18. Lonely Stranger

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I must be invisible. No one knows me. - Eric Clapton

5:38 p.m. Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Michele pulls into the driveway, pizzas on the front passenger seat and a variety of ice cream on the front floorboard. Whatever is bothering Phoenix must be related to a boy. It's the only time Michele herself ever remembers being that devastated. Tonight she's hoping she can get the story from her niece simply by being nice and providing the main food groups: soda, pizza, and ice cream.

This parenting stuff isn't easy. Trying to keep track of everyone's issues is overwhelming, and Michele hasn't had a moment to think about her interview in the city scheduled less than a week away. Before Friday, she needs to call and cancel. In order to be fully present, she would have to leave Nowhere on Sunday. How can she even consider it when the kids will still be in turmoil with no one to watch over little Paige? And how will the town manage without their bread? But she pushes away that worry as the bakery is closed on Monday anyway. Not that it matters. Traveling to the city right now is the same as flying into Bangkok on a private plane. Impossible.

Cautiously she opens the door, worried about what might await her. The only sounds, though, are from the television in the living room. Tilting her head, she listens. Familiar voices float to her. Oh! One Direction. Where We Are. At least it's a clean show that Paige can watch, but Michele has no clue how they found that DVD. It must have been at the back of her brother's collection.

"Dinner!" she calls, waiting for the influx of bodies as she opens the freezer to store the ice cream.

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5:42 p.m. Tuesday, September 28, 2021

"Thanks for walking me back, Harry," Phoenix calmly speaks. It's a marked contrast to her behavior this afternoon, and he grimaces at how fast she's had to grow up by acknowledging her sexuality to herself. He knows how hard the road will be for her, and with every ounce of his being, he wishes he could make it easier.

"Who will you tell next?" he asks.

She bites her lip, gazing into the darkness of the front yard. "Probably my Aunt Chele. She's actually cool, but I've been such a brat to her lately." He watches her eyes widen, and she grabs his arm. "Have you met her? Oh my lands! You should meet her!"

Nerves suddenly make Harry's heart race. The aunt? The baker? Of course he should meet her. He knows all of the Ps, and he wants to give her a piece of his mind. But that was a few days ago. Now, he's not so sure that he has any right to tell the woman anything. Even though she's probably in her 40s, she likely didn't expect to become an instant mother. Plus now Phoenix has this news she plans to share. This isn't the right time to meet.

"Are you trying to distract yourself from sharing your news with her?"

"NO!" the teen protests, a bit too loudly and quickly. Looking down, she shuffles her stockinged feet, the bottoms of her socks likely soaked through. "Maybe," she mumbles.

"Why don't you talk to her tonight? I promise I'll meet her tomorrow." Proud of himself until he recognizes that he's shoved his anxiety off onto the girl, Harry gives her a peck on the forehead. "Go on. You got this."

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7:22 p.m. Tuesday, September 28, 2021

"Aunt Chele?" Phoenix asks as they are sitting next to each other on the sofa, the niece's head resting in the lap of her favorite aunt. Okay. Her only aunt.

"Mhm?" is the fast response. They've been watching a Nicholas Sparks movie, and Phoenix knows the sad part is coming soon.

"Would you be okay if we took our ice cream upstairs?"

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