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To Dad, with love.
The ugly tan façade of the building curved around like a seventies roller-rink, its outdated brown lettering staring back at me. BRENTWOOD. No flashing lights or bright neon print. Just BRENTWOOD. It was the nine letters that haunted my dreams.
Kyle reached over and hit the time button on the dashboard, his hands brushing against the keys that he left dangling in the ignition. The digital numbers appeared on the murky screen before fading out.
“Are you ready, Olivia?” he asked. “We’ve been sitting here for twenty-five minutes.”
I snapped out of my stupor and met Kyle’s thoughtful gaze. His dirty blonde hair framed his angular face, making him look like a friendly cougar.
“Yeah,” I lied quietly to both Kyle and myself. I was never going to be ready, but there was no use just sitting outside in the parking lot. I gave a quick, hard nod to reassure myself and grabbed the door handle of his Jeep.
The sky was a beautiful blanket of blue, spotted with the white pillows of the clouds. The wind made the clouds move quickly, almost like a video on time-lapse. I stared down at the cracked and uneven pavement as I walked, watching my argyle print flats fall in pace with Kyle’s black and white Etnies. Though it was still spring, Kyle had a pair of white khaki shorts on and a black t-shirt. I, on the other hand, had a more weather appropriate sense of style; a pair of super-flare jeans and my favorite purple hoodie.
“You’re sure you don’t want me to come in with you?” he asked for what had to have been the hundredth time.
I don’t want you to have to see my drunken, gambling father. I swallowed back the words before they escaped my lips. “I’m sure.”
“Alright,” he sighed with a grim expression. “I love you.”
I gave him a small, reassuring smile. “I’m not going off to war. I’m just visiting my dad.”
Kyle pursed his lips, but I knew what he was thinking. Yeah, your father who happens to live in a ‘recovery home’.
“Don’t worry,” I recited while reeling him in for a hug. “I won’t be long. Just a quick pop in and then we can go out for some lunch. Sound good?”
He looked down at the pavement and back up at the sky, taking in every sight but me. The afternoon sun glittered brightly in his eyes, seeming to melt the dark amber into a creamier chocolate color. He finally met my stare. “Okay. I wish you’d let me come with you, though.”
It was my turn to avoid eye contact now. “I just…I–”
“I know, I know.” He sighed again. “I guess I understand. I’ll wait out here.”
I wanted to scream that he had no idea, but Kyle was just trying to be nice. The wind teased a piece of my light brown hair around my face, but Kyle pushed it behind my ear. I gave him one last stare, a nod for more comfort, and then turned to open the glass doors of the reception area.
The inside looked like the lobby of a hotel, probably to ensure that the ‘guests’ were temporary rather than permanent. I’m sure they wanted to give off the persona that their occupants were eager to get out of the dump. It didn’t fool me.
“May I help you?” a middle aged woman in scrubs behind the counter enquired.
“Yes, I’m Olivia Vito. I’m here to see my dad, Chase,” I answered robotically.
“Oh! I should have known,” she replied, waving her hand dismissively and smiling. “You look just like him.”
I gave her a wooden smile as she came around the desk.
“Here. Right this way.”
I followed her down a dim hallway – or maybe it just seemed dim because my eyes hadn’t adjusted from the dazzling sunshine outside. The walls were bare white and the ceiling was the foam tiled variety that made me feel like I was in elementary school all over again. There were several unmarked doors along the corridor, all with the same circular silver handle and tiny diamond grid windows. After a final right turn, the woman led me through a second set of glass doors.
The first thing I noticed about the visitor room was the smell. The air smelt almost…stagnant. Not quite like the stale feeling of being under a blanket for too long, but empty, like a graveyard. The second thing I noticed was that the color scheme was the same as that of the exterior; off-white and brown. No walls or windows; just a room with thin carpeting and stucco. A few round tables were speckled around, but other than that, nothing.
As I passed another table, I noticed a couple playing cards. The bald man looked nervous, fidgeting with the fat, unlit cigar he held between his yellowed teeth. I looked away and spotted a shaggy figure at the back of the room, automatically tensing.
“Your father’s sitting right over there,” the woman said, confirming my theory by pointing to the only other man in the room. “We’re watching, so if anything happens, you’ll be okay.”
I turned to the woman for the last time. A few spare strands of her gray hair spouted out of her ponytail and there were laugh lines on her face. I calmed myself down and managed to return her smile, but as soon as she left, I gritted my teeth and clenched my fists.
My legs took me to the table. I took the seat across from the man, staring at the fake grains of wood in the table, and exhaled. The silence dragged on, the only other sounds being the shick-shick-shick of the bald man rubbing the edges of his two cards together.
“You’re late,” was what he said gruffly.
I looked up into his steel-blue eyes, the ones that were identical to mine. His hair was all gray – which sent a shock through me, since the last time I saw him, it was only salt-and-pepper – and stubble masked his cheeks, chin, and neck. He was dressed in a black hoodie –one that looked way too young for him, fitted for someone more of Kyle’s age – and a pair of rough jeans. He looked much, much skinner than the last time I saw him – but then again, I hadn’t seen him in over eight years. He also looked like he was expecting me to justify my tardiness.
“I was busy,” I clarified.
More silence. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbows and his hands were knitted together on the top of the table. His silver Rolex reflected the fluorescent lights above, creating dancing orbs on the wall adjacent to us.
I sighed and pulled the sleeves of my sweater over my clammy hands, only allowing the chipped black and slime green nail polish on my fingernails to peep out. I raked my fingers through my bangs and looked around, trying to think of something to say.
Dad’s deep voice brought my attention back to him. He knocked his thumbs together aimlessly, looking almost ashamed.
“So,” I echoed.
A smile flirted with my lips. What a typical Dad thing to say. It almost felt like we were back in his truck, driving home to Mom’s home cooked meal, trying to make small talk over the music on the radio. But almost was as versatile as a Bounty rag; it could be both big and small.
“Grade eleven, eh?”
Dad paused again, this time a little more purposely. I could tell from the look on his face that he had more to say, but was just too ashamed to say it.
“And, uhm…” He cleared his throat. “Your mother?”
“Is she still with Greg?”
“Yeah,” I responded. “They’re getting married this summer.”
His face remained an expressionless stone statue, but I knew him better. Inside, I’m sure he felt like he just got slapped across the face. Dad was always like that; quiet, independent, secretive.
“Well,” he said, running his fingers through his thinning hair. “That’s, uhm…That’s great.”
I knew the words burned like acid on his tongue, so I reached across the table and grabbed his boney hand. His eyes stopped drifting and looked at me straight, surprised, almost.
“Dad, nobody calls me that anymore,” I interrupted.
“Libby–” he tried again.
“Nope. Just plain old Olivia now.”
He exhaled. “Olivia. You know, as soon as I’m out of here, you can live with me. You don’t have to stay with Greg and his reckless sons. I know–”
“No, Dad.” My hands recoiled. “No, I like Greg. And Jason and Will aren’t reckless. Honestly. I’ve spent a lot of time with them, and they’re really not all that bad.”
“Olivia, it’ll just be the two of us,” he ranted. “I’ll get a nice house, and you can have your own room and bathroom. Hell, I’ll even help you paint it. Whatever color you want. Pink? Purple? What’s that one you liked…Periwinkle?”
“No, Dad. I don’t like those colors anymore,” I said.
“Fine.” He opened his arms. “No problem. We don’t have to decide on that right now. We could set up a ballet bar, and you could–”
“I quit ballet when I was ten. I don’t do those things anymore. I don’t like those things anymore!” I took a deep breath to calm myself.
“Please, Libsie,” he pleaded. “I’ve been trapped in this hell hole for eight years without you – or anyone, for that matter.”
“Like that’s my fault?” I exploded.
“No, I never said–”
“Shut up, Dad!” I screamed, getting out of my seat. “Just shut up!”
“Maybe if you hadn’t had started drinking and gambling in the first place, you wouldn’t be trapped in here. And maybe you’d still be living with Mom and me. And maybe we’d still have the truck and all those other things that you ended up betting.”
I took another deep breath and noticed the card-playing couple staring at me. I started again in a lower voice. “But you did, Dad. And as much as it sucks, the only way you’re going to fix that mistake is to stay here until you stop. And judging by the fact that you are still in here means you’re not taking it too seriously.”
I got up and zigzagged through the other tables. I was about to grab the door handle and thrust it open when a statement stopped me in my tracks, like yanking the leash of a running dog.
“I miss you,” Dad called out.
I turned around slowly with tears in my eyes. “I miss you too, Dad.”
“I love you.”
“Me, too,” I whispered. “Me, too.”
When I got back outside, Kyle was waiting for me on the bench. He got up and took my hand, studying my face. I looked out at the road in front of us, watching the cars that passed by, trying not to cry again.
“How’d it go?” he asked.
I kept looking out at the cars, just listening to the music their tires made on the pavement as they sped. I knew I wouldn’t be able to reply without bursting into tears. I bit my tongue, feeling the hard edges of my teeth and the one smooth edge of a filling dig into the flesh.
“Olivia?” Kyle asked softly, giving my hand a gentle squeeze. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” I answered, still looking out at the road.
I finally did look at him, watching as his careful eye examined my face. I forced myself to smile and squeezed his hand back. “Let’s go get some pizza.”
After another moment of skeptical silence, he thawed out and nodded once. “Okay.”