“Oh, I know her well,” Gus said. “She was one of my first crushes.”
There was no reason that should’ve sent new fireworks of heat across my cheeks, and yet, here we were. “So anyway,” I went on. “My mom was the fifth wheel on this, like, blatant double date trying to disguise itself as a Casual Hang. So when the others went off to go through the Tunnel-o-Love, she went to get her fortune. My dad said he left his group when he spotted this beautiful red-haired girl in a blue polka-dot dress.”
“Betty Crocker?” Gus guessed.
“She’s a brunette. Get your eyes checked,” I said.
A smile quirked Gus’s lips. “Sorry for interrupting. Go on. Your dad’s just spotted your mom.”
I nodded. “Anyway, he spent the whole time he was in line trying to figure out how to strike up a conversation with her, and finally, when she paid for her prediction, she started cussing like a sailor.”
Gus laughed. “I love seeing where you get your admirable qualities from.”
I flipped him off and went on. “Her prediction had gotten stuck halfway out of the machine. So Dad steps up to save the day. He manages to rip the top half of the ticket out, but the rest is still stuck in the machine, so Mom can’t make sense of the words. So then he told her she’d better stick around and see if her fortune came out with his.”
“Oh, that old line,” Gus said, grinning.
“Works every time,” I agreed. “Anyway, he put in his nickel and the two tickets came out. Hers said, You will meet a handsome stranger, and his said, Your story’s about to begin.” They still had them framed in the living room. Or at least, when I was home for Christmas, they were still up.
That deep ache passed through me. It felt like a metal cheese slicer, pulled right through my center, left there midway through my body. I’d thought missing my dad would be the hardest thing I’d ever do. But the worst thing, the hardest thing, had turned out to be being angry with someone you couldn’t fight it out with.
Someone you loved enough that you desperately wanted to push through the shit and find a way to make a new normal. I would never get a real explanation from Dad. Mom would never get an apology. We’d never be able to see things “from his point of view” or actively choose not to. He was gone, and everything of him we’d planned to hold on to was obliterated.
“They were married three months later,” I told Gus. “Some twenty-five years after that, their only daughter’s first book, Kiss Kiss, Wish Wish came out with Sandy Lowe Books, with a dedication that read—”
“‘To my parents,’” Gus said. “‘Who are proof of fate’s strong, if animatronic, hand.’”
My mouth fell open. I’d almost forgotten what he had told me at the gas station, that he’d read my books. Or maybe I hadn’t let myself think about it, because I was worried that meant he’d hated them, and somehow I was still competing with him, needing him to recognize me as his rival and equal.
“You remember that?” It came out as a whisper.
His eyes leapt toward me, and my heart rose in my throat. “It’s why I asked about them,” he said. “I thought it was the nicest dedication I’d ever read.”
I made a face. Coming from him, that might not have been a compliment. “‘Nicest.’”
“Fine, January,” he said in a low voice. “I thought it was beautiful. Is that what you want me to admit?”
Again my heart buoyed through my chest. “Yes.”
“I thought it was beautiful,” he said immediately, sincerely.
I turned my face to the window. “Yeah, well. It turned out to be a lie. But I guess Mom thought it was a nice enough one. She knew he was cheating on her and she stayed with him.”
“I’m sorry.” For several minutes, neither of us spoke. Finally, Gus cleared his throat. He made it sound so natural. “You asked why New Eden. Why I wanted to write about it?”
I nodded, glad for the topic change, though surprised by his segue.
“I guess …” He tugged at his hair anxiously. “Well, my mom died when I was a kid. Don’t know if you knew that.”
I wasn’t sure how I would have, but even if I didn’t outright know it, it fit with the image of him I’d had in college. “I don’t think so.”
“Yeah,” he said. “So, my dad was garbage, but my mom—she was amazing. And when I was a kid, I just thought, like, Okay, it’s us against the world. We’re stuck in this situation, but it’s not forever. And I kept waiting for her to leave him. I mean—I kept a bag packed with a bunch of comic books and some socks and granola bars. I had this vision of us hopping on a train, riding to the end of the line, you know?” When his eyes flashed toward me, the corner of his mouth was curled, but the smile wasn’t real.
It said, Isn’t that ridiculous? Wasn’t I ridiculous? And I knew how to read it because it was a smile I’d been practicing for a year: Can you believe I was so stupid? Don’t worry. I know better now.
A weight pressed low in my stomach at the image: Gus, before he was the Gus I knew. A Gus who daydreamed about escape, who believed someone would rescue him.
“Where were you going to go?” I asked. It came out as little more than a whisper.
His eyes leapt back to the road and the muscle in his jaw pulsed, then relaxed, his face serene once more. “The redwoods,” he said. “Pretty sure I thought we could build a tree house there.”
“A tree house in the redwoods,” I repeated quietly, like it was a prayer, a secret. In a way, it was. It was a tiny piece of a Gus I’d never imagined, one with romantic notions and hope for the unlikely. “But what does that have to do with New Eden?”
He coughed, checked his rearview mirror, went back to staring down the road. “I guess … a few years ago, I just sort of realized my mom wasn’t a kid.” He shrugged. “I’d thought we were waiting for the perfect time to leave, but she was never going to. She’d never said she was. She could have taken us out of there, and she didn’t.”
I shook my head. “I doubt it was that simple.”
“That’s why,” he murmured. “I know it wasn’t simple, and when I talk about this book, I tell people it’s because I want to ‘explore the reasons people stay, no matter the cost,’ but the truth is I just want to understand her reasons. I know that doesn’t make sense. This cult thing has nothing to do with her.”
No matter the cost. What had staying cost his mother? What had it cost Gus? The weight in my stomach had spread, was pressing against the insides of my chest and palms. I’d started publishing romance because I wanted to dwell in my happiest moments, in the safe place my parents’ love had always been. I’d been so comforted by books with the promise of a happy ending, and I’d wanted to give someone else that same gift.
Gus was writing to try to understand something horrible that had happened to him. No wonder what we wrote was so different.
“It does make sense,” I said finally. “No one gets ‘looking for postmortem parental answers’ like I do. If I watched the movie 300 right now, I’d probably find a way to make it about my dad.”