near to us once more

Thanksgiving used to be Riley’s favorite time of year.  She’d loved the smell of the  turkey cooking in the oven, the smiles on her parents’ faces as they all worked together, bumping up against each other in the small kitchen.  It had always been just the four of them, but that had never made her feel lonely.  They’d put on James Taylor or a Christmas album and sing their hearts out happily.  She and Connor had were always in charge of the pies, debating the pros and cons of pumpkin versus cherry before their mother jumped in with a helpful, “Just make both!”  These days, though, it felt Thanksgiving was nothing more than a time to remind her what she wasn’t.

It had begun to change as soon as Connor had gone away to college, but she’d just chalked that up to the changes with time.  Connor was just visiting now, so it was natural that her parents would spend most of the holiday focused on him, but ever since he had graduated and gotten a job playing in one of the top national orchestras, it had only gotten worse.  

She set down her backpack on the floor and lay down on the bed, staring up at the mural Charlie had painted on her ceiling last year.  As she read over the words, she wished desperately that they would sink in and make some little part of the dread weighing down her body float away.  En route to the sky.  Sighing, she stood up; the only place she was on her way to right now was the kitchen.  

Charlie had left the day before for her aunt’s, and Phoebe was leaving in the evening to go to her grandparents’.  It wasn’t that her friends absence bothered her per se, she just couldn’t help but feel a bit jealous.  She knew they’d be bombarded by eager relatives desperate to hear about their latest accomplishments, where they were going to college.  They’d complain about it to her later, and she’d offer her sympathy, but that didn’t help her present jealousy.  No matter how hard she tried, all Riley’s parents ever managed to tell her when Connor was home was how much less she was than him.  They didn’t even need to say it aloud.  Every knowing glance, every word of praise for him and shake of the head for her spoke their message perfectly clear for everyone to hear: Riley would never be able to live up to what Connor had done—graduated college early, six figure salary by the age of twenty-two, and collaborations with some of the most renowned viola players in the country.  

Tyler and Morgan Dietrich had found moderate success for themselves, but nothing compared to what Connor had.  Her father was a music teacher at the middle school, and her mother played with various local bands.  She knew they only wanted the best possible lives for their children, but when they scrunched up their noses at the B she’d received on her history test or rolled their eyes when she said she was too busy to sing at another church service, she couldn’t help but be a bit resentful.  At school, anyone would have laughed at the thought of her being anything but a complete success—4.12 GPA, show choir captain, and lead in every musical since her junior year—freshmen practically fell to her feet if she spoke to them at rehearsal.  If only her parents shared even half of that respect.  

She took a bite of the vanilla ice cream, thankful for it’s inability to give her any disappointed looks.  Her moping was interrupted by the sound of her the front door opening to reveal her mother, flanked by two other women, each carrying their share of musical equipment.  

Her mom smiled and tried to wave despite the microphone stand clutched in her hand.  “Hey Ri, I didn’t realize you’d be home so early!”  

“Thanksgiving break, mom, we had an early release,” she replied unenthusiastically.  

Her mom seemed to take a moment to process that before responding.  “Right, well we’ll just be practicing here for a few hours.  Do you mind putting Connor’s sheets in the wash?  I thought we should wash them before he gets home tonight.”

“Sure, no problem.”  She grabbed the bowl of ice cream and left the room.  

When she was younger, Riley had loved listening to her mom practice.  Everyone who heard her sing said Morgan Dietrich had a voice like the angels, and Riley could never understand why her mom spent her days playing and singing at bars in their hometown instead of Carnegie Hall.  She’d sit happily and listen to her mom’s voice for hours whenever she could, and when it was late and she had to go to bed, she’d creep back down and sit outside the room, singing along quietly to herself until she fell asleep propped against the door.  

Walking into Connor’s room felt like walking into a well-preserved ancient shrine.  All the decorations were exactly as they had been five years before.  Her parents had always talked about turning it into a guest bedroom, yet they hadn’t made any real attempt.  Part of her wondered whether they were just waiting for her to leave so that they could just use hers instead.

She threw the sheets into the washer and started it before returning to her room.  Looking at her backpack, she reluctantly pulled out her trigonometry textbook.  She was certain that one of these days half of the book would just fall off—it had to be at least forty years old.  She knew it was ridiculous to be starting homework at the beginning of Thanksgiving break, but she just wanted to get it done.  That way no one could make any comment on how easily Connor could help her work.  She grabbed her headphones and pulled up the Rent album before staring back down at the page full of triangles.  

Thankfully, by the time her dad arrived home with Connor in tow a few hours later, her mom had finished her rehearsal and sent the other women home.  It was strange, seeing her brother transform into a more and more adult version of himself with each visit.  Each time she saw him, he was farther and farther away from the brother who’d grown up by her side.  It wasn’t just his looks, his demeanor had changed too, from young and fun to more serious and concerned, like he was always thinking.  Every so often, his brown curls would flop across his face and he’d push them aside with a sudden urgency, as if there was something terribly important for him to see at any given moment.  

Setting down his suitcase and viola, he reached out to hug their mom before turning to Riley and wrapping his arms around her as well.  

“How’s the great traveler,” their mom teased him.  

He laughed calmly, “Exhausted.”

“I’m sure,” their father jumped in, “We just washed the sheets, so everything should be ready for you.”  He grabbed Connor’s suitcase, and Connor followed him, precious viola clutched in his hands.  

Riley went up to her own room, not eager to be a part of the long-winded breakdown of all that Connor had done.  

Checking her phone, she found five texts from Charlie containing a series of memes and a picture from Phoebe of her grandma’s cat.  She sent back quick, unenthusiastic replies, uninterested in talking to anyone at the moment.  She’d been desperate for a break from school, time to work on college applications and catch up on homework, but she couldn’t seem to find any motivation within herself when she had one.  She could feel some sort of tension in the air and wanted nothing but to get out for a moment.  Decisively, she grabbed her laptop and went in search of her dad.

“Hey, is it okay if I go work on some homework or something at Montague’s Brews?”

He looked slightly let down, “Don’t you want to stay here tonight?  Connor just got home.”

“College applications, dad, I don’t want to end up stressed and doing anything last minute.”  She knew he’d never argue with this logic.  

He nodded.  “Just don’t be out too long.  We have to get up in the morning to work on the turkey.”

“Yep, see you!”  She grabbed her keys from the counter.

Sitting at the coffee shop, she stared at the blank document on her laptop.  The cursor blinked before her, as if to taunt her inability to write the essay.  Normally, she would have no problem with a 650 word essay, but her mind seemed to have gone blank.  Words swum around, and all she could feel was anger.  Jonathan Groff’s voice blared through her headphones, sharing her frustrations, and she closed her eyes to lose herself within it.  Around her, the shop was empty save for an elderly man sitting alone and a younger woman with a suitcase by her side.  She felt pathetic sitting there, alone on the night before Thanksgiving.  The only people not with their families were the lonely or those desperate to be alone.  She couldn’t be sure which she was.  

Eventually, she gave up on her essay and resorted to scrolling through her phone in a desperate attempt to cheer herself up.  Nearly an hour later, she was unsure whether she’d succeeded at feeling better or just bored herself into numbness, but she was calmer.  The woman had left, but the man still sat, stirring his latte while reading a newspaper.  She packed her belongings quickly, suddenly feeling terrible for choosing to be alone while he sat there without a choice.  

As she crept back inside and back up to her room, she didn’t bother joining her family down in the living room.  From across the house, she could hear them all laughing and imagined them exchanging drinks and stories.  Plugging her laptop in, she lay down.  She hadn’t gone to bed early in months, so it took no more than a few minutes before she was asleep.  

By 10am the house was abuzz and the ovens were on a strict rotation of breads and side dishes.  Riley dried her hair for a final time and joined her family downstairs.  The pie ingredients were already laying on the counter, ready for her and Connor to get to work.  

“The pie is in at 10:27!” her mother proclaimed at the sight of Riley.  

She looked over at her brother.  “Cherry?”

He nodded vigorously and passed her a cup already full of sugar.  They began to fall into a strange mimicry of their childhood baking routine, Connor measuring and passing ingredients as Riley mixed them in a bowl.  Riley stirred the cherry mixture on the stove and tried to relax as she watched the cherries slowly deflate.  She was interrupted by a tap on her shoulder, looking up to see her brother standing over her.  

“Back in a minute Riles,” he smiled easily, gesturing to his phone.

She smiled back and nodded before returning to her cherries, humming as she stirred.  

Outside, her parents laughed playfully as they checked on the turkey smoking in the backyard.  Alone in the kitchen, she felt the same loneliness as she’d felt in the coffee shop the past evening.  She wondered where the old man was now, imagining him sitting down to his mid day meal alone later.  

Even her cherry mixtures seemed somehow off.  Looking over at the recipe and checking the counter, she realized that in his haste to take a call, Connor had forgotten to add the almond extract.  She grabbed the bottle from the counter, searching around for a quarter teaspoon while keeping one hand still stirring the pot on the stove.  Rummaging around in the drawer, she felt her hand slip, flinging the wooden spoon across the room and spattering cherry juice everywhere.  She grabbed a towel, but it did nothing more than spread the red spots, causing the floor to look like a scene from a horror movie.  

Beaten, she slid down the side of the cabinet to sit on the floor curled her knees to her chest.  She imagined her mother’s face at the sight of the ruined pie filling; her whole schedule for the day would be ruined, not to mention the mess on the floor.  In that moment, her body could do nothing but cry, and she did, wiping cherry filling on her face as she tried to dry her tears.

Morgan Dietrich did her best to hide her shock as she walked into the kitchen five minutes later to find her daughter sobbing on the splattered floor and burnt pie filling on the stove.  She glanced at the time only once before kneeling at Riley’s side.  

“What’s wrong?” she asked, grabbing a fresh towel to wipe the filling off her daughter’s face.  

Riley just shook her head, looking around at the kitchen.  

“It’s not a big deal—I can just push things back by half an hour and everything should work out.”

“Everything’s just so wrong…” she grabbed the towel away from her mom, “Not just the kitchen; Thanksgiving, me.  No matter what I do, it just goes wrong.”

Once again, her mother tried her best to hide her surprise.  “What’s going wrong?  Your father and I are so proud of you.  Has something happened with your college applications?”

“Don’t you realize what you’re doing though?  No matter what I do, it’s never enough.  I’ll never be doing as well as Connor, never be impressive enough.”

Her mother looked down.  “That’s… It’s not what we mean.  I just want the best for you.  You can do anything your brother can do, it shouldn’t matter.”

“But I can’t.  You’re always reminding me of that.  Praising him and ignoring me.”

She shook her head again.  “Remember how people always tell me I should be off singing somewhere else, someplace bigger?”  She paused for Riley to nod.  “That’s not what I want for you.  I made my choices, didn’t understand what I was doing, and I’m so happy to have you and Connor, but I want you to have options.  I want you to have the whole world.  You could get into one of those top musical theatre programs you’re looking at, have a good career.  It’s good money too.  You can be that person that everyone from school envies one day.  I don’t want to be holding you back.”

“I never wanted to be the most successful, to make everyone jealous.  I just wanted to make you happy.”

Her mom smiled at that.  “You’ve done that and more.  I promise, you’re an incredible daughter.”

Riley smiled back.  

“I didn’t want to be too easy on you, make you think we didn’t know how good your best was, that’s all.  But I never wanted you to feel like this.”

“I love you mom.”  She put her arms around her mom.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was something.  

“I love you too Ri, no matter what.”

Later that evening, they sat around the fire, still stuffed from the turkey and pies.  Her dad had put on a Christmas album earlier and it felt like the holiday was just around the corner.  Over dinner, Connor had talked about his plans for the upcoming month.  He’d been practicing in the past few weeks for the upcoming holiday concerts he’d be performing.  Riley found herself feeling happy for him for the first time, smiling genuinely as he talked.

Her mom grabbed her hand and pulled her over to the piano.  “Ready?”

“Yeah,” she answered, looking over her mother’s shoulder at the familiar sheet music.  

Her mom began to play, and they both started singing, voices calling out as one.  Slowly, Connor joined in, then her father.  Together, the family stood, raising their voices full of joy and hope.

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