No Secrets or Lies
Halla stared at the rows of canned food in her cupboard as she put away the last can of black beans. The neat, orderly rows gave her a sense of security and contentment. She never let herself get too many, though, because there was a difference between preparation and hoarding, and she still, even after so many years, had the urge to stockpile all she could. Just in case. Maybe the urge would never go away. Maybe full recovery was impossible when you went hungry as a child. Maybe it was worse when your parents were responsible.
No. She wouldn’t let those years define her. She was a woman now, college-educated, with a successful advice blog that focused on finding one’s true self.
“I’ve done that,” she whispered fiercely, staring at the rows of canned goods. “I’ve found myself.”
But no one living in a small three-bedroom apartment with two other women really needed thirty cans of black beans, especially when she had as many cans of refried beans, tomatoes, corn, tuna, chicken, and soup. Her freezer was every bit as packed with tortillas, bread, and strawberry ice cream.
With a sigh, she shut the cupboard and went to the chair that sat in front of her computer in a corner of their living room. She spent much of her day here, so this chair was comfortable. More comfortable, in fact, than her secondhand bed.
As a child, or even in college while earning a bachelor’s in journalism and a minor in editing, she’d never expected to make her living as a blogger, particularly as an inspirational blogger. Even when her following had grown to a hundred and fifty thousand by the end of her college years, she’d expected to do something else after graduation. But last year when she’d been offered an online column for a popular news outlet, she found she couldn’t give up her own blog. Luckily, the paper’s editor was willing to let her share the column and send in only one weekly article, so she’d been able to get a taste of “real” journalism while still posting four times a week on her own site. She now had two hundred and fifty thousand people who received email notifications about her blog, and she was considering adding a few more product reviews so she could quit her part-time news column.
She had thirty new email subscribers since she’d run to the store after a very late lunch. Not bad for a slow Tuesday afternoon. Her gaze ran down the numerous comments on her most recent post about a hiking trip she’d taken but saw nothing requiring immediate attention. Until her eyes snagged on a name, and her heart started beating faster.
Between Oliver Montgomery’s comments on her posts and her comments on his small hiking blog, along with their interactions on social media, she and Oliver had exchanged thousands of communications. It was because of him she’d taken up an interest in hiking—and found that it helped sooth not only her but also her followers. The free hiking gear she tested and occasionally blogged about was a bonus.
Glad you had such a great time, he wrote. As you said in your post, being out in nature is a great way to center yourself. By the way. I did what you recommended in your Let Go So You Can Hold Tight blog. It worked. Thank you!
Halla stared at the words. He’d done it. He’d actually talked to his mother, maybe even patched things up with her—and Halla wanted details. He’d posted on her blog only thirty minutes ago. Maybe he was still online. She navigated to Google Hangouts, where they normally connected for private conversation, and while it loaded, she darted a quick look into the small mirror on her desk. With as many video posts as she made these days, it paid to make sure nothing was stuck between her teeth or smeared on her cheek. She ran a hand through her hair. The blond strands were no longer the near buzz cut she’d sported after fleeing Idaho, mostly in defiance of the long hair her parents had forced her to wear, but it was still short and manageable, with enough thickness and a slight wave to sometimes make it look a bit wild like it did right now. She finger-combed it into place, the strands finally long enough to tuck behind her ear. There, she was ready.
Her heart banged against the wall of her chest that much harder. Only because I’m interested in what happened with him and his family, she thought. She always cared about her subscribers.
Not the whole truth. She’d be lying if she didn’t admit Oliver was special. It wasn’t just hiking they had in common. She lived in Phoenix currently, but she’d spent her first fifteen and a half years in Nampa, Idaho, and he had originally hailed from Boise, twenty minutes away, though he now lived in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where he worked for the US Forest Service. He knew what it was like growing up where she had, and with only two years separating them, they remembered a lot of the same local events and school rivalries. Enough that it had sparked more than the regular communications between them. She could count on two hands the one-on-one video chats she’d had with subscribers, and only a few of them had become regular friends.
Oliver was also drop-dead gorgeous, which helped, because she was a woman after all. Not gorgeous in a suit and tie, well-groomed kind of way, but in a rugged, outdoorsy way that made her dream of warm nights under an open sky with crickets chirping. Or of beautiful, untouched valleys that stretched as far as the eye could see.
Oliver growing up so close to her hometown did have its drawbacks. He’d still been in his last year of high school when she’d disappeared from Nampa, catching the attention of the national news. Seven months later when her parents had finally picked up her trail in Arizona, he, like all the other residents of Nampa and Boise, had been following events as they’d unfolded. As her father had started fundraising in an effort to locate her and as Halla’s foster sister Saffron had fought back, posting the truth of why Halla had run away. Halla had been ready to run again, but the social media outrage had backlashed on her father and saved her.
She’d started her first blog then, talking about running away and finding Lily’s house and her foster sisters. Not many of those original blog subscribers were still her followers, and she’d unpublished many of the embarrassingly raw, agonized earlier posts. Oliver had followed her then, he’d confessed to her a few months ago, but he’d been too busy to read blogs during his college years, so he’d let his subscription lapse. Last year, he’d found her Let Go blog, had recognized her name, and had annoyingly disagreed with her post. She’d answered back, and they’d been talking almost daily in some form or another ever since.
Now he responded to her video call almost immediately, and Halla couldn’t help the warm rush inside her as he appeared on the screen. He had short brown hair and his face, normally covered with a few days’ beard growth, was freshly shaven. His blue eyes crinkled at the corners, showing his pleasure at seeing her. His mouth, one she’d dreamed about kissing, was full and wide and smiling.
“Hey, how are you?” he asked, his voice low.
That made her study his background. “You’re not at home.”
He shook his head. “I’m at my Mom’s.”
“How’d it go?” A smile tugged on her lips, but she wasn’t about to spoil this moment with an I-told-you-so. His happiness was satisfaction enough.
“Go ahead and say it,” he told her, apparently reading her mind.
“What?” She blinked at him innocently.
He laughed. “Okay, play it your way, but I readily admit you were right. I wasn’t sure if talking with her was going to put a final seal of death on our relationship or if it would fix things, but either way, it couldn’t have gotten worse since we had zero relationship to begin with.”
“And?” she asked. Oliver had become estranged from his mother when he’d rejected her advice and chosen a forestry career that would keep him in the field, far away from family. From there things had degenerated, growing worse the day he’d been out in the forest, unreachable, when his father had died. She’d never forgiven him.
He leaned forward, lowering his voice further as if to make sure he wasn’t being overheard. “I told her I missed her and wanted a relationship. I expressed regret at not being there when my dad died. That’s all. She said she would be happy to reconnect. Like you told me, I refrained from saying if she hadn’t driven me away, I would have kept in touch and would have been there for my father. I also didn’t say that every apology she’s ever made me ended with ‘but you are wrong and it’s your fault.’ But at least I didn’t have to apologize for something I shouldn’t have to apologize for. Though I still feel like she owes me an apology, I let that go because she’s never going to change her mind or her view of what happened, and neither am I.”
He flashed Halla a smile that did funny things to her stomach. “It feels good,” he added. “I have missed her. She can be very loving and giving. She’s just been so angry at me, and I’ve been angry at her. It’s good to get past that.”
“Exactly. Because it’s not about who’s right. It’s about taking one step closer to each other and trying to find middle ground so you can still have a relationship. You can’t replace family.” She said this with a hint of guilt, because she’d managed to do exactly that. She’d traded her parents for her foster mother Lily Perez, and for all the foster sisters that came along with her. Of course, Halla’s case was different from Oliver’s. Far different. She’d done what she had to in order to survive.
“I expect things will come up between us in the future,” Oliver added.
“And then you’ll just go back to the fact that you regret the years you lost and not being there when your dad died.”
He nodded. “Right. No accusations as long as we’re both trying because there’s no middle ground in accusations.” Oliver leaned back in his chair and said a little louder, “Anyway, my sister and brother are excited that maybe we can all finally celebrate the holidays together. Not sure how that’ll go over, but we’ll see.”
“It’s barely September. You have a few months to worry about that. How long are you staying in Boise?”
He shrugged. “A few more days at least.”
“Better save some vacation time for those holidays you were talking about.”
He laughed. “Right.”
For a moment, they fell into silence, and though it hadn’t usually felt awkward in the past, it did now, and that concerned Halla. Maybe now that the reason they’d initially started talking—or disagreeing rather—was over, they would drift away. It happened often with online relationships.
Panic shot through her at the idea. She who had lived through an abusive childhood, who had survived on the streets, and who had forged a new life for herself. She who fended off cyber stalkers on a weekly basis. She didn’t want to lose him.
Talking to Oliver every day, even if through a public post was . . . well, she looked forward to it, that’s all. She didn’t have to examine her reasons further.
Had she been fooling herself that Oliver felt something more for her than friendship? And how could he, seeing as they’d never met in person? She’d dated more than a few guys she’d met online, and if they hadn’t been lying about who they were or their quirks hadn’t driven her mad, they weren’t ready to accept a girl who normally wore army boots and camouflage. She could count on one hand how many times she’d worn a dress that wasn’t her stand-by church skirt, and each time was when she’d been a bridesmaid for one of her foster sisters. First Zoey, then Bianca, followed by Ruth and Saffron. She and Elsie were the last of the original Lily’s House girls, the only ones unmarried. There had been many other foster sisters, of course, and many of those were married now too, but Halla had somehow managed not to get roped into an uncomfortable dress for those events.
Maybe if Oliver knew her in person, they wouldn’t get along at all. With him living in Coeur d’Alene and her thirteen hundred miles away in Phoenix, maybe she’d never get a chance to find out.
She jerked, realizing she’d drifted off. She did that more than she wanted to admit. Her sisters teased her that it was because of her imagination, and they were probably right, but this was one depressing thought she was eager to shake off.
“Yeah?” she said.
“You went away there for a minute.”
“Just thinking about it all, how we met. I’m glad it worked out for you with your mom.”
“Me too. And I have you to thank.”
She shrugged. “You are the one who acted. It’s easy for me to urge you to do something when I’m not the one in the hot seat.”
“Maybe you should be.”
She stared at him, unsure if she’d heard him correctly. “What do you mean?”
“When was the last time you were back in Nampa?”
She spluttered a laugh that was more fake than anything. “Um right. That would have been never—and I don’t plan on ever going back. There’s nobody I want to see. Nobody I can meet on middle ground.”
He nodded. “Still, it might do you good to go. Make peace with the town and your memories. I absolutely agree that your father doesn’t deserve the time of day, but he can’t hurt you now. And there’s still your mother.”
An emotion shuddered through Halla, a mix of anger and fear and loss. “She let him chain me to my bed for six months. She was the one who baked my daily bread and brought it to me.” Halla kept her voice even as the words left her mouth. This was something she was still called on to talk about periodically, and it no longer hurt her to speak about the past. It was as if she were separate from the memories, from the terrified girl she’d once been. Everyone agreed that the man who’d raised her was insane—he had to be insane—though no one had yet locked him up. “My mother is not a reason to go back. And I have no blood siblings, for which I’m grateful to God every single day.”
He nodded again, looking sincere and wise. She wondered if he smelled as good as he looked, and if kissing him in person would be as good as in her dreams.
Stop, she told herself.
He frowned, his forehead creased in concern. “You never talk about it,” he said quietly. “At least not to me.”
She shrugged. “I don’t like to dwell on unhappy memories.”
“I remember what you wrote on your blog after he tracked you to Arizona. How awful it was for you. I remember wishing I could punch him out.” He hesitated before continuing, “But weren’t there any happy memories at all? With your mom? With the town? At school? Do you think you might have blocked out any good? It’s understandable, of course, with what happened after, but I’ve been wondering.”
She wanted to tell him to stop poking into her business. She wanted to reach out and sever their connection and forget him entirely. But the idea of not talking to him tomorrow made her heart ache.
Maybe he was right. Maybe her not talking about it unless in a public setting meant she was holding back. Because that’s what he was hinting at, throwing her own pseudo psychology back at him. If she thought about it rationally, which she hadn’t done much of lately, her current view of what had happened had come through a child’s eyes. She, Halla, had been the center of everything. Her mother was little more than a shadowy figure who had tiptoed around her father as if he’d been the devil himself. Which he very nearly had been.
Halla forced a brittle smile. “I don’t think anything good would come of it. If I showed up on their doorstep, he’d probably lock me in my old room and never let me leave.” She tried to laugh, but it sounded a little hysterical, even to her own ears.
“I would never want you to go alone, that’s for sure.” He leaned toward the screen. “Look, Halla, I’m sorry I brought it up. It’s just that you’re so open about everything except this . . . I feel you shut down whenever the subject comes up. It’s like a light switch.”
And what does that mean to you? she wanted to ask. What right do you have to be a part of my secrets? Instead, she nodded. “Well, thankfully my foster aunt is a shrink, just in case I need one.” She laughed it off, this time sounding back to normal.
Oliver lifted his brows quizzically, not cracking a smile, as if a little disappointed in her. Why did he have to be so good looking? He’d probably hate her army boots. Good to believe that so she wouldn’t pine over him. Or at least not for long.
“I was hoping that maybe you’d come now,” he said, his eyes staring directly into hers, though screens were deceptive and maybe he was checking out her ear for all she knew.
“Why, because you’re there?” She said it flippantly, because he couldn’t mean that.
“Well, yeah, it would be a chance to meet in person. And Boise is a lot closer to you than Coeur d’Alene.”
Her heart was once again drumming that weird, violent rhythm. “And you choose Idaho?” She emphasized with a tiny roll of her eyes. “Not exactly a dream destination. In fact, it’s at the top of my least likely to visit list.”
Yet even as she said it, she wanted to go. Not to see her mother or to visit the place of her nightmares, of course, but to see him. Tell me all that mumbo jumbo about my parents was only because you want to see me, she begged him silently.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to make you come all this way just for me,” he said with another of his fabulous smiles. “But if you did, we could go hiking.”
“As tempting as that is, I have my next news article due on Thursday, and I haven’t even started. You’ll be gone by then.”
“I’ll probably stay at least through Saturday. I don’t have to be back at work until Monday, so if I leave Sunday morning, that gives me plenty of time.” He started to say more but stopped short, his head turning from the computer screen. “Looks like my mother has called in reinforcements. I don’t think I’ll have the luxury of waiting for the holidays for a family celebration.”
“Enjoy it.” Halla was both happy and a little envious that his family would be spending time with him.
Oliver called something to whoever had talked to him and then turned back to her. “Look, Halla, think about what I said. About making peace. Maybe I’m not the only one who needs to let go.”
This time she didn’t censor her thoughts. “I let go a long time ago. You’re wrong.”
He barked a short laugh. “Maybe so. It wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong. Maybe next time we talk you can tell me a happy memory of Idaho.”
“Don’t hold your breath.”
“I’m good at holding my breath. Just ask the skunk I met last week. Let’s talk tomorrow, okay? Goodbye, beautiful.”
With that, his image disappeared, leaving Halla staring at a blank screen and wondering about the skunk. He hadn’t told her about the animal. The past few days they’d talked about his siblings, about her foster sister Saffron’s baby daughter, and Halla’s upcoming article. Why hadn’t he mentioned the stupid skunk?
“You need to get over this obsession with him,” Halla told herself out loud.
“Who are you talking to?” Behind her, Elsie was pushing into the apartment, her hands full of grocery bags.
Halla jumped up and ran to help, peering into a bag full of lettuce, avocados, and carrots. “I could have picked these up for you.”
“You know I’m picky about my lettuce, and it’s on my way home from the café anyway.”
“Do the avocados and lettuce mean you’re making taco salad?” Halla asked hopefully.
Elsie nodded, her long, dark curls spilling around her gently rounded face. “As long as you have beans.”
“As many as you want.”
Elsie’s face dimpled. “I knew you would. Payden’s coming over, by the way. I hope that’s okay.”
“Sure. As long as you make enough.” Elsie’s friend was a healthy eater, which was a good thing since Elsie also loved food and her once too-thin figure had filled out significantly in the past few years. Last summer she had joined their foster sister Ruth at her café Eats and Treats, finally rounding out the “Eats” part of the name, since Ruth’s specialty was pastries. After a total of three years in business, they were now looking for a larger location.
“I’ll make plenty,” Elsie said. “Come in with me. We’ll talk while I cook.”
Halla detached her laptop from the external monitor she normally used and carried it into the kitchen. By the time their third roommate, Kendall Brenwood, came home from the hospital where she worked as a registered nurse, dinner was nearly finished and Halla’s article about the dangers of swimming because of chlorine-resistant bugs was well underway.
“Your cooking is music to my ears,” Kendall said, falling into a chair at the table and kicking off her black clogs. “I’m starved.”
“It looks like you’ve already been eating.” Halla pointed at a large stain scattered down the front of Kendall’s blue scrubs.
“It’s cake,” she explained. “One of my co-workers is leaving. Thankfully.”
“That arrogant surgeon?” Elsie asked, running a leaf of lettuce under the water, though Halla had already washed it. “The one who cheats on his wife?”
“Yep, this was his parting gift. If I hadn’t agreed to work for Jenny today, I would have been off and missed his leaving altogether.” Kendall’s blue eyes became dreamy. “But if I’d had today off, I wouldn’t have met the new resident who just started. Seriously, I could stare at him all day.”
Halla studied the other woman’s glowing face. “That good, huh?”
Nodding, Kendall began unwinding her long blond hair from its bun. She wasn’t officially a Lily’s House foster girl, but she felt like a sister to them. She’d come to the home three years ago at eighteen, after reconnecting with her biological sister, Saffron, who had been the oldest of the original six Lily’s House foster girls. Kendall had stayed at Lily’s House, helping Lily and going to school, almost a year before moving in with them to take the spot that opened in the apartment when Ruth had finally married her handsome photographer.
In the beginning, Kendall had been quiet and withdrawn because of some difficult life choices, but after she’d finished her nursing degree, things had changed for her. Halla thought she was finally becoming the person she was meant to be, who she would have been if she’d found Lily’s House sooner.
And what about me? Halla wondered, staring down at her laptop. Am I who I should have been? Maybe not. She didn’t dwell on her own personal tragedy, but it had changed her permanently.
“So did you talk to this new resident?” Elsie asked Kendall.
Kendall nodded. “Quite a bit. He only came in for the staff meeting and introductions, but it turns out we’ll have several patients together. Looks like I’ll be seeing more of him.”
“Maybe he’ll ask you out.” Elsie dropped the last leaf of lettuce into the salad spinner.
“I hope so.” Kendall sighed, propping her elbows up on the table and letting her chin drop into her hands. Her eyes danced. “So, is the food ready yet? I’m starving. Did I mention that?”
Elsie laughed. “You did. It’s almost ready. Why don’t you two set the table while I finish the meat? Set an extra plate for Payden. He’ll be here soon.”
Halla finished the sentence she was writing and closed her laptop. Another few hours and a few quotes from a doctor she’d contacted yesterday, and she’d wrap it up.
What was Oliver up to now? Shooting baskets in his mother’s driveway with his younger brother or playing with his mischievous young niece?
She was halfway to her feet to help set the table when her tumbling thoughts forced her back down, her gaze fixed on her left hand that was still splayed on the lid of her laptop. “Oliver thinks I should go to Idaho.”
“Seriously?” Kendall rolled her eyes as she pulled plates from the cupboard. “He wants you to come to him for your first real meeting? That is so lame.”
Elsie laughed. “I think it’s a wonderful idea. You should totally go. You know, see if there are any sparks there in person.”
“From what I’ve seen, there are plenty of sparks between them.” Kendall set the plates down. “Haven’t you seen them argue?”
“I’ve seen them flirt is what.” Elsie sprinkled more salt into her pan.
“I wish he’d invited me to visit him,” Halla admitted. “It would have been more flattering than him suggesting I go see my mother.”
Elsie’s head whipped around, her full lips open in shock. She stared at Halla blankly for several long seconds before she reached out and turned off the gas under her pan. “He said what?” she asked heatedly, coming over to sit at the table next to Halla. Kendall stood frozen nearby, her face sympathetic.
“He seems to think I’m blocking out some of my past, and that maybe I won’t be able to move on unless I go visit her.”
Elsie wrinkled her nose. “What do you think?”
Halla considered. So many emotions raged inside that she couldn’t pinpoint only one. But the idea that there were any emotions except apathy toward her mother was a surprise to her. “I think I’ve been doing great. And . . . I think she allowed the abuse, so why should I care about her?”
“True,” Elsie said. “But she didn’t run away and leave you there alone like my mother did.”
Halla reached out and grabbed Elsie’s hand. Halla remembered the day Lily had brought twelve-year-old Elsie home, beaten and scared, hugging a stuffed wolf, one of the few belongings she’d brought with her when she’d run from her father. “I’m sorry.”
Elsie shrugged. “Don’t be. My mother was fragile, that’s all. Every bit a victim as I was. While she was there, she protected me the best she could—until her mind broke. I had it good compared to you and the other girls. Except that last little bit.”
“You forgave her.”
“It took time.” In fact, Elsie had stayed at Lily’s House for two years and then split her time between her mother’s and Lily’s House until she was eighteen and moved in with Halla. “And my mother is another person now.”
“You think my mother was a victim?” Halla glanced up to include Kendall in the conversation, but Kendall only shook her head.
“Don’t look at me. My mother was the controller in my family. She was never the victim. After she kicked Saffron out and she didn’t come crawling back home as expected, my mother was better, but still . . .” Kendall shook her head. “. . . bad.”
Halla knew their relationship was far from ideal, but they seemed friendly enough when they were together. “You talk to her now. What changed?”
Kendall sighed and went to the silverware drawer. “She did. Eventually. A tiny bit. It was enough, I guess, now that I’m not dependent on her.”
“So could Oliver be right?” Halla asked. “Because he admitted he might be wrong—and he is wrong a lot.” She cracked a smile, but her heart wasn’t in it.
Elsie leaned back and crossed her legs. “You never talk about her. Or about that time.”
“I don’t?” Halla experienced a sense of déjà vu that she knew came from her conversation with Oliver.
Kendall shook her head. “No. Well, on your blog sometimes, and at Lily’s House fundraisers. But not at home.”
“I guess there’s not much to say. I haven’t seen her in eleven years.” Since Halla was fifteen and a half to be exact. “She brought up the bread that last night,” she remembered aloud. “It was broken into small pieces, and I wanted to throw it in her face, but I was so hungry. It smelled like butter. The second she left the room, I ate it all.”
She’d gobbled it, actually. Then she’d gone back to pulling at the chain on her ankle and was almost paralyzed with shock when it squeezed off. The once-a-day, bread-only diet had ultimately freed her from her six-month imprisonment. Halla took a deep breath and pushed the memories aside. They couldn’t hurt her now. She never even thought about it.
Except that wasn’t quite true. Sometimes when people argued, she felt herself starting to cringe. To feel sick inside. And she still avoided most types of bread.
But Oliver was wrong. He had to be wrong.
“If Oliver wants to see me,” Halla said, “he should come here. Or we should meet somewhere fun.” A hiking destination maybe. There had to be somewhere he’d love to go. He’d talked about Hawaii once. Now that sounded fun.
There, it was decided. She was not going to Idaho.