Sarah, Returned--Chapter 21 (A Steemit Original Novel)
Matt leads me by the hand into the house. Through the little breezeway by the door to the garage, around the corner to the right, and into the spacious, open area that contains the conjoined formal living room and kitchen, with the more casual sitting room separated on the other side by only a two-foot wide path of white tile with black grout.
Intimately familiar, yet unbearable foreign. It's a strange dichotomy.
I let him continue to hold my hand, because it obviously brings him comfort. After 14 years away, it seems almost a dream to be back in my childhood home. I might believe it was all a particularly vivid dream were it not for the achingly bright lights. A glance at the clock above the sink in the kitchen tells me it’s after midnight, when everyone would long be in bed back in ancient Dover. That’s another thing I adjusted to without realizing it—the absence of artificial light. Now, the lamps and chandelier over the formal living room make me squint. It’s too bright for this time of night.
As my eyes adjust, the pain recedes and my vision sharpens. There, on the pure white sofa in the formal living room, is someone I’d hoped to never lay eyes on again—Karen. She faces us, back straight, her long blonde locks tied in a neat, severe bun hanging low near the nape of her neck. Grandma’s full, antique silver tea service is laid out on the coffee table in front of her, and she takes a slow sip from a rose-colored china cup with gold edging as Matt and I enter the room. Her eyes remain firmly on us as she drinks, but she says nothing, even after swallowing and putting the cup down on the matching saucer in her hand.
No greeting at all. I wasn’t expecting a warm one, but this is deliberately cold, even by her standards. I know what she’s doing. She’s making a statement. This is her house now, regardless of what it says on the deed, and I’m a guest in it. Therefore, I must come to her.
Normally, her arrogance would infuriate me; since she and Matt are, hopefully, not married yet, she has no legal claim on this house, whereas I do. I could throw her out, and be perfectly within my rights. All I have to do is tell the policeman in the car parked outside that I don’t feel safe with her here, and he would make her leave. It's tempting.
However, I will only be here a short while if things go well, and that bitch is not going to ruin my brief reunion with my cousin. As long as I can find what I need to get me back to 1699 in Grandma’s room, she can act as haughty as she likes.
When I leave, she can have my house if she wants it. My fortune? It’s hers for the taking. I don’t care about any of it. All I want is to be reunited with Joshua and my children.
As long as I'm here, though she will remember who this house really belongs to. If I remain detached, maybe I can make her angry enough that Matt will see her for who she really is, and I will get the delicious enjoyment of watching him break up with her before I leave. It would feel so wonderful to leave this time behind forever knowing my cousin is free.
She’s expecting a naïve 20-year-old she can control through threats and manipulation. What she isn’t counting on is my 14 years additional in the 17th century, an experience that has forged me in steel. Karen Bateman will never control me.
As we round the corner and the full living room comes into view, I’m startled to see Great-Uncle Jacob and Carter there, as well. Each is in one of the red armchairs on either end of the coffee table, china teacups in their hands, though foregoing the saucers, unlike their haughty hostess. That’s odd. I didn’t see their cars out front, and we usually only open up the back yard for parking when we have parties. Maybe they took a cab? Either way, it’s sweet that they came. They’re my allies. I’m glad they’re here.
The men look up as I come fully into the room, their eyes shining with love and concern. I forgot how many people here love me. They must have been so worried. That pang of guilt stabs me again, stronger this time, as I realize I never gave either of them a single thought after I committed to marry Joshua in order to raise Hannah. I must remember to always include them both in my prayers, once I’m back where I belong.
Jacob and Carter rise as Matt and I turn to face the group, standing behind the second white sofa that completes the grouping of furniture in the formal living room. True gentlemen, both of them. I’m warmed by their kind and respectful gesture. Getting a look at the whole area, I’m glad it’s still the same as I remember; Karen hasn’t changed the décor yet. The same red and white matching sofas and chairs, all positioned around the glass-topped cherry wood coffee table, has been here since before I was born. The house may be the same for now, which is perfect for a homecoming, however brief, but I’m sure Karen is chomping at the bit to say “I do” to Matt, so she can get her name on his bank account and start re-decorating this place in her own twisted vision of what new wealth should reflect. I wonder if they've set a date yet?
“Sarah,” Great-Uncle Jacob says, his strong voice full of warmth, a genuine smile full of love on his face. “I’m so grateful you are safe. We’ve all been so concerned about you.” He takes my free hand, as Matt is still unwilling to let go of the other. “Welcome home.” He wraps me in an affectionate hug, which I return with my one available arm, and kisses me on my cheek.
“Thank you,” I reply. “It’s good to be back.” To my surprise, I actually am glad to be back, for the first time since I got sucked back through that portal and away from my family. I'm glad, because I am now considering this a visit, and fully expect to get back to my family in short order. While I'm here, I’m genuinely happy to be here with these other family members who love me. I must enjoy every moment with them until I go back, and make those moments count.
Carter greets me next. He walks over from the far end of the living room, looking uncertain. I think he’s glad to see me, but there’s some confusion there, almost like he’s not sure if it’s safe to touch me. Oh, man. Karen has probably been talking her nonsense to him, trying to get him to believe I’m insane. He and I talked about this before I left, so he knew what she was trying to do. The events at the house just prior to my driving off, and my subsequent disappearance, may have given her the ammunition she needed to put some doubt in his mind about my stability. Since I never called him after I fled and vanished, does he think she was right about me the whole time, and I was just trying to cover my ass by telling him she was a manipulative witch who just wanted my family’s money?
Oh, Carter. Say it’s some other reason, any other reason, putting that grimace on your face. Prove me wrong.
Gradually, he makes his way around the coffee table and behind the second sofa. We stand eye to eye, as we are about the same height, and I wait for him to make a move. I don’t have to wait long. Once he’s close enough to touch me, he only hesitates a moment before grabbing me in a tight hug. It’s so powerful, my feet leave the floor, and as soon as he puts me back down, his lips are on mine, bestowing a passionate kiss full of longing on me.
I almost push him away. It became instinct long ago to want no other man’s lips but Joshua’s to ever touch mine. Thankfully, I catch myself in time and let him continue the kiss, though I do close my eyes and pretend it’s my husband. I'll have to be careful where Carter is concerned. He still thinks we’re a couple, and I have to keep up that illusion until I leave. Everyone here thinks I’ve been abducted and escaped. There’s no reason to make them think differently by acting like I can’t wait to get away from the man who is supposed to be my boyfriend. And, regardless of our current relationship status, Carter is a good man, and one of my few allies against Karen. He has been since the beginning, and I need to keep it that way.
Once Carter steps away, I pull myself together and give him a sweet smile, brushing his cheek with the hand Matt is not holding. I came close to loving this adorable dork once, and as far as I know, he felt the same way. Why would that change in so short a time, especially with me missing? I’ll allow him to show some affection toward me while I’m here, without letting him get too intimate or familiar. That’s normal behavior for a woman who has been through a recent trauma, isn’t it? Let him be happy to have me while I’m here. It’s the least I can do. Once I go back, he can move on with his life, and find a wonderful girl who truly deserves him.
“I missed you,” he says, looking down at his feet. I’ve never known him to be shy, especially not with me, but these are unusual circumstances.
“I missed you, too, Carter,” I say with complete truth. I did miss him. Just not in the way he probably thinks I did.
Once the men have given me their greetings, Matt and I wait for Karen to offer hers, but she does not stand up. She doesn’t even look up. It’s clear she isn’t going to say anything, and I feel Matt tense up beside me. How many arguments about how to handle my disappearance did they have while I was away? Oh, please, Matt, tell me some of this woman’s artificial shine is starting to wear off of you.
Since Karen won’t come to us, we step down into the sunken living room and sit on the snow white sofa opposite her. With no one knowing what to do about her silence, it becomes a standoff, waiting to see who breaks and speaks first. Karen clearly expects me to open up the conversation. Well, it’s not going to happen. We can sit here ignoring each other all night. That woman will wait until the end of time before I give her the satisfaction, and, unlike her, I know I can do it. Personal experience and all.
Thankfully, Matt can always be counted on to ease any awkwardness. After it’s been quiet just a bit too long, and the men are all starting to shift in their seats, my peace-making cousin speaks. “Karen, isn’t it wonderful to have Sarah back?” he asks, and the release of tension in the room is palpable.
“Hmmm,” she mumbles, condescension dripping. “And where has our beloved little cousin been all this time? Hiding out somewhere so I wouldn’t press charges for her injuring me? I have a scar on that hand now, you know. All thanks to that little stunt you pulled with the key, Sarah.”
“Karen, come on,” Matt cajoles her with great gentleness, as if handling a grumpy tiger who hasn’t been fed in a while. “We don’t know what happened to Sarah. She might have been kidnapped and held for ransom, or a victim of sex trafficking.”
“And, where was the ransom note?” Karen clips each word like she’s cutting them out of a newspaper. “If it was sex trafficking, how did she get away so quickly? And, for that matter, why is she dressed like a refugee from an elementary school Thanksgiving play? Surely I’m not the only one who noticed. Honestly, Matt, you are smarter than this, but being around Sarah clouds your judgement. Think about it.”
Matt is quiet for a moment, confusion plastered all over his face. He's not sure how to respond.
Finally, he sighs. “Karen does have some valid questions,” Matt reluctantly admits. “Sarah, maybe you should go get cleaned up and changed. I’ll make you something to eat. I never did ask how long it’s been since you’ve eaten. We could have stopped somewhere along the way. I’m sorry. Once you’re clean and fed, we can talk about what happened to you.”
“I think we deserve answers right now,” Karen snaps, not even pretending to be friendly. “When your mentally unstable cousin disappears for a month after physically assaulting me, I think answers come before anything else. You baby her far too much, Matt. It’s why she thinks she can get away with anything.”
Okay, seriously, why is he engaged to this woman? Great-Uncle Jacob deduced her true intentions the first time he met her, and I'm pretty sure Carter is still on my side. How can Matt not know? Her attitude right now should be enough to tip off even the dimmest of bulbs.
Karen Bateman has an agenda that involves removing me from the picture. She outright admitted it to me, and she doesn't make any pretenses otherwise with anyone else. Come on, Matt. Karen is right on one point—you are smarter than this. Look around you. Everyone else is happy to see me. But Karen? She’s mad. Who acts that way unless they hate the person who returned?
Matt looks torn, not knowing whether to do what he knows is right, or obey his bossy fiancée. Thankfully, Jacob interjects. “Karen, the police will be here soon, and will ask Sarah all the questions you want answered. The poor girl has obviously been through something. We will all find out what soon enough. Can’t you have a little compassion? Let her get comfortable and feel safe again before she has to start re-living whatever happened to her.”
Jacob’s words in my defense embolden the previously conflicted Carter. “I agree with Jacob,” he says, sounding like a boyfriend again, instead of a stranger. “You’re being way too hard on her, Karen. She just got back after enduring who knows what. Give her a break. We’ll get our answers. It doesn’t have to be right this second just because you said so.”
Karen’s pale face magically transforms from one of feigned aggravation to a mask of unbridled fury, and her hollow cheeks actually redden a little.
“Matthew Morgan, are you going to let these men talk to me this way?” she demands, setting her fine china teacup and saucer down on the coffee table so hard they rattle. I’m surprised they don’t break.
“Um, well,” Matt says, not knowing what to do.
Fortunately, I do.
Catch up with the entire "Sarah, Returned" series here: