Trying to quietly and quickly open a door without touching it at all is unnecessarily difficult. Eventually, it creaks open, and I stumble out into the hallway. Looking at the stairway makes my stomach attempt gymnastics, and my vision keeps switching from my mother holding out the letter of release and the dark, cold present stairs. Ultimately I have to stop at the bottom of the stairs and cling to the railing. Closing my eyes, I will the dream to go away. When I open them, I take a breath of relief. No letter to be seen.
I tiptoe into the living room, and stop in my tracks. My mother lies on the couch, and my father is beside her on the floor. Only a quilt is beneath him, serving as a ramshackle mattress. My heart goes out to these people who must have convinced Banner to take their room.
What kind of people would offer their comfort to someone who has brought tidings of heartbreaking news?
Slowly, I make my way towards the opposite end of the room, where a door marks the entrance to the rest of the bedrooms. The last door clearly states that it's my parent's room, seeing as the small wooden plank Mallory and I painted hangs above it. "Ma and Pops" it blares out it astonishing red. I would be smiling if my mind wasn't so frazzled at the moment.
I give a light knock on the door, and I hear someone rustling around inside. Banner opens up, any trace of weariness erased. He sees my workout clothes, and gives me a nod before closing the door to get ready.
A couple of minutes later I've written a short note on a napkin stating that I'll be back, I just left for a run. Banner meets me outside, and looks like he's about to start hounding me with questions.
He must change his mind because he nods and mutters, "Later." Grateful, I nod back and begin at a slow jog. Banner matches my pace with utter ease, since we've ran countless times together before.
I breath in the fresh, cold air, enjoying how it wakes up my senses. We run down a straight road for about fifteen minutes before coming to a man-made path that leads up a tree spotted hill. Without saying anything, we start hiking up. The sunlight peeking over the mountains filters through the leaves in a way that's mesmerizing, and eventually we reach the top and come to a halt. We lean up against strong tree trunks, and Banner looks at me expectantly. I spill it all.
"I guess what I'm saying is," I explain, "is that I'm in new terrain here. That scares me out of my wits."
Banner looks at his hands, thinking everything through. "I get that you're probably feeling as if you have no idea where to turn or what to say." I nod vigorously, amazed at Banner's skill to put my feelings into words. "Being back home after so many years; years in which you have become a completely different person, but I think that you may be overthinking everything."
"What do you mean? How is this not a big deal, Banner? I feel as though my family is expecting me to come running up in pig-tails and a handmade summer dress, but that's-"
"That right there, Naomi, is your history." Banner replies with such a commanding tone it drives me into silence. Rarely does Banner raise his voice, especially with crew members. He sighs, but doesn't back down. "Aren't you the one who always told everyone to embrace who they are? To never forget where they came from, and flaunt it?" When I don't give a response, he comes closer, hands on his hips. "Wasn't that you?"
I look up from my shoes, "Yeah." The word has to be forced out, and even then, my own ears can hardly hear them. Banner picks up on everything, though.
"Be proud of who you are. Sure, your ten year old self might have been pounded into a corner, and you can barely remember who she was. But you know what?" He stops, lowering his voice. "I know exactly who you are, and where you come from. You come from a scared little girl who had no idea what she was doing. One who knew who to let go, and what to hold on to for dear life. Do you remember what you answered when I asked you what you were holding out for?" I just stare at him blankly, astonished.
He doesn't wait for long before he continues. "You looked up at me and said, 'I'll tell you when I get there.' Then continued on as if that was the most obvious answer imaginable!" Banner laughs incredulously. "You're my crew mate, who's sometimes reckless, but goes above and beyond her duty. You're a true blooded Valer, who will do anything for anyone, even if you met them five minutes before. That's what Bluevale is all about. Be proud of who you've become and don't hide it from your family."
He locks me in his arms, and I finally relax. "Do yourself a favor and finally catch on to the fact that Crew 47 is bolted down tight, with you in it's clutches."
"Thanks, Banner." I attempt to voice my appreciation, but I'm at a loss for words. He sees the look in my eyes and smiles mischeiviously.
"Don't worry, I already know I'm practically a collector's edition Valer." We laugh and make our way down the hill, sending jabs back and forth about what big headed Valers we must be.
By the time we finally meander back home, the sun has risen and is warming our bodies. We get inside, Banner opening the door for me and jokingly bowing, saying, "Your Grace."
I can hear everyone clanging bowls around and cereal being poured, and make my way to the kitchen to say good morning before running upstairs to shower. When I enter the kitchen, Banner right behind me, I smile broadly. It feels good, and seems right for the occasion. After all, if I'm supposed to be proud of who I've become, I might as well let my family see who I really am.
I'm greeted by smiling faces and a sleepy, "Morning" on Anthony's part.
"Naomi!" A young man who is around the same height as Anthony stands, a wide smile and cautious eyes adorning his tanned face.
My heart stops as I recognize those blazing brown eyes. "Hugo?" He moves forward, arms outstretched, and I meet him halfway.