Kim shut her eyes hoping the act would keep out the voices that seemed to want to break down her room door just to reach her.
Mum’s voice was loudest. She could tell her mother was close to tears. She heard the sound of silverware fall to the floor from the kitchen. Dad raised his voice…
She sighed, opened her eyes and fixed Lynn’s picture within a golden frame on her desk table. If there was ever a time she missed her twin sister, it was now. But Lynn’s face, trapped within that frame with her beautiful radiant smile, was a memory that was quickly fading.
Almost two years now since the accident claimed Lynn’s life and none of them had gotten over it or even dealt with it. Definitely not her parents. Since Lynn’s passing, their happy little family had started to chip away at the core until there was nothing left except sarcastic remarks, fighting, screaming and spiteful words. Mum blamed Dad. Dad blamed himself. And it was destroying them both.
She put on her ear phones in an attempt to block out her mother’s yelling, laid back in bed, shut her eyes and imagined herself with Lynn in their favorite hangout. It was in the forest not far from their house. They would run around there in the fall, throwing dried leaves at each other and laughing till tears streamed out of their eyes. They would sit out there until it got too cold to stay…
The sound of something crashing to the floor and shattering to pieces resounded throughout the house. She jerked upright. No sound came from downstairs. Then as abruptly as it had all stopped, the yelling continued.
How selfish were her parents? Didn’t they at all care that she was under the same roof?
She got up, donned her scarf and jacket, pocketed her iPod and ran down the stairs. She headed straight for the front door and slammed it after herself. Maybe they would notice she’d just left. Maybe they would finally notice her.
The crisp autumn air welcomed her and the empty streets invited her forwards. She set her iPod and let her legs carry her. As the tempo of the song she listened to accelerated, so did her legs until she broke into a run.
She arrived the forest out of breath. She hadn’t come here for two years. Without Lynn, it made no sense to come. She stopped, caught her breath and slowly entered the shelter of trees. She could almost see Lynn’s wavy dark hair as she disappeared behind a tree laughing, just like she’d always done since they were little. She would wear pink gloves and a matching bonnet calling for Kim to join her on a bed of leaves. Her sister’s laughter echoed around her forcing open a greater void in her heart.
A loneliness greater than she had ever known enveloped her. Greater than what she’d felt the day she had received that call. Greater than the loneliness she’d felt as she watched her twin’s coffin being lowered into the ground. Much greater than the loneliness that harassed her any time she dared enter into her sister’s room.
She couldn’t breathe. A weight grew in her chest, made its way to her throat and she broke into violent sobs. She dragged her feet deeper into the forest, hand clenching her stomach as she fought for air.
She wished she could bury it all. The pain, the hurt, the loneliness, her parents’ blame game…bury it all under these dried autumn leaves. She let herself collapse to the ground against a tree, pulled her knees up to her chest and hid her face away.
The naked autumn trees mocked her. This was really Lynn’s sanctuary, not her own. She only tagged along. Lynn had felt at peace here. Kim had felt at peace here with Lynn. But without her twin, this was just another place where she didn’t belong.
Anytime Kim was upset, Lynn would tell her that there was always more reasons to be thankful than to be miserable. Kim now scoffed bitterly at the thought. She had nothing to be thankful for. God had obviously turned His back. Abandoned them. Abandoned her.
With tears streaming out of her eyes, she lifted her head to the sky. “I hate you.” The words escaped her lips a whisper. The wind whistled. Nothing happened. It didn’t matter, the confession made her feel lighter.
“I hate you! You hear me? I hate you!” She shouted, this time at the top of her lungs.
“Why? You barely even know me.”
She jerked her head in the direction of the male voice.
The intruder wore dark jeans, a red and black flannel shirt and a heavy gray wool jacket he didn’t button up. The leaves made a crunching sound under his timberlands, which he seemed to find amusing because he stopped, looked down and smiled. He grabbed the retro-style DSLR camera that hung around his neck and took a quick shot of his feet and the leaves around them.
Startled, Kim frantically wiped her eyes while still keeping her intruder in view. He wore a small smile as he played with his camera. His rough short brown hair blended with the tree trunk behind him and his clenched hand told her he’d been out here a while.
“You haven’t answered my question.” He abruptly looked up from his camera to catch her eye.
Kim immediately turned away, wiping her eyes some more. “I wasn’t talking to you.”
“I don’t see anyone else here.” A small smile lifted a corner of his lips as he approached her. “I’m Jayden. Jayden Finnegan.” He reached out his hand.
She stared at it but didn’t take it. “I know who you are. Stuttering Jay.”
He dropped his hand to his side. His brown eyes held amusement for a second before he chuckled, “You remembered. No one’s actually called me that in a while. I just go by Jayden now.”
Kim heaved a deep breath and looked him up and down again. He sure didn’t look like Stuttering Jay anymore.
“And you’re Kimmie.”
“Kim. The name’s Kim.” Her voice shook, its sharpness unmistakable.
He studied her. “Oh right. Only your sister called you Kimmie. Your twin.”
Kim felt the tears start to surface so she turned away. She heard Jayden drop down to the ground beside her which irritated her because she wanted more than anything to be alone. Yet, she couldn’t get herself to ask him to leave.
She pulled her jacket around her as a strong wind brushed her hair to her face.
“What brings you here?” She heard Jayden ask.
She shrugged, not making the effort to turn to him.
He didn’t bother her after that and she was glad. Her mind spun. Her life was losing meaning. She could see that now. Or rather, she could get herself to admit it. Her very existence was proving pointless. She shivered at the thought.
“You must be freezing in that little jacket. Here, have mine.” Jayden had shrugged off his old-fashioned backpack and was already taking off his gray wool jacket.
“No…I…” But before she could finish, his jacket was already on her back and a soothing warmth consoled her as if someone had wrapped her in a hug.
Jayden rummaged inside his backpack and pulled out an already-opened packet of Oreos.
In spite of herself, she nodded.
He smiled almost as if he’d expected the answer and handed her the pack. She savored her favorite snack. It had been Lynn’s too. Sometimes they would hide Oreos around the house for each other, leaving clues for the other to find.
“Hey, I never said you could have it all!” Jayden chuckled, grabbing the Oreos from her.
“Yes, you did!” She smirked. "You implied I could."
He inspected what remained of the cookies. “Well, that’s one mistake I’m not making again.” His comical smile made her snigger.
He ate the last of the cookies and got up brushing the leaves off himself.
Kim’s chest tightened. What was he doing? She watched as he picked up his backpack. “You…you’re leaving?”
He was looking down at his camera again, twisting the lens. “I better go.” He looked up and shot her a sly smile, “But first…”
Before Kim could grasp what he intended to do, he’d put the camera to his face and taken a shot of her.
“What are you doing? Are you out of your mind?”
“I need to remember the face of the Oreo Thief.” He examined the shot on his camera and frowned. “Let’s try that again.”
Then he was clicking away at her again, taking shot after shot. She shielded her face with her hands. But instead of anger brewing inside of her, laughter erupted from her heart.
“Stop! Would you stop!” But her words were muffled by her laughter.
She finally got up and launched at him, attempting to grab his camera but he dodged her and hid behind the nearest tree. Even then, she could see his camera pointed at her and she could hear the clicking of the device. She gathered a whole bunch of dried brown leaves and threw them at him, her own laughter sounding strange to her ears.
Jayden laughed and kicked leaves in her direction.
“You are so babish!” Kim exclaimed.
Jayden stopped taking pictures and stared at her. “What? That’s not even a word.”
“Yes, it is.”
He hiked a brow and smirked, “Technically, that would mean you thought I was a babe.”
In spite of the slight cold, Kim felt the heat rush to her face. “What? No! I don’t…I mean, you...I’m not saying you’re not but…what I mean is…” She struggled to find something to say.
Jayden’s smirk grew.
She realized he was enjoying watching her babble. “I’ll stop talking.”
He nodded, still with that smirk, “We wouldn’t want you to say anything you’ll regret.” A grin replaced his smirk, “What I think you meant is babyish”.
“And that’s exactly what you are.”
He laughed. “Guilty as charged.”
He approached her, inspecting the pictures he’d taken. He abruptly stopped mid-stride and paused, staring at the camera’s playback. He looked up and met her gaze. He stared for longer than he’d intended because he suddenly looked flustered and quickly returned his gaze back to the camera. He cleared his throat, “Some of these are pretty good”.
She joined him to find him staring at a picture of herself laughing as she threw some leaves in the air. She looked like the happiest person on the planet with the décor of trees and autumn leaves. Her dark eyes shone, fixed on the leaves she’d thrown in the air as they made their descent to the ground. Jayden showed her a couple more pictures, all of which represented a happy, laughing Kim who didn’t seem to care that her wavy black hair wasn’t perfectly brushed, or that her face bore no makeup. Pictures did lie. But she wanted to believe she could be that happy. That she could one day be that carefree girl…the kind of person Lynn had been.
“Wow.” The word came out a whisper. “Can I somehow get some of these?”
Jayden’s light brown eyes lit up. “Sure. I’ll see if they need tweaking and I’ll print them out for you.”
Kim nodded her thanks.
“You’re a natural.” Jayden was back staring at that picture with her and the leaves.
“No, I’m not.”
“Kim, I’m a photographer, so I know a natural when I see one. These are beautiful and you are a natural.” He met her eyes and the sweetest smile Kim had ever seen on anyone softened his features.
She wasn’t sure what to say. They stood there in awkward silence for a moment.
“Well, come by my neck of the woods again sometime and I’ll hand you the pictures.” Something about his soft and deeply sincere smile threw her off and she found she didn’t know what reply to offer.
He picked up his wool jacket that had fallen off her shoulders during their picture game, gave her what resembled a solemn smile and turned his back, heading deeper into the forest.
The same sadness she had come to the forest with began to creep into the atmosphere until it reached her heart. She watched Jayden Finnegan go, overwhelmed by a deeper sense of loneliness than what she had felt before Jayden’s intrusion.
She had to get out of here before the heaviness, the sadness, crushed her spirit. She let her legs carry her.
She spun around. Jayden stood afar off, a hand in his pocket and the other holding his jacket. The carefree look was gone from his face. Sure, he smiled but something about his smile was strained.
“Listen, would you…” He hesitated, retrieved his pocketed hand and slid it through his hair. “Would you like to come over for a coffee?”
Jayden shrugged. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to I just thought…” He scratched the back of his head.
“I’m sorta in the mood for a pumpkin spice latte.” She let herself think out loud.
A slow grin slid across Jayden's face, “Well, you’re in luck. I make the best pumpkin spice latte on the planet.”
Kim felt herself grin. “Wow. 100 points for modesty.”
Jayden chuckled. “I say it as it is, girl. C’mon”.
She caught up to him, fell into step and let him lead her downhill through the forest as they waded through dried autumn leaves of different shades of brown, orange and yellow and navigated the labyrinth of tall trees - all in comfortable silence. They finally reached the other side of the forest to find a beautiful clearing that revealed a pebble road. It wasn't long before Kim saw a house in the distance. She was certain it was something that would easily appear on Architectural Design Magazine’s list of dream homes. The house looked like a huge cottage. The whole structure was mostly made of beautiful dark wood and bricks that matched the dark brown of the wood. A large porch welcomed the visitor and on it, a wooden brown swing bench looked out towards the forest which made a semi-circle around the house. Most of the side of the house was made out of glass, revealing a lovely cozy living room with a forest view.
Kim stood beside Jayden on a floor of gravel and leaves in front of the beautiful porch and couldn't help but wonder how many rooms the large structure accommodated.
"You live here?" She turned to Jayden, a hint of envy rousing inside of her.
Jayden appeared to be appraising her reaction. He shrugged, a boyish grin playing around on his face. “Either that or I’ve been a hobo for the 23 years of my existence. Think about it: the incredible life of Jayden Finnegan – hobo extraordinaire.” He stretched his arm in front of him as if he could see the words written in the air. “Would make a great book title. Why stop there? Movies, toys, the lot. I’d be famous.” He grinned comically.
Kim rolled her eyes and shook her head from side to side at him. "Downright babyish," She mumbled as he led her up the porch and opened the front door.
She followed him through a grand hall where she observed several family photos and into the largest kitchen Kim had ever stepped into. She was immediately stunned by the wide glass doors on the other side of the room, looking out into the forest. A beautiful kitchen island stood in the centre of the kitchen and a large breakfast table sat in one corner.
"Alrighty, two cups of pumpkin spice latte coming up." Jayden set down his jacket and backpack on the breakfast table, washed his hands at the sink, then rolled up the sleeves of his flannel shirt. He proceeded to open cupboards, bringing out different ingredients and utensils.
“Where’s everyone?” Kim wondered.
Jayden turned around. “My Rents are visiting my Auntie with my big brother, Eric, and his fiancée as well as my younger sister, Ana.”
Kim rested sideways on the counter. “You preferred to stay behind?”
Jayden was mixing pumpkin powder with spices in a small saucepan over the cooker. He looked up at her and smiled. “With my family, alone time is to be cherished.” He sniggered. “No, they’re a great bunch. I actually miss them. But Terrie’s coming home for a couple of weeks. I wanted to be around when she got here.”
Jayden laughed. “Nah, big sister - who’ll no doubt be on my case about a girlfriend”. He started to whisk some milk into the mixture. “Do you mind making the coffee?”
He handed her all she would need and got out the blender. They worked in silence until Kim felt the need to ask. “So why don’t you?”
He met her eyes. “Hmm?”
“Why don’t you have a girlfriend?”
He paused – his hands freezing on the blender. He raised an eyebrow and shrugged. “Wow, is that like your everyday sort of question?”
“It’s a straightforward question.”
“It’s a weird one. I don’t know, what do you think? Why don’t people have girlfriends?” He gave her his full attention.
“Well, you don’t look like the kind of guy who wouldn’t have a girlfriend.” The words had come out before Kim realized what they sounded like. She made a mental note to slap herself.
Jayden smirked, shaking his head from side to side. “Okay…I had no idea looks played such an important role in the equation. And thank you, for indirectly telling me I look good.”
Kim knew a moment of sincere embarrassment. “Looks are important.” He’d be crazy to think otherwise.
"Are they?" She could hear amusement in his voice.
"Wouldn't you say?" The look on his face told her no, he wouldn't say. She suddenly felt uneasy. "You're telling me you would date an ugly girl?"
Jayden folded his arms to his chest and stared at her, eyebrows creased "What's an ugly girl?"
Kim felt as if she was being backed into a corner. "You know, the girl who cares nothing for her appearance. She doesn't wear any make-up or even face mask at night. Her clothes are mismatched. She does no physical exercise and struggles with her weight."
There was something about the way Jayden stared intensely at her that made her feel the need to swallow and look away yet her eyes soon found his again.
Jayden leaned forward ever so slightly "So...you must think you're a pretty girl."
Was it his sudden closeness or the defying look in his eyes that made her hesitate? Well, yes, she did think she was pretty - very pretty in fact. The same blasian features for which kids had made fun of her as a little girl had become what drew people to her from her pre-teen years. She had her Japanese mother's eyes and jet black hair but apart from that and her caramel skin, she looked much like her African American father. Although the two were twins, Lynn’s Asian features had been much less obvious and her skin had been slightly darker than Kim’s. They’d mostly just shared the same dark wavy black hair. And like herself, Lynn had been a beauty.
She made perfect eye contact with Jayden and smiled with confidence, “I’d say really pretty.” She put on what she was sure was her most appealing expression.
He studied her and his smile grew. “I’d say stunningly beautiful.”
She hadn’t exactly expected the statement so maybe that would explain the way her heart tripped over itself. No, that couldn’t be it. It wasn’t the first time a guy called her beautiful. Was it the fact that he’d moved closer, so much that he’d completely closed the gap between them? That had to be it.
Jayden was so close she could carefully study his features. She, in turn, leaned forward…knowing exactly what would come next.
But instead, she heard Jayden whisper into her ear, “But I wouldn’t date you.” He pulled away, a smug look in his eyes.
Kim stood there, eyes wide with humiliation. He had the audacity to mock her! She quickly composed herself and fought hard not to look bothered or offended. Still, she couldn’t stop herself muttering, “jerk”.
Jayden set down two mugs before them, poured in the milky mixture then topped each mug with whipped cream and added some pumpkin spice, “Jerk? Why? Because I didn’t kiss you or because I wouldn’t date you?” He gave her a sideways look.
Kim felt the sting of complete mortification as her face grew hot.
“Besides, I can’t be a jerk, I’m making you coffee.” He smiled at her, picked up the mugs and set them on the breakfast table. He turned to her. “You just gonna stand there?”
Kim questioned his sanity. But against her better judgment, she joined him at the table, sat across from him but didn’t budge.
Jayden proceeded to drink quietly not paying much attention to her.
Kim resented him. Rather, she resented herself. What was she even doing here? Had she sunk so low she would’ve let him kiss her? What would Lynn say? She barely knew the guy! For crying out loud, it was Stuttering Jay! And why in the world would he not date her? Was something wrong with her?
“Why?” She glared at him as he sipped his coffee.
He hiked a brow, “Why what?”
“Why wouldn’t you date me?”
“Oh, that.” He looked like everything about the conversation was normal. “Because you’re vain.” He seemed to think the answer was obvious. He went back to sipping his coffee.
Kim’s mouth hung open, “What?”
Jayden put down his cup and sighed. “I don’t have very good memories of you, Kim.”
She sat back and folded her arms across her chest. “You’re holding a grudge?”
His brows furrowed. “No, no I’m not.” He looked at the cup in front of her, “You’re not drinking that?”
She stared at it suspiciously. “You’re holding a grudge.”
He chuckled. “If I were, it wouldn’t be enough to poison you.”
Kim’s eye caught a thick leather book on the other side of the table. She immediately recognized it as the Bible. Her father had one of those. So did she...somewhere in the trunk in her room. She didn’t care much for it. But something about seeing it on that table strove with her conscience.
“Alright, I’m sorry for the way I treated you in middle school. But c’mon, you were the round kid with big glasses. And to top it all off, you had a stuttering problem.”
He stared at her, almost expressionless. “Does that even qualify as an apology?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Maybe stop talking before I actually do hold a grudge.”
“You’re making me out to be a horrible person.”
“Because of you, the whole school – not just our year but the whole school- started calling me Stuttering Jay and taunted me about my stuttering.”
Kim could only shrug. “I said I was sorry.”
He looked at her and shook his head from side to side. Then got up, picked up his cup and took it to the sink.
Her mind automatically took her back to middle school and she was suddenly overcome with shame. Silence reigned in the kitchen as her memories tormented her.
“It should have been me.”
“Excuse me?” Jayden studied her from the counter.
She met his eyes. “I wish I’d been the one hit by the car that night, not her.”
Jayden’s face twisted with confusion then he almost looked in pain. He turned away, fishing through a cupboard. He came back with a packet of Oreos he placed on the table. Then he stared hard at her.
“That’s a terrible thing to say.”
“I’ve told myself that every single day since. Nearly two years now. Lynn was lovely. She was everything I wasn’t.”
Jayden looked down at the table, “Raelynn. She would always smile at me back in middle school. She had the sweetest smile. One day she came and sat with me in the cafeteria. I was mad at myself that I couldn’t say one simple sentence to her without stuttering. But she didn’t look at me as if something was wrong with me. She didn’t even look at me as if she felt sorry for me.” A small smile lifted up the corners of his lips.
Kim smiled, although her eyes filled with tears. “She told me to stop making fun of you.” She silently wiped her eyes.
Jayden seemed to be deep in thought as he stared down at the table. “I’m s-sorry.” He looked into her eyes, “I’m sorry she’s gone.”
Kim nodded, “I’m sorry I was horrible to you.”
Jayden forced a smile and pushed the Oreos towards her, reminding her of her latte. She drank the lukewarm mixture and was pleasantly surprised.
“This is really good.”
“I know.” Jayden smirked. “Best in the world, remember? Dad taught me. Family recipe.” He chuckled.
When neither spoke for a moment, Kim hesitated. “You never said. How come you don’t stutter any more?” And aren’t fat and wear glasses? But she thought it best to keep the rest to herself.
Jayden chewed on some Oreos then shrugged. “Speech therapy. Lots and lots of speech th-therapy.” He paused. “Besides, I still stutter.”
She raised her brows at him, “You’re not stuttering now.”
He smiled weakly. “No. But I s-stutter when I’m really t-tired, when I’m really upset and when I’m p-pretty nervous. Also when I t-think about my s-s-stuttering. Like right now, since we’re t-t-talking about it. As a kid I used to be so afraid of stuttering. It was all I th-thou-thought about before I spoke. But the mere f-fact of thinking about it alone made me tense up and stutter even more. And w-when it starts its h-hard to turn off.”
“That must get on your nerves.”
He shrugged, looking at his hand on the table “Honestly? Not r-really. I don’t mind it so much any more. When I’m exhausted or nervous, I don’t even f-fight it. Why fight? That’s w-who I am.” He looked up. “The only time it b-bothers me is when I’m upset. I hate not being in control and letting someone else get to me.” He went back to staring solemnly at the table.
After a moment’s silence, Kim thought to lighten the mood. “I kind of miss the stuttering Jay, I bet he would date me.” Compared to this overconfident smug version.
Jayden laughed. “I wouldn’t bet on it.”
“Well, I bet I could change your mind if I wanted to.”
Jayden’s eyes seemed to search her own, “I wouldn’t bet on that either.”
His eyes narrowed as if trying to figure out if she were serious. “Errr…I think not.”
She smiled, mind made up.