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The One That Brings Me Back

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August 24th, 2000 - Jillian

The summer was flying by too fast. Previous summers, through elementary and middle school, had dragged on like rakes through wet sand, making deep ravines to hide memories in. August always felt like a moment for change. This August was nothing like the ones that had come before.

Jillian was seventeen and a high school graduate. She had gone through the motions, attending the senior breakfast and picnic, singing at the baccalaureate service and walking up the long aisle of the auditorium in a ridiculous hat and praying that gravity would cooperate. She had sat somewhere in the middle of the sea of classmates; a perfect representation of her time in high school: in the middle. In her four years at Blake High School in Tampa, she never stood out, making acquaintances and average grades. She excelled as a theatre major, but was never one to draw attention to herself. She watched over her sister, Evie, who was a freshman and made an impressive go at it, joining the cheer squad and finding a classmate of Jillian’s to date. All eyes were on Evie and Jillian got to stand back and wait with the safety net. She was comfortable waiting in the wings.

This August, all the attention had shifted to her. Her father couldn’t stop telling everyone how proud he was of her two-year full ride to the local community college. Jillian would cringe every time he brought it up. This wasn’t how she pictured her college experience. She had always imagined she would audition into an artsy school up north, where she would hone her acting skills, then merge them into dance and performance art. She would drink lattes and write slam poetry and date guys who wore turtlenecks. She would tell everyone about how her mother freaked out and abandoned her and her three young sisters, leaving behind a bitter disdain for all things, but especially matriarchs.

In reality, she was headed to Hillsborough Community College, staying close to home and sisters and father. Her father was doing his best and had been for the 8 years since his wife checked herself into a mental institution and left him with the bill. He worked from home and kept his daughters fed, clothed, and out of relative harm.

As Jillian ran down the carpeted staircase, she could hear her sister Mira screaming. She rounded the corner at the bottom of the steps and sprinted into the den, where Mira was standing, arms spread wide, in front of the television set. Her cheeks were puffed and red. Even at a scrawny 10 years old, she was imposing when she was angry. She was staring down her twin, Iyla, who had the TV remote in one hand and a dusty, overstuffed pillow in the other.

“What... what are you doing?” Jillian asked.

“Mira won’t let me change the channel!” Iyla’s whine had a special timbre. It made Jillian’s ears ring instantly.

“Mira, move away from TV. You two need to work this out because I gotta go!” Mira looked at her defiantly, but Jillian shot her a look only a big sister can master. Mira slid her slender body down the length of the entertainment center, falling into a crumpled heap on the floor.

“Where are you going now?” asked Iyla, as if Jillian had been scampering off to god-knows-where on the regular. The truth was, she rarely left her house for anything other that school. Someone needed to watch the girls while their father worked and shopped and cleaned. This night was different, though. Jillian would turn 18 in just a few weeks and her father had procured a used Honda Civic from a church friend. He presented it to her as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

“Now you can give your sister’s rides everywhere!” he had said, grinning as if he had won some sort of cruel parental sweepstakes.

Jillian was grateful for the car, but knew how much he really did need her help. She did what she could, running errands and taking Evie to and from cheer practices. Tonight, however, she was taking the car out for some fun.

Jillian met her best friend Molly in 8th Grade. They were both cast in their school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Jillian was overwhelmed when she was cast as Helena, a leading role she hoped for but also secretly feared. Molly McKenney was a fresh faced and vivacious 6th grader who didn’t know the word ‘fear’. Jillian would watch her in rehearsals, belting her fairy songs to the heavens, not a hint of insecurity in her diminutive frame. Her voice was clear as a bell and just as loud. Jillian was an instant fan and told Molly so, sparking a friendship the two of them never expected. Molly was the only person Jillian ever talked to about her mother. She was the only one she trusted with her secret thoughts and longings. Molly was the only one who knew Jillian’s true self.

Jillian also knew everything there was to know about Molly; namely her undying devotion to the band Hanson. To most of their peers, Hanson was a bubbly boy band with one big hit a few years previous. Their moment came and went, replaced by the latest single by Britney Spears or Jay-Z. For Molly, however, Hanson remained her steadfast favorite. She knew every lyric to every song on both their studio albums. She made sure Jillian listened to her fair share as well. Jillian didn't mind. She genuinely liked their music. She especially loved how happy they made her best friend. Watching Molly sing along to her favorite Hanson song was like watching the sunrise on Christmas morning. Jillian couldn't help but enjoy it. Which was why she agreed to tag along to the concert that evening.

Molly had entered a trivia contest on the radio and won tickets and backstage passes. The band was on tour with their second album and would be playing the Tampa Performing Arts Center downtown. When Molly invited her, Jillian had quickly agreed. The prospect of watching her friend lose it backstage was too enticing. And it was a chance for them to get away, just the two of them, driving far from the looming autumn and the changes it would bring.

Jillian tossed a final look at her siblings, who were clearly waiting for her to leave so they could solve things their own way.

“Evie, I’m leaving”, she shouted toward the stairs, slipping on her favorite black sandals. “Watch the twins please.” She got no verbal response, but didn’t expect one either. She threw her backpack over her shoulder, snatched her car keys from the wall by the phone, and bounded out the back door. She couldn’t wait to pick up Molly and start the adventure.

***

Molly had been waiting on her front porch when Jillian pulled the Honda clumsily into the driveway. Jillian laughed to herself, imagining the frenzy Molly must be feeling if she was willing to sit in the oppressive summer sun until her ride arrived. The car was hardly in park when the passenger door flung open and Molly threw herself into the seat.

“Hi!!” she stated in what could only be described as a squeal.

“Excited?” Jillian asked, suppressing the giggle that was tickling its way up her rib cage. She was just as excited, but she wanted to give Molly her moment to gush. Good friends always know when the other needs their moment.

“Can you believe we are about to see them IN THE FLESH?!” Molly was already carefully navigating the CD player, pushing This Time Around into the slot as if it would unlock the answers to the universe. As soon as she heard the familiar whirring of disk, she pulled both hands back and watched the digital screen light up. The first track began to play. “Sorry boys,” Molly shouted as she pushed the skip button. Jillian knew that Molly was looking for the second song on the disk, If Only. Molly had made Jillian listen to this album so many times, she knew the track order by heart. She also knew that Molly chose If Only because Jillian really liked it. Good friends always know which songs to play first. The song kicked off with its signature blast of frenetic harmonica and Molly was already dancing in her seat, making Jillian laugh out loud. She loved how freely her best friend experienced life, but especially her favorite music.

Jillian backed out of the driveway and put the car in gear. They were off. The dusk air was hot as it poured through the windows, mixing with the frigid A/C that was turned all the way up. Jillian let her left hand hang from the driver’s side window, moving up and down with the breeze as she drove too fast down Bayshore Blvd. The music blasted as loudly as the aging sound system would allow, rattling with every bump of the bass. Jillian tossed a glance at her best friend, who was singing in perfect harmony with Taylor, the lead singer. Molly’s curly brown hair flailed wildly as she shook her head to the beat. For a moment, Jillian felt a profound sense of finality. As if this moment was a bookend on this chapter of her life. Molly still had two years of high school to go. Jillian felt jealous of her for that. She didn’t want things to change. She didn’t want to start college. She didn’t want to grow up. She wanted to stay with Molly in the car, speeding down Bayshore forever.

“I love that song!” Molly shouted as the track faded out. She turned the music down and flopped back into the seat, her feet no longer reaching the floor.

“You love every Hanson song, Moll,” Jillian replied with a giggle.

“I mean, you’re right,” Molly guffawed, shoving her hands into her hair.

“I’m honestly excited about this concert. Even if it just means watching you FREAK out the whole time. Thanks for inviting me.”

“Jillian! We have backstage passes!! You can’t say ‘no’ to backstage passes.”

“I still can’t believe you won. I never win anything.”

“I think it was meant to be. I was meant to win and get backstage tonight so that Zachary Walker Hanson can finally meet his future wife.” Molly spoke matter-of-factly, and then turned a cheeky smile toward Jillian, who figured she could let the lecture on the futility of celebrity crushes go just this once.

“Oh! Well then, I must drive faster. For destiny!” Jillian pushed the gas petal, lunging her old Honda forward, barely clearing a yellow light, mid-change. Molly twisted the volume knob all the way up.

As the title track spilled out of the open windows, Jillian suddenly felt completely overwhelmed with anticipation. She didn’t understand how, but somehow she knew this night would change her life forever.