The train crawls into the harbor station. It’s always so slow that Olivia regrets getting her bags ready and standing by the door. She thinks she could step right off now and barely jog to keep up, but then she’d fall face-first into the water. So, she doesn’t. (Well, that and the fact the doors are locked and she’d never do something as crazy as stepping off a moving train, even if it is going at a snail’s pace.) Besides, it’s nice to watch the sunlight bouncing off the waves, the seagulls swooping down to steal an unsuspecting tourist’s chips, and the multitude of baskets with their overflowing flowers at the station stop.
Liv smiles to herself as she steps out of the train and the smell of the salty air hits her. The sun is shining, and the breeze is welcome, even as it blows knots into her hair. She knew she missed the sound of the waves crashing against the sea wall, but she didn’t realise she’d miss the chirping of crickets in the long grass.
She’s been dreading coming home. Whenever anyone from college asked if she was excited to be going back, she was never really sure. Everything about hometowns that she reads in her favorite books suggests she should be excited to be there. For the brick-lined houses and the cozy cul-de-sacs, where the flower delivery guy you know by name (despite never having had a delivery) stops you in the street to say he’s missed you and “my, haven’t you grown!” She should be ready for a whirlwind summer romance, or to meet a stranger on the train that happens to live close by (she didn’t, thank goodness—she hates having to talk to strangers) and they appear in the same coffee shop weekly until one of them proposes marriage.
But her hometown isn’t like that.
There’s no one there to greet her. The only people she told she was on her way were her parents, but they were never around for her childhood, let alone picking her up from the station, so she’s not shocked there’s no one there to help her with her bags. (She barely has a full suitcase and an oversized beach bag, but still.) There will be no summer romance in her life. Not this time, anyway. Maybe next year, when she’s moved away again.
She’s not waiting for it—the love and the familiarity you get when you’re in a healthy relationship. The only thing she’s worried about right now is getting a job she loves. She’s had one acceptance so far, for a job far, far away, and she’s waiting to hear back about the other, but it’s right here in her hometown, so she’s not sure what’s she’s waiting for because she’s never going to take it, but it’s not like she’d close the door in its face.
It’s been almost four years since she set foot here, avoiding coming back for the school breaks by taking on summer jobs and internships. The only real connection she’s had from here since she left for college was when she accidentally watched an Instagram story from Noah—her annoying neighbor—and the occasional update he’d give her about her apartment.
Still. It is her hometown.
So, she can’t wait to spend an extortionate amount of money on a punnet of strawberries from Mick’s grocers, which she has to walk nine blocks to get to. She can’t wait to get ice cream and dodge the seagulls as she walks along the promenade. She wants to soak up as much as she can of the sunshine and the sea before she inevitably ends up taking a job on the other side of the country. With every step she takes closer to her apartment, her heart settles. It’s peaceful in a way she hadn’t realized she was missing.
“Hey!” a driver screams out their open car window. “Get out of my fucking lane!”
Olivia pulls her lip between her teeth to avoid smiling to herself in the street for a second time in two minutes, but it slips through just a little.
She’s not mad about being back.
Olivia wants to go back to college, and she’s only been walking for eight minutes and thirty-four seconds (enough time to replay her favorite summer song two and a half times). She’s contemplating stopping in the street to pull her phone out so she can look up when the next train is. She’s barely halfway to her apartment, but somehow, in the four years she hasn’t been here, she forgot how lonely this town made her feel, and all she really needed to see to be reminded was the white and green ferryboats.
She thinks it’s a little sad, actually, to still be avoiding the ferry because her dad said he’d take her for her sixth, eighth, ninth, and twelfth birthday but never did. She’s twenty-three now, so she could go on the ferry alone if she wanted. She wouldn’t even need a reason—no one would ask where she was going if she bought a return ticket. She could just sit on the top deck and sketch the skyline. She wouldn’t even need to get off. She could sit in the middle of the old life-rafts-turned-seats and look at the clouds while her feet never touched the ground.
But the thought of buying a ticket and walking along the pontoon and sitting on the top deck all by herself on a single seat (she’d never actually take up a group space on her own, she’s not a savage) reminds her of how her parents always let her down, and how alone she really is. How alone she’s always been.
As she walks past the hordes of families on summer vacation, she remembers how she used to get dressed every morning when it was sunny. She’d put on a summer dress and pack a bag and she’d wait in the kitchen for one of her parents to offer to take her out. Olivia never wanted to go anywhere expensive (though her parents could have afforded it, it’s all they ever spoke about—buying another rental property or financing a new car that Olivia saw the inside of less than a handful of times). She only ever wanted to go to the park or try and get a hotdog without being attacked by seagulls. Or maybe just sit in the house together doing nothing.
But her parents were always too busy, and she was too young to understand anything apart from the fact they weren’t around.
Parents have to work; she knew that. She’d reasoned at a young age that to provide things like clothes for school and food in the fridge she’d have to sacrifice some of the time she spent with either her mother or father.
She just didn’t think it would be both of them, and all of the time. She’s not sure they wanted a child at all. It seemed to be more what they did because it was what they thought they were supposed to do.
But Olivia doesn’t want to blame her parents for that anymore—for not being there for her when she was younger. According to her best friend Steph, it’s “a process.” A process that sounds dull and upsetting, if she has to think about it. She wants to be over it right now, but she gathers it’ll hit her full force when she gets back to her apartment and it’s empty.
The apartment building looks the same from the outside. She shouldn’t be surprised. Olivia thinks she would have been told if it had burned down. The reddish-brown bricks of the walls and the fire escape that threatens to fall with every passing second remain unchanged. From the outside, her bedroom window looks like every other window. The curtains are up and the glass slightly smeared from the window cleaners that come once a month. From the outside, you wouldn’t know the place has been abandoned for four years. You wouldn’t know how that room is the only place where Olivia feels any resemblance to home.
Olivia looks around, a smile blossoming on her face as she recognizes the voice and the happiness of Oscar, the man who owns the hot food truck currently parked on the other side of the road. Every Thursday after school, Olivia and Noah—the bane of her existence who just had to go to the same school as her (he said it wasn’t his fault, it’s the way the district works, but she wouldn’t put it past him to be difficult on purpose)—would go to Oscar for two meat-filled tacos and two that were just cheese and pico de gallo. (Yes, she missed them when she was at college, but only the food and not the stomach pains from eating that much dairy when she’s eighty percent sure she’s at least a little lactose intolerant.)
Oscar also gave her free tacos sometimes after he closed his truck. She wanted to boast about it to Noah, but she’s pretty sure Oscar gave them to him too.
“Hey, Ossie,” Liv replies with a wave. She won’t go over right now. He has a line of five customers, and he’s the type to get distracted and talk to her instead of feeding the people in the queue. Luckily for him, he’s charming enough for people to let it slide.
Her smile lingers at the corners of her mouth, even as she has to press the button for her floor three times before the lift moves. Maybe coming back won’t be the worst thing after all.
The lift shudders to a stop on the fourth floor, and it makes her jump, even if she was expecting it. Olivia has never been sure why Paul, the superintendent, doesn’t fix the lift. The apartment building is nice. Nothing is ridiculously creaky, nothing appears to be growing mold, and all the lights work (a step up from college accommodation), so she’s not sure why Paul is letting the first impression of the building be—well, yeah, you might fall to your death in this lift. Bye!
The intrusive thoughts wedge behind her eyes as she walks up to her front door. The key slides in with no resistance. Well, at least the lock hasn’t seized. Liv gathers Helen next door—Noah’s mom, the best woman in the world, probably—still has her key and has still been checking in on the place. It’s something Helen had said she would do from the moment Liv mentioned going to college hours away. Helen was always looking out for her, either inviting her over when she had an evening alone or turning up in the morning before school with breakfast. Liv wouldn’t say Helen raised her, but she certainly wouldn’t be alive today if Helen and her husband Joe hadn’t been around.
Liv’s parents still own the apartment; that much she knows by the mortgage statements that come through the post. Noah would give her a rundown of the post that came through every couple of weeks (mortgage statements, beauty vouchers, and her high school diploma that was folded in half even with the large “fragile” sticker on the front). She decided before she moved out that she should be aware if they’d sold the place, because even if coming back here was the last thing she wanted to do, it was still an possibility. (One she didn’t take for the entirety of college, but now there’s a graphic design job she might want here, so she’s weighing up her options.)
Even though the mortgage payments have been made, Liv would be surprised if either of her parents had been in it once in the entire four years she’s been away.
Still, when she walks in, there’s a part of her that still expects to see them. Deep inside her chest, she thinks that maybe they miss her as well. Maybe her mom would be sitting on the sofa reading a book, and maybe her dad would be making a cup of tea while swaying to a record in the background.
They aren’t, obviously. Liv isn’t even sure what either of them like to do in their free time now, what they do to relax when they’re at home. She’s not even sure where their home is.
She doesn’t dwell on it.
The sofas are in the same position, the cushions plumped because no one has been sitting on them. To be fair, they looked a lot like that when Olivia did live here—she used to spend most of her time in her bedroom or Noah’s room anyway. The coffee table remains an eyesore, far too big for the space, but she never wanted to redecorate the apartment. It’s not hers. Her parents told her she could have creative control because they were just “so busy with work,” which meant they wouldn’t have noticed if she painted the entire thing green and pink. After all, they were never around. She does think that green would look nice, though. She’s into natural tones right now.
Thankfully, there is no smell coming from anywhere, so she assumes she did remember to take all the food from the fridge. She did text Noah the night she got to college to ask him to double-check, because he had a house key, and he replied he “couldn’t check right now because he’s having an orgy in her bed, but he’ll check on the way out.” Olivia was sixty-seven percent sure he was joking. Not concerned enough to get on a train and figure it out, though.
But when she enters her bedroom, her chest feels calmer. Her bedroom is the only place in this apartment that was ever truly hers. Her double bed remains where it’s always been, the white sheets fluffy on top. Her desk is remarkably dust free, the books she couldn’t take with her still lined up in piles because she never wanted to put shelves up. Her room wasn’t painted beyond the beige walls the apartment came with, but she stopped asking her parents to decorate with her when they let her down for the fourth time, so she did it herself.
Well, she and Noah. Olivia has always been an artist, doodling and sketching from the moment she knew how to hold a pencil. She never liked to show it off, though, not until she was in high school—and even then, she never really had a choice. She was sketching Noah on one of the days they decided they could be around each other in peace, and he caught her looking at him one too many times and figured out she was drawing him. After that, it was a battle of who was stronger, and she was never going to win.
The asshole caught her sketchbook in one hand, his other holding her arms out of the way. There wasn’t as much teasing as she imagined, but she didn’t speak to him for three weeks regardless. It’s not that she thought her artwork was bad—there was just never anyone around to encourage her to show it to others. And she’s forever nervous that someone might not like it, as if that should matter to her at all.
Noah was fearless in a way she never could be. He said if he could draw that well he’d shout about it in the streets. But he knew her probably better than anyone else did, so he knew she’d never want that. So, he helped her in the only way he knew how, and the only way she would accept. No, Noah was never artistic, but he would climb on her desk and Blu Tack her artwork to her walls, so she gives him half the credit anyway.
Her bedroom looks mainly the same, but a lot less dusty than she was anticipating. Maybe Helen cleaned it for her to come back to—that is something that Helen would do, because she’s the greatest woman to ever exist. Liv wants to go next door for a cup of tea, but it’s been so long she doesn’t think she’d be able to just walk in now. She’d have to knock, and even that makes her feel like an outsider—and Helen and Joe’s home is the only place she ever felt wanted.
Liv knows it’s her fault. She barely kept in contact throughout college. She never came back once, and she didn’t keep up with messages beyond birthday and holiday cards. At the time, she told herself it was for the best. Now they didn’t have to worry about her. But in the four minutes she’s been back, looking at the plant she left on the fire escape that’s somehow not dead and the way her apartment doesn’t smell damp, she realizes it was selfish.
She loves Helen and Joe.
Even if they do have a devil spawn for a son.