by Sofi Keren
Is the unexpected reunion of estranged friends just another still life capturing a moment in time? Or could it be the beginning brushstrokes of a romantic masterpiece?
Back in the day, Paige and Ria were the best of friends. As they grew, they grew closer, always there for each other, even as Paige concentrated on literature and art while Ria cut a swath through every soccer field—and most of the cheerleaders. But something shocking happened during their senior year of college that ended their friendship. Big time.
In the years that follow, Paige becomes a successful artist and Ria a star soccer player. A chance meeting with Ria after all this time has Paige wondering if it’s finally time to forgive and forget. As the two become cautiously reacquainted, the possibility of a true reconciliation is complicated by the arrival of glamorous gallery owner, Cara, who definitely wants Paige’s work…and maybe something more. Then there’s the return of Ria’s gorgeous ex, Elena, who has a mind-blowing surprise for Paige.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Ria and Paige’s story lived in my mind for a couple of years before I ever wrote it down. It grew and changed, but at the core was always essentially the story you’ll read in Painted Over. I loved the idea of these two women who grew up best friends and followed their passions in very different directions finding each other again much later in life. And of course, confronting the thing that drove them apart in the first place.
Ria came to my mind first, with her trademark short faux-hawk haircut, dashing down a soccer field toward the goal. Paige and her passion for art were drawn partly from the art students I shared a dorm with my freshman year of college. I loved watching their skills and concepts develop over time, and like Paige, grappling with the conflict of staying true to their visions and being able to make a living doing the thing they loved most.
I set this story in my hometown of Indianapolis, a city I love and have always wanted to see more books and movies set there. I recently moved away from the city, and through this story I was able to revisit so many of my favorite places. I hope that people from Indy enjoy seeing it represented on the page, and maybe it will inspire others to travel there and experience it for themselves."
Pin’s Reviews - The plot was interesting with good pacing, and the book reads very easily. I liked the main characters, and there are some really good secondary characters. There is a nice second chance trope with some angst on the side. Angsty romances are not for everyone, but personally I like these stories where the protagonists have to work through the heartbreak and earn their happily ever after. All in all, a very good first book. I like the author's style of writing and am looking forward to more nice stories from her.
Paige saw the light turn yellow, but she knew she could make it through. She willed the wheels of her bike to turn faster. Speeding through the intersection, legs pumping, she just avoided a Kia making a last-minute left turn.
“Damn cyclists! Watch where you’re going!” a man’s voice boomed as the Kia sped off. Paige simply raised her middle finger in his general direction and kept pedaling. After all, technically the right of way had been hers. Her blond ponytail levitated behind her as the breeze pushed lightly against her momentum. Finally, a beautiful day. She’d been waiting for April’s gray gloominess to pass and finally May had officially kicked it to the curb.
She knew she should be in her studio, working on the commissioned pieces that would pay her rent for the next few months, but there was no way she could be inside when the weather was so perfect. She wasn’t alone. Along Mass Ave all the restaurants with outdoor seating were overflowing. Everyone in Indianapolis must be playing hooky from work today. She sat upright on her seat, enjoying the feel of sunshine on her shoulders.
Looking around her at the city come alive, she took her eyes off the road for just a moment. But it was long enough for her front wheel to catch in a giant pothole that seemed to appear out of nowhere. The bike wobbled dangerously beneath her.
“Fucking hell!” she yelled on her way down.
Sprawled on the pavement, she assessed the damage part by part. As far as she could tell, she was all right, though her heart was beating like a hummingbird’s wings. There was a big dirty smudge on her favorite jeans, but she seemed otherwise unscathed. Her bike fared worse; its tire clearly flat, the rim bent. Damn it. Inconvenient, but at least it was fixable. And of course today of all days she didn’t have her patch kit with her.
Paige stood and stretched, waving away the well-meaning onlookers. Why were there always witnesses whenever she did something embarrassing? She could walk the bike home, but that would take forever. It was a simple repair really, and there was one other option. The CycleWorthy bike shop was only a couple blocks away. She hesitated. She hadn’t been there in forever, with good reason. But thinking of Mr. Worth, she smiled. It wasn’t his fault she’d exiled herself from the family. She missed him, and surely he would be happy to see her. She headed toward the shop.
~ ~ ~
The front door of CycleWorthy was unlocked, but no one seemed to be around. Typical, she thought. Mr. Worth was always leaving the front room and all its gear unattended while he worked on bikes in the back. She admired his trusting nature, but she worried that someone would take advantage of it someday. Indianapolis wasn’t New York, but it wasn’t a small town either.
Wheels and bike frames of all styles hung on the walls and from the ceiling. Paige found herself ogling the brightly colored ones. She’d always been tempted to choose her bike parts based on looks over function. She liked to believe that was because she was an artist, not because she was a magpie, attracted to bright and shiny objects.
Paige leaned her wounded bike carefully against the counter and thumbed through one of the many cycling magazines stacked up on it. After waiting a few minutes, she tapped the bell sitting next to the register.
She heard the rustle as someone emerged from the back room.
“What do you think?” she asked without looking up from her article. “Should I ride my bike across Siberia like this lady?”
“I don’t know. It sounds pretty cold to me,” a woman’s voice replied.
Paige dropped the magazine and looked up. The woman stood there grinning, a mischievous smile playing across her lips, her golden brown eyes twinkling. A striped racer-back tank top showed off her muscled arms, sculpted from years of athletics. Her dark hair stood up in that trademark faux-mohawk of hers. Paige saw reflections in her features of both her Filipina mother and her farm-bred Iowan father. She was a little older now, her features a little less soft, but Paige still lost her breath at the sight of her.
“Ria,” Paige said, her voice scratchy like she’d nearly lost it. She coughed. “What are you… I mean, you’re home. I hadn’t heard.”
“I just got in yesterday. Thought I’d come into the shop today to hang out with Dad. He just ran out to get coffee.”
As if on cue, the door chimed and Henry Worth pushed his way in, balancing two very large plastic-capped cups of coffee in his hands. He sported a scruffy beard laced through with gray that was new since she’d seen him last. “Paige! What a treat!”
“Hey, Mr. Worth,” she said shyly.
“Mr. Worth?” He laughed. “When did you stop calling me Henry?”
“So, two of my favorite ladies in one place—my star athlete and our very own local Van Gogh . To what do I owe the honor?”
“The fact that they still haven’t paved over all those potholes on Mass Ave yet, unfortunately.”
“Well, whatever the reason, it’s good to see you. Now let’s take a look.” Setting the coffee on the counter, he knelt down to inspect the offending tire. “Oh yeah, it really bit you. All right, bring it on back and Ria will get you taken care of.”
“Oh I will, will I?”
“I know you can’t be that rusty, Ria. You may spend most of your time kicking soccer balls around, but I know I taught you a thing or two about the family business.”
“You mean writing romance novels? I’m afraid I just don’t have the talent.”
He laughed. “I think your mother has enough writing talent for the whole family. I’ll stick to my bike arts and parts. Now let’s get Paige fixed up.”
“Oh, you really don’t have to,” Paige interjected. “If I can borrow some tools I can do it myself, no problem.”
“It’s no problem at all,” Ria said. “I’ve got you.” She came around to Paige’s side of the counter. Paige handed off the bike, and as she did, Ria’s fingers brushed across her hand. Paige’s heart thumped and she immediately told herself to knock it off. They’d been friends since they were kids. And then they weren’t. There was nothing to get so undone about. But she couldn’t help but wonder, was that an accident? Not that it mattered. All that was in the past, buried for years.
Ria rolled the bike behind the counter and removed the offending wheel and then pulled off the tire. Placing the wheel on a truing stand, she checked the spokes and tightened them where necessary. Paige stood awkwardly off to one side and watched.
“So, how’s everything?”
“Oh,” Ria replied, “always interesting. I hear things are going well for you.”
“Oh yeah, you know Mom. She keeps track of everything. Sends me links when there are articles about you in the paper. I think she has a Google Alert set on your name.”
Paige laughed. “Sounds like your mom. How is she doing?”
“She’s great. Just published another book. Hold on a sec. Dad, can you toss me a new tube?”
Once satisfied that the wheel was straight and steady, Ria expertly slid on the tube, replaced the tire, and inflated it to the right pressure. She always made everything look so easy.
Henry walked over to take a look and gave an approving smile. “She’s still got it.”
“Thanks, Dad. Glad to know I still have a backup if this soccer thing doesn’t work out.”
“You laugh, but you know someday I’m going to retire.”
“Sure you are, Dad, sure you are.”
He wheeled the bike back around to the front. “All fixed up and almost as good as new.”
Paige dug her wallet out of her bag and started to open it, but Henry just laughed and held up his hand. “Oh, please. Your money is no good here.”
“You don’t need to do that,” Paige protested, shifting uncomfortably.
“Don’t be silly,” Henry insisted. “You know we do repairs for the family all the time. And you might not be blood but you’re certainly family.”
“Speaking of family,” he continued, “we’re having a big get-together tomorrow night. I’m so glad you wandered in so I could invite you. It’ll give you and Ria a chance to catch up, since she’s never home.”
“Daaaaaad,” Ria protested. “You know it’s not that I don’t want to come home.”
“I know. I’m only kidding.” He gave Ria a quick kiss on the head. “Paige, will you join us? I know Mila would love to see you, not to mention the rest of the family.”
“Oh I don’t know,” Paige said, caught by surprise. “I don’t want to intrude.”
“Since when have you been an intruder?” He laughed. “We’ve known each other since before I had any of this glorious gray hair. You probably still have a key somewhere. You know that our house is your house.”
Paige looked up at Ria, trying to read her expression, but as usual, Ria kept her thoughts to herself.
After what seemed like forever, but was probably only a moment, Ria added, “Please come. It’s been a long time.”
How long had it been now? Twelve, maybe thirteen years? And if it hadn’t been for the flat tire, it could have been forever. Paige hadn’t realized until now just how much she’d missed the family. Maybe it was a sign that it was time to move on, to finally let it go. Carrying around all that ancient hurt and anger wasn’t helping anyone, and if Ria could get past it, then maybe so could she.
“Maybe I could pretend to be sick,” Paige said to her roommate, Brandon, who was perched on a stool next to her at the kitchen counter. “Food poisoning is always a good excuse. It comes on quickly so there wouldn’t be any surprise that I seemed fine yesterday. Or a migraine maybe?”
Brandon raised one eyebrow at her and continued eating his lunch without comment.
“Okay, okay, I know that’s stupid. Maybe I could just go for an hour and then sneak out the back? Do an Irish goodbye?”
“As a person of Irish descent, I’m extremely offended that you think that’s how we leave each other, just sneaking out the back without a word.”
“I am so sorry, Brandon. Please share my apologies with your ancestors.”
“Thank you. So why is it that you can’t just go and be social? What’s the big deal about this again?”
“It’s a long story. We had…kind of a falling out in college, and we haven’t spoken since. But before that we were basically inseparable since we were little.”
“I see. Well that makes sense. You should definitely hold a grudge over some old fight from a million years ago instead of making up with your childhood friend. That sounds like a good life choice.”
Paige scowled. “It’s more complicated than that.”
“Isn’t it always? What’s this girl’s name again?”
“Ria. I’ve talked about her before, I’m sure. She plays soccer. Like, World Cup-level soccer.”
Brandon spun around on his stool. “Hold up. Excuse me, are you talking about Pride-of-Indianapolis soccer star Ria? Even I know who that is and I hate sports. And so do you, come to think of it.”
“Yeah, that Ria.”
He hooted. “Well that explains a lot.”
“Um. Yes. Now I get why you’re always watching soccer games on your laptop. Even the ones no one cares about because, let’s just be honest, the only ones worth watching are the World Cup and maybe the Olympics.”
“That’s not true!” She swatted at him. “It’s a good game! I played when I was little, you know. I just like watching it.”
“Uh huh. Sure. Now it all makes sense. You are such a stalker.” He took a bite of the massive sandwich in front of him.
“It’s not stalking if the games are streaming on the internet. They’re public!”
He laughed. “A little defensive, are we?”
“You know, you wouldn’t have to eat so much if you worked out less. You’d cut your grocery bill in half. And your T-shirts wouldn’t be so damn tight.”
“My T-shirts are just the right amount of tight. And don’t change the subject.”
“It’s just…it’s not like that.”
“Of course not. But you’re going, right? To this party thing?”
“You really don’t understand.”
“Fine. I’m going. Happy?”
“Deliriously. But promise me something.”
“If there’s cake, bring me home a piece. Maybe two.”
~ ~ ~
Paige sat in her car in the Worths’ driveway, looking up at the house. The Worth home had always seemed so huge. Now that she was older and taller, it was less imposing, but it still managed to look stately without being ostentatious.
If the Worths had wanted, they easily could have owned one of those sprawling mega-mansions so common to certain pockets of the Carmel suburbs. By comparison, the five-bedroom cottage was downright charming.
As she pulled into the long winding drive, it felt like going back in time. If she looked down, she could almost imagine seeing her favorite old overalls or the giant-legged jeans she’d constructed out of thrift store finds in high school to mimic the popular but whoa-too-expensive JNCO brand. She’d buy two pairs of jeans at Goodwill, slice one pair up the side, and sew in extra denim to achieve a similar effect. Luckily DIY punk was a thing, and she looked grungy and intentional instead of broke. Nowadays she was more into skinny jeans that wouldn’t get trapped in her bike chain.
Paige lingered in the parked car, not ready to get out and go inside just yet. For a moment she considered sneaking the car back down the drive and coming up with some convincing excuse for her absence, a last-minute consultation or a family thing with her dad. She wished for the hundredth time that she was a better liar. Mila had texted her last night saying, We can’t wait to see you! Ria’s mom was nothing if not relentless when she wanted something. The message made Paige smile, even though the thought of being in the same room as Ria and having to make small talk twisted her insides into knots—not to mention having to explain to everyone why she’d disappeared.
Sucking in a deep gulp of air, she readied herself and pushed the car door open, propelling herself in the direction of the house. She could hear music and voices coming from the backyard. Making her way around to the open gate, she could see the party was already in full swing.
The whole family was there. Ria’s parents, Henry and Mila, held court on the patio, surrounded by all five of their now-grown kids and their partners. Everyone was older and paired off now, but Paige would know them anywhere.
She was surprised to see Jerald there. This must be a special occasion if Ria’s big brother had traveled all the way from San Diego. Thanks to Facebook, Paige recognized the spouses and plus-ones, even though she hadn’t met most of them in person. Several children,who Paige assumed belonged to Ria’s sister Vina, played in a gazebo at the far corner of the yard.
Paige had always wanted to be a part of a big family, probably because hers was so small. Growing up with just her dad and no other extended family nearby, she’d been more than happy to let the Worths fill that need.
Looking out at the family, she tried to hold back tears. She hadn’t realized how much she’d missed this. She hated that she’d lost over a decade with them. Maybe she shouldn’t have been so stubborn. But what else could she have done?
She thought again of sneaking away, just taking a mental photo of the family and disappearing before things got weird. But just then, Ria’s other sister, Amelia, saw her.
“Paige!” she called out warmly. Amelia greeted her and pushed the gate open further. Paige knelt down slightly to receive her hug from Amelia’s four-foot-nine-inch frame. She may have been the smallest of the family, but Paige knew she’d become one of the fiercest lawyers in the city. She and her partners had their faces plastered on billboards all over the interstate.
“Hi, Amelia. It’s so good to see you. You look wonderful.” Amelia was clad in a rose print maxi dress and a huge statement necklace. All of a sudden Paige felt underdressed in her gray Dickies and light blue jersey top.
“It’s about time you came to see us. I’m sure you’re busy, but still. You know, we’ve all followed your career, but we want to hear all about it from you.”
“Oh, no. You have to catch me up on all of you first.”
“Well let’s get you a drink, eh? Before Mom starts the interrogation.”
Amelia swept her inside the party and immediately dispatched her husband to get drinks for all of them.
Mila loved any occasion for a party, and tonight was no different. Strings of lights hung between the trees, and music wafted through the air from the artfully concealed outdoor speaker system. Mila had always said if you were going to spend money, spend it on time with your loved ones.
Paige thought she was probably so generous with her money because she’d grown up with little of it. She’d always loved hearing Mila’s stories about growing up in the Philippines. It all seemed so different, her life on the island, with no running water in the house for the first half of her life, the outdoor bathroom, and the mosquitos possibly bearing malaria. But Mila never complained. To her it was just life. And now that she was so fortunate, she made sure life was easier for her immediate family here, and her extended family back home. She had always promised to take them back home to visit when they were older, but Paige assumed she’d missed that chance now.
It would be easy to assume Henry was the one supporting the family. It was probably true for most of the families in the area, even if a little stereotypical. But the bike shop was more of a hobby than a career for him. It was Mila who supported the family. After she’d married Henry and come to America, she’d noticed all the paperback romance novels in the grocery store aisles and decided that she was going to have her name on ones right next to them. She bought all the books she could find, studied them as though she were cramming for an exam, and spent months writing an epic tale of love on two continents. Then she showed up at the publisher’s address printed inside one of those books with her manuscript in hand, a risk that made other writers gasp when she told them about it. Somehow it had worked, probably in no small part due to her infectious enthusiasm. She’d convinced them to read the book, and they’d found a raw nugget of talent inside the pages. A year or so later, an enthusiastic review in People magazine had sent her debut novel shooting up the mass market bestseller list just a few rungs below Danielle Steele. Not that people knew it was her. The publisher had insisted she take a pseudonym. They didn’t think Ermila Worth would sell as many copies as Gabrielle Mitchell.
As though she was called, Mila arrived at Paige’s side and wrapped her in a warm hug. The woman barely seemed to have aged since Paige saw her last, though when she smiled, Paige thought she noticed a few faint new lines around her eyes. She knew Mila had been a beauty queen back home in the Philippines, and she could still see why.
“My fourth daughter,” Mila said, squeezing her lightly. “Where have you been? We’ve missed you.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Worth.” Paige immediately felt thirteen again, as though she was about to get in trouble.
“It’s okay, sweetheart. I know you’d been busy. I follow you on Instagram! So how is your father doing?”
“He’s doing well, thank you. He and Celia just celebrated their third anniversary.”
“That’s wonderful. We should have them both over for dinner sometime. How is his health holding up?”
“You know, he’s supposed to be working on his cholesterol, but he insists that life isn’t worth living without some red meat. Celia replaces his hamburgers with veggie burgers when they go grocery shopping. They’re both doing really well, even if he pretends to complain.”
“I’m so glad to hear it. I’ve thought about him from time to time. Is he enjoying his retirement?”
“I think so. I think he misses negotiating deals over construction equipment—his work was so glamorous—but he keeps busy. He and Celia are even talking about buying an RV and becoming snowbirds.”
Mila let out a peal of laughter. “I can’t quite imagine your father as a tourist, but I am so glad he’s happy. He certainly worked hard to give you a good life, and it’s about time that he got to enjoy things and relax. I know how that is, now that we’re empty nesters ourselves. Come, you have to see the rest of the family.” Mila took her hand.
Paige knew saying no was not an option. Nearly dragging her across the yard, Mila deposited her in a semi-circle next to Jerald.
“I will be back soon. I have to check on my ham,” Mila declared. “Catch up, all of you.”
Mila was like that—a force of nature who blew in and out as she pleased.
“Hey Jerald,” Paige said shyly. “It’s good to see you.”
“Paige!” he said with a smile. “You’re so big.” He hugged her tightly.
Paige laughed. Jerald had inherited his father’s height and broad shoulders, with Paige coming up to just under his chin. She’d probably still been in junior high when he went off to Carnegie Mellon. He’d been kind of like a distant big brother. Sometimes he would drive Ria and her to soccer practice or the movies. And they’d known his big secret way before he’d dared to tell his parents he was gay. She remembered how scared he’d been that his ex-military dad would be angry, but it was his very Catholic mother that had taken some time to come around to the idea. He hadn’t known it then, but he’d definitely paved the path so that it would be a little smoother when Ria was ready to come out herself.
“Oh, I’m being rude. Paige, this is my husband, Paul.” Jerald indicated a slim, dapper, and slightly younger man sporting a classic red bowtie with his casual gray suit. “Paul, this is Paige, Ria’s best friend. They were always running around underfoot, causing trouble.” He winked at her and she smiled back.
“And Jer was always wandering around conducting imaginary orchestras. He’d get so embarrassed when we’d catch him. But look how it all worked out.”
“It’s great to meet you, Paige,” Paul said, extending a hand.
They made an attractive couple. Jer (never Jerry) had grown into his looks from the awkward teenager she remembered. Of course she’d seen Mila’s posts over the years, proudly telling the world about her son’s achievements as he conducted all over the world before accepting a lucrative contract with the San Diego Orchestra.
“Where is Ria, anyway?” Jerald wondered out loud. “She’s supposed to do the first toast for our parents. Can you believe they’ve been together for forty-five years? I can’t imagine doing anything that long.” Paul swatted at him playfully and he added, “Except being married to you of course.”
“I had no idea this was their anniversary. That’s so amazing,” Paige said. “Your parents are basically my relationship role models. Even when I was a kid, I always thought I’d love to find someone who fit me as well as your mom and dad fit each other.”
“It’s pretty impressive,” he agreed, “not that it was always easy.”
“Oh, of course not.” Paige had heard plenty of their arguments as a kid, and knew more than she probably should about the things they’d been through. But still, they’d made it.
“I wish I would have realized,” Paige said. “I would have brought a gift.”
“You know what Mom would say.”
“Just having you here is the true gift,” they both said in unison and laughed.
“It worked out so well that their anniversary was just after Ria retired too. She could finally be here instead of traveling all over the place, kicking that ball into a net.”
“Wait. Retiring? Really?” Paige couldn’t help but feel shocked. She couldn’t picture Ria without a soccer ball at her feet. It had been that way since they tried out for their first team together when they were nine.
“Can you believe it?” Ria’s voice broke in from behind her. “Hanging up the old cleats after all this time. Next World Cup I’ll be watching from the sidelines like everyone else.”
Paige watched her face, trying to gauge if this was a good thing or not. “I really can’t believe it. What will you do with yourself?” She felt like she needed to sit down.
“Oh, I’m looking into some opportunities. But don’t leak it to Sports Illustrated just yet. For now, I’m trying to learn how to relax.” Ria laughed, but there was something behind it.
“Relax? You?” Paige deadpanned. “That’s…new.”
Ria stuck her tongue out in response as her younger brother, Benji, wandered up to join the group.
“It looks like I’m in the winner’s circle,” he joked, tucking a long strand of hair behind one ear. “Or maybe just the setup for a good joke: a conductor, a soccer player, and an artist walk into a bar.”
“Well if it isn’t the black sheep of the family,” Ria said, swatting at him.
“Literal sheep,” Jerald said. “Or haven’t you heard, Paige? Our little brother is a farmer now.”
“Really? Farming? Do tell, Benji.” Paige knew he’d struggled over the years. She remembered when Mila had called Ria when they were still in the dorms to tell her that Benji had crashed the family car while drunk with his friends. He’d had to leave high school for rehab. He looked happy and healthy now, though, and she was so happy to see it.
“I am so glad that you asked,” Benji said with a crooked grin. “Let me tell you about the joys of organic farming.”
Everyone except Paige groaned audibly. Clearly, they had heard where this was going before.
“Where is your farm?” she asked. “Is it nearby?”
“It’s in Paoli, just south of Bloomington. It’s beautiful. I’m living on the farm and learning so much about planting crops and raising llamas and alpacas to make yarn. You should come down and see it sometime. I’d love to show you around.”
“Will you make her shovel goat crap like you did when I visited?” Ria joked. “Can you believe it? I travel halfway around the world to see him, and I’m moving poop from one place to another. He sure knows how to show a girl a good time.”
“Hey now,” Paige said. “Unlike some people, I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty.”
“Ooh,” Jerald said. “She’s got you there, Ria.”
Paige felt herself easily sliding back into her old place, as though she’d never left. It was almost like nothing had ever happened.
But it did. The memory lodged in her chest like a stone. There was a reason she hadn’t been here since college.
“Please excuse me for a minute,” Paige said. She needed to breathe. “Can I get anyone a drink while I’m up?”
“Red wine, if you don’t mind,” Jerald said. Then with a glance from his husband, “Two actually, if you have enough hands.”
“Not a problem,” Paige promised.
She made her way up to the deck and through the sliding glass doors to the kitchen. Once inside, she felt a little calmer. She was the only one in the house at the moment, and it finally gave her a chance to clear her head. As much as she loved the Worths, they could be a little overwhelming.
She poured two glasses of wine for Jerald and Paul and popped open a beer for herself, but she wasn’t quite ready to go back out into the melee. Just two days ago, she’d have sworn she’d never see the inside of this house again. But now that she was here, she couldn’t resist the urge to look around and see if everything looked the same.
Leaving the drinks on the counter, she wandered into the living room. Mila had always loved home decorating and it showed. The house served as her office and she loved to entertain. The walls held evidence of the Worth kids’ achievements, proudly displayed. Photos from birth through awkward teenage years to weddings documented them all as they grew. Paige was in one, hugging Ria as they grinned at the camera before their first day back to school, Jansport backpacks slung across their shoulders, a few teeth missing from their smiles. That photo hung next to framed newspaper articles praising Jerald’s conducting career, followed by a photo from Amelia’s law school graduation, one with Vina and her smiling husband and children, and of course, the ubiquitous photo of Ria and her team celebrating after they won the last World Cup.
She felt her chest tighten at the sight and grimaced. In another world, she would have celebrated that victory in the stands next to Ria’s family. She would have been there to get a sweaty hug once the press was done begging for quotes and photos. But instead, she’d watched it alone in a sports bar in Broad Ripple, listening to the locals cheer as the team racked up goal after goal. She’d felt it then, and she felt it now, the hole in her chest that had been there for years. She couldn’t help but wonder, would that hole ever heal?
The door to the lower level was open, and she couldn’t resist taking a peek. She crept down the carpeted steps. Was it still there—her favorite place? She peeked under the stairs and there it was, as though she’d just left it a few minutes ago. Their hidden nook.
When they were kids, Paige and Ria would spend hours in their little hideaway. They’d even convinced Ria’s dad to put up a curtain so they could be fully enclosed. They decorated the slanted ceiling with glow-in-the-dark star stickers and deemed it their own private clubhouse. Paige spent hours reading or drawing while Ria played her Game Boy or listened to Kris Kross on her new Discman. Sometimes they would just talk about all the things they were going to do when they were grown. All the countries they were going to visit. Who they were going to be and the adventures they were going to have.
Paige looked behind her, but no one seemed to be following. She crawled into the nook and pulled the curtain shut behind her. It was just the same. The stars still held a dim glow even after all these years. She leaned back and closed her eyes, drinking in the familiarity.
She wasn’t sure how long it had been, but at some point she heard muffled footsteps. She hoped they would pass her by unnoticed, and for a moment, she thought they had. Then she heard a voice from the other side of the curtain.
“Paige, is that you?”
She knew that voice. She would know it anywhere. If she heard it on the other side of the world, or on another planet, she would know it was Ria. For a moment, she considered ignoring her, hoping she would go away and leave her in peace. But that wasn’t fair. This was Ria’s house, after all.
Paige tugged the curtain open. “I was just reminiscing,” she said with a quiet smile.
“I don’t blame you. Some kids have treehouses or forts built out of cardboard. We had this place.”
“Yeah. It feels so strange that it was so long ago.”
Ria hesitated, as though she was nervous. But Paige knew Ria was never nervous.
“Do you mind if I join you?”
Paige scooted over and patted the seat beside her. “Hop on in.”