Willow sat in her parents’ living room and tried to wrap her head around the fact that she was really here. It was not her home anymore, of course, but this was her childhood home. The furniture in the living room was essentially the same as it had been when Willow was a teenager. She never thought she would find a moment of tranquility in the comfortable, slightly threadbare cushions of her parents’ couch, but she found herself clinging to the familiarity.
She had never felt quite so uncomfortable with the atmosphere at home before. The questions started with her aunt in her car, but she knew that the real interrogation was yet to come. She dreaded it, but so also knew that she owed everyone some sort of explanation. Even before she disappeared without warning for half a year she had been behaving strangely and keeping secrets. Her life had been full of lies by omission—at best—since before Thanksgiving.
The questions were coming. Right now she was just stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for her family to gather and begin the interrogation. While she waited, she found herself debating whether it was preferable to get it all out of the way at once with the whole group or spend much more time repeating herself but sparing herself the agony of facing everyone at once.
She wished someone would at least come into the room and sit with her. Right now she felt like everyone was avoiding her—perhaps they were. They might be furious with her and they had every right to be angry after what she had done. The details were not entirely clear, but from what her aunt told her, her apartment, in particular, caused her parents quite a bit of grief. She needed to know more about what happened, but she already accepted that she would be making a lot of apologies.
From the hushed voices she could just barely hear, she knew everyone was hiding out in the kitchen. They were avoiding her!
She never thought she would experience this with her family. She was the only child, the only niece, and the only grandchild. Her whole life she was in the center of everything. To suddenly be excluded left her reeling and wondering what she could do to get herself back on the inside. She missed her family too much to properly adjust to being in the other world with Yuri and Asa. As long as she knew her family was wondering what had happened to her she held herself back. She refused to accept that she pulled back on her feelings and avoided fully exploring their relationship for the sake of making it easier to come back to this sort of rejection.
They might want to hide away from her, but she did not have to accept that. She clenched her hands into fists on her lap to stop them from shaking before rising from her spot on the couch.
The walk from the living room to the kitchen only took a few seconds. She covered these few steps so quickly so many times in the past that it hardly even registered in her mind as an event, but this time each individual step seemed to take its own small eternity. Without knowing how her family would react to her joining them all she had to go on was her own mounting anxiety. There was no comfort in that and she was too tired to manage it all on her own.
A floorboard creaked under her feet—she forgot just how loud it could be—and the conversation carried out in hushed tones in the kitchen ceased immediately. She paused briefly before she remembered that it was just her aunt, mom, and dad at the end of the hall. She screwed up her courage and joined everyone in the kitchen.
Three heads immediately turned to look at her, but no one said a word. She met their gaze. First with her aunt, then her father, and finally, the most difficult of all, her mother. No one said a word until she looked to her mother. In that instant, she felt as though she was a little kid in big trouble, a sensation she had not experienced in about fifteen years.
“Your grandparents are on their way,” her mom told her brusquely.
“Okay,” she responded. She broke eye contact and focused on the floor just past her feet.
She tried to remember that she was not a child. Her behavior might not have been perfect, but at her age, she had every right to come and go as she pleased. Then again, her parents had taken on the burden of dealing with her abandoned apartment while she was away. For that alone, she owed them an explanation and needed to come up with a plan to pay them back. Additionally, she doubted coming and going as she pleased typically involved visiting another world without a word of warning.
Her grandparents coming over to hear her attempt to explain everything was simultaneously terrifying and comforting. Having more people present to listen to her fumble her way through presenting what had happened in a way that they would all be able to understand was not ideal, but she knew that her grandparents would stand up for her. As their only grandchild she had the full burden of their legacy on her shoulder and to make up for that they also shielded her from the worst of her parents’ disappointment. They had lived a long life at this point and they were fine with reminding people of the fact and reassuring everyone that time would set almost any problem to rights again.
Since Willow had not quite succeeded in getting Aspen to understand what had happened, the only other person she thought she had the least bit of a chance of getting to understand was her grandmother. She was not sure exactly what the lore her grandmother had spent her life studying told her about the path between worlds, or the world on the other side, but she knew no one else had as much experience or knowledge about their line of work. It was not just studying, her grandmother had been talented enough to gather decades of practical experience. There was a chance Willow would even get answers to questions no one in the other world had been willing or able to answer. Counting on that would be an exercise in futility, but it did not stop her from hoping that they might be able to piece together a better explanation than the one she had to offer now.
She was more than prepared to try to answer where she had been, but she was less sure she would survive explaining what she had been doing. She felt the odds were pretty good that at least one person would understand why she felt the need to cross over when she had been cornered, but she was less sure anyone would understand the life or relationships she experienced in that world. She finally found herself thinking of her relationship with Yuri and Asa as something entirely normal, but in this world, it was more than a little strange and she knew that it would lead to her family judging her and that was far from what she needed at this time.
Fate seemed to be willing to throw her a bone today. Before the awkward moment could stretch on for too long her attention was diverted to the back door as her grandparents entered the kitchen.
Her nerves were in overdrive sending electric sparks of panic into her hands and making her heart beat twice as fast as it should. She knew her grandmother was the one person in her family most likely to understand. She just did not know whether understanding what had happened to her would make Willow’s plight sympathetic or if her story would be twisted and warped into something sinister. Her family were the ones that taught her that the beings they were exorcising all these years were demons. She understood better now that the beings they forced away were not evil just by virtue of the name people decided to assign them. What she did not yet understand was exactly what her family believed.
Even with the less than reliable information she had received in the past Willow still believed her grandma would be the one most able to understand her. Their conversation at Thanksgiving gave her hope that they would see more eye to eye than the others.
No matter what the reason, she thought that she might increase her chances of getting the whole family to understand her if she spoke to her one on one.
She needed to screw up her courage and say something to make it happen. Her silence would never get her what she wanted. She wrung her hands a few times and failed to look at anyone’s faces.
“Grandma, could I talk to you alone?” she asked, sounding smaller and younger than she thought she had any right to sound at her age.
Her stomach tied up in knots as soon as she said those words. It was not just the fact that she was in an incredibly vulnerable position at the moment, but also the way she was excluding the rest of her family from the conversation right to their faces. She might not be ready to talk to everyone but she did not want anyone to think that she was trying to avoid them. That was the last thing she wanted to do. After obsessing over coming home to them for so long she knew avoiding her family was the furthest thing from her mind, but right now there was no way for her to make sure they knew that.
“Of course,” her grandmother said with a kind smile.
Before anything else could be said, Willow was ushered out of the room and away from the rest of her family. She knew the conversation coming up would not be easy, but she also knew that it was the first step to getting back to her old life.