By: Tijan

“Yeah.” I held the cup in front of me like it was a shield and made a point of looking around. “Uh, where’s our mom and dad? Did they call you already?”

He didn’t move. I felt like he was studying me, but I couldn’t see through his shades. He nodded, slowly. “Yeah. They called when they were a half-hour away.” He glanced around.

A few girls lingered by the front desk, stealing glances in his direction, but no one else was in the lounge. I purposely sat across the room, in the farthest corner, but he moved close, even though he didn’t need to. He cleared his throat, and I got ready.

“Um…so…about last night—”

I waved him off. “No worries.”

He frowned, his forehead wrinkling. “But—”

I looked away. “No. I mean it. I came early and stopped to say hi. That was all. You looked busy, so yeah, I left.” Please leave it alone. Please leave it alone. I prayed silently.

After another beat, he coughed and shifted back in his seat.

“Okay. Well, thanks.”

I nodded. My neck was stiff. “Yeah. No problem.”

“Summer, are you sure?”

“Oh, yeah.” I bobbed my head up and down, clenching the coffee cup like it was going to slip away. Then, as if in answer to my prayer, they pulled up to the door. “Look. They’re here.” I couldn’t keep the relief out of my voice.

As I started forward to meet our parents, I caught how Kevin had looked out the window, then jackknifed back to face me. But I was ahead of him and hoping to leave the awkwardness in the dust behind me.

“Mom. Dad.” I waved as they got out of their SUV and started our way.

I set the coffee on a bench as I knew this one-day-apart reunion       would consist of hugs. Sheila liked hugs, and I was soon engulfed in her arms.

“Summer.” Sheila held me to her, murmuring into my hair. “You dear girl. I’m not letting you go, you know. Nope. Not going to happen. You’re firmly glued in my arms. I’ll hug you to death.”

“Mom.” I could hear the smile in Kevin’s voice as he stood next to us. “You gotta let her go. She’s going to need oxygen at some point.”

“Nope.” She shook her head, rocking from side to side with me. “I lost you to this hell called college. I’m not ready to lose this girl too.”

I laughed. It felt good to hear the words. Sheila had never pushed to replace my real mother, but in some ways, she’d stepped into her shoes seamlessly. There hadn’t been any problems when the two families merged. There should’ve been, but there just weren’t. It might’ve helped that I knew my mom would’ve wanted my dad to be happy, and he was. I couldn’t deny that. Sheila had let me set the pace, and when I’d started doing my homework out on the dining room table instead of holed in my room, I knew she’d rejoiced. Food had begun to pile up around me. Then drinks. Then her own work.

A part of me had felt sorry for her. Kevin was rarely home.

The nights he did come home alone, it wasn’t until nine or ten. I’d heard him stop to talk to Sheila and my dad only a few of those times before going to his room. A few times I’d gone downstairs and sat in the kitchen, hoping maybe he’d want a late night snack or glass of water, but that rarely happened. Once he was in his room, it was for the night. Or maybe he saw me and came back later when I wasn’t sitting there.

There were the occasional family dinners, but those were congenial. Thinking back on it now, I realized everything had always been polite. That didn’t seem normal. I wondered—watching as Sheila released me and hugged her son—if Kevin really had been okay with getting a new dad. It had always seemed like it to me.

My dad came over to give me a hug now, and then he and Kevin shook hands.

That was it.

It was like a mask fell from my face, and I could see things differently. I saw a lot of stiffness and distance between Kevin and my father, but then my dad caught my gaze, and all of that went away. Warmth shone from his eyes, and my concern slipped away.

“You okay, pumpkin?” He rested his arm around my shoulder and pulled me close.

I nodded, my head brushing against the top of his arm. “I’m good.”