Twisted love by ANA HUANG ,chapter 25,AVA

MY FRIENDS HAD MIXED REACTIONS TO ALEX’S AND MY NEW RELATIONSHIP status. Jules was ecstatic, claiming she knew Alex had a thing for me and demanding to know what he was like in bed. I refused to answer but flushed a deep crimson, and that had told her all she needed to know. I think Jules would have died of disappointment had Alex’s bedroom skills not lived up to the promise of his devastating looks and intimidating presence. Luckily for me, they did. Stella, meanwhile, was worried. Happy for me, but worried. She warned me to take things slow and not fall too hard, too fast. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that train had left the station ages ago. Maybe not the “too fast” part, as Alex Volkov had stolen my heart, bit by bit, over the years, even before I thought I liked him, but the “too hard?” Heart, meet freefall. Bridget was neutral. I supposed princesses were inherently more diplomatic, which was why she said nothing other than if I was happy, she was happy. The specter of Josh lingered in the background, and I’d acted so jumpy during our last call he’d demanded to know what was wrong. I told him I had period cramps, which shut him up. Periods sucked, but they were a useful weapon for shutting down questions from men. Today though, I had another family member on my mind. I waved goodbye to Bridget and Booth, who’d driven me to my father’s house—an hour and a half from Hazelburg—so I didn’t have to take the train or bus, and unlocked the front door. The house smelled like pine-scented air freshener, and my sneakers squeaked against the polished floors as I searched for my father.
It was his birthday on Tuesday. Since I had class, work, and a photoshoot that day, I’d decided to surprise him today with his favorite cake from Crumble & Bake. I heard sounds coming from the den, and when I entered the room, I found my dad poring over papers at the table in the corner. “Hey, Dad.” I slid my bag strap off my shoulder and let the leather tote thump on the ground. He glanced up, surprise scrawled over his face when he saw me standing there. “Ava. I didn’t know you were coming home this weekend.” Michael Chen was not a conventionally good-looking man, but I’d always considered him handsome the way all little girls thought their fathers were handsome. Black hair peppered with gray at the temples, broad shoulders, and a dusting of stubble on his chin. He wore a striped polo shirt and jeans, his casual outfit of choice, and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses rested on the bridge of his nose. “I’m not. Well, not the whole weekend.” I flashed an awkward smile. “I wanted to drop by and wish you a happy early birthday.” I placed the cake box on the table. “I’m sorry Josh and I can’t be here on your actual birthday, but I brought your favorite cheesecake from C&B.” “Ah. Thank you.” He stared at the box but didn’t touch it. I shifted my weight from foot to foot, restless in the silence. We had never been good at talking to each other. Luckily, we’d had Josh to fill our conversations with chatter about med school, sports, and his latest adrenaline-inducing adventure. Skydiving, bungee jumping, ziplining—he did it all. But now Josh was in Central America, and I realized how little my dad and I had to say to each other. When was the last time we’d had a real, oneon-one conversation? Probably not since he sat my fourteen-year-old self down and explained what happened with my mother. “I don’t understand.” My face twisted with confusion. “You told me Mom died of a heart condition.” I didn’t remember Mom. I didn’t remember anything before The Blackout other than brief moments that flashed through my mind at unpredictable times—a snippet of a lullaby sung in a haunting voice, the splash of water followed by screams and laughs, the burn of a scraped knee after I fell off my bike. Glimpses into the past that were too small and fragmented to mean
anything. Of course, there were my nightmares, but I tried not to think about them except in therapy, and only because I had to. Phoebe, my therapist, believed detangling my nightmares was the key to unlocking my repressed memories. I wasn’t a trained psychiatrist like her, but sometimes I wanted to snap back at her maybe I’d be better off not remembering. My brain had repressed the memories for a reason, and no good could come of unleashing those horrorscapes into the present. Other times, I wanted to dig that key out of my twisted mind with my own hands and unlock the truth, once and for all. My father braced his hands on his knees and leaned forward with an intensity that unnerved me. “That’s not entirely true,” he rumbled in that deep voice of his. “We told you that because we didn’t want to distress you, but Phoebe and I agreed you’re old enough to know the truth now.” My pulse thumped in warning. It knew. A storm was rolling in, ready to rain all over my life as I knew it. “Wh-what’s the truth?” “Your mother died of an overdose. She…took too many pills one day, and her heart stopped.” Funny. That was what my heart did too. Just for a beat or two, not enough to kill me. Not like it’d killed my mom. Because “heart stopped” was just a euphemism for “died,” and “took too many pills” was just a euphemism for “committed suicide.” My lower lip trembled. I dug my nails into my thigh until crescent grooves etched into my flesh. “Why would she do that?” Why would she leave me and Josh? Didn’t she love us? Weren’t we enough? Parents were supposed to be there for their children, but she took the easy way out and left. I knew that was unfair, because I had no idea what she’d been going through, but that only angered me more. Not only did I not have my mother, but I also didn’t even have memories of her. That wasn’t her fault, but I blamed her anyway. If she were here, we could’ve made new memories, and the absence of the old ones wouldn’t matter as much. My father rubbed a hand over his face. “She didn’t leave a letter.” Of course she didn’t, I thought bitterly. “But I imagine she felt…guilty.” “About what?”
He flinched. “About what, Dad?” My voice rose. My pulse was roaring now, so loud I almost didn’t hear his answer. Almost. But I did, and when I registered his words, tasted the poison of their truth, my chest collapsed on itself. “About what happened at the lake when you were five. How you almost drowned. How she pushed you in.” I gulped in a deep breath, my lungs greedy for the oxygen. My dad shattered my world that day in my bedroom. That was why I’d been so happy when I left for college. I hated the memory of that conversation and the way his words had soaked into the walls. They whispered to me every time I walked down the halls, taunting me, twisting my past into new truths. Your own mother didn’t love you. Your own mother tried to kill you. I blinked back sudden tears and pasted a smile on my face. The smiles had gotten me through tough times. I’d read online that the physical act of smiling—even if you were unhappy—could improve your mood by tricking your brain into releasing happiness-inducing hormones. So I’d smiled all the time as a teenager, and people probably thought I was crazy, but it was better than sinking into a darkness so deep I might’ve never clawed my way out. And when smiling on my own became too hard, I looked for other reasons to be “happy” like the beauty of a rainbow after a storm, the sweet taste of a perfectly baked cookie, or gorgeous photographs of glittering cities and epic landscapes around the world. It had worked…for the most part. “…of the cake?” My father’s voice shook me out of my trip down memory lane. I blinked. “I’m sorry, what?” He hitched an eyebrow. “Do you want a piece of the cake?” he repeated. “Oh, uh, sure.” He picked up the cake box, and we walked silently to the kitchen, where he silently cut us slices and we silently chewed. Awkward with a capital A. I wondered where it had gone wrong with us. My father never had issues talking and laughing with Josh. Why did he act so weird around me? And why did I act so weird around him? He was my dad, yet I’d never been able to open up to him fully.
He paid my bills and fed and sheltered me until I went to college, but Josh had been my real sounding board over the years, the one I went to whenever I wanted to talk about my day or had problems—with school, friends, or much to his disgust, boys. It was more than the fact that my dad was an authority figure and Josh was closer to my age. I had no trouble connecting with professors and my friends’ parents. It was something else. Something I couldn’t name. But perhaps that’s just the nature of Asian parents of a certain age. It’s not in our culture to show affection openly. We didn’t say I love you or hug all the time like Stella’s family. Chinese parents show their love through actions, not words—working hard to provide for their children, cooking food, taking care of their kids when they’re sick. I grew up not wanting for any material goods, and my father paid my full tuition at Thayer, which wasn’t cheap. Sure, he disapproved of my photography career, and I had to fund all my equipment myself. And yeah, he played favorites with Josh, probably because he retained a deep-seated cultural preference for sons over daughters. But in the grand scheme of things, I’d lucked out. I should be grateful. Still, it would be great if I could hold a normal conversation with my own father without it devolving into awkward silence. I stabbed at my cake, wondering whether any early birthday surprise had ever been as pathetic as this one, when my skin tingled. I looked up, and the tingles morphed into chills. There. Maybe that was why I’d never opened up to my dad, because sometimes I caught him staring at me like that. Like he didn’t know me. Like he hated me. Like he feared me.

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