A sense of familiarity hits me when I spot the “Welcome to Ravenshoe” sign on the horizon. When you grow up in the same town your entire life, you usually run for the hills the instant you reach adulthood. I had considered doing that many times during middle school. It wasn’t because I hated my life; I just wanted to save Ryan from his.
My plans changed when Ryan and I lost contact, then they were blasted to the next stratosphere a little over two years ago. My dad is a brilliant man who is fighting an unimaginable disease. I thought his forgetfulness was from a broken heart. I had no clue it was something so mammoth.
Alzheimer’s. My father—the light of my life—has Alzheimer’s.
Now he’s half the man he used to be. This cruel and debilitating disease is taking him away from me more quickly than I would like. I went from curing his broken heart to healing his head within weeks. It is quite dramatic how swiftly his disease has progressed. Within weeks of my mom leaving, little signs appeared. He’d forget his keys or his beloved cell phone. Once he even drove to Hopeton instead of his new office in Ravenshoe. For an ordinary person, this wouldn’t be a big deal. But for an extraordinary man like my dad, I knew it was more than a broken heart.
I don’t care how old I become, I’ll never look at my dad as anything less than a superhero. No matter what my mom and I wanted, he provided. He gave us the world, only to have it brutally stripped away from him. My father adored my mother. Their story is remarkably similar to Ryan’s and mine. They were friends until their final year at Ravenshoe High saw them taking a route neither saw coming.
My father has never handled jealousy well.
When his best friend—who just happened to be a girl—gained the attention of his male friends, things progressed between them very quickly. Although I don’t know the full details of their transition from friends to lovers, the general gist is that they attended a friend’s eighteenth birthday with dates in tow, then left with each other. The stuff in the middle is a little blurry. Not just for me, but my parents as well.
I want to act surprised by the last confession, but I’m not. My parents were born during the Vietnam era. “Haze” is a good word to describe the majority of their senior year.
They had the ideal relationship—well, so it seemed on paper. They married within weeks of their graduation from Ithaca University. They founded their financial conglomerate within months of their return to Ravenshoe, and I joined the ranks a few years after that. Financially, things were bumpy the first few years. . .until my dad struck gold.
Against my mom’s wishes, he invested every dime he had in a little unknown computer company. The return from his investment was astronomical. The figures cited on business records the past ten years would blow your mind. But do you know what? My dad remained humble. The fancy house he has lived in the past eleven years wasn't for him. It was for his queen—my mother. She wanted their living conditions to reflect the princely funds in their bank account. She desired eight bedrooms no one would use and a six-car garage when we only owned two vehicles.
She wanted the world, and my father gave it to her.
And what did he get in return for his provision? She cheated on him.
That day—god, I’ll never forget it. Little girls always favor their fathers over their mothers, but I worshipped my mother just as much as my dad. I wanted to be her when I grew up. . . Until I heard her shouting Ryan's dad’s name at the top of her lungs.
My first thought was fear; Ted is a violent man. It was only when I walked into the laundry room mere feet from the back patio where Ryan and his friends were mingling did I realize my worry was unfounded. She wasn't screaming in distress. She was shouting in ecstasy.
I froze, a better reaction beyond me. I was confident what I was witnessing couldn’t be true. Don't get me wrong, I was nearly thirteen and knew the vile act they were committing without experiencing it firsthand; I just didn't want to believe it.
My father could have picked any woman to stand by his side; he chose my mom because he worshipped the ground she walked on. He would have never selected an adulterer.
The trip back from Ryan's house that afternoon was awkward, to say the least. My mom was quieter than usual. I guess having your twelve-year-old daughter walk in on you in a compromising position with a man who isn’t your husband would be traumatizing for any woman.
She knew me so well, she could tell I knew about her affair without me speaking a word.
“It will never happen again,” she promised.
Her voice was so raw, I believed her in an instant. She wasn’t just my mom; she was a woman I had admired for years, so how else was I supposed to react?
I soon discovered not only is my mom a cheat, she is also a liar. I'm unaware of how long their affair had gone on before I busted them, but I do know it continued weeks after she promised it would stop.
Every time I smelled Ted’s aftershave on her skin, I threatened to tell my father about her cheating ways. I cautioned my mother on numerous occasions that I wasn’t going to let her destroy a man as admirable as my father. She never heeded my warnings. She knew I didn’t want to be the one to break my father’s heart, so she had no reason to fear.
She was right. I was a coward.
Perhaps if I had told my dad earlier, he wouldn’t have walked in on them the afternoon he arrived home early to surprise my mom on their anniversary. Then maybe—just maybe—he’d still be the man he once was.
It is silly for me to believe a broken heart was the origin of my dad’s disease, but it’s hard denying the facts. He never forgot a single thing in the weeks leading up to my mom leaving. Not one. I don’t care what the doctors say; that is not a coincidence. My mother’s deceit didn’t just break my father’s heart; it destroyed his brilliant brain as well.
I scrape my hand across my face to gather a handful of tears that fell during reminiscing before snagging my cell off the passenger seat of my car. After checking that no wetness is visible on my inflamed cheeks, I flip open my phone and snap a quick picture of me cruising past the “Welcome to Ravenshoe” sign to send to Ryan.
I loathe people seeing me cry. It isn't just because I feel weak, but I also hate how people respond to it. One tear and forgiveness that should never be issued is given. How is that logical? Having a hormonal bitch rampage that scorned every person you've ever known excused in an instant with a quick sob is bullshit. If anything, you should take their rant as gospel, because it is usually in these situations that people show their true selves. If you want to know someone's real colors, watch them during a crisis. You'll see everything you want to know.
One afternoon was all it took for Axel to reveal his true self. Annoyed at his father's request for him to attend the twelfth birthday party of an associate’s daughter, he arrived at my house with muddy boots and an even dirtier attitude. I detested him on sight, and we hadn't even been officially introduced. He walked through my home like he was a king, not the least bit worried about the mud he was tracking in across the wooden floors. He even laughed when he noticed our butler Charles kneeling down to mop up his mess.
What did Ryan do when he spotted the mess Axel had made? He helped Charles clean it up. He didn’t do that to express his gratitude for a fun afternoon. He did it because he knew what it felt like to clean up other people’s messes.
The night before had been rough for Ryan. Not content with the "mediocre meal" his wife made him, Ryan's father threw it in her face. If that wasn't humiliating enough, he tossed her food onto the floor and made her eat as if she was an animal. Ryan begged his mom to return to the table, but no matter what he said or did, she followed Ted's command to the T.
It was that instant I knew my juvenile infatuation was no longer childish. I was in love with Ryan. I had always had a strange fascination with him that couldn’t be satisfied by friendship, but I never knew it was true love until that moment. I should have. He has always been an admirable man, even when he was only a boy.
As my car glides down streets I know like the back of my hand, I glance down at my phone, hoping for a return message. I’ve been messaging Ryan on and off the past eighteen hours. He has yet to return my contact.
That is so unlike Ryan.
Unless he is working, his replies are prompt. He hates waiting on people, so he never makes anyone wait on him.
Sighing at his lack of response, I drop my cell back onto the seat opposite me and continue my travels. There is a little niggle in my tummy advising me to turn left on Traitor Avenue instead of my usual right, but I shut it down, blaming a tedious commute for the knot sitting firmly in my stomach.
I shift my eyes sideways when my journey has me passing a house I know all too well—unfortunately. Axel’s family mansion is only half a mile from mine. It stands proudly on a parcel of land my father used to own. I don’t know if that was the transaction that brought our families together, or another foolish business decision.
I also don’t know what happened to the impressive amounts recorded in my father’s business records. Right around the time he sold land he intended to hold until Ravenshoe’s economic boom demanded top dollar for the smallest capital, Axel’s family came into our lives. As Ryan likes to say, “When you put two and two together, you can only reach four.”
I reached four.
I haven't seen Axel since the day he disclosed he was responsible for Col Petretti’s missing millions. Gah—the gall of that guy. He played me like a fiddle, recognizing my desperation had blinded me.
With my father’s illness progressing at a rate faster than I could have ever fathomed, his business affairs soon piled up. I’d never had an interest in following in my parents’ footsteps, but when your lack of business knowledge raises the risk of your demented father losing his home, your priorities change rather quickly.
To begin with, I hid my father’s disease from his associates. That barely lasted a month. They soon caught on that the brilliant man usually at the helm of their operation wasn’t the same person uploading reports via the internet. The only person not smart enough to recognize the change was Col Petretti.
His accounts arrived every Monday morning like clockwork.
For the first few weeks, they were delivered by his right-hand man. But a change in delivery schedule came with a variation I never anticipated. Axel arrived every Saturday night within minutes of me returning from Bob's Burgers. Unlike his predecessor, he didn't hand the papers to me and go on his merry way; he lingered like a bad smell.
I don't forgive easily, so for the first four weeks, I degraded Axel in the same manner he treated Charles years earlier. Unfortunately for all involved, Axel is as determined as I am stubborn. Within a month, our conversations shifted from one- and two-word replies to brief sentences. By the time another month passed, we were somewhat friendly.
He was a wolf wearing sheep’s clothing, but since he failed to interrogate me on my father’s whereabouts as his predecessor had done on numerous occasions, I let my guard down. I was an idiot.
I didn’t stumble upon the missing millions as my love of accounting flourished like Axel’s feathers do when he struts like a peacock. Axel pointed the blunder out to me.
I'm not going to lie; I was devastated. I called my mom every name under the sun while pacing in my den. From the pittance she left in our savings account, I knew there was no way I could repay the money she had stolen. Right at the time my father’s displacement issues began playing out, I was thrown a curveball. I wasn’t even holding a bat.
When Axel suggested his proposal, I thought it was perfect. He needed a well-known local girl to get his parents off his back about his philandering lifestyle, and I needed a lifeline to stop me from drowning.
Once again, I was a gullible idiot.
Axel couldn't care less what his parents thought; he just wanted a scapegoat at the ready if his plan went awry. I was his pawn. By helping me fudge the records to hide my mother's apparent theft, I shifted the burden of guilt from his shoulders to mine. My fingerprints were all over the ledger, and my handwriting was additional proof of deceit. If Regina hadn't suggested that Ryan wear a wire, I'd most likely be spending my college years behind bars.
I did everything Axel asked as he genuinely seemed worried about my wellbeing. He is a good actor—even the jealous boyfriend routine he played like a pro. There was just one issue: his performance didn't end once we were away from prying eyes.
Axel wasn’t just intimidated by Ryan. He hated him. I often wondered if he could sense the natural connection Ryan and I always had. Even though we hadn't been within one hundred feet of each other in years, the electricity that forever bounced between us could be felt for miles. I could feel it. Ryan could feel it. Even Axel couldn’t deny it.
It was only when Axel disclosed the reason for his parents’ separation did the truth come out. Just like the dissolution of my parents’ marriage, Ryan's father was responsible for Axel's parents’ demise. But instead of Axel's mother suffering the kickbacks of her cheating ways, his father did.
Axel's dad is an everyday guy. He doesn't have millions of dollars in his account or an infamous last name that opens doors to him. He simply fell in love with a woman who had a mobster for a brother.
Axel may not have the Petretti name, but he has their blood.
Although I don't give two hoots about Axel or anyone in his family, Regina keeps me updated on his whereabouts. The last update I was given was that he was working with the authorities on their inquiries. Though peeved by the delay in the trial, in all honesty, I'd rather pretend it never happened. Who wants to have their stupidity broadcast for the world to see? My family has always been private. I want to keep it that way.
My thoughts switch from negative to positive when I spot my family home peeking over the horizon. I’m glad after everything my dad has been through the past four years, he can still call this place home. It may have a mortgage on it the size of Ben Hur, but his name is still on the deed.
There was one point earlier this year I thought that would change. The two weeks following Justine’s eighteenth birthday were the lowest days of my life. With my betrayal stinging Axel’s ego more than his heart, he demanded the remaining money I owed by the end of the week.
I was blindsided and desperate. I didn’t have the means to amass over four hundred thousand dollars within days. I barely had two nickels to rub together. Axel knew this; that is why he demanded what he did.
"Stay away from Ryan, Savannah, and we will continue our current payment plan,” he said with a sigh, as if he was helping me instead of hurting me.
I wanted to say no—I was screaming “no” on repeat in my head—but one glance into my dad’s tormented eyes forced me to agree to Axel’s request. My dad had no one on his side. I had to pick him over everyone—even Ryan.
That killed me.
It honestly stung like a thousand bees when I stood behind the door, listening to Ryan knock on repeat and not answering him. I wanted to let him in; I wanted to explain what was happening, but I also wanted my dad to spend his final years in a familiar environment. He lost his wife; he didn't deserve to lose his dignity as well.
My foot slips off the gas pedal when my car enters the long circular driveway of my family home. It isn’t the moving truck parked at the front that has me backpedaling. It is the person standing on the stoop, directing over a dozen men.
It's been years since I've seen her, but I'll never forget her glossy honey hair and peachy red lips.
It is my mom.