Life wasn’t a fairy tale. Fifteen years in, and I already knew that.

In my experience, life was the opposite—instead of chasing a happy ending, it was more about keeping the unhappy one from nipping at your heels.

I wondered if other kids who’d lost a parent felt the same way.

As the bus pulled into the depot, my fingers curled around the worn suede journal I’d been clutching since boarding in Leavenworth, Washington, aka the only home I’d ever known and now had no clue when I’d ever see again.

Renton might have been in the same state, but it wasn’t anything like the place where I’d spent my whole life. A suburb of Seattle, Renton appeared to be as packed with cars, people, and urban sprawl as the Emerald City.

When the announcement screeched through the bus speakers that we’d arrived at the Seattle bus depot, I was the only person not in a hurry to get off. After breathing in a few hours of stale air and suspicious body odors, you’d think I’d be elbowing my way down the aisle with the rest of them, but what was waiting for me out there was more terrifying than anything inside this bus.

A new life.

One I hadn’t chosen but was instead forced into thanks to being a minor and low on alternatives. In a little over two years, I’d be of legal age and able to call the shots when it came to my life, but in the meantime, I was stuck with him.

Him.

I couldn’t bring myself to say the name I’d called him the first five years of my life. I wasn’t sure I ever would. Kind of hard to call someone Dad when he bailed forever ago and hadn’t made contact since.

Why did Mom leave me in his custody instead of someone else’s? I asked myself for the millionth time as I tucked the journal into my shoulder bag and forced myself up from the seat. After the doctors told Mom the grim news of how much—or how little—time she had left, she filled the journal with wisdom and advice for me. I’d seen her working on it those last weeks we had together, but it wasn’t until after her death that one of her friends gave it to me. I’d been savoring every passage, every word, since and was dreading reaching the end.

I was now officially the last one on the bus and making no move to hustle off either. While other passengers were lined up outside, waiting to claim their bags, I bit back every urge and instinct to tear over to the ticket counter and purchase a one-way back to Leavenworth.

Home. Friends. Belonging.

I could live on my own, find a job, and finish school there. It would be hard—I knew that—but it would be a picnic compared to whatever life waited for me here.

I’d checked into it. Emancipation.

The paperwork, the ins and outs; I knew about all of it. I also knew enough to decide I wasn’t quite ready for that big of a step. Not yet. I’d give this new living situation a trial period before making up my mind. If it sucked as bad as I’d been guessing it would, emancipation it would be. Plus my mom had wanted this: me to come live with Nick. If nothing else, I was going to honor her wishes and give it a chance.

Climbing off the bus, I could already feel the moisture in the air. Only a hundred miles away and I’d gone from four distinct seasons to one: rain.

I concentrated on finding my luggage instead of scanning the depot for him. He’d left a voice message for me a couple of days ago saying he’d pick me up when my bus arrived at four-thirty. He’d offered to drive me from Leavenworth to save me the headache of the bus, but being trapped in a confined space for two and a half hours with the man who walked out on me and Mom sounded a hundred times worse than any bus ride.

Finally, I spotted my bags and slung the two duffels over my shoulders. I took a moment to put on the most unaffected face I could before turning around to where a handful of people were waiting for passengers. I hadn’t seen him in a decade, and I wondered if I’d even recognize him now.

Of course, he looked almost exactly the same.

I’d been in kindergarten the last time he saw me, though. My hair had gone from white to dark blond, I’d grown a solid foot and a half, and I’d ditched the dresses for jeans and T-shirts. Not to mention that the innocent twinkle in my eyes was long gone. A result of having one parent bail and the other lose her life to a bastard of a disease.

I kept my gaze wandering and tucked my hoodie up over my head as I started toward him, not about to give him the wrong impression that I was thrilled with this arrangement.

This wasn’t a happy reunion. It wasn’t a long overdue visit.

This was his guilt and my helplessness colliding.

This was my proverbial rock and a hard place.

He teetered on the curb as I approached, each step harder to take than the one before.

It wasn’t until I’d stopped on the curb semi-beside him, arms crossed and eyes still roaming, that he seemed to recognize me and unfroze from his statue-like state. Clearing his throat, he began to stretch his arms as his body squared toward me. Almost as if he was about to give me a…

I backed away a few feet. Then one more just in case.

His arms hung in the air for a brief second before falling to his sides.

Seriously, though. Did he just expect I’d be all for hugging it out? It wasn’t like he’d stayed late at work one night and missed my school recital or something. He’d left me. He’d left us.

If he thought some awkward hug was the solution to a decade-long absence, I was going to need that emancipation quicker than I’d guessed.

“I’m sorry, Quinn.” The first words I’d heard from my “dad” in years settled into the space between us. His voice was a bit deeper than I remembered, grittier. “I’m so sorry.”

It was probably the thousandth time I’d heard that sentiment since Mom had died. You’d have thought I’d be desensitized to those words by now, but not even close. 

Girl Upside Down