Shyla rolled her eyes. “What if your family don’t like me?” she asked, suddenly worried. She had met Jacob before, but had never been introduced to the rest of the Stevens clan.
“Why wouldn’t they?” Henry knew why Shyla was concerned. She was a natural introvert, and lots of new people had a tendency to make her hyperventilate.
“Well, me and crowds…” Shyla flinched slightly. Henry knew her track record.
“Don’t worry, babes.” Henry kissed her forehead lightly. “There won’t be lots of people. Twenty-five at the most.”
“Twenty-five?” Shyla could feel her heart rate rise. Her breathing became shallow.
“Shyla,” Henry stopped and faced her. He put both hands on her shoulders and shook her slightly. “Calm. Breathe. Deep breaths. Relax.”
“I’ll be fine. Just don’t let me panic while we’re there.” The last thing Shyla wanted to do was have a panic attack while meeting Henry’s family.
“I promise I won’t.”
“Any signs of panic, and you get me out of there.”
Henry laughed. They walked the last block to the house in silence. The twilight air was warm, so Henry appeared out of place in a long-sleeved shirt. “Um, Henry.” Shyla looked him up and down. “You might want to change your shirt.”
“Why?” Henry looked confused.
“You look confused in your long-sleeved shirt.”
Henry pulled his top shirt off over his head, revealing a red t-shirt underneath, over his black long-sleeved shirt. Shyla shook her head. Henry was prepared, perhaps a little over prepared.
He handed his red long-sleeved shirt to Shyla, who slid it into her bag. She waited for him to take his two other shirts off before she moved anywhere. Henry pulled his t-shirt back on and wordlessly handed his black long-sleeved shirt to Shyla. Once she had zipped up her backpack and slung it over her shoulder, they entered the noisy house.
The house was crawling with children. They ran everywhere; up and down stairs, in and out doorways and rooms. Shyla felt overwhelmed just by the noise. “Cousins, and second, even third cousins.” Henry said to Shyla. “They range in age from two to seventeen.”
“How many?” Shyla asked, miscounting for the third time.
“Three sets of twins, a set of triplets, and a handful of single births.” Henry laughed at Shyla’s bewildered expression. “Fifteen kids in total.”
“Whose are they?” Shyla was confused.
“My father’s side of the family has a lot of cousins in his generation. These are their kids.” Henry murmured. “Anita was the eldest by about ten years, so she is ‘Great Aunt Anita’ to a lot of the kids here, although she is technically their second cousin. It’s a little confusing.”
“Extended family?” Shyla smiled as some kids vanished down a nearby hall way.
One of the smaller kids, maybe five or six years old with blonde curls, spotted Henry at the door. She screamed at the top of her lungs, “Henry’s here!”
A swarm of shrieking kids descended onto them from everywhere, hugging Henry and demanding his attention. It was clear to Shyla he was well loved by his many relatives. “Hey, guys.” Henry laughed. “What have you been doing to poor Aunt Anita’s house?”
A million answers surrounded them as the children all spoke at once.
Shyla managed to work her way out of the crush towards the wall next to the front door. An elderly lady with blue-rinsed hair came up to her. “You must be Shyla,” she said into Shyla’s ear.
“Yes,” replied Shyla, surprised she had been recognised at all. Then again, Anita knew and loved her family dearly.
“I’m Aunt Anita.” The lady held out her hand. Shyla took the proffered hand and shook it with a smile. “Henry has told me all about you.” She turned to the mass of screaming children. “Ice-cream in the backyard.” She called over their voices.
The entire group shrieked and moved as one towards the back of the house, leaving Shyla and Henry alone with Anita. “Henry,” Anita turned to him. “You didn’t mention that she was this beautiful.”
Shyla blushed. “Thanks, Aunt Anita.” Mumbled Henry, not really upset with his beloved aunt. “You made her go pink.”
Anita laughed. “I need to check on the rest of my guests. Have fun.”
“We will.” Replied Henry.
Henry led Shyla into a different room. This room had four older children lounging around in overstuffed, colourful armchairs, playing games on a huge TV in the corner or texting on their cell phones. Shyla tried to remain as relaxed as possible when Henry introduced her to everyone. She stood against the wall while Henry chatted to a girl of about fourteen. Shyla felt out of place standing there, when one of the cousins came up to her. He was seventeen, with blonde hair and blue eyes. “Hey,” he said to her with a smile. “My name is Mitch Johnson. My mom is Anita’s first cousin.”
“Hi.” Shyla mumbled, looking down at her shoes. “I’m Shyla Evans.” She immediately felt silly saying that, since she had already been introduced to him.
“So,” Mitch asked, looking her up and down. “How much did Henry pay you to be his date for the night?”
“Um, nothing.” Replied Shyla, a little annoyed at the assumption.
“Really?” Mitch stepped closer.
Shyla stepped to the side, away from him. She attempted to remain calm. “Mitch.” Henry grabbed the back of his shirt. “My girlfriend. Don’t touch.”
“How did you land her?” Mitch said laughing. Clearly the relatives were on fairly good terms, and the whole thing had been a joke between them.
“Long story.” Said Shyla, quickly, playing along, and making her escape at the same time. “Would love to tell you, but I have more family to meet.”
Henry followed her lead and grabbed her hand, pulling her from the room.
The backyard was lit with a bright spotlight. Children chased each other in an endless game of Tag, scampering around the group of adults sitting on lawn chairs chatting. “Henry,” said Anita over the din. “Please introduce your friend to the rest of us.”
“Everyone,” said Henry to the group. “This is Shyla Evans.”
Shyla waved gingerly, smiling shyly. Anita laughed. “Dearie,” she said, handing the lady next to her a glass of wine. “Don’t be shy. We don’t bite.”
Henry laughed and wrapped his arm around Shyla’s waist as the group all went back to their conversations. Henry was a well-known favourite of Anita’s, being her only actual nephew. “Let’s go inside.” He whispered into her ear, pulling her away from the chattering group.
She nodded. He led her through the door and up several flights of stairs. They emerged on a balcony several floors up and on the opposite side of the building. “Your family certainly is, interesting.” Shyla commented, staring over the street towards the high rise buildings.
“When do you want to do our rounds?” Henry asked, following her gaze.
“Later.” Shyla whispered. She leant back against him.
Henry wrapped his arms around her waist, holding her close. “I love you.” He whispered into her ear.
Shyla felt a tingle run up her spine. She turned to face Henry and stretched up to kiss him. He bent down and pressed his lips to hers. Shyla pulled back slightly. “I love you, too.” She murmured.
Henry kissed her cheek. “Should we mingle until we leave?” he asked softly.
Shyla sighed reluctantly, if a little dramatically. “I suppose.”