The tea-colored carpet still looked the same.
No matter how many times Kaylee sat in her father’s car, nothing ever changed. It wasn’t like she cleaned it every Sunday or hung little green trees from the rear-view mirror. And yet, the air smelled piney fresh. The seats were pristine.
The cassette player was still in one piece. After so many years, it had become worn and scratched, tested by the strength of their finger nails. Depending on who came out on top, they either heard strains of the Spice Girls or Linkin Park.
This cassette player was brand new. Flawless, even.
Maybe that should have been her first clue.
This time, they stayed where they were born.
In a city that wore mountains like a crown, Kaylee could hear cows mooing at sunrise, the splash of ducks from her mother’s pond. She liked to sit on their wraparound porch while everything felt wet and new.
This version of Dylan always brought out two mugs, drinking only after Kaylee had chosen hers.
One morning, she warmed her fingers around a butter-yellow mug, inhaling the smell of smoke and grit.
Dylan sipped his floral tea with a grimace.
Everyone said they looked alike, with their dark hair and deep-set eyes. Family friends murmured that they could have been twins. That they took after their father.
But they didn’t talk about those things.
“I think it’ll be three.” Kaylee grinned at him. “Three girls.”
She tapped her mug. “They’ll each be born a year apart. And you’ll name them after the seasons. Spring, Summer, and Autumn.”
“Maybe you could get a dog too and name her Winter. Just to round things out.”
Cocking his head, Dylan leaned closer, blotting out the purplish sky. “Sure. When is this all going to happen again?”
“Two years from now.”
He sat back with an explosive sigh. “You’re full of crap.”
Kaylee laughed. “What? It’s true! You’ll be a married fireman with half a soccer team.”
“A soccer team has eleven players.”
“Fine, a quarter of a team. Doesn’t matter. They’ll still have their cool aunt and her longtime traveling partner. We’ll visit you guys in winter.”
Snorting, Dylan set down his mug. “Sounds like you have it all figured out.”
She hadn’t spoken to this Dylan for twenty-two years.
Kaylee kept track of time on her desk calendar. Every year, she ordered the same one and patiently marked each passing day with a red X, until one day, her sharpie ran out of ink.
That had been a bad day.
Relinquishing her mug, Kaylee traced sticky rings on the table. Other diners ate with gentle clangs or short laughter. In the back, one of the cooks cursed. Grease and sweat salted the air.
“Does this even help?”
Kaylee plucked a packet of Sweet’N Low from her purse. Drained it into the mug, stirred the tea.
“It’s supposed to.”
Across the table from Kaylee, a middle-aged woman dropped her menu. Her name was Sandy. “What does that mean?”
“Support groups are kind of like acupuncture. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Sandy pushed her coffee aside. She leaned against the table, stopping Kaylee with her eyes—they flashed with a kind of wildness.
“I’m sick of the way people look at me. They don’t say it, but their faces do: Why can’t she get it together?”
“They think grief has an expiration date,” Kaylee agreed.
Sandy looked away. She stared through the dirty windows. “Sometimes, when I look to the mountains, I can hear her calling me.”
“I can’t drive without having a panic attack,” Kaylee said after a moment.
That night, she marked her calendar with a red X. She made another cup of tea and sat near her window, watching the mountains lose their shape.
On his eighteenth birthday, this Dylan moved across the country. It wasn’t long before he enlisted in the military. Met a woman. Became a police sergeant. Had kids.
They were boys. All summers and springs—no autumn.
Every Sunday, Kaylee spoke with Dylan and his kids. She even joined a virtual book club with his wife. They functioned as a makeshift family unit.
Dylan never spoke of their father. Occasionally, he would ask Kaylee about their mom. When he did, his voice turned calm and distant, flat like still water.
So, Kaylee split herself into threes, and that was that.
She juggled several jobs and drove too fast. No matter how many tickets she collected, it was never enough to slow her down.
In her thirties, she chased the feeling of lightness, the wind in her hair. Those moments where she no longer remembered the things she worked so hard to get.
This Dylan died on a Tuesday.
For a long time, Kaylee couldn’t cry. Not even when they visited the mountainous road. The pile of wreckage. Somewhere, there were pieces of a cassette player.
They said Dylan had died in the passenger seat of their father’s car. That he was asleep, so there wasn’t any pain.
It wasn’t the same for their father. He was awake for most of it, right up until the end. That’s what they said. Kaylee was sure of it—she had repeated the words in her mind, wore them down to smoothness.
Sobs echoed throughout their house. After everyone else had gone, leaving flowers and casseroles in their wake, soft choking sounds still lined every room, muffled yet enduring—the kind of despair that wouldn’t just linger in special occasions.
Kaylee made tea. She did not cry.
At her wedding, this Dylan acted as the man of honor.
He had spent months organizing pre-wedding events, planning her bridal shower, and bagging Jordan almonds in tiny pink pouches (the bachelorette party had only been as awkward as they made it; so, very).
On the Day of the Unholy Union, Dylan stopped her from inhaling espresso. He held her hand down the aisle. When she shook, he stood next to her at the altar, making the crowd snicker.
Kaylee only smiled.
When this Dylan died in his sleep, their last words hadn’t been kind ones.
Somehow, the ball in her stomach was worse than his absence. Kaylee spent the rest of her life carrying something she couldn’t fix. It woke her at night and slept in the back of her mind. Always there to keep track, to remind her.
In his forties, this Dylan started working on skyscrapers.
He helped frame the city around them. Their mom said it was in their blood, a trade passed from grandfathers to grandsons, when fathers were busy wasting away. Kaylee spent too many hours studying the way his buildings thinned toward the top, reaching for something more.
This Dylan died an old man with a fondness for tea.
This Dylan became a teacher and a soccer coach.
This Dylan died trying to rescue a boy.
This Dylan saw the world.
At night, Kaylee dreamed of a car that never changed.
It had tea-colored carpet and a piney-fresh scent. In one of the cup holders, Dylan had left some toy cars. Underneath the passenger seat, he’d scrawled their names—Kaylee & Dylan—a signature in permanent marker.
She liked to think some part of him had evolved.
But the truth was, he never grew up. Never developed a taste for coffee or tea. Never learned how to drive. Never had kids or chose not to have them. Never moved or stayed.
Kaylee never got to know any other version of him but the thirteen-year-old kid who screamed at her for going into his room but also punched a boy who made fun of her dress on picture day.
Kaylee only knew this version of herself. The girl who hated her father because they told her to. The girl who had a panic attack every time she tried to get behind a wheel. The girl who drank tea and never learned how to drive and chose not to have kids.
The girl who stayed.