The silence in the room was absolute. Even Phoenix and Lola’s sobs seemed unable to penetrate it.
Emberlynn’s head was spinning. If they were saying what she thought they were saying… Her stomach gave another unpleasant lurch and, for a moment, she felt as though she were going to pass out.
There’s no way… This isn’t possible…
“I’m so, so sorry.” Lola seemed to have finally calmed her tears enough to speak once more. “I never should have kept this from you. This is my fault, nobody else’s. I should have told the truth a long time ago.”
“Yeah, you should have!” Phoenix spat bitterly, directly addressing Lola for the first time. “Christ, Lola! How could you do this to me?! Or to your own son?!”
“You left! You were half a world away with your pregnant wife by the time I realized! What the hell was I supposed to do?! I loved you, Phoenix! But you’d made your choice. And I didn’t want to make things any harder than they already were. For any of us.” Lola explained desperately. “I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought it would be easier this way…”
“Yeah, well obviously it wasn’t! You know how much you meant to me, Lola. I would’ve tried to do the right thing. But you never even gave me that chance!” Phoenix’s gaze was full of nothing but disgust and contempt. It was like he’d forgotten that Emberlynn or Xander were even in the room anymore. “And now look at the mess you’ve made. For all of us!”
“Look, I know you hate me, Phoenix. You have every right to. I don’t expect you to ever forgive me for this.” Lola paused for a moment before finally turning her eyes back toward her son. “And I don’t expect you to ever forgive me either. But I had to tell you the truth. I needed you to know. Because…” For a moment, her eyes flicked toward Emberlynn. “God, I wish you could understand how sorry I am for this. I really am. I…” She closed her eyes for a moment to choke back a small sob, and left the sentence unfinished.
“No.” Emberlynn turned to look at Xander, who had finally broken his silence. He shook his head slowly, his gaze boring into his mother’s as he spoke again. “You’re wrong.”
“I know this is hard. And I know this makes things… so messed up.” Lola glanced apologetically toward Emberlynn yet again. “But it’s the truth.”
“It’s not.” He insisted. “Mom, my entire life you have told me you never knew who my dad was, no matter how many times I asked. Do you remember that family tree project I did back in sixth grade? I ended up just writing about Jorden… But that wasn’t what I really wanted.” Xander shook his head slowly at the memory. “I begged you to tell me something, anything about my real father. And you told me you didn’t know. Year after year, I’d try asking. My whole life, I’ve been dying to know who he was. And you always said you didn’t know.” Emberlynn had never seen Xander so angry before. It was almost frightening.
Lola took a slow, deep breath. “I lied.” She said, with surprising calm. “You have no idea how much it breaks my heart to tell you that, but it’s true. I lied to you, Xander. Your whole life. It was absolutely despicable of me. There was no excuse. And I don’t expect you to ever —”
“Shut up!” He shouted at her. “You didn’t! You didn’t lie! You wouldn’t do that! Mom, you’d never lie to me. Especially about something like this. Something that means so much to me…”
Xander let out a shaking breath, as though trying to calm himself. Unfortunately he did not seem to be successful.
Her throat was still so dry, but Emberlynn knew she had to speak up. She had to say something, rather than let this ridiculous bullshit continue. “I know what’s going on.” She said. “I know what you’re doing.”
Her father’s brow furrowed in confusion. “What are you — ?”
“The two of you are still so ashamed of what you did that you can barely look at each other. You’re still trying to run from all the shitty mistakes you made when you were kids. So as soon as you found out me and Xander were together, you came up with this stupid plan to keep us apart…” She paused for a moment, shaking her head in disgust as her mother’s actions from earlier finally started making sense.
“A plan so fucked up and awful, Mama couldn’t even stand being a part of it. THIS is what you two should really be ashamed of!” She cried. “Instead of letting your kids be happy together, you decided to make up this bullshit story and put on some stupid act to try and scare us. But we aren’t gonna fall for it.”
Phoenix looked almost like she’d slapped him. “Emberlynn, why the hell would we make something like this up? Why would we lie about this?!”
“Yeah, Ember’s right.” Xander nodded slowly, speaking before Emberlynn had the chance to. “Mom, I refuse to believe that you would’ve spent my entire life lying to me. I know you. And you’d never do something like that. But this? Much as I don’t want to, I can believe it. I just never really thought you’d stoop so low…” He shook his head almost sadly for a moment. “And until you guys are ready to fess up and admit you’re lying, well…” He glanced uncertainly toward Emberlynn.
She nodded. “I don’t think we really have anything more to say.” She finished for him. “Let’s go, Xander.”
The pair of them quickly rose to their feet and began heading for the door.
“Wait!” Lola and Phoenix cried out in unison as they followed their children into the entrance hall. “What if we do a test?” Lola called out desperately.
This was enough to give both Emberlynn and Xander pause. “You mean a paternity test?” Xander asked his mother.
She nodded. “Phoenix said he’d do one. We already checked it out — There’s a lab downtown that can get us the results in three days. We can go first thing in the morning.”
Without hesitation, Emberlynn shook her head. There was no way she would trust either of them that easily. “Yeah, right. You really think we’re gonna play into this stupid game of yours?”
Phoenix sighed. “Honey, please. We know this is hard to accept. We know how much you two care about each other. But you need to understand. We’re telling you the truth. You can’t be together anymore.” He said seriously. “He’s your bro—”
“With all due respect, Mr. Rosebrook, shut up.” Xander interrupted harshly. “I’m not her brother.” He appeared so uncomfortable as the final word passed his lips. “And you’re not my dad. I know you’re not. And I wish the both of you would just drop this stupid act.”
He took Emberlynn by the hand then, and, despite their parents’ continued protests, the two of them left without another word.
Their trip back to the apartment was silent. Emberlynn spent most of it trying to lower her heart rate and calm herself down. She was still seeing red, reeling at her father’s horrific betrayal.
He had cheated on his wife. He’d told horrible, disgusting lies just to try and hide from his own past mistakes… What had happened to the father she knew? The one she’d always respected and admired?
Xander seemed to be struggling even worse than she was. She couldn’t even imagine how he was feeling right now. How could his own mother take something so important to him and then twist it into some kind of horrible manipulation tactic? It was sickening.
“I’m sorry.” Those were the first words either of them had spoken in nearly an hour. Emberlynn and Xander sat together on her couch, holding each other in the darkness as the words passed her lips. “This sucks.”
“It does.” He agreed softly. “But don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault.”
“I know. I just… Well, it’s sick, isn’t it? This nasty lie they’re trying to make us believe…” Emberlynn paused for a moment to collect herself as some of her emotions from earlier began creeping back. “It’s like you said — I never thought they’d sink this low, just to try and keep us apart.”
“Me neither… But I was thinking about it the whole way back here. And I know they’ll come around eventually.” Emberlynn was surprised by the confidence in Xander’s voice as he spoke. “They have to. I think they’re both having some kind of weird ‘episode’ or something, y’know? It’s totally fucked up, but it’s not THEM. They’ll snap out of it and apologize in no time. I’m sure of it.” Xander pressed his lips soothingly against her forehead.
“I hope you’re right.”
“Of course, whether we actually accept those apologies is another story…” He added with a sigh. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this mad at my mom before.”
Emberlynn nodded sadly. “Me too. I’m still having such a hard time believing my Papa would actually DO something like that to my Mama… And then tell this sick lie on top of it all.”
“I know. This whole thing is just… fucking baffling, honestly.” Xander let out a small sigh. “It’s totally fucked. But… at least we’re both in this together.” He added. She could hear the smile in his voice as he spoke, and, despite everything, couldn’t help but feel one forming on her own lips as well.
Emberlynn paused before replying, feeling her next words dancing on the tip of her tongue. After all this time, she realized that she simply couldn’t wait any longer to say them aloud. Especially now, after all they’d been through. Emberlynn pulled away from his embrace so she could look him in the eyes as she spoke. And when she did so, for the first time all day, nothing else seemed to matter anymore. Just him.
“I’ve gotta be honest — These past few days have been some of the worst of my life.” She answered at last.
Xander nodded enthusiastically in agreement. “Same.”
“But you’re right. We’re in this together… And you know what? This is probably gonna sound totally crazy or seem like the weirdest timing ever… But I think going through all this crap together has helped me finally realize something.” Her smile widened. “I had an epiphany.”
“Oh yeah?” A hopeful smile had begun forming on his lips as he spoke. “And what’s that?”
“I think you already know.” She teased.
“Maybe… But I really wanna hear you say it. No, I need to.” He corrected himself. “Especially after today… Please?” He asked softly.
So Emberlynn beckoned him closer to her, took a deep breath…