Published in Candy's July 2013 issue. Early apologies—might be away for a couple of weeks.
You are lovely, all of you.

Somewhere above the soft blue glow of the part of the North Pacific Ocean that brushes the powdery white sands of Hawaii, Fern stops being 19 and starts being 20. The fact that she has turned a year older up in the air occurs to her when she wakes to the sound of carts being rolled down the aisle, flight attendants greeting passengers a canned good morning, asking whether they slept well and would they want chicken, fish, or beef? There is orange juice, sour and concentrated, and the coffee is tepid—all she can manage is one small sip. She excuses herself, and not unexpectedly the middle-aged man in the aisle seat growls at her, his beady eyes bloodshot. In the cloudy mirror of the cramped lavatory her skin looks sallow and lifeless, weighted down with security checks and boarding gate goodbyes. Her hair smells like stale sweat and artificial air. She is exhausted and a bit lonely; from this altitude nobody has wished her a happy birthday just yet. She thinks of her mother alone in their apartment in Quezon City. Did she sleep well, or did she toss and turn in bed until the crack of dawn, her thoughts persistently tugging on the blanket and untucking the sheets from the frame? Will she cook breakfast for herself—garlic rice, pork tocino, and perfect sunny side-up eggs—or will she forget what happened the previous night and still prepare a meal for two? The image of leftovers sitting on a shelf in the fridge makes Fern wince, and a metal fist tightens its grip around her chest until the guilt in her heart works its way up to her tear ducts and she has to bite her lip to keep herself from crying, the same way she did at the airport drop-off point only a few hours ago, when she watched the back of her mother’s head grow smaller and smaller until it turned a corner and disappeared from view. Fern does not want sadness in any form right now, yet there it is, sewn onto her seatbelt, nestled between her fingers, perched on her shoulder as if there was nowhere else it would rather be.

But in the grand scheme of things, Fern tells herself, a little bit of guilt and sadness is not a big deal. She is 20, and she is on her way to Las Vegas to visit her father, to see him for the first time in eight years. Nothing else should matter. In the lavatory she nods at her own reflection, as if she has just sealed a deal, and thinks, Just a few more hours. She is used to waiting, and the small slice of patience that is being asked of her right now should be easy, clear, light as air.

"What you need, really, is some sort of structure," her mother declared firmly when Fern told her about withdrawing her life savings, purchasing a ticket, marking one Saturday on her calendar with a small red felt-tip circle. "Boundaries,” she continued. “You need boundaries. That's why houses have corners, walls, locks." Her mouth was a thin, grim line, her face turned slightly away from her daughter. Fern wondered if she should have reminded her that houses have windows too, and doors, that eventually you learn to part the curtains, turn the knob, let a bit of sunshine and fresh air in. Fern wondered if she should have told her mother what she had known all along: that this doesn't mean you don't bring along a set of keys, that this doesn't mean you don't secretly hope someone remembers to leave the porch light on for you, a map to guide you home, ready to rest only after you've returned. Fern wondered if she should have told her that just because people want to find something doesn't mean they've lost themselves, that just because people go away doesn't mean they're never coming back.

Eight years is a long time. Eight birthdays, eight Christmases, eight first days of school. Eight years is almost half of Ferns life. They say people dont change overnight, but what if they do, just not in drastic amounts? What if Fern has changed a little bit in her sleep every day since her father left home eight years ago? That would mean she has changed roughly 2,920 times, which seems like an awfully huge number of changes for someone who still eats the same cereal and drinks the same brand of chocolate milk before going to bed. Would her father even recognize her?

The first person Fern recognizes when she steps into the arrivals area is Kelly, her fathers new girlfriend. When Fern saw her photos online a few months ago, she didnt want to admit that Kelly was beautiful. Now she discovers it is even harder to admit that Kelly is even more beautiful in person. She is five years older than Fern and sixteen years younger than Ferns father. This doesnt seem to bother Kelly; she is all spirited hellos and too-tight hugs, all twinkle and charm and the fizzy self-assurance of someone who has never had reason to doubt her beauty. In a long white dress and barely-there tan sandals, she looks out of place in the busy airport filled with harried businessmen and restless children. She looks like she should be lounging on a beach somewhere, or napping in the middle of a sun-soaked meadow. There are freckles sprinkled across her pert nose and flecks of brown in her wavy blonde hair, and Fern realizes with a start that in this moment, mere seconds after meeting her, she understands why her father has fallen in love this girl. She understands, completely and perfectly, why her father is where he is.

Happy birthday, bud, Ferns father says, enveloping her in an embrace that is neither melodramatic nor apologeticit is what it is: a father welcoming his child. Fern hasnt been called bud in a while; in the e-mails and handwritten cards it is always Dearest Fern or my darling daughter. He locks his grip around her suitcases handle, asking how her flight was, whether she slept and ate well, which spots in Vegas she wants to see. He does not ask about her mother. In the next several weeks perhaps Fern will bring her up in conversation, subtly and without any touch of demand or expectation, or mention her name in passing, making sure its edges are soft like cotton candy clouds. Perhaps she will make her seem peaceful and content. Perhaps she will leave out her persistent floor scrubbing, the men who sometimes visit bearing roses and chardonnay, the suit and tie she still keeps in the closet hanging next to an emerald green velvet dress she will never get to wear, not without an influx of memories crashing into her like a heavy sheet of rain. Perhaps Fern will leave out that monologue about structure and boundaries. Perhaps she will simply say, the way a good, loyal daughter should, that her mother is fine. But right now her father is tall and sturdy beside her, and here is Kelly, resplendent and graceful, and there are plans for supper in the form of brunch: pancakes, maybe, or a maple bacon waffle sandwich that is just as delicious as it sounds. Fern can wait.

Tonight, all the lights have come out to play. There is gentle jazz music in the car, a blanket in the backseat, a glass bottle of coffee that tastes like the chocolate milk Fern drinks before going to bed. There are no words, not yet. There is the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Pyramid of Giza. When the windows are rolled down there is laughter outside, laughter that can easily infuse Fern if she lets it. There are eight letters crammed into the front pocket of her backpack, one for each year her father has been gonenone of them are angry, or even wistful, just hopeful: for a second chance, for their story to continue, for something. For this, Fern thinks to herself. The windows stay down. Outside there is an ocean of sound, then tinier pools of talk. There is a woman in a fur coat, a group of young boys, a man painted gold. Fern waves at him. There are all the lights that have come out to play. There are squares of hotel rooms, balconies; there is the High Roller being built, allowing itself to take shape. Fern wants to count the girls in tiaras, the couples holding hands, the signs that proclaim Welcome, loud and sure. There are street lamps. There are corners. There are roads that will always rise up to meet her.