She was pulling a Prussian blue turtleneck over her head when her parents returned. They weren’t supposed to be back yet. The housekeeper had informed them that she was home—even though she had specifically asked the woman not to.
The little girl dismissed her displeasure, however, because she understood Mrs. Turner was just doing her job. Instead, she finished dressing herself and took a look in the mirror. She would’ve preferred something that didn’t remind her so much of him, but that was only a distant concern.
As long as it wouldn’t be seen…
She glanced at the empty laundry basket at the corner, gaze lingering, and pattered out of the room.
Down in the lounge, she hung around but not after quietly greeting her parents. There was a sluggish quality to each of their movements that spoke volumes of their exhaustion, so she made sure to stay out of their way.
Ma was finishing up on arranging the coat rack when she met her gaze. The woman tilted her head in a smile, the gentle expression almost making Ib want to cry. She was far more emotional than she’d like to let up. The tingling sensation welling up from under her lids was an alarm, and she blinked to push the tears back. With all her efforts, she missed the chance to give any semblance of a response.
It was okay, Ib told herself. She seldom smiled back anyway, and her mother was used to it.
Alysha loosened a few top buttons of her dress, mentally shaking her head at her daughter’s usual expressionless stare. Ib took so much after Nathan, and she didn’t know whether to be happy or concerned. Stifling a sigh, she went into the kitchen to pour herself and Nathan a cup of tea. It was a little habit they shared after a night out, and judging from the way her husband was slouching on the armchair, he needed his fix of healing herbal tea.
Ib was now left alone with her father. He was massaging his shoulders while holding back a big yawn. His eyes were hooded and he looked like he could fall asleep just from blinking too slowly. Yet, those brown eyes soon regarded her with an alertness that she wished wasn’t there. She wished he wasn’t paying attention to her. She wished he’d leave her alone. It was selfish. Ma and Pa came back for her so early even though the party must have gone on way past midnight. And the drive wasn’t short, either. She felt guilty for thinking such thoughts, but she couldn’t help it.
Pa took off his dark blazer and left it on the arm of his seat. When he patted his thigh, she barely kept herself from shaking her head right away. Barely. She still shook her head a tad too quickly, and to cover it up, she went to sit on the couch opposite from him.
He chuckled, sitting back in the chair, but she didn’t miss the hint of loneliness in his eyes.
“So Ib, how was last night?” His innocent question stomped down at the dread swirling within her.
It suddenly became hard to breathe.
“Did something happen that you came back so early?”
A chill stabbed straight through her heart, causing her whole body to tense up in spite of herself. It just wasn’t possible that Pa would have any idea about last night, she knew that. His wording only hit a little too close to the nail’s head. He was most likely just curious, seeing as she had always tried to stay with Garry for as long as possible. Noting his expectant look, however, she instinctively knew she only had a small window of time to give him an answer before that casual curiosity became full-blown suspicion.
She needed to reply. But…what should she say?
The fine wine generously offered by his business partner had not been kind. Nathan took a deep breath as he felt a yawn coming, a part of his mind wondering if coming home had been a good idea at all. It wasn’t like he didn’t understand his wife’s wish that he spent as much time as he could with Ib. Really, he would like nothing more than to be there for his little girl every day if not for his busy schedule. He just didn’t think being a wet blanket in his bed for the rest of the afternoon was very practical to the cause.
He set his eyes back onto his daughter, sitting over at the couch – her downcast gaze seemingly indifferent to his question. Ib was always awkward and reserved, just as he had been in his childhood, but since when had she passed that milestone? Why was she already distancing from her father?
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t already known the answer to that question. Ever since that boy showed up, things had begun to change—faster than they should. So much faster.
“Ib?” he nudged, still waiting for his answer. He caught a swift change in her expression and got the hazy sense that something was off. His little girl was upset. Her eyes were also red from what might have been lack of sleep. It should be a cause for alarm, but his fatigue-addled brain calmly attributed it to the fact that his sulking daughter just didn’t get her fill of Garry-time – as his wife had so named it. The thought only further tickled his curiosity. He never thought the boy was capable of ushering Ib home so early.
Ib was still off in her own little world. Sometimes it was so difficult to get her to talk, he thought wryly. He was about to press his question when Alysha returned and handed him his cup of tea on a small plate. He promptly thanked her before taking a slow, savoring breath of the grassy aroma that put a smile on his lips.
“So what were you two talking about?” Alysha started after taking a sip of her tea, her tone chipper despite her feeling like an old oven nibbling on it last piece of half-burnt wood. It was her job to make sure the few bonding opportunities for the awkward pair of father and daughter didn’t reduce to stale silence. Balancing her cup on the plate with one hand, she took a seat on the arm of Nathan’s chair and gave his stiff shoulder several light squeezes.
“Well, I was just wondering why Ib was back this early, but—” Pa stifled another yawn, “it appears she’s rather sullen because of it.”
Ib inwardly cringed where she sat. She’d thought she was off the hook. She wasn’t even done thanking Ma for her timely reappearance, yet… The little girl had always appreciated her mother’s help with the abysmal communication between her father and her—just not this time.
“Aw, I’m sure Garry’s just busy.” Ma said to her before turning back to Pa. “You don’t think we were imposing on him at a bad time, do you? It is exam season right now.”
“Mm, is it? It’s been too long since I got my master’s.”
“Look at you, talking like an old man.”
“Am I not one?” Pa said with a lighthearted laugh.
Ib watched their conversation played out with a bubbling dissatisfaction. One part, she was comfortable that their attention wasn’t on her; the other part, however, wanted their attention, wanted them to be concerned about her, because she deserved it. Obviously! After what had happened last night.
But her parents didn’t know about last night, now…did they? She would have to tell them first.
“If you’re old, what does that make me? A relic?”
“No! No, no. You,” he gave her knee a gentle tap, “are radiant.”
Ma giggled at his words, and Pa didn’t hide his smug look. They were always more playful as they enjoyed their favorite tea.
They really didn’t think anything of it—of how odd she was acting. She would have to tell them… But if she did, wouldn’t they be mad at her?
“So how’s Garry?” Ma looked to her. “You look like you haven’t had a blink of sleep! Did he let you stay up late? Seriously, that boy yields too easily.”
“It’s been a while since we got a chance to meet him. He’s okay, I hope?”
Ib wished she was in her room, curling up under the familiar scent of her blanket. But she came down to greet her parents for a reason, even if she still didn’t quite know what that reason was. She dreaded their reaction, dreaded that they wouldn’t love her anymore. Because she felt disgusting. She was disgusting— and dirty. And it was all her fault—
“You are not at fault.”
She froze at the memory.
“I know I’m nobody but trust me on this, ‘kay? It’s all on him.”
“No one will blame you.”
Something sparked in her mind then. Understanding was clicking in.
“He’s in the wrong.”
The reason for those words…
“What he did was disgusting and despicable.”
The purpose of telling her them over and over… It was not out of kindness or sympathy. It wasn’t even empty consolation like she had thought.
“He’ll pay for what he did.”
Ib finally understood what Scarlet was trying to do. And the lady had succeeded.
She looked up at her parents. Dry mouth swallowing, she sucked in a breath.
“Last night, Garry…”
Monday came with the usual chilliness of late winter, waking him from a sleep he hadn’t realized he’d drifted into. Nightingale was playing in his ears. A calm, beautiful serenade was stuck on repeat, wasted just because he didn’t want to hear the silence. His right ear was sore from having slept against the earbud. He was in the last position he remembered he’d been in, curled up under his thick blanket. The light in the room was on.
Although severely sleep-deprived, his biological clock had pushed through and forced him to get out of bed. He did his usual morning routine to get ready for the day with the song still playing in the background. He went into his wardrobe and threw on whatever articles he happened to grab, not bothering to match them like he normally could not go without. Some jeans, a shirt and—well, that was it.
Garry had to leave the house. He didn’t want to hear the silence because he would hear…things…and he was already sick of the song. Any song really.
He staggered down several flights of stairs instead of taking an elevator. His body was heavy from hunger, but he ignored it. He walked outside and put on a black denim jacket.
The usual scenery greeted him, neatly trimmed grass and meticulously pruned trees. He headed for downtown, eager to leave the quiet neighborhood behind. There were more people around as he kept on walking, but not enough to be crowded. It was loud enough, though. His feet brought him along the usual path to his university. The usual mob of people that passed him by, minding their own businesses; the usual stores that opened at the same usual hours… Everything was as usual.
Something had drastically changed, but all these people keep going about none the wiser. The world moved on without a care. And he walked it as if he belonged.
It felt so wrong, but he didn’t know how to fix it.
The campus was nigh empty. He didn’t have any classes for the day – or for the next few weeks, for that mattered – but he would get some paperwork done and hang around the campus until it was time for an appointment he had. He wanted to go inside the library at first, but ended up avoiding it like the plague. A horde of maundering kids was touring the place due to some promotion event with the local elementary schools.
Garry grumbled and left for the Admission and Records building. As he walked down a long hallway, he checked his watch to make sure the offices were open. There was another set of footsteps echoing aside from his. It was in a hurry, as though trying to catch up to him.
“Hey, morning.” Lucy tapped his arm as she skidded to a stop by his side.
“Youch!” she made a face, eyeing him up and down. “Did you put on one of those cheap zombie makeups they have in Halloween. Also, yellow is not your color.”
He gave a disinterested hum. It seem he’d put on a yellow shirt – a gift from his aunt if he remembered it right.
The girl got in front of him and started to tug at his clothes like an overzealous fitting room attendance. “Hmm, well. The jacket is making up for it, thank god, but you are still a walking nightmare and a menace to everything holy about A&F. Is something the matter?” She paused to look up at him. “With your head, particularly.”
Garry narrowed his eyes. “Our people barely even noticed I’ve been wearing this jacket for a whole week. As long as I’m not also sporting red pants and an iridescent afro,” he swiveled around her to resume his trek, “I’m sure I pass society’s scrutiny with flying colors.”
“No, no. You don’t get to take that tone!” She chased after him, but struggling to keep up. “For one, as one of our people,” she used the air quote with a roll of her eyes, “you can’t seriously be okay with what the general society dictates. And second, I left you alone because it was finals and Ms. Lynch might as well have squashed the whole class under her super-sized ego. But we’re so done and over with her now, and damn it you even got full As this semester.”
“Now, wait just a minute,” he stopped and turned to her. “How do you know my grades? That is pri—”
“The point is, Garry,” she jabbed a finger at his chest, purposely making it hurt, “you don’t get to give people the slightest reason to laugh at what we do. Those holier-than-thou art majors already think us the butt of the school’s joke! But most importantly, you don’t get to give me the cold shoulder!”
Garry opened his mouth, ready to bristle, but her hard gaze made him think better of it. She was angry. Angry and upset. He’d been avoiding her ever since she spotted him smoking. It was almost laughable that he’d actually thought that kind of tactic was going to work on her, and now he got what was coming for him. She wasn’t the type to keep herself bottled up like—
“So. Do you have anything to say to me?” She crossed her arms.
Looking into her brown eyes that were slightly glazed, he felt his anger being doused by a torrent of guilt. She didn’t deserve it, he knew. She just cared, and was trying to help. It was just that…Lucy knew how to get onto his case, and she was so good at it he was afraid she could see through everything he was trying to hide.
Still, it wasn’t fair to vent his frustration on her like this.
“… Sorry,” he lowered his gaze and hung his head. “Just…don’t ask me.”
She exhaled, unfolding her arms. “Why, Garry? I’m worried about you.”
“Because I’ll tell you.”
It was the first time he’d ever seen her speechless.
“You don’t want to know. And I don’t want you to, either.”
For a while, they stared at each other. He could tell she was considering his words, could see the cogwheels in her brain working to analyze and understand whatever expression that was on his face. “Please.” His whisper broke the silence, and he turned to continue towards his destination.
Without a word, she followed him. This time, however, he shortened his stride so that she could walk with him. They arrived at the office where Lucy patiently waited until he finished getting his transcripts. It was only after they walked out the door that she started, “So where are we going?”
“Sorry, not ‘we,’ hon,” he smiled apologetically, “I have an appointment in the President’s office. Maybe later.” There was still a good four hours until the meeting, but he wanted that time alone.
“Garbear, I’m glad for you and all, but please leave some scholarships for us too.”
He chuckled. “It’s not like that. Apparently some super genius bioengineer wants to see me.”
“Does the guy want a fancy new suit for some groundbreaking announcement?” At this, he couldn’t help but laugh. “Right? What would a scientist want with you?”
“I said the same thing, but Mr. Schulz said the guy was persistent so I couldn’t refuse.”
Garry frowned. “Alec Schulz. The President.”
“Oh… Oh yeah! I think I get his newsletters in my spam.”
They parted ways in front of the building where he was supposed to have the appointment. Watching Lucy leave, he felt…lost. The time spent with her was short, but for a moment, it was as if everything was back to normal. It felt good, but at the same time so irritating. He shouldn’t be living a life like nothing had happened. Anytime now, it would be his time to pay.
When Lucy disappeared into another building, Garry made a sharp spin and headed for the library. The phone in his pocket started ringing, so he took it out without much of a thought. The ID onscreen made him freeze in his track. ‘Ib’s dad’ was displayed below the animated green phone.
His heart slowed before bursting into full panic.
The phone kept on ringing relentlessly in the same tune that he had installed a few weeks ago. It felt like forever before the call finally went to voicemail, and the line went dead right away. He was about to let go of the breath he’d been holding when his phone started ringing again, as if saying there was not a chance in hell the caller was going to leave the matter for a later time.
He felt weak in the knees, and his hand was shaking as he tried to press answer.
“H-hello?” his voice was a broken whisper.
There was only silence on the other side, and every second that he waited to hear a gruff voice laden with anger squeezed his windpipe a little tighter.
And then came a greeting that made his eyes go wide.
- Alysha is 5 years older than Nathan–just like the author’s parents
- Alysha had Ib at age 25, now do the math!
- the President’s settings is partially based off of the author’s college’s President