Miles and miles of endless grassy plains that stretched as far as the eye could see. A painted backdrop of mountains in the distance, littered with bushy green trees, fly past the windows. Long, straight roads with faded yellow lines and massive potholes that shake the car like an earthquake. These sights are what accompany the dead, desolate feeling that swells inside Sidney’s chest as she nears closer to the city she grew up in. The low hum of the engine was the only sound breaking the tense silence she had created for herself. Left to stir in her worries, the thought of returning to her hometown filled her with fear. Fear that goes back as long as she could remember. It waited around every corner to remind her of her downfalls, and feed her insecurity. Now it occupied the space inside her old, beat up Toyota as it took Sidney all the way back to her hometown of Marietta, Ohio.
Sidney glanced at her companion. The little, orange and white terrier curled up in the passenger seat. He’s getting too old to stick his head out the window, not like the lively pup he used to be. Now, he just prefers to lay his head down and be lulled to sleep by Sidney’s soft voice.
“We’re almost there, Tuck” she spoke gently, taking her right hand off the wheel to pat his scruffy head, “Everything will be alright. We’ll be home soon.”
She wasn’t sure who she was trying to comfort more; her dog or herself. The word home still felt bitter in her mouth. The place she was driving towards hasn’t felt like home since she was twelve. Not since a faulty outlet took her childhood home down in flames while she watched from the front lawn. Not since her little sister died from the smoke in her lungs. The pain of that loss was too much to bear, and Joe needed something to hold accountable for the tragedy to make sense of it all. That person was Sidney, who carried the culpability of losing her sister for the next ten years. The animosity between her and her father pushed Sidney to her breaking point. After years of crushing guilt and regret, Sidney moved away. Now, she was coming back to see her father for the first time since she stormed out after a vicious argument between them.
Her grey eyes caught the sign that told her Marietta was five miles away. There were several exits and side streets for Sidney to turn around, but she sped past them all. Getting lost in thought again as she became closer and closer to the apartment where her hardened, callous father resided.
Sidney loved Lillian. Even before she knew what love meant, the first time she held her baby sister was the happiest day of her life. She was only six when her parents brought home a baby girl, and Sidney took it upon herself to be the best big sister in the whole world. She was Lillian’s protector, her mentor, and her best friend. Their little family was held together with love for six happy years. This was the home Sidney wished she was driving back to. Then again, if her house had never burned down and Lillian was still alive, maybe Sidney never would have left.
After hours of overthinking, the first enormous sign welcoming passing cars to Marietta appeared. The familiar mossy green paint was chipping around the edges, revealing the dark brown wood underneath, creating a stark contrast against the blinding bright white, happy letters. Weaving in and out of those familiar cobblestone streets, the short drive to her parents’ apartment left Sidney with no time to turn back. Tucker roused when the car slowly rolled to a stop. His tail weakly thumping against the old leather seat while Sidney took a deep breath before opening the door. Her heart beating like thunder as she got a good look at the place. It’s old, faded red bricks and paint chipped white railings look as dreary on the outside as it is on the inside. The flower pot of daisies outside the window was dried up and dying. This was the apartment that her parents and Sidney had moved into after the fire destroyed everything else they had. Sidney was twelve, and traumatized by seeing everything fall apart so quickly. Her father Joe was just as hurt, and her mother Wendy became eerily distant. When Joe and Sidney would argue, Wendy would go silent. It left the shabby apartment in a constant state of rigidity and hostility. Sidney often entertains herself by thinking over all of the different ways they could have healed. They could have had an honest and open conversation about their guilt, and their fears. They could have built up trust and understanding to help each other pull through the pain. However, being honest and open was not Joe’s cup of tea. Being cold and accusatory was his way, and it affected the rest of them deeply.
Why was Sidney even coming back to this?
Because her mother was sick. Wendy knew she didn’t have much longer, her disease was well on its way to ending her life and she called Sidney to see her one last time. Sidney almost ignored the call, but a small part of her forced her to speak to her ailing mother. That small part of her threw a duffle bag full of clothes in the car and took her and Tucker all the way from Jacksonville, Florida to where she’s standing now. The part of her that still wants to be part of a family. The part that says no matter how much it hurt, she would go through the hardships of seeing her father again just to see her mother.
Sidney found her mother in bed. Wendy’s worn and tired face still managed to smile as Sidney slowly creeped through the doorway. Joe sat next to her, holding her hand like a lifeline. Sidney had heard his voice from the hallway before she walked in, promising to get Wendy anything she needed. Even though there was so much distance between them, Sidney felt for her father in that moment. She felt the desperation of watching someone you love slip through your fingers. Like trying to hold on to something as fragile as air. Looking at him now, Sidney saw the same sorrow that marks her memory almost every time she looked at her father.
When she entered the room, Joe looked away from Wendy’s face and into Sidney’s eyes. His face hardened immediately, and any vulnerability he let slip through was gone in a flash. His once caring eyes were replaced with the heartless, stony expression they’re both used to.
“I’m surprised you came” he spoke bluntly, “didn’t think you would.”
Sidney didn’t say anything, willing herself to not argue with him in front of her mother.
“It’s good to see you, Sidney” the older woman says softly. She was always a stark contrast to her overbearing husband. Like a breath of fresh air after choking on thick smoke. Joe quickly excused himself to the kitchen, sending Sidney a look that told her to follow.
“I couldn’t just sit at home and do nothing while Mom was sick, I’m not like that.” She spoke indignantly as soon as her mother was out of earshot. She watched from a distance as her father leaned against the dark granite countertop and sighed deeply.
“Judging by the way you ran away when we needed you, I thought I didn’t know you at all.” He sounded defeated, like he didn’t want to have this argument either. He fixed his daughter with a glare that was meant to be intimidating, but looked more sad than anything.
“I didn’t run away” She spoke “I went to college.”
“Yeah, sixteen hours away.” Joe replied “What was I supposed to think? About letting another kid go, was I just supposed to watch that happen?”
“I wouldn’t have come if you were just going to argue with me” Sidney frowned. It was obvious that neither of them wanted to play this game anymore. They were both exhausted.
Sidney’s adolescent days had flown by as quick as light. Her childhood was a distant dream she could only recall if she really tried hard. She had stopped trying, though, because every happy memory she could possibly hold featured the smiling face of her little sister. So she had moved on. She created a new life, made new memories, and spent every desperate moment filling her brain with new joys. She figured she needed to follow her own desires for contentment, because her old joys didn’t bring her joy anymore. What she used to admire as roses were now thorns she needed to pull out of her skin before she bled. It was time to plant a new garden. One that didn’t end up trying to strangle her like her family and her youth.
“You don’t mean that.” Joe said dangerously, daring Sidney to defend herself.
She was stronger than that. Her body that used to be filled with anger was full of something else. No desire for revenge, or feelings of resentment would ever be allowed to stay. Learning to live and let go was one of the most difficult things for her to do, and she was not going to let her father ruin all of her hard work.
“Why wouldn't’ I? I don’t have to be here at all.” She challenged, knowing deep inside she didn’t really mean what she was saying.
“Then why are you?” Joe asked. It was like he could read Sidney’s mind. Why was she here if she knew everything she was trying so hard to bury would resurface? If she knew all of her closed wounds would be torn open down this road, why did she willingly follow it?
“Certainly not for you,” She decided confidently, it was the truest thing she had said all day, “Mom deserves better than the two of us hating each other up until she dies. If I can get over it then so can you.”
“Get over what? How bad things got after our house burned down? Lillian’s death? How terribly I treated you because of it? You think I don’t realize the impact everything had on you, but I know you don't come back a changed person after all I put you through.”
Sidney didn’t say another word. It has been years since she really thought about everything that happened to her. She knows she should of gotten actual help with her problems, but blocking everything out honestly seemed like the easier options. The self-esteem issues, the anxiety, the fear, and the heavy guilt on her shoulders seemed to crumble and fall if she pushed it hard enough, even if she knew it wasn’t actually gone. She could have lived in the fake little world she created. Everything was perfect, ad yet she chose to be real instead.
Time seemed to freeze as she stared her father down. As much as she wanted to look intimidating, she really just didn’t know what to say. There was a lot that Sidney could say to fill the tense silence left between Joe’s words, but she decided to give him time to think and say what he needed to. His words seemed to take a life of their own. After spending years trapped in the smallest part of his brain, the vulnerability he refused to show anyone was struggling to break free. He kept his voice steady, but his words were heavy. Sidney could almost see them dropping to the ground with a shatter, leaving nothing but broken pieces in their wake. For the first time in years, Sidney was able to see just how deeply shattered her father was.
“How did you learn to deal? To let go of the pain? I would really like to know” Joe finally spoke. His words didn’t carry any maliciousness or hostility, they just sounded like a plea. It was then that Sidney realized that her father thinks that she has learned to heal, while he has been struggling to let go of his pain for years.
“Dad I haven’t learned to deal with anything.” Sidney admitted, “I’ve just been pretending everything was behind me but it still hurts a lot...all the time.”
“I know how you feel,” Joe looked over at his daughter, his eyes struggled to convey an emotion Sidney has never seen from him before: pure understanding. Here they’ve been dealing with the same problems and no way to fix themselves. One is just as broken as the other.
That day Sidney saw a side of her father she had never seen before. This isn’t one of those magical stories where everything is miraculously healed and all the pain and guilt is eradicated forever, but having that conversation was something the family needed to release some of the tension and awkwardness between them. There’s no way they can go back and undo years of damage, but at least now they can learn to live with it without letting their trauma hurt them any further.
Sidney was finally able to admit to herself that she was never actually getting better, and the key to healing isn’t about forgetting. You have to acknowledge your pain to feel it slip away. They can never go back and change how things happened on that fateful day. Things just happened how they happened, and if the three of them survived that, even just barely, then they can survive this. Together, they sat back with Wendy and spent the day connecting in a way they never had before.
Wendy died a week and a half later. It was almost like she stuck around just long enough to see her husband and daughter back together again. Sidney stayed in Marietta for a while, longer than she ever expected, and Joe appreciated it even if he didn’t say it. Things weren’t exactly patched up between them, Sidney still resented her father for years of unfair abuse, and they still had the tendency to argue sometimes, but now all they have left was each other.
Sidney stood on the sidewalk in front of her parents apartment. Tucker leaned out the window to watch as the girl turned to look at her father at the top of the stairs outside the front door. Spring break had ended two weeks ago, and after almost a month of being in Ohio, she really needed to try and get back to normal life. She can’t leave herself to grieve in this old apartment with her estranged father forever. Sidney asked if he would be okay, and Joe said he would.
“I’ve got a cousin in California” he admitted, as if the image of his grumpy self on a bright, sandy beach was wild and unattainable, “Don’t worry about me. And don’t forget to get some professional help if you feel you need it. There’s no shame in that”
“Yeah, no problem” The girl responded, looking over her shoulder as she opened her car door, “You too, Dad”
As Sidney sped back down the road that had filled her with nerves mere weeks ago, she felt a million times lighter, having left some of her fears back in Marietta. Back down those long, dusty highways Sidney was oddly comforted by the fact that even if things don’t get marginally better between her and her father, at least they don’t hate each other enough to get any worse.
Everything will be alright.