Up in the Middle of Nowhere: A Look Inside

PRE-ORDER NOW for Exclusive Early Delivery July 1, 2023. Will go live on retailers August 1st. 

“I hate you!”

“You’re not too high on my list of favorite people right now, either.” Tessa argued as she turned up the volume knob on the radio and hummed along as frustration thrummed inside her body. Her muscular legs slammed her foot down, taking her rage out on the gas pedal as she drove them home. She wasn’t going to fall for it. At seventeen, Nova lived to push her buttons lately, and she knew enough to keep her words to herself, clamping down her lips to hold them in. 

“I’m going to go live with Dad.” Nova shouted over the music.

Tessa yanked the steering wheel a hard right to the shoulder and slammed on the brakes. Forcing the car into park, she turned to face her daughter’s angry face. Dressed in black from head to toe, wearing six inch black heels and copious amounts of smudged black eyeliner, Nova’s dramatic look was gothic punk and not Tessa’s favorite. Her boyfriend, Jason, was flat out embarrassed to be seen with Nova in public. It was one of many bones of contention between Nova and Jason that had made living under the same roof a difficult task. They both pushed Tessa to the middle to referee their frequent arguments. It was a draining dynamic Tessa struggled to escape. 

“Let me get this straight. You’re talking about going to live with the same dad that moved a thousand miles away last year without so much as a goodbye?”

Nova wrapped her arms around her middle, huffed her displeasure, and stared out the window. There was an impenetrable wall that they’d both erected between themselves. Each firing shots at the other from behind it. No one had ever told Tessa that raising a teenager was like waging a war every day. She was woefully unprepared for the battle. 

“He still has 50% custody of me, you know.”

Tessa turned away to roll her eyes so her daughter wouldn’t see. It was true; he had fifty percent custody, but she knew he would never exercise the right. It was the only thing that kept her from taking him back to court for full custody. Now that Nova was seventeen, it would be pointless to spend thousands of dollars to earn a judgement that accomplished nothing. He wasn’t a father. He’d deserted his only child without so much as a second thought leaving Tessa to pick up the pieces all over again.

“Over my dead body.” Tessa finally muttered. “If he’d wanted to see you, he would have made you a priority.” Now that she was practically an adult, Tessa was willing to be more truthful where Nova’s dad was concerned. She’d hidden the truth from Nova for almost a decade because that was what the expert told her to do in the Children in the Middle Course she was required to take to earn her freedom when Nova was eight. But now, when her immaturity and innocence accepted his force fed lies to save his own face, she found she couldn’t continue to be complicit in it. 

“Dad said he was busy getting his affairs in order and ran out of time, but we talk on the phone all the time now, Mom. When you’re at work.”

Her admission was another dart to her heart. “You do?” She was shocked. It was the first time Nova had mentioned it. 

“Yeah.” Nova said, a smug smirk lighting up her face delighted to one up her mother. “and he said I could come visit any time I want. In fact, we’ve been talking about enrolling me in school out there.” 

Fresh rage filled her being, and she saw red. “He had no right to have that conversation with you without me being present.”

“I’m going to be a eighteen next year anyway and then I can do whatever I want. You won’t get to decide for me anymore.” Technically, she was right, but Tessa couldn’t give up the good fight. 

“You’d want to start all over your senior year? At a school you don’t know, a thousand miles away?”

“Maybe.” She answered with a tight shrug.

Tessa wanted to scream in frustration. The tension was building, and she was sick of it. Tired of the combative nature their relationship had devolved into and her resolves were wearing down. 

“Running away from your problems will not solve them. What do you think you are going to accomplish out there?”

“He’s going to take me to museums and we are going to tour art schools.” Her blue eyes were filled with hope.

“Right.” Tessa said, the word filled with all the sarcasm she couldn’t contain any more. “The man who couldn’t be bothered to visit when you lived in the same town is now going to become father of the year four states away? I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“Oh, you’re going to see it.” Nova declared. She leaned forward and her straight black hair obscured Tessa’s view of her pale face. Her roots were just showing. It had been a shock when she shunned her strawberry blond locks a month ago in favor of a more dramatic look. A few seconds later Tessa heard her sniffle and her daughter’s thin body began to tremble and the shame surged. 

“I’m sorry.” Tessa started in, feeling guilty, wishing she could take the harsh words back. It wasn’t normally how she addressed conflict. It felt dirty and underhanded, but sometimes teenagers were so infuriating and they pushed you to the brink of insanity. And Tessa was there, right there on the brink of it. She reached out a hand to Nova’s shoulder and Nova yanked her body away before Tessa could touch her. Another impasse. Tessa waited a few moments, then turned the car toward the street, heading home. The argument had sucked all the air out of the confined space, and she knew they both needed space away from each other to breathe. 

Ten long minutes of silence later, Tessa pulled into the driveway at their home, parked in the garage, and walked inside, looking for her boyfriend, Jason, leaving a fuming Nova still in the car. 

“Babe?” she called out. In his office down the hall, she heard him talking to someone on the phone. She paused to listen and give him quiet in case he was on a conference call and walked closer. It was the tone of his voice that rang alarm bells in her heart. It was warmer than usual. She couldn’t make out the words he was saying, but it was the tenderness that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. He chuckled softly and continued to infuse honey into his voice. It was the deep voice she’d fallen in love with two years prior. Warm and engaging, it was one of the many characteristics she found attractive about him. Her insecurities were cueing up. Who was that on the other end of the phone?

She tiptoed down the hallway, closer to his office. Standing outside the door, just out of his sight line, she focused on his words, holding her breath as her heartbeat hammered in her ears. A wave of guilt crashed over her. This wasn’t who thought she was. A weak untrusting shrew who listened in on her boyfriend’s private conversations. Yet there she was, pressed up against the wall, listening in. 

“It was great to hear from you, too.” He crooned into the phone and Tessa’s heart dropped. She rifled through her list of options of who could be on the other end of the phone. His mother was dead. His sister? She couldn’t remember the last time he had anything nice to say about her. “I have to go. Tessa just pulled in.”

Hearing her name, Tessa slid down the hallway silently, desperate to put space between them. She would die of mortification right there if he’d caught her stooping low enough to eavesdrop on his conversation. Her stockinged feet rushed to the kitchen. Jason whistled as he walked down the hall. To have something to do, Tessa turned toward the fridge and opened it up looking through the meager ingredients trying to come up with a plan for dinner.

“You’re home early.” He said as the expanse of granite kept them separated. 

“I got called up to school. Nova got a suspension.” Tessa admitted, needing to vent and unburden herself. 

“Another one?” He asked. “Isn’t that some sort of record?” 

“Not the kind any mother wants her kid to break.” Tessa. “Who was that on the phone?” She asked, unable to help herself. She needed answers to soothe her fears and push down the insecurities. 

“The help desk. They are struggling to get my new phone on the network.” He kept his dark hair trimmed close to the back of his head, but full on top. At almost fifty, he was a catch. She knew it the second he laid eyes on her. The bald-faced lie made her eyes sting with tears.

“And then she dropped a bombshell on the way home.” Tessa added. 

“What?” 

“She wants to go live with her dad.” 

He was silent as he considered it, then said, “Maybe you should let her.” 

“What? You want me to willingly deposit her into the arms of the man who deserted her last year?”

“Would it be the worst thing? We could use a break around here. I know I could.” 

Tessa didn’t disagree. Parenting Nova had been getting increasingly difficult as she acted out at school and baulked at the household rules. Leaving bowls of milk in her room, drawing ants and growing mold. Refusing to keep her bathroom clean and leaving streaks of hair dye in the sink and on their shared towels without a care in the world. Her typical teenage laziness infuriated Jason, and Tessa often found herself in-between them refereeing their interactions. 

“I’m sick of all the drama that seems to swirl around her life. She invites it in, snuggles with it and makes everyone around her miserable.”

“Is that it? Are you miserable?”

“We both are!” He swiped his hands over this face and sighed. It was a familiar conversation they seemed to have nightly. He pulled out a chair and sat down on it. “I haven’t been happy in a long time and if you’re honest with yourself, you have to agree you aren’t either.”

She turned toward him. It was a conversation they’d been needing to have for months, but they’d ignored it, pushing it away to the corners of the room. Now that they were acknowledging the facts, an alarm went off in her heart. It was like walking on a frozen lake. She’d been hearing the hairline cracks for months, but now the plunge into the icy depths felt inevitable. She slowly brought her blue eyes up to meet his brown ones.  

“That wasn’t the help desk, was it?” She asked, her voice barely registering over a whisper, and he recoiled. “I heard you.” It wasn’t an accusation, it was just a painful statement of facts.

Caught in a lie, she saw him taken aback. His eyes dropped to the floor and his firm jaw set. She saw the beginning of his five o’clock shadow darkening his cheekbones and chin. He scratched his long fingers at the emerging whiskers and a hot breath escaped his lips. 

“I don’t know if this works between us anymore. I’m sorry, Tessa.” His voice cracked and her heart followed suit. 

Tessa’s eyes darted around the apartment they’d leased together. There were still nine months left on the lease. “She’s almost an adult. I know the last two years have been hard, but it was almost over. We were almost free.”

“Were we?” He asked, his words tinged with regret. “I don’t know if I see it the same way. She’s going to need your focused support and attention for the next several years.”

“She’s my daughter. I can’t just pack her bags and change the locks when she turns eighteen.”

“I understand that. Believe me, I do.” Resolved, he stood to his full six foot four inches. His eyes met hers. “I think we both could use some time apart. Don’t worry, I’ll help with the lease, since I made the commitment.”

“Gee. Thanks.” She wanted to tell him to take the lease and shove it, but she was stuck. She couldn’t afford the townhouse without him. His minor concession made her heart hurt. After a multitude of short-term relationships, she’d pinned all her hopes on Jason. She thought she was done dating, that she’d found her person. If she was honest, she’d admit to herself he’d been pulling away and taking on more business trips in the last two quarters. Now she saw the last few months as they truly were, a long goodbye. She brushed away the warm tears and squared her shoulders. 

“I’m going to stay at the corporate townhouse for a while. Give you guys some space.” It was all so easy for him. To turn his back on the two years they’d spent together and all the plans they’d made. She wanted the hate to come in, but at that moment, she felt alone and unlovable. He tried to take her in his arms, the place she always went for comfort, but this time she refused. 

“Don’t.” she’d said, holding up her hand as a barrier between them. She knew if he pulled her to his chest and she breathed in the scent of his aftershave for the last time, she would fall apart. She knew little, at that moment, standing in their shared kitchen, but she knew he didn’t deserve to see the most vulnerable parts of her heart anymore. 

A few moments later, he left, shutting the door behind him quietly. That’s when the tears flowed. She made popcorn for dinner and chased it with a margarita and was grateful that even Nova knew enough to stay away. 

 

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