Issue #32: Ahead/Behind

This entry is part 8 of 14 in the series The Descendants Vol 3: A Bright, Bright Summer

The events of this issue occur before and during the events of Descendants #31 and #32.

“Check out where this Donaldsonville place is,” Ian was reading the information off his palmtop. “Ascension Parish! If that’s not a good sign for us, I don’t know what is.”

In the driver’s seat, Alexis remained dour, her hair whipping violently thanks to the convertible’s top being down. If not for the cross look on her face, it would have been a perfect picture of summer.

“You know,” Ian soldiered on with his attempted levity, “Because we’re the Descendants and we’re going to…” He sighed. “Okay, I screwed up. At least I think I screwed up, I’m not clear on how though. Last I heard, you and your family were a close as any I know. How was I supposed to know things changed?”

“You could have asked.” Came the answer, half muttered into the wind.

“I thought I was giving you a nice surprise.” Ian frowned at the passing Louisiana landscape. There was silence save for the roar of the wind. Never one comfortable with silence, he was compelled to attempt conversation again. “So what happened?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing? The evil eye and icy silence say otherwise.” The humor went unappreciated, earning him another evil eye. He took the hint and got serious. “I just want to know why what I did was bad. I’ve told you everything that’s ever bothered me, no fair hiding.”

Alexis sighed. “Nothing is the problem. You remember how much you heard from me in the couple of years before everything happened? That’s how much my family heard from me too. I was so focused on what I was doing; how much good I thought I was doing, that I let myself drop off the radar.”

Understanding hit Ian like a linebacker. “So when I called your mom and told her we’d be in the area and would like to visit…”

“It was the first time she’d heard from me in a little over three years.”

“I’m a real prick then.” Said Ian, chewing his lip. “Well, we could just go straight to Donaldsonville, or back to Livingston and get a get a hotel instead.”

Alexis shook her head. “No, It’s not like I don’t want to see them, I just don’t like the prospect of the chewing out my mom and dad are going to give me for disappearing.” The tension broken, the last fifteen miles to Baton Rouge was far more comfortable for both.

***

On the other side of the country, another homecoming was also in the making.

Melissa had never been to California in her life, much less Angel’s Camp. But that was where her family was now. Eddie, her father was retired and helping Gwen, her mother run a small craft shop in the city. Together, they were raising Kyle, the brother who hadn’t even been conceived when she disappeared.

A hand covered her arm and delivered comforting warmth. “You’ll be fine.” Laurel said, giving her a gentle smile. “They miss you a lot and from what I hear, your little brother can’t wait to meet his big sister.”

They were walking down the street, looking for Gwen’s Canvas, the arts and crafts store her mother owned.

“It’s got to be pretty damaging for a kid to hear that someone he thinks died before he was born is alive and coming to visit.” Melissa mused aloud.

“That’s your way of saying you’re excited, right?” Laurel asked, “Tell the truth; I know you’ve been waiting a long time for this; ever since they weren’t able to make it to Mayfield last Fall.”

A rueful smile played on Melissa’s lips. “It’s true. I’ve dreamed about it ever since I got out. But there’s so much that can go wrong. They’ve lived ten, elven years and they’re getting me back only a year older. And all the Hope stuff—how are they going to react to that? Is it even fair to put this on them?”

“It’s better they know what to expect and take steps to protect themselves than to be taken by surprise, isn’t it?” Laurel asked. “It’s only fair to them, Melissa.”

“That’s easy for you to say, you’re not about to tell your parents that just by existing, you’re putting their lives in danger. What if they can’t handle it, huh? What if they—“

Laurel gave Melissa’s arm a squeeze. “Melissa, your parents cried when I told them on the phone that you were coming home. And they were understanding, if very confused, about how you haven’t aged. They are not going to blame you for something you can’t control.” She glanced up and saw the sign for Gwen’s Canvas. “Here it is. I’m not going to push you, Melissa, but I think we both know that you can’t come this close and not take that last step.”

***

“How do I look?” Ian tried to catch his reflection in the shiny surface of the door knocker on the Keyes family home.

Alexis gave him an incredulous look. He was trying to put her at ease about the coming explanations and guilt trips and it was working. “Why? Since when have you ever cared how you look for my family? They love you like the son they never had.”

“That was when I was their daughter’s geeky sidekick. Now I’m trying to look like the potential son-in-law they never had.” Ian replied, trying to get his hair to lie flat. “Should have bought a comb.” He huffed, mussing his hair in a frenzied action.

At that moment, the door opened and Anita Keyes, Alexis’s mother, was staring him in the face. She was in her early fifties, with dark brown hair hanging loose almost all the way to her hips and with green eyes that made her relation to Alexis exceedingly clear.

Ian froze, his eyes locking with the older woman’s. “Uh… evening, Mrs. Keyes.” He slowly lowered his hands. “I… uh… a mosquito. There was a mosquito in my hair. He’s gone now. And…”

Alexis stepped in to prevent further embarrassment. “Mom, I—“ She didn’t get any further before being swept up in a crushing hug.

“Lexy! My god, what happened to you? We heard all about what happened at the Academy and we were afraid you got yourself investigated by Congress or something.” She held her daughter out at arm’s length and gave her a measured look. “You’re not on the run are you?”

That made Alexis blanche. “Ma, no. Oh my god, do you actually think I’d actually knowingly be involved in that sort of stuff?”

“How am I supposed to know anything when I haven’t heard from you in forever?” Mrs. Keyes countered. “And no, I didn’t think you’d do it knowingly, but you hear all the time about these people that work for companies doing all sort of illegal things and not even knowing.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t call or email.” Alexis said, the comment had hit a little too close to home though and reflexively, she added, “Plus, I did figure it out in time. I’m… sort of the whistleblower that started what happened to them.”

“Yeah.” Ian jumped in. “You could say that she’s a her—oof!”

Alexis cut him off with an elbow in the side. “And don’t worry about my job, mom, I’m working for a new school. A reputable one this time. In fact, that’s why we ended up in the neighborhood; we’re trying to scout a young man in Donaldsonville for the Liedecker Institute in Mayfield.”

The word ‘Mayfield’ made Mrs. Keyes’s eyebrow twitch. “I’m sure you’re doing a lot of good, sweetie, but that’s no excuse to cut your family out.”

“I wasn’t trying to cut you out.” Alexis protested, “I love you all. I just got caught up and…”

“And it’s not going to happen again. Understand?” Mrs. Keyes said firmly.

Alexis lowered her eyes. “No ma’am. It won’t.”

“Good, because you’re not too old for me to ground.” The older woman’s gaze softened. “Now you two get in this house. Your sisters have been waiting here all day, eating all my food and your daddy’s bringing dinner home from the restaurant.”

The mere mention of Alex Keyes’s cooking set Ian’s mouth to watering. The entire reason the Keyes family lived in Louisiana was so that Alex could live his dream of first learning and then honing his craft in the art of Cajun cooking from the local masters. “Please say shrimp.” He gave Mrs. Keyes a hopeful look.

“This week’s special was catfish.” The Keyes matriarch replied, ushering the pair into the house. Ian sighed. “But, just for calling us and bringing our girl home, I made sure Al’s bringing a special plate just for you.”

“Mrs. Keyes, you just sent me to heaven.” Ian grinned.

***

It was funny how details suddenly became more important the closer you came to taking a big step in your life, Melissa noted somewhere deep in her mind. The clear, but erratic tinkling of the old fashioned bell hung over the door, the woody smell that permeates a place where a great deal of paper and balsa wood was collected. She even noticed the unfashionable, but probably economical pink and blue checked carpet, though that was probably due to keeping her eyes down.

Laurel was beside her, a strong yet gentle hand on her arm; partly to calm her, partly—at least Melissa assumed—to keep her from bolting.

The most damning detail though was the silence. No happy sobs, not joyous exclamations, only dead silence. And then… a small hiccough. Her eyes swung up and to the right. Her eyes locked with those of her mother who was frozen in place, jaw clenched, tears streaming silently down her face.

Though ten years had added some weight to her figure, lines to her face, and gray to her strawberry blonde hair, it was definitely her mother. The same mother to whose ‘love ya’ she had ignored that fateful day she had returned to the Academy.

They stood there, in mutual shock for several minutes. Finally Gina Forrester voiced the only thought going through her mind. “Melissa? Is that really you?”

From behind, Laurel gave Melissa slight shove to get her walking forward. “Go on.” She whispered.

“I-it’s me.” Melissa said hesitantly approaching the counter. “I’m…” she didn’t know how to finish that sentence.

Mrs. Forrester stepped out from behind the counter and reached out to caress her once lost daughter’s face like a blind woman. “You look… You’re… It’s true what she said, you look like you did the day I dropped you off.”

Not wanting to intrude, but feeling the need to explain, Laurel cleared her throat. “Mrs. Forrester? I’m Laurel Brant, we spoke on the phone?”

Still engrossed in having her daughter returned, Mrs. Forrester only paid her the slightest bit of attention. “Yes, you really were Melissa’s friend back then?”

Technically, she’d been Melissa’s roommate’s friend, but there was no reason to clarify that. “Yes, I was. I was also there when we found her in the Academy stasis cell. I just wanted to assure you that aside form from time shock, Melissa’s perfectly healthy. She’s just been very nervous about this moment.”

Eyes traveling back to the still mute Melissa, Mrs. Forrester shook her head. “No, honey, there’s nothing to be worried about. You’re home now, baby. Home.” She wrapped her arms around the girl, who immediately clamped her arms around her.

“I’m sorry.” Melissa spoke the first words she’d spoken to her mother in eleven years. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about honey.” Mrs. Forrester cooed. Craning her neck toward the back of the store, she called, “Tim? Tim, come out here!”

Melissa stiffened, but didn’t let go of her mother.

“Mom, other kids get to go to the beach during the summer.” A young boy’s voice complained as it traveled up the aisles toward the front. “Why do I get stuck with, “ he appeared, ginger hair matted by sweat, face twisted into a sour expression. That expression melted away when he saw he scene at the front of the store. “doing… inventory…” he trialed off.

It took some work to turn Melissa around to present her to her brother, but Mrs. Forrester finally managed it. “Tim, this is your sister, Melissa.” She stroked Melissa’s hair soothingly. “Melissa, this is Tim: your baby brother.”

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About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.

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