few years ago now,” I answered. “I got tired of the blonde.”
“It looks nice.” He nodded, glancing back again. “Though I did like your natural colour.”
I mashed my lips together and ran my fingers around the silver chain around my neck. The white gold ring that was threaded through it slid along the metal with the motion.
He continued over to the pay-booth and fed through the ticket before continuing towards the car park. I followed him slowly since my feet felt as though they had been implanted with lead weights. I could never sleep on planes, and each blink made my eyelids heavier and harder to open. I took in a deep breath and let it out. The crisp western evening was a refreshing change to the eastern mugginess that I had grown used to.
Jensen stopped behind a red Alpha Romeo and lifted my case into the opened boot. I stood back and pursed my lips at the shiny car as he turned towards me.
“Everything okay?” He frowned.
“Is that a new car?”
“Not too new. It’s about a year old,” he answered.
I couldn’t help but laugh. Not too new to me meant at least five years old.
Jensen looked down and smiled self-consciously.
“I guess it’s pretty new,” he amended, stepping towards the passenger’s side to open the door. “Jump in.”
I slid into the beige leather seat, and he closed the door firmly behind me. Once he was behind the wheel, he started the quiet engine and headed out onto the main road. The main roads here didn’t even compare to the main roads of the eastern cities. South Coast was a sleepy little town compared to them.
“So, are you glad to be back?” Jensen asked after a measured silence.
We had turned onto one of the highways which led into the city. Jensen had told me in one of his more recent emails that he’d moved to the northern suburbs of South Coast City by the Waning River. It was one of the more prestigious areas in South Coast, aside from the coastal suburbs that fronted onto the gold, western coastline.
My response was belated – as if fed by satellite.
“Sort of.” I shrugged. “I mean, I left some friends behind over east.”
It wasn’t exactly a lie, though I was sure that the people I’d said goodbye to wouldn’t miss me. Well, the girls wouldn’t at least.
“There’s that.” He nodded. “But you can still stay in touch with them over email and things, right? It’s much better now that you’re back home with family.”
I drew in a breath. “Right.”
As much as I cared for my uncle, it seemed strange that he didn’t understand how hard this was for me. Moving over east to study meant that I could make a new start, away from the haunting memories I’d left behind here. Plus, despite his best efforts to endorse South Coast, even he knew that my entire family now fit into his shiny Alpha Romeo.
He glanced over and must have read the unconvinced expression on my face.
“Besides, your friends are always welcome to visit. My place isn’t big, but my office has a sofa bed that folds out. I hear it’s pretty comfortable.”
“It’s fine, Jay, really,” I answered, working to make my tone light. “Like you said, there’s always email. They’re starting new jobs and stuff anyway.”
He nodded. “I’m sure you’ll make new friends here too. In fact, I don’t doubt that you will.”
I feigned a smile, hoping it was enough to draw the conversation to a close. My head rested back, and I closed my eyes just in case it wasn’t. A few minutes ticked by, and I sat up to readjust my position. I didn’t want to fall asleep yet.