Over the years, I'd developed a strategy for when I had to talk to Lillian in a normal, polite way. How I handled it was, I'd just smile as nice as I can, and nod politely. Any questions was answered in eloquent-as-possible short sentences with that same smile and tone of voice. Kalen had informed me that I sounded fake as hell whenever I did my Lillian voice, but I'd always waved him off. You do what you have to do to survive, you know?

In hindsight, I should have stuck to tried-and-tested strategy in the dinner. Then maybe everything would have went smoothly, but I had been beginning to think that normal conversation was possible. I'd forgotten that I was actually in the middle of the most dysfunctional dinner ever. I was about halfway through my food, just content to stuff my face and listen to them talk, when Lillian dropped a bomb and spoke directly to me.

"So, Addison, what's your plans for college?"

I was so shocked that I looked up immediately. Dad had a similar expression on his face. He knew this was strange. Lillian never ever tried to talk to me. A quick glance to my right found that Kalen had an apprehensive look on his face. Yet both men immediately turned to their food, very deliberately and obviously minding their own business.

Typical abandonment.

"I've applied to a few colleges," I heard myself say in guarded tones, "I guess I'll be hearing back from them soon."

"I'm sure you'll have no trouble getting into your choices," she said, smiling genuinely, "where did you apply, again?"

I lowered my fork, and I was sure that my face looked as blank as I felt. What was she playing at? I played with my fork slowly and named the top three colleges I'd applied to. Immediately, I saw my dad look up and I hid a wince. I hadn't told him anything about my future plans, nothing about the colleges I want to go to, or even the degree I wanted to do.

"But all of them are so far away," Lillian seemed to say exactly what dad was thinking. My eyes darted up and I met her gaze stonily. In that moment, I hated her. She might not know what she was doing, but I hated her. As if she could read my hostile gaze, she leaned back and folded her hands protectively - nervously? - over her big, swollen belly, which was carrying my half-sibling.

Suddenly, I knew what she was going to say. And I begged, and I prayed that she wouldn't say it.

"You're going to miss the baby's delivery," she said, "I'm sure you would love to see him."

I stared at her.

For quite a while, no one spoke. I think everyone was shocked with the way things were turning out, and I knew that dad's lips were pressed into a line. He knew that this was over, and his serious gaze reminded me of someone who had a huge amount of damage control to do. I knew that because I've seen that look, over and over in the past years when Lillian and I would occasionally rub shoulders. I thought he was expecting me to be me - shut her down, rude and condescending as I always have, and a huge part of me wanted to prove him wrong. Dad was no longer smiling. But I couldn't find the right words to say - and if I told the truth, this dinner was a lost cause.

"So - so a boy, huh? You guys are having a boy?" Kalen broke the silence, voice wild and frantic, "That's awesome" Underneath the table, his hand found my knee and squeezed it, like wake up, Addison.

Dad seemed to just notice Kalen was there, but Lillian was oblivious. She smiled at him. "Thanks Kalen, we just found out yesterday."

Dad came out of his reverie. "Yeah, we wanted to keep it a surprise originally, but I guess uh, now it's out there!"

Kalen's hand squeezed my knee again. I toyed with the idea of congratulating them but even I knew that it would be the fakest, emptiest show of excitement, ever - not to mention incredibly sarcastic and knowing me, rude. So I pressed my lips into what I hoped was a smile and looked back down at my food. I imagined that I could literally hear dad and Kalen's sighs of relief. Until -

"We're still thinking of names, although we have a couple in mind," Lillian said, "I wanted to run them by Addison first, I know she doesn't like typical common names. What do you think about Daniel?"

The tight, constricted feeling in my chest was back. I gazed up at her, blank and confused, wondering why she was pushing me like this. This never happened. Lillian always backed off.

"I... it's fine." I stuttered.

"Is it?" She toyed with her fork absently, and shook her head. "You didn't even think about it."

My jaw dropped, and dad put his spoon down and said in a low voice, without looking at her, "Lillian."

I turned to look at Kalen, wondering wildly if I was imagining this entire thing. Kalen looked back at me, and his face reflected my confusion, only he looked a bit more on guard than I did. I wasn't imagining it. She was - she was -

"Adam," she laughed softly, only it didn't sound genuine, or malicious even. It was just an empty laugh. "I think I would know if Addison was lying."

"Lillian." Dad said again, stronger this time. I stared at my stepmother for the hundredth time this night and immediately realized one thing - she was doing this on purpose. She was.. baiting me, antagonizing me deliberately. But why? Why? It was going good. We were talking, we were having a good time - and I may have my reasons for hating her, and I would never admit it but Lillian.. was a good person.

My fingers were clenched tightly around my utensils, I realized belatedly, and Kalen had an grip on my knee that grew stronger by the second.

"Would you?" I asked her. My voice was ice cold and steely.

"Wouldn't I?" Lillian shot back, only she sounded more tired than cold or angry. She gazed at me, and there was something in her face, like she was wondering if she should say something or not, like she was deliberating how far she could push me.

"Lillian, don't." Dad had finally turned to her. He had a hand on her shoulder. He glanced at me, face confused and apologetic and weary. "Leave it. Addison's fine."

His last words seemed to finalize her decision, and she offered him a soft, sad smile before turning to me. "I would know," she told me. Her hands gently grazed her stomach, almost absent-mindedly. "I raised you like you were my daughter."

A tidal wave of anger, pure rage and hurt, rose and engulfed me. I could swear that I could hear my blood pounding and rushing.

Have I ever mentioned how Lillian came into our lives? It was about a year after mom was gone. Dad was a bigger wreck than I was, but Grandma Jen had been here to hold us together. Slowly, he pulled through his grief and came through for me. He wasn't talking much, and he certainly wasn't talking about her, but he slowly started to be there for me. I remembered crawling into bed with dad, and he'd tell me stories to get me to go to sleep. Only we wouldn't - couldn't - so we would end up just hugging each other in the dark, him blinking away tears that always fell onto my hair and soaked my skin, and me.. well, retreating inside. By that time, I wasn't talking much - I didn't cry, and I didn't do much but sleep, actually - GranJen would always bring my food into my room for me, I remember. When dad had somewhat stabilized himself and it was time for GranJen to leave, she pulled him aside and told him I needed help. I know this because I listened in on them talking, late one night.

She told him how it wasn't normal that I was like this, and that it seemed like I was, "empty inside". And she told dad that maybe it was too late for him to help me, but there were professionals now who could do that for him. They would heal me.

And so we went on a series of meeting more therapists and psychologists than I could imagine, and each one lasted a little more than a month. I went through them almost mechanically, because I never talked and never improved, and dad found himself worrying more and more as each we left each therapist, hoping that the next one would be the one to make me better, maybe not this one but definitely the next one, oh god this next one had to be the one. This carried on for about a year until along came Lillian, grief counselor, child therapist.

Of course, we left her in less than three weeks. He had brought me to some of the best doctors, and they couldn't get through to me, after all. But Lillian was invested in me. She seemed genuinely interested in helping me get through my grief. I remember sitting in her office, with the warm yellow walls and green potted plants, her asking me questions, undeterred even after my silences. Dad, at his wits end, spent time talking to her about me, and the rest, as they say, is history.

They went on to date, and perhaps even planned their life together after that, but they never got married or engaged until I was 16. Dad kept her and me separate, wanting to give me space I assume, although she was always around, at family events, my birthdays, she was at our house all the time, she made our meals, bought me clothes, took me to school when dad couldn't. They were practically living a married life without actually being married, and it was because they wanted me to know what was going on before they did. She had first tried resuming her sessions, wanting to.. counsel me, I suppose, but her relationship with my dad had destroyed whatever little trust I had had in her. They were together the entire 8 years until I grew up, until eventually dad came to me, wondering what I would say if he said it was about time he married her. I had told him yes, and then cried in the shower. How could I have said no? I loved him.

So I suppose, yes. She had raised me.


I realized that there was laughter, and I realized it was coming from me. Kalen had said my name. I glanced at him, and he was looking at me, with anger and sadness in his expression. Anger? I studied him, tilting my head. Not at me. He was stroking my knee, trying to get me to calm down. Not me - He was angry at her. Why was I laughing? I had tears in my eyes.

Lillian was watching me calmly, and dad looked like he was watching a car accident unfold before his eyes. Which was fair enough - I was a trainwreck.

I slowed down my laughter, wiping my eyes, looking at my dad. It was him I felt any true emotion for - I looked at him and tried to convey my apologies to him - so sorry I ruined this, dad - I'm sorry, you must know that. He looked at me, gaze weary and hardened. For a second I considered shutting my mouth - just shut up and go home, and go to sleep - but Lillian had started this, and to be honest, I felt like doing a lot more than just sit here calmly and talk. But I looked back at my dad, and I felt a mortal guilt unlike no other within me.

He had dark hair, dark eyes - my eyes, everyone always said. Dad was wearing some fancy looking blue shirt, rolled up to his sleeves. My dad loved me, took care of me, lived with me throughout my tantrums and problems. I owed him.

So I looked at Lillian and said about 1% of what I really wanted to tell her. I gave my stepmother a cold smile. "I will never be your daughter."

It occurred to me that conversation flowed freely and normally around us, but at our table - you could've cut the tension with a knife. Lillian's face did not change - it remained that weary, calm sort of expression, but her hands betrayed her and shook a little. I almost felt bad.

It's done, I thought, this was the end. I put my fork down, formulating an excuse in my head - I needed to get out of there. "I need the restroom, excuse me."

"Of course," Lillian said pleasantly, "running away is the only solution for Addison, always."

I felt like a force field of something had slammed into my gut.

"Mrs. Geraldson." Kalen was the first person to interfere - dad was still in shock to formulate a response strategy, I thought. His tone was of controlled politeness, although there was no denying the authority behind it. "I think I'm going to take Addison home now."

Lillian opened her mouth, but dad spoke first, finally coming out of his reverie.

"Yes, you do that." Dad's voice could have cut steel, and I knew he was angry. "I'll see you at home," he finished without looking at me. Immediately, almost in synchronization, dad and Kalen started moving, as if their number one priority was to separate me and Lillian. But Lillian simply fixed Kalen with a demure, calm smile.

"I watched you grow up too, you know."

Dad closed his eyes and put a hand on Lillian's shoulder, this time more demanding. His demeanor screamed desperation, but he forced himself to remain calm, like all of us were. It was a public setting. Even I knew better than to air my dirty laundry in public.

Kalen froze, but took a deep breath and met Lillian's gaze head on. It was not a hostile gaze - in fact, 100% of any hostility at that table was coming from me. Kalen nodded almost kindly. "That's true, Mrs. Geraldson."

She nodded too. "Then you know I'm not antagonizing you when I say you can't keep enabling Addison forever."

Dad turned shocked eyes onto me, like something had just dawned on him. Lillian kept her eyes on Kalen. And Kalen - Kalen's mouth had parted. His hands were oddly relaxed, and slowly, his gaze lowered to the table. I looked in between all of them, feeling my anger rising at being treated like I was part of the furniture. What was going on? I could feel myself working into a rage.

"Are you done?" I said in a low voice, seething, "are you done with your little game?"

Lillian gave a start. "I never -"

"I don't care. I don't give a shit. And I'm leaving whether you're coming or not," I told Kalen, and stood up. I didn't give him a chance to react, and almost left, before I turned to dad. I felt my heart melting, like my legs were turning to jelly. I'd wanted to make this work so much. All for you. "I'm so sorry, dad." My voice cracked. "I was really trying to be good for you -"

"Honey, please -" Dad's voice was so sad.

"But apparently I can't do something simple as dinner without screwing it up. Like I screw everything up." I pressed on, ignoring the way his face got sadder and sadder with every word. "I'm really - so sorry."

My vision blurred over and then I was being led away with a gentle arm around my shoulder. Kalen walked me quickly to his car, his hand dropping to squeeze mine almost painfully. My tears were openly falling down my cheeks now, but I didn't care. I didn't feel like crying anymore. He unlocked the doors and opened my door for me. Before I sat down, Kalen touched my arm.

"Where do you want to go?"

I looked at him and swallowed. His gaze was serious and nothing more, and I needed a distraction - a happy, good kind of distraction. "Can we go see Mario?"

"Hey guys. Damn, look at you! My girl's turned into a heartbreaker!"

I beamed up at Mario, taking in his cheerful smile, that big, muscly teddy bear who can always make me smile. "Missed you, Mario."

He gave me a hug. "Come in, come in. Hey man." He greeted Kalen, who was behind me. We walked into his living room together. The TV was on, channel on some talk show which Mario evidently had been watching before we'd rung the doorbell.

"Where's Carla?" Kalen asked. He'd always had an affectionate, teasing sort of relationship with Mario's wonderful mother.

"They're both out, dad had some company dinner thing. I think they'll be back in a while, actually." Mario shrugged and plopped down on the couch beside me. "Where have you two been, all fancy and dressed up?"

Kalen and I exchanged a look.

"We went to dinner," I said cautiously.

Mario's face lit up and he let out a whoop. "About damn ti -"

"With Addison's parents!" Kalen finished hastily.

Mario shut his mouth and gave us a skeptical look.

"Yeah, Addison had an out-of-body experience this morning and she asked them out." Kalen ignored my glower.

To my surprise, Mario turned a dry look on to Kalen. "Really, man? Dinner with her parents?"

"Kalen's telling the truth," I supplied. Mario didn't seem to believe us. "We just left." But Mario and Kalen seemed to be having a conversation on their own via nonverbal means. Kalen rolled his eyes and fell back against the sofa.

Mario snorted. "That's what I thought.. so, dinner, huh?" His voice took on a slightly nervous tone. "How did that go?"

I stared at the TV resolutely. I did not want to think about that. I thought Kalen would answer, but he let the silence stretch, too. Mario picked up on this and backtracked.

"Okay, not talking about the dinner, that's cool, got it." Mario stood up. "You guys want anything to eat, drink? Hey -"

Kalen had stood up and walked away abruptly. I almost thought he was going to leave when he turned around and muttered, "gotta call my mom." We both heard the front door open and close.

Mario looked at me. "What's his problem?"

I was still staring after Kalen. "Bad day," I said, and turned to him, feeling apologetic for Kalen's rudeness. "We don't want anything Mario, thanks. Sit down."

He came and sat down on the floor beside me, slinging an arm around my shoulders. We watched TV in silence for about five seconds.

"Bad dinner, too?" Mario asked softly.

I sighed and leaned into his warmth. "I don't want to talk about it."

"You never do."

I was shocked at the sudden rise of anger in me. "Not you too," I swore and pushed off him.

"Hey, hey," Mario had his hands up, "What the hell Addison?"

"I don't know Mario, maybe I'd just like for everyone to stop treating me like an idiot. Talk about it, don't run away, I'm so tired of this!" I exclaimed, clutching my head. A headache was forming there in slight poundings. "I'm fine."

"Bullshit." Everything about Mario's demeanor screamed offense. "You think I can't tell you've been crying? Coming in here with swollen eyes and Kalen acting all strange -"

"It was a bad dinner," I interrupted him, my voice rising, "you can obviously guess that, it's not rocket science!"

"Well maybe I would like to hear that from you! Damn, I know I'm not in your little circle, I'm not Kalen -"

"Don't you go there," I hissed. "You're my best friend -"

" - Oh yeah? Maybe start acting like it, Addison. Maybe I'd like to be kept in the loop! You're my best friend, too! I deserve to know shit!" Mario was glaring at me.

"Fine!" I was glaring back, and my whole body felt hot. "You wanna know shit? Fine. Kalen thinks I'm crazy, Lillian hates me, Dad hates me too, and the baby is fucking coming along in another fucking month. Oh, and it's a he. It's a fucking boy. And he's gonna hate me, too." I closed my eyes and turned away from Mario, crossing my arms over my chest protectively. I swallowed. "Please don't be mad with me."

Mario exhaled heavily.

"You're the only person I know who doesn't think I'm rotten or crazy. I just... I don't tell you because I -"

"What?" Mario asked gently. We still weren't looking at each other.

I licked my lips and sighed. I've destroyed two relationships tonight, might as well go all out. Go big or go home, am I right?

"I guess I'm just scared that you'd start seeing me differently. I..." I let myself trail off, but Mario's hand covered mine. I didn't need to say anything else, because he understood.

"No one hates you." Mario said softly. This was the most gentle I'd seen Mario in my entire friendship with him. "It's all in your head.. we just want you to get better."

I squeezed his hand. Something about the way he said that ticked at my mind, but I was too grateful, feeling too appreciative to focus on anything else. I didn't deserve friends like this, Mario or Kalen. I really didn't.

Sensing that it was time to change the topic, Mario let go. "And I haven't been telling you everything, either. I, uh, I'm kind of, um... seeing someone."

"I knew it." I squinted at him, glad for the change in topic. "Is it Jaclyn? It's Jaclyn. I -"

The front door closed and Mario and I jumped. Kalen walked in, cool as anything, and a suspicion that he'd heard everything flashed into my mind. If he heard anything, he didn't give any indication of it.

"Hey," Kalen simply plopped down on the sofa, normal, staring at us demurely.

Mario and I exchanged a look. He'd definitely heard us, but this was something I didn't want to be acknowledged. It was just a little thing, something for Mario and I to keep. And I truly appreciated Kalen saying nothing about it. Evidently Mario felt the same way about it, too, because he raised his eyebrows and teased him.

"Boyfriend dump you or something? You over it now?"

"Funny," Kalen told him dryly. "That's real funny."

"You couldn't have walked in one minute later? Mario was about to tell me about his girlfriend." I narrowed my eyes, then winked to show my kidding around.

Mario sputtered. "She's not my girlfriend -"

We both ignored him. Kalen had sat up, alert. "It's Anna, right? You're dating Anna."

Mario looked at him strangely. "Who's Anna?"

I laughed. Kalen threw a small pillow at my head.

"Anna Smith, dude! The cheerleader!" Kalen explained while I recovered. "See, Addison and I have this bet -"

Mario sputtered again. "You guys are betting on this -"

"It's up to what, twenty? Fifty?" I mused. "Anyway, it's Jaclyn."

"Please God, no," Kalen prayed.

"No guys. Jeez. It's, uh." Mario rubbed the back of his head. "Amelia."

Kalen and I paused.

"I knew it," I said.

"No you didn't," Kalen rolled his eyes.

I ignored him and turned to Mario. Preparing myself, I wagged a finger at him.

"Don't say it," Mario narrowed his eyes.

I pressed on. "I told you so!" Mario grabbed the pillow Kalen had thrown at me and gently smacked me with it. "Didn't I tell you? Did I not tell you about this? I knew it. I practically orchestrated it."

"Yeah, yeah," Mario said flippantly, while Kalen booed at me. "It's kinda thanks to you." He blinked at me, a boyish smile now at his mouth. "She texted me hi, and uh.. it just kinda picked up from there."

I grinned at him. "I'm so happy for you."

"Yeah man, congrats." Kalen patted his shoulder. Mario couldn't seem to keep that smile of his face.

We talked for another half an hour or so, until Mario's parents came home. It felt good to be in a warm, friendly atmosphere. After much banter between Kalen and Mario's mom, and Mario's dad discussing the latest Terminator movie with me and Mario, and heavily but politely refusing food from Mario's mom, as we always do, we finally waved goodbye and left, me after giving Mario a grateful hug, of course.

We walked to Kalen's car in happy, contented silence.

"I'm glad we came here," Kalen said, "I didn't realize I'd kinda missed Mario."

"Don't be afraid to express your feelings," I said sagely, and grinned.

"Pot calling the kettle black, don't you think?" Kalen gave me a sideways glance. I was too self-aware to argue with that, so I let it slide. Plus, our time with Mario had cheered me up significantly. "So, where are we going now?"

That cheerful bubble around me seemed to thin a little. I absolutely did not want to go home.

"Just send me home," I told Kalen. "We have school tomorrow... time for sleep, I guess."

"You don't want to go home, though," Kalen pointed out easily. Of course he knew.

I shrugged. "Of course not. But we can't keep driving around forever."

"We could try," Kalen grinned mischievously.

A huge wave of affection rolled over me.

"Yeah," I smiled at him. "I guess we could."

"We could go to my house." Kalen paused at my side of the door. "You could stay tonight. Go home tomorrow, I'll send you after school."

I forced myself to not leap at the opportunity, to stop and think rationally. I was already troubling Kalen enough as it was. He was my best friend, but that didn't mean I could abuse his kindness for as long as I already have. I wanted more than anything to go with him and forget this night ever happened, but I couldn't - wouldn't impose myself on someone who already had done so much for me.

So I was kind of shocked myself when I tucked my hair behind my ears and looked at him beseechingly. "You wouldn't mind? I wouldn't be troubling you?"

Kalen smiled. He unlocked the car, opened the door for me and watched me sit down.

"Let me enable you one last time," he said softly and closed the door.

a/n alright, loves, we're one chapter away from the end. hope you liked it. tell me what you think, as always. :heart: