It was always chilly in Manchester. Kind of creepy, if you asked the young woman walking down Upper Brook Street. The girl- she was barely twenty, not yet really a woman-pulled the collar of her coat closer to her, sticking her hands in the pockets as she hustled away from the University of Manchester.
Tots and Toddlers was a left turn off that street. The preschool stood out against the horizon, decorated in its bright pastel colours supplemented by artistic reproductions of popular children's characters including Barbie and Spider-Man. The lawn was, as always, dotted with tiny flowers, and in the chilly late October air, Jamie could see the local groundsman, Hanley, raking a fresh pile of dead leaves into a waiting wheelbarrow. He waved as she passed.
Winter was in the air. Jamie could feel it.
Hurriedly, she stepped through the doorway and went directly to the reception area.
"Hey, Jamie," a young woman with a pleasant smile greeted her.
When Jamie spoke, her accent was distinctly American, with just the slightest hint of British influence. She'd been living here for the last four years, part-time student, part-time waitress, and full-time mum to little Kenan O'Brien.
"They're almost through, you can head on in."
Jamie shot her one last smile, and turned the corner to face the door of the playroom. The glass was one-sided, so she could peep in and check out whatever it was they were doing. Today, they had trucks, and they counted loudly as they lined them up.
That's an interesting way to teach addition, Jamie thought, taking note. She was always looking for little activities to stimulate Kenan's brain, and he enjoyed learning new things even more than she did. At that moment, the toddlers were huddled together, holding hands for the evening prayer.
"Dear God, thank you for letting us see a new day. Thank you for food, for friends and for play. Bless those who are poor and those in pain, and we'll see you tomorrow, in Jesus' name."
A few minutes later, Jamie joined the rest of parents waiting patiently outside the classroom as the children grabbed their bags. She grinned as Kenan pointed through the glass- it was transparent there- and waved at her. He scooped up his Spider-Man backpack, waved goodbye to the two female preschool teachers, and dashed outside and straight into her arms.
"Momma!" He greeted her with a great big hug. "You wanna see what I did? You wanna see?"
Jamie chuckled, meeting his adorable little green eyes. "As soon as we get out of here. You up for some grub?"
"Yeah!" Kenan readily agreed. It was Friday afternoon, and Jamie usually took him out for a treat every Friday. Sometimes it was ice-cream, other times it'd be soft pretzels, and most of the time, Kenan's most highly demanded request happened to be the extra sour version of Sour Patch Kids.
"Shall we, little Sir?"Jamie questioned, offering her arm. Kenan bowed deeply, the very picture of an English gentleman.
"We shall, Lady Momma."
They made the twelve-minute trip to Pretzel House via Haymarket Street, stopping periodically to point out random objects that didn't quite fit with the scene. It was a game Jamie had created about a year before to help Kenan out with an assignment, and it had stuck. The street was noticeably crowded that day, and that was never a good sign. Jamie pulled Kenan's hood over his head, turning their faces in order to avoid the flash of a camera from a random paparazzi who popped up a few metres ahead, behind a newsstand. Jamie grimaced. Not now, she thought. There was no telling how invasive they could be.
Jamie had practically raised her son on her own for the past two years, on nothing but a waitress' salary and deposits Kenan's father wired directly to her account every month. These days, Kaiden was making good on his promise to financially support his son while staying far out of the way; Jamie got a ten thousand dollar cheque signed to Kenan O'Brien Wiltshire once a month. She'd cover the essentials, and the extra cash was stored in a bank account Kenan would be able to access once he turned sixteen.
As a point of emphasis, she never spent a penny of Kaiden's money on herself.
Kaiden Wiltshire was a household name. A teenage heartthrob turned established pop sensation, he had been unreachable, untouchable for years. At least, that was what most people thought. Truthfully, he'd attended a public high school in Los Angeles, California, where he met Jamie, a native of Salisbury, Maryland, only a couple months after she'd moved to L.A. with hopes of starting fresh.
He had been an absolute jerk when they'd first run into each other back in 2009, on that fateful day when he'd barrelled past her, sending her books and papers flying. After months of his animosity, Jamie was often the last to even fathom they'd be anything more than enemies. She'd made fast friends with his twin brother, Mitchell, who ended up dating Jamie's cousin, Olivia, the daughter of world famed fashion designer Demi Preston. Eventually, the animosity between she and Kaiden morphed into an attraction neither of them could deny, and by the end of the year, their faces and names were all over the magazines.
Those had been the good times.
Then there had been Kenan.
Born seven pounds, seven ounces on the eighteenth of December 2010, Kenan O'Brien Wiltshire had been conceived on the night of senior prom, forcing Jamie to abandon a potential scholarship and take a gap year. Kaiden had made up for it by covering her entire first degree tuition, of course, but the damage had already been done. Their breakup had been messy on both sides. Kaiden cancelled a quarter of his shows. Jamie had avoided appearing in public ever since. Eventually, they'd come around, agreeing to co-parent while they both lived their separate lives. Then two years before, after raising Kenan together for over a year, Kaiden had completely fallen apart.
The pressure of fatherhood, coupled with his high profile public life, had taken its toll on him, and he'd started drinking again, much to Jamie's chagrin. He had a history of alcoholism and violent tendencies, and after months of constant fighting, Kaiden had given up. He'd moved back to Los Angeles, saying he couldn't stand to be around his son any longer.
One day I'll hurt him, he'd said. And I'll never be able to forgive myself if that happens.
Jamie still remembered the day he'd left, softly caressing his son's face and brushing back the dark brown curls, looking into the emerald green eyes that mirrored his own.
"Pwetzels!" Kenan exclaimed gleefully, tugging his mother by the arm.
"Hey! Hold up, alright?"
Kenan succeeded in yanking his mother right into the middle of Pretzel House without any warning. The place was pretty crowded for early afternoon, and Jamie held her son's hand close.
She swore under her breath. Since her separation from Kaiden, people everywhere had been trying to find out what exactly had gone wrong between them. Thanks to his fame and to her great annoyance, Jamie Krusow was still in high demand. The entertainment news outlets would have a field day with this.
"Jamie!" A redheaded girl about thirteen or fourteen greeted her excitedly. "Hi! My name's Amber. I'm a huge fan. Is this Kenan? Can I have a picture with you?"
Jamie gave the girl a small smile. She was American, and the sound of a fellow man made her long for home and her family. She met Amber's eyes.
"Could you keep your voice down? I'm trying to keep a low profile."
Amber blushed, nodding. Handing Jamie her phone, she positioned herself between Jamie and Kenan, while Jamie snapped the photo.
"Thank you so much! Oh, and I really hope you and Kaiden get back together. You were totally goals, and Kenan looks just like him!" Amber squealed, before giving Jamie a sheepish smile and hurrying into the crowd.
Jamie sighed. She was over him, she always told herself. She was always over Kaiden Wiltshire until someone called his name. It was easy to explain. She still had memories of the guy she'd been in love with, and then there was the real world and the real Kaiden Wiltshire, the one who was never coming back to her.
Her phone buzzed, and she held Kenan's hand tightly as she swiped the screen.
"Hey, Livvi," Jamie greeted her cousin. "What's up?"
"Jay, you need to get home now."
"Did something happen?"
"I need to talk to you." Livvi's voice was firm, but desperate. Jamie imagined her cousin's expression and gritted her teeth.
"It can't wait?"
"You wanna get ambushed by paparazzi?"
"Fine, fine. I'm on my way."
Reluctantly, Jamie pulled her son out of the line and outside of Pretzel House.
"Why? No pwetzel? Momma! I want pwetzel!"
"Not now, Kee. I'll tell Alex to bring some home for you, okay?"
"But I want pwetzels now!"
"Kenan O'Brien." Jamie said firmly, giving him an incredibly motherly look of disapproval. "You know better. We don't yell for things. No is an answer too, remember?"
Kenan nodded sheepishly. "I bememba."
"You're gonna be a nice little boy?"
"Okay," Kenan agreed, before lifting a finger. "But cinnamon pwetzels. And chewwies. Pwomise?"
"Promise," Jamie replied, wrapping her pinky around her son's.
By the time Jamie and Kenan reached the bottom of Addison Close, where they shared a home with Olivia, the latter was already there, tapping her booted heel impatiently on the grass. Rafael, her personal bodyguard, was standing behind her.
"What took you so long?"
"I was elsewhere and otherwise occupied. Look, I found a child." Jamie raised her arm dramatically.
"Auntie Libbi!" The toddler exclaimed, jumping into Olivia's arms. She chuckled.
"Hey, baby boy. How was your day?"
She carried on a brief conversation with her baby cousin before turning to face Jamie.
"Jamie. Inside. Now."
Jamie raised an eyebrow, but obliged. It had to be important if Livvi was all jittery about it.
The house Livvi shared with her cousins was fairly comfortable. It was a simple two-storey home her mother had purchased for her eighteenth birthday, and her most prized possession. There were three bedrooms; practically four, because Kenan had a habit of crawling into his mother's room almost every night, and two and a half bathrooms. Jamie loved their open concept kitchen and dining area that opened to a view of the pool in the backyard and trees in the distance. Besides that, there was a spacious living room and a big garage Jamie and Livvi had attempted to convert into a laundry room. It hadn't ended very well.
In the foyer, Jamie dropped her keys and headed towards the kitchen, where she pulled open the fridge door and pulled out a carton of fruit juice and a half opened bag of Lays chips.
"So. What's the big deal?"
"Kenan, head up to your room, okay? Alex will be here soon, and you guys can play hide and seek." Olivia coaxed, and he obediently headed up the stairs. She took a seat next to Jamie.
"You should see this."
Livvi whipped out her phone, handing it to her cousin.
Kaiden Wiltshire (@kaiden_will)
Good to be home. #manchester #memories
Jamie clenched the island counter, her features tense.
"He's here," Jamie whispered. Livvi nodded slowly.
Jamie ran a hand through her hair, looking away. This was crazy. Her emotions were on a high, along with her overwhelming instinct to protect her son, ironically enough, from his own father.
"Why in heaven's name is Kaiden in Manchester?!" she demanded. Olivia gave her a withering look, and she took a deep breath, pouring her glass full of apple juice. "Okay, okay. I'm done."
"Jamie, he wants to see you."
At that, Jamie burst out laughing.
"Is this funny to you?" Olivia questioned. "I thought you should know."
Her cousin shook her head, containing her laughter.
"I'm sorry. I just can't believe you still think I care. I don't care what he wants. And I can guarantee that whatever reason he's in Manchester, it's definitely not to pop by and say hey."
Jamie had been laughing, but now the juice left a bitter taste on her tongue. As true as her statement was, it still hurt. Even after all this time, thinking about Kaiden still made her incredibly upset. At him, at herself, at every little thing that could've possibly landed her in her current position.
Leaving the glass, she headed up the stairs and into her bedroom. The walls were painted a lovely sky blue, with little accents of white and green complementing it. Sitting down on her bed, she picked at her nails nervously. Her eyes drifted over to the vanity, where she could see Livvi had scribbled second shelf, bathroom closet on a piece of paper. Pocketing it, she stepped into the bathroom. Pulling the doors open, sure enough, the box was there. Jamie felt a sense of relief pulse through her veins as she popped it open and shook the two little pills into her hand.
One antidepressant, one mood regulator.
That was the moment her phone rang, buzzing against her butt and startling her, causing the pills to drop.
"Damn it," she swore, sliding the phone out of her back pocket, not bothering to see who was calling.
Jamie dropped the phone.