Damn real: chapter 20

It was about 12 years ago when it happened. A younger Niall, around the age of 14, was in a car with an infant Kimmy. “Mom, are we there yet?” He groaned, annoyed that the only thing accompanying him in the back seats of the car was the living noise machine that was his literal baby sister. “Wah! Wah!” Kimmy shrieked, giving the teen goosebumps. It was shriller than nails on a chalkboard to say the least. However, that was the last time Niall ever saw either of his parents. Alive, anyways. In just a few moments, a large car swerved into their lane, and the car was sent flying through a railing, past a small park, and right into the Charles River. He just remembered feeling his stomach fly up into his throat, a large splash, and then everything went black. By the time Niall had woken up, he was told the bad news. His parents died from the impact, while he and his sister were fished out of the car, barely breathing. It was a miracle that either of them had survived. He sat there, in the hospital bed, unable to process what had just been told to him. He did not want to believe that his parents were dead. He could imagine how they could possibly have died. “Wait, where’s Kimmy?” “She’s in another room, but she’s still here.” “Kimmy!” He quickly jumped out of his bed, only to fall over. Even though he survived, the trauma from the impact still caused him to sustain minor injuries to his legs and arms. Unable to move, the nurse just propped the helpless Niall back into his bed. “I know you must be feeling distressed. But your sister is perfectly fine, I promise. It’ll be okay.” She gave him a pat on the shoulder before getting up. Niall just could not believe that this all happened in the span of a day. At 14 years of age, he was an orphan. The rest of his relatives were either back in Japan or Spain. But neither of them were citizens to either country. They were born on American soil.

“I had to work some really odd jobs to support my sister. We had to live in the South End, which was not really a good area at the time. I was a bookie, I sold candy and snacks, I had to steal toys and re-sell them. We lived in foster care for a little bit, and it did not really work out, so we were struggling on the streets. It was tough, because I tried my best to support the two of us.” He sighed. “Luckily, I had to work these weird jobs only for a little while. I managed to lie my way into a restaurant, and start working as a waiter part time, while I was still in high school. We lived in a very shitty apartment, but I was able to make just enough money to get by. The landlord, he was nice enough to let us stay at half rent, because we were minors, and because the building was going to be demolished soon anyways. I tried my best to make it so that Kimmy would not have to suffer. The majority of my money went to food, clothing, and just making sure that she did not realize that we were poor.” It almost sounded unrealistic to Namie, hearing how badly Niall struggled to make ends meet as a teenager. “But the good part was when I turned 18. My inheritance, I received it at long last. That money, it helped put me through college and grad school, well, partially. I only used a little bit of it, but paid for most of my tuition through scholarships. I did not want to dry out the bank before Kimmy needed to go to school and college too. But I had to waiter on the side and eventually, we moved to Virginia once I finished school, since it was a lot cheaper over here.” He revealed. “So I got a job in D.C. as a waiter while I was on the waitlist, continued to be a parent to Kimmy, and she really never realized just how poor or in trouble we were, because again, I tried my best to make sure we lived a good or decent life.” He smiled.

“I had to be the responsible one and the father figure to her. I wanted to protect her from the dangers of the world. One of us was scarred that day our parents died. That did not mean that the other one had to be as well.” “Does she know that they died?” “I still have not told her that. I just said that they were on a business meeting.” “Niall… she’s going to find out the truth eventually.” Namie frowned. “I know she will. She’s the same age I was when they died. It gets harder and harder to answer her questions. But I want to keep her safe-” “This is exactly what my father did to me. Look, I think you’re a great guy, trying to keep your little sister in the dark about this, but learning the truth, that will help her more as a person than lying to her. If she does not know the truth, she might find out from somebody else, and it will hurt her more. It will damage her trust in you.” She frowned. Seeing what Niall was doing to Kimmy, it struck a cord with her.  This was the same exact thing her father did to her, and she was greatly aggravated by it. She was starting to see her father more and more in Niall, and while she was attracted to the musician, she could not help but start to realize a couple of things: by dating and presumably marrying Niall, she might just be losing herself to a relationship, yet again, something that she was trying to avoid back when she tried to quit dating entirely. She felt that the more attracted she was to him, the less of herself she was acting. Dancing, finance, she was having less and less time to focus on her hobbies and career because she was dating him to frequently. Those were aspects of her life that really defined her as a person too. It was an unsettling feeling. And then dating and marrying somebody like Niall, who thinks that being overtly protective is good parenting, or trying to justify wrong or bad actions. How was that any different from her father? When it comes down to it, he thought he was doing a good deed, brainwashing his daughters with those horrendously chauvinistic beliefs, but all he was really doing was feeding them lies based on other lies. Niall was doing that to Kimmy, and she is not even his actual daughter. Was this really somebody that she wanted to be in a relationship with?

“Hey, Niall, can we talk?” Namie was trying her best not to tremble as she approached him. “Hey, babe. What’s wrong?” The musician could immediately sense that there was something off with her. “Look, I really do like you, even love you.” “But?” He looked at her expectantly. Nobody would just make a statement like that for the sake of saying it. There had to be another reason. “But… I don’t like what being somebody else’s girlfriend is doing to me. It really isn’t you. You’re a kindhearted, wonderful, and genuinely great person. But when I am in a relationship, I feel like I’m not as strong or independent enough of a personality to really be myself. I feel like I am trying too hard to be perfect for you, because I like you so much, and it’s…. it’s making me lose my own identity.” She confessed, as the following silence confirmed that Namie had just shattered both of their hearts. “Nams…” He started, unable to form any words. “I’m so sorry, Niall. I really do like you. But I can’t even recognize myself in the mirror anymore. I keep trying to be this super bubbly and girly person, but that is not who I am at all.” She sighed. “But we can make this work. I promise you, you don’t have to be somebody you are not in front of me. I want to just be with the real you-” “I don’t even know who that is anymore, Niall! I’m sorry, but it’s seriously not you. Just being in a relationship, having these titles, these commitments and unspoken expectations, it’s just ingrained in my own personality. My own upbringing! I was raised to think that as somebody else’s girlfriend, you need to shed your own face, your own interests, and make yourself the perfect girl for them. I myself am just not ready to date yet. I have not developed or explored who I am enough to fully grasp my own identity, and because of that, I am losing myself to our relationship.” The accountant fought not to cry at this point. She did not want to lose Niall. But more importantly, she did not want to forget who she was in the process. “I need to learn to be myself first. And you, you deserve somebody who can grow together with you, okay?” She sighed, sitting down next to him. “Namie, I really do love you. And it hurts a lot to hear that, especially from somebody I care about. I think I might need some time away from you.” He groaned, getting up and leaving her apartment. Fighting every urge to do so, she did not beg him to come back.

“Hey, are you feeling better?” Claire approached Namie in the lunch room. “You haven’t been responding to any of our texts. Did something happen between you and Niall? Or was it a family thing?” “It was your first guess. Niall and I broke up.” The accountant sighed. “What happened?” The front desk supervisor was surprised to hear this, especially after how hard she was vying for the two to get together. “I just did not feel like myself when I was with him. It was like I was losing myself to a relationship, and I didn’t like that.” She sighed, placing her head back on the table in frustration. She felt like she had finally met somebody she really liked, but she ruined the opportunity to be in a relationship with him. “Hey, relationships aren’t all that, okay? And in a lot of ways, you’re right too. It’s not worthwhile if you feel like you’re losing your sense of self to it. No matter who you’re with, you still have to live with yourself first and foremost.” Claire sighed, admitting to the faults of her prior rationale and mentality towards finding a happy ending. Seeing her friend so upset about a guy, not only did it remind her of when Franky dumped her, but it made her realize that for a lot of people, they might not need somebody else to find their happily ever after. Some people might just be at their happiest when they are left to their own devices. “You’ll get through this, Nams. You’re smart and capable, and you’ve never let a man take you down.” “Thanks, Claire.” She grinned as they hugged.

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Damn real: chapter 18

“So I never really told you about Franky, did I?” “Wait, your ex?” Namie looked at Claire. They were still in the cashier office, chatting. “Yeah, my ex. He was a giant catalyst to my beauty vlogging career.” “Wait, what?” Namie frowned in disbelief. “You’re telling me that one guy just completely sparked your like what, almost million dollar empire?” “Yup. Just one guy. Heartbreak, it’s an interesting thing, isn’t it?” Claire laughed coldly. She was clearly still upset at the topic of him, despite being the person who brought him up in the first place. “But yeah, Franky and I, we were together for eight years. We started dating right before high school, went to college together at Penn State. I studied Hospitality, he studied Kinesiology. I honestly did not know life without him, Nams.” Hearing that saddened the accountant. The fact that Claire devoted almost a decade of her life to a single person, and even to the point where she just relied on his existence to provide her with a constant, it was definitely making her question whether or not being in a committed relationship was a good idea. “But yeah, we broke up, because of that same reason. He told me that he did not feel like he changed or grew in college, because we stayed in the same city, same school, same relationship, and he blamed his lack of maturing on being with me. He said that I was shallow, narrow-minded, and immature. That I was a bad influence on him.” “But you’re kind of a badass. And you’re not shallow or immature at all. I’ve seen the way you handle people at the Front Desk.” Namie interjected, unable to hear her being being called such horrible things. “But I was not always like that. He was not wrong. I felt like I did not really grow up either. We were together for so long that old habits from middle school continued to surface and persist after all of those years. Honestly, that was probably was the main reason why I did not even get accepted into the manager in training program for Starwood or the Voyager program for Marriott.” She shook her head.

“But yeah, it really screwed with me emotionally, So I became a front desk agent and on the side, I became a beauty guru on YouTube. I started vlogging make-up tutorials and DIY make-up kits, and somehow, I went viral. One of the things I loved about doing make-up was that it made me feel beautiful and it hid away all of my sadness. Nobody could see how hollow or depressed I was in my videos, because they would only see my face being covered and hidden away with layers and layers of foundation and other shit.” She laughed. “I found validation with the Internet, but I could never really find love again after that. The concept of dating, being in a relationship, having a boyfriend, it just causes me to become the same immature 13 year old that dated Franky. It took about seven or eight times of being dumped for me to really start questioning if I should even be in a relationship anymore.” She sighed. “Claire, you will find somebody eventually, if that is the lifestyle you want.” “I do want it, Nams, I really do. But I don’t think it’s practical for me at the moment. I’ms still in the process of really finding myself. The make-up and beauty guru thing, it’s all really just a front. Even if I have millions of followers and subscribers, nobody really gets that I, as a person, I really don’t have that much substance or that many interests. That’s why I keep getting rejected by guys. They think I’m shallow, dumb, or just an easy hook-up. And it’s because I keep giving off that vibe. So before I toss myself into another date, I just wanted to really grow as a person, you know? I need to understand myself, and how I can make me a better me before I try to test the waters and get rejected again.” “That’s true. But don’t let a rejection stop you from being yourself, you know?” “At this point, it’s not going to. I am personally not happy with who I am, and that’s why I want to make the change myself. And if or when I decide to put myself back out there, it won’t matter if I get dumped or whatever, because I would know, without a doubt, that whoever it was that dumped me, it’s their loss, not mine.”

“But yeah, the main reason why I’m telling you all of this is that I think you are in a better place than I am to be in a relationship. If you think Niall is a good fit for you, I’d say for go it. Find a happy ending to your relationship.” She ushered the accountant as the two walked out of the cashier’s office. They were both heading out for the day as well; their conversation was running for quite a while, but neither of them were complaining about that. The two girls were so immersed in their chat that time did not really seem to matter. “Namie, you’re already in a place in your life where you can find a happy ending. You’re a lot more self-assured than I am, and you know who you are, where your lines are drawn, and you know what you want for the most part.” Claire did make somewhat valid points. The brunette did question her statement about knowing what she wanted. The accountant was still teetering between her career in finance or her dream as a dancer. The two were such polar opposites that she felt as if the commitment to either decision had an entire lifetime’s worth of weight behind them. The fact that she could not even make that choice, she questioned if she could be happy making a choice about whether or not to date Niall at the very least. What if they were happy because she was an accountant, but would he still be okay with her being a dancer? While he said he was supportive of her choice to do so, who knows how changing careers would change her as a person? She might let go of herself and become an entirely different person just because of the change in her environment, schedule, and obligations. That sort of change, would he be able to adapt to or handle it? Just thinking about that stressed her out.

At the same time, Namie wanted to finally find a happily ever after so that she could break the vicious cycle of meeting men on these dating apps and then not seeing any futures with them. Niall was different from them. He was not arrogant, haughty, or condescending. He was down to earth, caring, practical, and just a genuine person who was not trying to put on a facade to impress her. His humility and willingness to admit that he was being a waiter, it showed her that he does not feel ashamed. And unlike Kenta, he actually has the aspirations to become something more. His time on the wait list was almost over, which means that he would be an actual musician living out his dream sometime soon. And maybe she just needed to be around somebody like that. Or even just have somebody who is living their dreams actively in her life. Granted, Wei already fit that bill, but with Niall, she had the opportunity to see somebody make their life into a dream come true. He was about to find his good ending, and being able to witness or have a hand in that, it could give the accountant a lot more insight into what she wanted in her own life. It was definitely a gamble. But what was stopping her from pursuing this relationship? Her own expectations? Her fears? The prospect of wasting time and emotions on somebody who might not mean anything to her? At this point, she had done that too many times for it to matter anymore. “To hell with it, I’ll give him a chance.” She turned to an excited Claire. “I hope it works out for you two. I really do.”

Damn real: chapter 12

Arriving at U street, Namie looked around, nervously. Her first meet-up was with a young man named Peter. From his profile, she gathered that he graduated from Cornell and Harvard Law, was 26, currently a lawyer in Virginia, and from the looks of it, Caucasian, with short light-colored hair and bright blue eyes. In a lot of ways, he resembled a Siberian husky. “Hi, Namie, right?” She was approached by none other than Peter himself, who was standing at the corner, waiting for her by their meeting place, a cafe called ThreeFifty Bakery and Coffee Bar. “Yeah, that’s me! Nice to meet you, Peter.” She smiled at him. She was relieved to see that he was at least taller than her. Up close, he was rather handsome, having smooth skin, a chiseled jaw line, broad shoulders, and muscular arms, which were slightly hidden by a long sleeve white button-up shirt. Namie quietly cursed to herself that she was letting her father win by being attracted to him. “So you just wanted to go and talk in this cafe, right?” He was referring to the cafe behind them. “Yeah, let’s go in.” Namie walked over to grab the door. “Hold on, let me get that for you. What kind of gentleman would I be to make a lady open a door for herself?” He chuckled, grabbing and pulled open the door. Unsure of how to respond to this, Namie just paused quietly before quickly thanking Peter and walking inside.

Upon grabbing a table and sitting down, the accountant did not know what to say at first. “So, from what I gather, you’re Mormon, right? Birmingham Young University.” Peter smiled. “Oh, no. I’m not anymore. I gave up on that religion the moment I realized it was sexist, anti-progressive, and preposterous in its claims.” Namie rolled her eyes. “Oh, okay. Perfect, actually. I’m in the same boat as you.” The lawyer admitted. The moment he said that, their date felt a lot less awkward and forced. “What made you quit the church?” She looked over at him, her interest piqued. “I just did not ever really get anything that the LDS Church was preaching. I thought it was ludicrous nonsense. We only ever went because my senile grandpa insisted, but the moment he croaked, nobody in the family really ever gave a shit anymore.” He laughed. “How about you?” “Oh, trust me, that’s a long story. Basically, I had the opportunity to go to Harvard and work for Deloitte, and in both cases, I got screwed because my dad said that I can’t become a successful accountant because I have to be married off to some man, and men don’t want an extremely intelligent woman.” She scowled. “Heh, it sounds like your dad is a really open-minded guy. Much feminist, he is.” Peter chimed in, much to Namie’s amusement. “Yeah, he’s a real peach. I graduated valedictorian, and even though I went to fucking BYU against my will and got a job at Deloitte, he still told me that I have to give all of that up and land myself a man. Just pisses me off beyond belief.” “Well, you’re still a very educated individual, and it’s great to see a talented young woman such as yourself changing society’s view on women in general. So good for you.” It was a very rare moment in Namie’s life when a young man actually understood her struggles and valued her efforts.

“Oh, my god, you’re right! She looks so dumb!” Namie giggled, trying not to fall out of her chair. It was their second date, with Peter taking her to an ice cream store in the Waterfront, Ice Cream Jubilee. The store was covered in large glass panels, which was perfect for people watching, a hobby the pair shared. Peter was making fun of a girl passing by the store, who had her hair tied in a large bun directly above her head, with a cone-shaped birthday hat placed perfectly on top of the bun. As Peter had pointed out, she looked ridiculous. “I know, right? What’s the point of even wearing the hat? Just wear your hair down or don’t put that hat on at all.” Peter chuckled. “So, if you’re not doing anything next weekend, would you like to come with me to go horseback riding? I know the owner of a horse ranch in Virginia Beach, so I can get us in for free.” He smiled. “That sounds amazing. I am so down.” She beamed, although fear slowly crept over her as the accountant realized that she has never ridden a horse before, and has no reference on how to do that. “You look nervous. What’s wrong?” “I’ve never gone horseback riding before.” She admitted. “I can teach you. Don’t worry, it will be like riding a bicycle. A living, breathing bicycle with four legs, a tail, and beneath that tail, a giant gaping pink anus that looks like a portal to another dimension.” “I’m eating still.” The brunette rolled her eyes at Peter’s last remark, referring to the cone of Thai Iced Tea ice cream still in her hands. “Whoops. Sorry about that.” He sniggered, clearly unsympathetic of her predicament. While they were the same age, Namie felt that Peter did have a childishness to him that she could not quite grasp.

“Have you never done this before?!” Peter chuckled as a stammering Namie nervously mounted her horse. “Well, no! You said we were going to Virginia Beach! Not that we were going horseback riding in Virginia Beach!” She frowned. They decided for their third date to enjoy the beach together, due to the weather forecast outright stating that it would be a very hot weekend. The accountant was wearing a long sun dress and flip flops, which was the right type of outfit for this unusually warm day in the fall, but not necessarily suited for riding a vehicle, or in this case, an animal. “Ha! Well, too bad!” He laughed as he took off on his horse. “Just learn to work with it. You graduated as a valedictorian, didn’t you?” The Southern male snorted. “Hey! That’s not fair!” She growled angrily. “Hmm, what was it to make the horse move again? ‘Woah’ was to stop. Giddiup?” She looked down on her chestnut colored steed, who brayed impatiently before taking off. “AHHH!” She could not help but let out a glass-shattering shriek as the horse stood off, darting past a cackling Peter. “THIS ISN’T FUNNY!” Namie screamed, genuinely fearful for her life. “Woah!” She shouted, finally remembering the purpose for that word. The horse immediately stopped, giving her a moment to catch her breath. “Not bad, not bad at all. Up top, champion horse-rider.” Peter stopped next to her, smirking as he held up his hand, expecting a high-five. Despite how impressed he was, the young man failed to realize how genuinely betrayed Namie had felt. It was humiliating, terrifying, and to the accountant, she started to see a truly immature and inconsiderate side of him that she did not appreciate in the slightest. “I just want to go home.” She frowned, getting off her horse. “Hey, wait!” “Save it, asshole. You could have killed me.” “It was a joke!” “If that’s your idea of funny, here’s a joke for you.” She turned around, glaring daggers at him. “Eat a fat fucking turd and drown in your mother’s menstrual blood. Goodbye.” She looked away and continued storming off, reaching for her phone to firstly block Peter’s number, and secondly, call an Uber. What a waste of a potentially wonderful weekend. She thought to herself.

Face-planting in her mattress, Namie frowned to herself. As fun as her initial dates with Peter were, she started to feel less and less attracted to him the more they interacted. Perhaps there was a reason for that? Was she being too picky? Shaking off that doubt, the accountant reminded herself of how inconsiderate he was. He took her horseback riding, and expected her to know how to ride a horse without knowing if she had any experience, and never even tried to teach her. In short, he basically risked her life, and was laughing at her the whole time. Maybe it was a misunderstanding? Maybe he did not realize how scared she was? Either way, her reaction, regardless of how anyone saw it, conveyed fear. But he still chose to take amusement in it and not help her. That was not somebody she wanted to spend even five more minutes, let alone the rest of her life with. The rest of her life? Currently, she is an accountant, entry level on top of that, not even working as a certified public accountant for a CPA firm, just a hotel. She was mostly paying her bills using inheritance money, and while she could theoretically live off of her fortune for the rest of her life, that would contradict her personality. The challenge is what makes life worth living. That was why she chose to pursue accounting. To prove that a young woman can handle finance. So maybe the next step was to become an accounting supervisor-type position? But then there was waacking. Was that going to become a priority or genuine obligation in the future? Or would it stay as a hobby? And what is the point of pursuing a hobby if it does not financially provide her with anything? And deep down, Namie knew that she loved waacking more than accounting. But was there a point in becoming a full-time waack dancer? Frustrating, feeling like she has to choose, Namie groaned to herself before turning on her laptop. Maybe some Netflix would help distract her from these thoughts plaguing her dreams, even but for a moment.

Waking up the next day, the feeling of dumping Peter was still fresh. Even though she was the one who dumped him, Namie could not help but feel drained and saddened, for she invested so much emotionally and mentally into developing a relationship with him, only to realize that he was an ass. In a relationship, she wanted to be with somebody who is ambitious, which Peter was, but also willing to help her become a better version of herself, consistently and continuously, something Peter obviously could not do, due to his own immature and sadistic sense of humor. In short, perhaps she was looking for somebody with at least the same level of maturity as herself? It was at that moment that it dawned on the accountant: why was she thinking so much about being in a relationship? Was she not against it this whole time? And looking at her own younger sister, and seeing Emiri quickly get into a relationship, followed by marriage, and then pregnancy, it was unsettling. While she is currently older than Emiri was, Namie could not help but feel put off whenever she thinks about her sister making such hasty decisions. And seeing that only made the accountant a bit more hesitant to take any of these dates seriously. “It’s only to shut up that asshole who married your mother, don’t forget that.” She reminded herself, getting out of bed. While Emiri was okay with conforming to those backwoods Mormon stereotypes, Namie was completely against fueling any of that nonsense. It did not matter if she shared the same DNA as somebody that ignorant, because she knew better than to fall into the same mistakes. “Natural selection. Survival of the fittest.” She smirked to herself, sarcastically. The dumb make blunders, while the smart learn from them. And the smartest learn while not even having to make the mistakes themselves. In this case, that was having a shotgun Mormon marriage and pregnancy. Oh, how she dodged a cannonball there.

Healing: dream

Being able to recover from something and move on, it’s a wonderful feeling. The healing process is a vital part in us maturing as human beings. A lot of it starts with forgetting about what it is that hurt us to begin with, specifically that pain. Yet, you still need to keep the lesson learned from whatever hurt you in mind. It could be that certain people are not good people, or be less naive, but whatever the lesson is, know what needs to be learned. Secondly, while keeping that newly learned moral in the back of your head, move on with your life. It might mean cutting off old parts of your life, but you need to do it, or else you could very easily revert to old, harmful habits that could cause you a lot of pain and possibly, cause you to revert to self-inflicting tendencies. That is the biggest emotional hurdle in the healing process is cutting off the past and forgetting about it.

The next part of the healing process is filling your life with new things to replace the old. They don’t have to be similar things. Preferably, they shouldn’t be similar things. Anything that reminds you of your past pain, that’s just asking to be triggered. Being able to do that, it also helps you forget the past a lot easier. You’re able to let go and not think about whatever horrible influences have hurt you. And while cutting off is the biggest challenge emotionally, this part is the most difficult part mentally is putting the past behind you. You are probably used to a certain routine, and you want to revert to it. You probably wouldn’t want to include new things into your life and you yearn for the past. Very few people are naturally good at adapting to and accepting change. And that’s to be expected. We can’t all just be okay to uprooting our daily routines. But being able to accept the change, even in small steps, it helps.

By allowing these new influences into your life, you can expel a lot of the negative emotions that have been burdening you earlier. You stop thinking about those dark thoughts, or about the causes of them. Instead, every day becomes a new opportunity for you to discovery something new about yourself or the world around you. You start to find yourself smiling a lot more, and while you know that this world is a little less wonderful than you remember it being, the parts that are genuinely wonderful that you discover makes that journey worthwhile. Being able to see the good in the world, it’s refreshing. Whether it’s new people, new hobbies, new places, you’ll surprise yourself with how much this world has to offer, despite whatever it was that hurt you in the first place. You stop thinking about the guilt, the pain, the trauma, and it helps you focus on future and what you can do as an individual to make the most of yours.

Being able to completely cast your past behind, it’s not easy. Those wounds from your trauma, they do become scars, but with time, you will forget what exactly gave you those scars exactly, but you will still vaguely remember how you got them, and what you can do to prevent yourself from falling into the same mistake again. The world will no longer feel like a cage or trap confining you, and it will open itself up to you. You are no longer being held down or back by those negative influences and burdens. Instead, you can focus on making the person you see in the mirror somebody you can love more and more. And once you reach that point of loving yourself, don’t stop there. Find new things about the world, and figure out what new things you love as well, and how you can work towards incorporating that newfound passion or interest into your life. With healing, you gain depth and character and that’s a life worth living in this featherlight world.

How it is: Chapter 5

It was almost a nightmare, having to relive this moment on the other side, watching it happen again on national television. “Austin…. you are Warrior Chef! Congratulations! You won the title and the grand prize of $100,000!” Valerie’s heart sank. She was sitting alone, in her room, watching the finale of Warrior Chef. “Not winning the title, and knowing that you were so close, it hurts. I thought that I had it in the bag, but I guess not.” A slightly younger Valerie looked visibly upset as confetti rained down, and everyone in that season went up to congratulate her competitor, a tall young man named Austin. Looking back on her decisions, Valerie felt embarrassed. She knew that pastry was her strength, and in that finale, she wanted to showcase it by preparing four desserts instead of a progressive four course meal. In the first challenge, she won using a mix of sweet and savory, preparing a carrot macaron with goat cheese mousse and sorrel sorbet over dehydrated carrot and oat crumble. But then with her other three courses, she went full-on pastry, and the judges decided that because she refused to follow the challenge rules, she could not win the title. In short, she lost because of a technicality, not because she was actually a weaker cook. Regardless, Valerie felt regret and hindsight settling in.

A buzzing could be heard from her desk as the pastry chef picked up her phone and checked the notifications. “Hey, congratulations on making it to the final two! You did amazing! You were easily the best pastry cook in that competition.” Tarou had sent her a text. “You’re still my favorite pastry chef, even though I don’t like desserts that much.” Timmy messaged her as well. It felt nice to know that they still supported her, even though she lost. One part of her felt relieved, knowing that she can finally talk about this entire experience. But another part of her felt deflated that she lost the way she did. Had she prepared two savory courses and a dessert, she might have actually won. The judges outright said that in their deliberation, that if she decided to do a progressive menu, given the amount of technique and skill she had shown throughout the season and with the pastries she was presenting, she could have easily won the competition hands down. Before watching the finale, Valerie did not know why she lost the title. She did have a gut feeling it was because she chose to go with four desserts, but did not think that it would come back to cost her the title in the way that it did.

At work, Valerie was hoping that her emotions from losing would improve. She still remembered that working here with Namie, she focused on keeping her head down and completing the tasks at hand. It helped her calm down and move past the initial pain of losing. But being the executive pastry chef was just more stress on her. Firstly, it was a Friday, and dinner service was crazy. Secondly, every time she picked up a whisk or a piping bag, she just remembered her experiences in that finale. Preparing mousses, creams, baked components, frozen components, and seeing the judges say that preparing four desserts was her ultimate undoing. Those critiques, it hurt her pride. The last thing she wanted to do right now was prepare desserts, when they costed her the title and $100,000. And on top of that, she felt that losing affected her authority, where she felt like she lacked the confidence and validity to be leading her pastry cooks. Austin is opening his first restaurant with the money he won, while she was working for somebody else. Unfortunately, Valerie’s emotional strain towards making desserts only worsened as the service drew on. “Hey, Val! We just got a petit four sent back. Your macarons were filled with the wrong ganache!” Janice shouted. Oh crap. Her heart just sank. Once again, her desserts were inadequate. They failed her in the finale, and they were failing her here at work. Valerie could just feel her doubts getting louder and louder. And she found herself unable to sound them out. Trying to shake off the doubts, Valerie corrected her macarons and re-sent them out for the guests, much to Janice’s visible frustration.

“Well, that was a crap day.” Valerie sighed to herself as she began the walk back to campus. Normally, she would stick around after service and celebrate with Jacky, Megan, Mako, Joseph, and Janice, but today, she was exhausted and ashamed of her performance. That was nothing that she did that was worth celebrating. The worst thing about this was that she knew that she could do better too. She has had stronger services as an intern than she had today.And in Warrior Chef, she put up dishes that demonstrated her strengths in the savory kitchen. It was not that she was weak with savory, she just wanted to do the dishes that expressed her love and passion for food the best. Having to re-experience losing, it was not fun for her. And there were only a couple of people she felt comfortable talking about this to. “Hey, you made it this far. You have a lot to be proud of.” Austin, the cook who beat her in Warrior Chef, sent that message. Unlike Valerie, when Austin found out he had won, he enrolled in culinary school in the CIA using his winnings, and was already announcing the opening of his first restaurant, which was scheduled for the fall. Winning that title opened a world of possibilities and opportunities for him, just like how it did for Janice all those years ago. And for Valerie, she just felt that much more unaccomplished. Even though it had been an entire year since she competed, compared to Austin, what had she accomplished? Nothing.

A year ago, a slightly younger Valerie, then a senior in high school, walked nervously into the judge’s room, in Tokyo, where the finale was taking place. It felt surreal. Earlier that morning, her, Joey, and Austin were anxiously awaiting the final two challenges. After the first one, Valerie won an advantage of picking her sous-chefs for the final elimination challenge, and Joey was sent home for making a slightly weaker amuse bouche. Even though Valerie got first pick, selecting her close friends Claire and Coco, it was her decisions to stick with pastry that put her in a bad position. There was a part of her doubting that choice to do only dessert, but desserts were how she got on top of challenges, and it was going through the competition and hearing the praise of her pastries that made her realize that she wanted to one day open her own dessert bar.  So in spite of the doubts, she still pushed forward and put up three amazing desserts in just an hour. She was proud of what she was putting out: each dessert looked and tasted impeccable, and showed her true range as a pastry chef. But with each course she saw Austin preparing, there was just a tinge of doubt that she was making a mistake doing only desserts.

It was heartbreaking to hear the judges’ decision. “You did an amazing job. You have a lot to be proud of.” One of the judges in the finale reassured her. “Valerie, you did incredible.” Coco, a small brunette, and Claire, an athletic blonde, hugged her. They were her sous-chefs in that final challenge. “Thank you.” She hugged them back. Even then, she still felt horrible. If she did such a good job, why did she still lose? At that point, she had a gut feeling that her all-dessert menu cost her the challenge, but she did not hear what the judges said. She did not know why her desserts, which she prided herself on, could not trump the menu Austin put up. But then seeing the judges say on national television that regardless of how amazing her desserts were, she could not beat Austin without doing at least two savory courses, it was heartbreaking. She felt idiotic. She basically handed Austin the title by not following the rules of the challenge. She lost on a technicality, and not even one that was out of her own hands. It was her conscious decision to make four desserts. Why did she think it was okay to do that? The answer that Valerie found was not a pretty one. It was her pride. She wanted to stake her ego on that title, and she only has herself to blame for losing a season that she easily had the potential to dominate.

Finally back in her dorm room, Valerie curled up in a ball on her bed and let loose the tears. It was hard to keep them in at that point. She just wanted to get all of her emotions out of the way so that she could move forward with her life. She could not believe she did that. And she knew that everyone would think poorly of her choices too. She would get many people telling her that she was an idiot for trying to bend the rules, and that she was asking to lose that season. Just knowing that the very thing she is paid to do is what cost her the title, it was heartbreaking. It made her feel as if she was less qualified to fill Namie’s shoes as the executive pastry chef because she lost the way that she did. Namie was a Warrior Chef winner, and she was talented enough to move on and start her own business. But what about Valerie? She was stuck with Namie’s old job, and coming in second to yet another winner on the show. She honestly did not expect to take losing this badly. She never really saw herself as a sore loser, but knowing that she lost in a cooking competition when food was all she ever talked about, it was rough. A part of her own identity, she was beginning to question.

innocence

A little gir, resting underneath a sky littered with cherry blossoms. She had nearly no recollection of her life before sleeping here. There was only one memory: an elderly man, whispering to her. “I’m so sorry.” He apologies in a hushed, croaked tone. He cut her loose of his tight embrace, as she fell. Walking through the pink hills, the girl felt awestruck. The pristine trees, pure ivory park and light, heart-shaped flowers that fluttered through the wind, it was a sight to marvel at. The girl felt like these flowers, they resonated with her. Looking at them, she felt hope, joy, and for some reason, guilt. Seeing these flowers gently glide past her. She could sympathize with their descent from the heavens. But unlike these fallen petals, the girl knew she could continue moving. She felt almost ashamed, as if she was leaving these delicate flowers behind. Being able to move forward, it seemed like something she was not supposed to be doing. Like her, small and untainted in the beginning, before being released, displaced, dirties, and discarded. She knew, deep down, that her innocence was sullied on her way here. Despite not knowing why, she knew that her past was a fall, but her future was a rise.

Road Movie: Chapter 21

“What’s so important?” Dakota walked outside of her apartment building. Her parents had visited her apartment and insisted that she come outside. “I know you might be hesitant, but we wanted to get you this so that when you leave the city, you’ll be ready for whatever is ahead of you.” Mrs. Logan smiled as she led her daughter outside. It was a brand new car. “Oh my god!” Dakota gasped. She started to feel a little uneasy about the idea of driving it, but her parents insisted that she get in and drive with them in it. “Uh, okay.” She was hesitant, but knew it was time to face this fear. Stepping into the driver’s seat, she buckled in, and turned on the engine. It was a while since she actually drove, but it was like riding a bicycle to speak. “Alright, where are we going?” She turned around to her mom who was sitting in the back of the car. “Ooh, let’s drive along the Lake!” She suggested excitedly. “Alright, a trip along the Lake it is!”

Driving with her parents in the car, Dakota started to feel a lot more calm. Yeah, motor accidents have happened to both Phillip and his mother, and it does suck, but it happens. That sounded insensitive, but it was the blunt truth. There was no point in being fearful of the car accidents. She just had to be careful. Knowing that her parents and her own life were being placed in her hands, she had to prioritize her parents’ lives first, obviously, and she was making sure to drive knowing that. She made sure to watch traffic on all intersections and lanes like a hawk, making sure that nobody was trying to merge onto her lane or cut her off, causing a potential accident. She had that much control over her life, anyways.

Dropping off her parents at her apartment garage, she gave them a large hug. “Thank you guys for this. I really needed to get over everything.” She grinned graciously. “No problem, honey. We just wanted to help you overcome some of those fears. Besides, you’ll need a car where you’re going.” Mrs. Logan smiled. “Thanks, mom. Thanks, dad.” She could not stop smiling. She was genuinely touched that her parents would go out of their way to buy her a brand new car, and then on top of that, help her confront her fears of driving. Coping with the trauma, it’s a step by step process. Some steps will take longer, but a step like this, it takes just one good experience and a strong reminder of who is in control and what they are in control of.

“Also, another thing, Mr. Hopkins finally got back to us about a date for Phillip’s funeral. Do you think you’re ready for this?” Mrs. Logan looked at her daughter, gravely concerned. “It’s something that I know I need to do if I can ever cope with the loss and move on.” She assured her mother. “The reason why it’s been a while was that he was going to therapy. Suicide prevention. It’s understandable, given what he had been through.” Mr. Logan sighed. Losing your wife is tough, but then your only child, it massively reduces ones will to live. “But he’s better now. We make sure to visit often and I know he wants to set up a fund in Phillip’s honor.” They smiled at her. “That’s incredible to hear. I’m glad he’s doing a lot better now.” Dakota nodded in relief.

Later that day, Dakota’s phone started ringing. It was none other than Mr. Hopkins. “Hi, Mr. Hopkins, how are you?” The brunette answered nervously. She was still a bit afraid to see him after the incident. She still felt some survivors guilt for not being the one who drove that night. But she knew it was unhealthy and wrong to dwell on those hypotheticals. The what-if’s needed to be shafted. “I just wanted to know how you were doing. I think out of everyone, the two of us were definitely the most affected by Phillip’s passing.” “I’m still trying to get over it. It’s tough for both of us, absolutely. But I know that Phillip would have wanted us to be happy with our lives. Even if he was not a part of them, he wanted that for us.” Dakota rationalized. “He was so fortunate to have a girlfriend like you. You kept him grounded and focused. For that, I’ll always be grateful. You’ll always be like a daughter to me, Dakota.” Mr. Logan admitted. “Thank you, Mr. Logan. That means a lot to me, coming from you!”

“Monique, what was the meaning of this?!” Dakota was with Monique, Virginia, and Maria, getting dinner together. It was the first tine they had a girl’s night out since Phillip’s death, and Monique’s first time overall. The brunette was referring to the email she got last night. “I never entered the Capture My Chicago Photo Contest! And you’re the only one who had access to my photos!” The two had shared a mutual dropbox for their photography. “I wanted to boost your confidence, and I took your best shots and entered them. And you won!” Monique snickered mischievously. “I mean, I’m honored that I won, but why did you do that behind my back?” The brunette frowned. “Because if I tried to get you to enter, you’d probably be too modest or nervous about your photography. Plus, since I entered you behind your back, you didn’t know, and if you lost, you’d never have to know!” Monique laughed. “The rejection email, you’d probably think it was spam or something.”

As odd as it was, Dakota was grateful for what Monique did. She helped her do something she never thought was possible, and because of it, Dakota was able to get her name out there as a photographer. “Honestly, your pictures are really good. You’ve learned quickly, and I think you should consider making this your career when you move.” Monique encouraged. “Hold on, I want to see these photos.” Maria frowned, grabbing Dakota’s phone. “Where’s this DropBox?” “Here, here.” Monique gestured, taking the phone and logging into the site. She tapped on the image file to bring it up for Virginia and Maria. “Wow! These are really nice! Can you take my wedding photos?” Maria smiled. “I mean, if I’m still in Chicago, sure!” “Oh, no, Maria will probably make you come back just to take them.” Virginia laughed. “Hey… that’s true, actually. I’ll cover your expenses and everything, since my parents have to pay for the wedding.” Maria smiled. “Thanks!” Dakota grinned. It was reassuring to know that people enjoyed her photography as much as she enjoying doing it. Lining up the angle, waiting for the lighting to be perfect, and capturing that moment at just the right time, it was a thrilling sensation for her. She enjoyed being able to land on that perfect picture.

Road Movie: Chapter 16

It was Sunday morning, and Dakota was off, walking around Naperville, taking photos. When she was photographing, the brunette found herself getting immersed in that lens, focusing on angles and trying to take that perfect shot. Unfortunately, she found herself face to face with a building she was probably hoping to never see again: the apartment complex Phillip lived in. She almost dropped her camera in shock. Dakota did not expect to be this badly affected by the sight of it. The reasonable side of her wanted to knock on the door and say hello to Mr. Hopkins. But the emotional side, she wanted to run away. Dakota’s emotions sank in, and she took off in a hurry, panicked. She just could not be around anything that reminded her of him. She would just get angry at the world for taking him away from her.

Resting on a wooden bench in Columbia Estates Park, Dakota managed to finally catch her breath. She felt a mix of things. Scared from looking at the apartment, guilty for not saying hi to Mr. Hopkins, and disappointed in herself for not being as progressed in her coping as she would have liked to be. It was frustrating that she let her emotions win. Deciding that she was done photographing Naperville, she retired to her room in her parents’ house. As far along as she had come coping with Phillip’s death, she had not quite emotionally prepared herself to see his old house. “Welcome back, honey! Did you have fun?” Mrs. Logan durned to welcome her daughter. She was watching TV with Mr. Logan in their living room when their daughter came through the front door. “Yes, mom! I’m going back to my room to pack up my things.” She responded, climbing up the stairs.

“Dakota, are you sure you’re okay?” Mrs. Logan stepped into the brunette’s old room. “Huh, what do you mean?” “You might be able to fool your father, but I know when my daughter is uncomfortable. What happened when you were taking photos?” “I…. stumbled upon Mr. Hopkin’s apartment. It was just weird, seeing it, and I just felt really bad. A lot of memories of Phillip, and I thought I was finally getting over his death, but then I saw that.” She rambled. Her thoughts were all over the place at this point, but she was hoping that from what she was saying, her mother could empathize. “Honey, something I worry about with you is how sheltered you are. I read that children who never leave the state they were born or raised in, they have a higher tendency to feel trapped.” She explained.

“Your father and I, we each were raised somewhere else. He came from Detroit, and I was from Milwaukee. But you were always in Illinois. You never left. Maybe this is a sign that you should go and explore other cities and other states.” She suggested. “You need space from Chicago and Naperville, so take this as an opportunity.” “You’ll be fine if I might be an unemployed hobo in a different state?” The brunette frowned at the notion. “No, I’m sure you’ll get a job. Besides, look at me. I graduated Northwestern, was unemployed, and I still managed to raise a family and be happily married. Good things will come when you put yourself out there.” “That’s true. I’ll look into moving somewhere else. I thought about that to be honest,” She admitted, It was not the first time she thought about moving to somewhere else. Before, she thought small scale. She used to want a different apartment, or to switch her clientele at work. Something like this, she felt like she needed to change her lifestyle on a larger scale.

“Bye, honey!” Dakota’s parents waved off to the brunette as she stepped on board the train. “I’ll call you guys when I get back home! Love you guys!” She waved as the door closed. Within minutes of the brunette settling into her chair, the train took off. She was going back to the city. But she knew that it would not be much longer that she would be calling Chicago home. She did not know just quite where yet, but somewhere out there was a new place for her to call home. A new place for her to return to. Looking as the suburbs started to sink away into the horizon, she had a lot on her mind. Just knowing that both of her parents were okay with her leaving the nest, it felt like a huge relief. But to herself, she did not want to feel trapped or fail. She wanted to do something that would do right by her ideal life standards.

“Today was such a long day.” Dakota sighed as she fell onto her bed. She was finally back home. It felt strange, because just that morning, she was still in the comfort of her parents in Naperville, and now she was in the big city alone in her apartment. The contrast, going from having the freedom of a kid to the responsibilities of an adult in less than a day, it was a silencing thought. Going to bed, Dakota pondered with the idea of moving and quitting her job. As much as she wanted to do it, she needed more perspective. Drifting off to sleep, she continued to occupy her mind with this idea. To leave Illinois, the state she was born in raised in, when she had never even done that before for even traveling, it seemed a little terrifying. But her parents left their homes to grow up, so many it was time for her to do the same. She had never even left the state, even for a vacation. There was an entire world around her. Getting out of her comfort zone would be a challenge, but that’s what life is about. Being able to push yourself and do things that you may not think about doing before.

“So let me get this straight. You’re from Naperville, you went to college in UChicago, and you’ve never worked outside of Chicago?” Frida frowned to a 23 year-old Dakota. “Yup. Same with my boyfriend.” “Enough about your boyfriend. We are talking about you, young lady.” She was frank in her intentions. Frida wanted to learn more about her new permanent hire. “Wait, are we grilling her? I want in.” Justin overheard the conversation, and swooped in, joining the two at their table in the break room. “Oh my god.” Dakota rolled her eyes. “So you never want to leave Chicago? You just plan to marry your boyfriend and stay in this bubble?” The old lady looked disappointed. “Well, yeah. There’s nothing wrong with that!” “Have you ever even left Illinois?” “Oh. Well, no, but…” Dakota trailed off. “Exactly, a bubble!” Frida frowned. “Dakota, one of my biggest regrets was not embracing my youth and adventuring out in the world. When I got married, I did not even have the luxury of doing that.” Justin chimed in. “Exactly! Girl, you need to live for once in your life! Do something risky!” Frida shouted, slamming her hands onto the table. This conversation fell upon deaf ears at first. But in light of recent events, Dakota started to think about what Frida and Justin told her.

Road Movie: Chapter 9

“Where am I?” Dakota tried to open her eyes in the brightly lit room, which proved to be a challenge. Blinking and wiping away the tears that formed, she finally saw the outline of someone wearing what appeared to be a surgical mask. After adjusting her sight to the fluorescent shine in her face, Dakota realized that she was in a hospital, specifically in a hospital bed. “You’re in Northwestern Memorial Hospital.” The brunette was puzzled by the response. She was in the hospital? And the one she had recently helped? “What happened?” Her voice croaked weakly, much to her own shock. All she could remember was driving with Phillip to the movies. “You were in a car accident.” The figure standing above her stated. “Accident? Is Phillip okay?” She looked over at him, beginning to panic. The man went silent. His silence just made it clear that Phillip was far from fine.

Dakota heard the full details of what just happened when she got discharged from the hospital. Waiting in the lobby, she came across a distraught Mr. Hopkins who was accompanied by her parents. “Dakota.” Her father paused, looking at her. There was a look of complete hopelessness in his eyes as tears streamed down his gaunt expression. Mr. Hopkins stood next to them, looking equally despaired. Until now, the brunette was just hoping that the worst that happened was Phillip lost a limb but would survive. Even a terminal illness, she would be okay with. “I’m so sorry.” Her mother sobbed, pulling her into a tight hug. “You guys did not deserve this. You guys should have had a long, happy future together, not what had happened.” “Mom?” She was still unsure of how to react. Denial was at play here. She refused to believe he was dead, even after seeing how their parents were.

According to her dad, the couple were in an accident. A truck hit their car, turning too quickly and not realizing that there was somebody next to them. Their vehicle flipped over, and landed on its right side. Phillip was crushed upon impact as the car rolled back to being upside down. Dakota passed out from lack of air, but at that point, Phillip was already dead. The ambulance found both of them, and excavated the two from the car. They found a pulse on Dakota, and put her in the bed first. She was in a coma for the entire month. There were two cars to carry each body, so they sent her off to the nearest hospital, Adventist GlenOaks Hospital. Eventually, after treating the minor injuries on Dakota’s body, she was transferred to Northwestern Memorial, where she remained past Christmas, New Years, and eventually, woke up in late January. In that time, Dakota’s parents contacted her workplace, explaining what had happened.

Phillip, the EMTs and paramedics tried to save him, but his neck was already snapped. They were able to save Dakota with minor injuries, but Phillip, between being on the side impacted by the truck and snapping his neck as the car tumbled, he was beyond saving. The body remained in one piece, but by the time they had wheeled his body to Adventist, he had been dead for almost two hours. There was nothing the doctors were able to do either. A broken neck meant that he was gone for good. When Mr. Hopkins heard the news, it destroyed him. First his wife, then his son. And both of them to motor accidents? It would have been hilarious, if it was not the people in his life. People who he loved the most. What did he do to deserve having everything he worked so hard for taken away from him?

Mr. and Mrs. Logan had to comfort Mr. Hopkins through the entire ordeal. Upon being told that their daughter survived, but Phillip died, they drove over to his apartment almost immediately; they knew he would be taking the news the worst. And they were fortunate to arrive when they did; Mr. Hopkins was about to go for a drive; he intended to drive into the DuPage River and drown in his car, but Dakota’s parents did not know that at the time. After a long talk and assuring him that he will always be family to them, Mr. Hopkins was able to calm down. It was painful to live in this reality, but if he were to die now, what would happen? The entire Logan household would be gone. Especially now that he was the only one in his family left, he had to live. Live for Jessica and Phillip. They would not want him to suffer. They would want him to be happy. Even though happiness seemed far away, he needed to start looking for it. He needed to find a new purpose for his life.

Phillip’s body was being stored in a Cryonics Institute in Chicago for the time being. Mr. Hopkins was deciding whether or not if they wanted to bury the body in a casket or cremate the remains and bury the urn. Like with choosing to stay alive, this was not an easy decision. Mr. Hopkins decided that he needed to wait for Dakota to awaken from her coma before he decided; she has as much say in this situation as he did. Thinking about the funeral was still too much for him. How many fathers have had to plan their own son’s funerals? It was uncomfortable to think about, but it needed to be done, out of respect to Phillip’s memory. Sighing to himself, Mr. Hopkins walked out of his apartment, holding a lighter in one hand, and a box of cigarettes in another. Normally, he did not smoke, but in this case, he needed the comfort of that warmth spreading in his lungs to calm himself down.

Dakota did not know what to feel. It had not fully sunken in that Phillip was gone. She could not believe it. Not until she saw him for herself. There was a small part of her, clinging onto the hope that this was a bad dream, that seeing her parents mourn was a figment of her imagination. She convinced herself that he was still alive. Even when she told Mr. Hopkins to bury the body as is, she still denied Phillip’s death. But that night, going home to her apartment, it started to settle in. The space was empty and dark. Everything was exactly like they left it before they went to the movies. That first night alone, it was hard. She was used to sleeping, knowing that Phillip was a hug away if she needed it. But instead, it was just her in an empty bed. She tried to comfort herself, but it was hard. He was not there. She could not trick herself into thinking he was away on a trip of something. She knew the truth. It crept up on her. Unable to fight the urge the cry, Dakota gave in and found herself sobbing into a pillow.

Road Movie: Chapter 8

“Hi, you must be Dakota. I’m Jessica. Phillip’s mother.” A woman with round, brown eyes and long dark hair smiled softly at her. “Huh?” The brunette looked around. The two of them were sitting in a cafe, overlooking the lake. “So, Dakota, I hear you were going out with my little Philly.” She rested her chin on her hands as she continued to look at the girl. Dakota shuddered, feeling her gaze. It was as if Mrs. Hopkins examining her every movement, judging her decisions, reactions, personality. As somebody who disliked being marginalized, Dakota felt incredibly uncomfortable and vulnerable. “Oh. Uh, yeah, I am. We’ve been dating for quite a while now.” She began. She felt strange about this entire situation. The last thing she remembered was that she was in a car with Phillip. So this had to be a dream, right? But the woman sitting across from her, she definitely resembled Phillip; Dakota had never seen what Phillip’s mother looked like, because Phillip refused to show any pictures to her. For Dakota, this was the first time interacting or meeting Mrs. Hopkins ever crossed her mind.

Dakota recalled what meeting Mr. Matthew Hopkins was like. Since Phillip had met Dakota and her parents at their house, they decided to have a huge family dinner with the five of them. Mr. Hopkins and Mr. Logan immediately got along with each other. Both of them were blue collar workers, the former working in a power plant as an engineer and the latter working as a plumber. Mr. Hopkins took a liking to Dakota, mostly because of how polite yet openminded Dakota was; she was able to talk to Mr. Hopkins about football and athletics, much to his delight. Since Phillip was so busy in academics, he never really did sports beyond the two year minimum, where he did football, but had no intentions of making a full career out of it. It was that dinner, during their senior year of high school, where Dakota and Phillip truly felt as if they could one day have a happy family like this of their very own.

It started to dawn on her that this entire interaction should not even be possible. “Wait, who are you?” The woman sitting in front of her could not actually be Phillip’s mom. “I am Jessica Hopkins. The mother of your girlfriend. I died when Phillip was in middle school.” She answered, not even breaking her stare. “Wait, there’s no way that this could be real. This has to be a dream.” Dakota got up in disbelief. Mrs. Hopkins was long since dead. She should not be alive, interacting with the brunette. Dakota had never even met Mrs. Hopkins. She was conflicted. Either this was a dream, and the women before her was Dakota’s image of Mrs. Hopkins, or the woman was pretending to be Mrs. Hopkins. It was overwhelming and difficult to keep track of. Trying to back away, Dakota felt her legs freeze in fear. What was going on? She was paralyzed, shaking helplessly. “A coward like you is unworthy of my son. You are not the kindhearted girl he deserves to be dating.” She spat, glaring at her. “I will be taking him back from you. Your time with him is over.” Dakota’s heart sank at that statement. It was too much to hear for her. She could not believe the words she was hearing.

“Dakota? Dakota!” Phillip shouted. The brunette groggily opened her eyes. “10 minutes left!” He smiled at her. “Oh really?” She smiled at him. “Yup.” She started to recall her dream and felt worried. “Phillip, what was your mom’s name again?” “Jessica. Jessica Hopkins. Why are you asking?” He raised an eyebrow in curiosity. “I had a dream. I met your mom in it. She was beautiful. She had your eyes.” She began. “Oh, wow. That’s what a lot of people said to me.” He froze hesitantly. “Where did you see her? Wait, did you snoop through those old pictures?!” There was definitely a sound of panic in his voice. “No, I swear! I said it was a dream! I met her in a cafe by the lake. It was beautiful. But I got freaked out. I wasn’t sure if it was actually her, or if I was being trolled, since she was supposed to be dead. And she did not take well to how I reacted.” She admitted, trying to make sense of what just happened while also attempting to calm down the wound up Phillip. “What did she do?” It seemed to be working. “She said that I was not worthy of being your girlfriend.” Dakota sighed nervously. “Not worthy of being my girlfriend? Well, everything up until that sounded like my mother, but I’m not sure about that last bit you just said about being unworthy.” He chuckled.

“My mom wouldn’t have made a comment like that to my girlfriend, and I know for a fact she would have loved you. You’re a really caring, selfless, and kind person, Ducky. And if she saw how much you meant to me, she would not even care if you were a Satanist or serial killer. She would accept you for who you are.” He grinned reassuringly. “Thanks, Philly cheesesteak. But I have another question.” The brunette looked at him, half nervously. She was not sure what sort or response to anticipate. “What’s up?” “Why did you not want to show me pictures of your mom, or even really mention so much as her name or what she was like to me?” “Dakota, my mom represented my past. Being with you, it represented my present and my future. Hearing you say it now, yeah, you definitely deserve to know about my mother, but I was so caught up in growing up with you that I guess I forgot.” He admitted sheepishly. It was embarrassing to realize that he never really considered Dakota’s feelings or thoughts in the manner, even after all of those years.

“Okay, so I’m going to get off here.” Phillip signaled his right turn light. He needed to get off the  highway so that he could turn into the theatre. “Wait, Phillip! Look out!” Dakota screamed. A blinding white light flooded the car and the blaring sound of a truck’s horn filled the highway. Everything went silent. There was a flashing red, and then a blackness. “Phillip?” Dakota weakly groaned. She could not really move her head; the car chair had come unhinged and toppled over her. The car had flipped upside down from the collision. The brunette’s body suddenly seized up. She could feel herself gaining that same freezing sensation she had earlier in her dream. Her heart felt like it was going to stop beating. A dizziness took over, and her eyes slowly closed, as a blackness clouded her vision. A sound siren could be heard from a distance as people were gathered around the turned over car, nervously watching.