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( You can listen to this piece on S2E29 of the podcast)

Carolyn cleared her throat but said nothing as they sped down the highway towards the Dallas suburb her brother called home. The cut grass along the highway shaved down her confidence that she’d made the right choice to come here. Back in southern California, vegetation shot up from the ground along the highway. Untamed and unmanicured like her. They were total opposites, Carolyn and CJ. Long before she rolled her first spliff and he tried his first case in court, she knew they’d grow up to be driftwood in the ocean washing up on distinctly different islands to make their homes.

Carolyn hadn’t waited more than five minutes outside the arrivals terminal before CJ pulled up, parking his luxury car and popping the trunk. He looked exactly as he did as a 17-year-old. Gathering from his furrowed brow, the twenty-two years had rendered her near unrecognizable.

“This is it?” CJ asked, taking her duffle bag carefully from her clenched fists. She nodded. Carolyn was reluctant to let the only possessions she owned go, but relinquished them and met her brother’s awkward hug before she skuttled into the passenger seat.

Carolyn counted the out-of-state license plates to focus her mind on the ride home, adjusting the long sleeves of the top she’d pulled out of a clothing drive bin. Too hot for Texas summer, but it hid the pock mark and cutting scars from the children. Because she was an auntie. And she’d be meeting the kids for the first time.

“Mama always knew you’d come around,” CJ said as they pulled into a quaint subdivision that led to his beautiful modern home.

But Mama never saw it, Carolyn thought. She’d finally gotten herself clean, but Carolyn had waited too late to reintroduce herself to her family.

“I have a lot to prove,” she said.

“Take your time,” CJ said.

Carolyn decided that she liked this response. Indeed, taking things fast and hard had been her downfall. She shook the past from her mind by counting the flowering plants in her brother’s flower beds as he grabbed her duffle bag. She’d counted seven flowers before the whoosh of a door opening preceded a flurry of excited voices stole her attention. Three kids. Seven, ten, and thirteen. They greeted their dad, her brother, then filed over to her.

“Hi Auntie Carolyn!” the little one chimed. The middle one waved. The eldest one wavered. With eyes like her grandmothers, eyes like the ones Carolyn had herself, this teen examined her, and Carolyn felt once more she’d made the wrong choice in coming here. In trying to restart her life her in this perfectly manicured, controlled environment of theirs.

“We can ride the rollercoasters together,” the eldest said at last. “When we go to Six Flags.” Her niece wanted to visit the theme park that day. Carolyn’s eyes shot wide with apprehension.

“No Macy, not today… not anytime soon,” CJ quickly said, patting his eldest child on the head as he explained that with her siblings too young, and her father’s stomach too queasy, and her mother keeping an eye on the younger two, Macy had to ride the rollercoasters alone with. She was looking for a rollercoaster buddy like Carolyn. Apparently, this new auntie would do.

And that’s when it hit Carolyn. That she wasn’t manicured or beautifully presented. She didn’t have the bright past or the brilliant future ahead of her. And, yes, at this point of her life, she preferred to take things slow. But apparently just being present was enough to offer. Macy thought that she would do. Her niece wanted a buddy with whom to ride life’s rollercoasters. And hadn’t she needed that, too when she was Macy’s age?

“Today’s just fine with me,” Carolyn said, interrupting her brother’s explanation.

“What’s that?” CJ asked, clearly confused.

“I have a lot to prove, no time to take it easy,” Carolyn said to her brother before reaching her hand out towards her smiling nieces and walking back to the car.

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