School started on a Monday, which was the worst because that meant the first week of school was a full week. I got up when my alarm went off and ate breakfast alone, wishing I was at Mom’s house. If I was there, my brothers would have been up to see me before we went off to school.
Dad was already gone for work when I woke up and Amber didn’t come out of their room until I was packing my lunch.
“How’s my big eighth grader?” she asked, heading to the coffee machine.
I smiled even though she wasn’t looking. “I’m okay. Not really looking forward to it.”
Amber sighed. “Even the twins are at the age that they’re not excited for school anymore. But, you know, it will be okay. It’ll be Thanksgiving Break before you know it.”
I groaned. November seemed so far away.
When I finished packing my lunch, I stuffed it in my backpack, gave Amber a hug, and headed out to the bus stop. There were two guys there that I knew and we talked, since I hadn’t seen them all summer, which was nice. By the time the bus arrived, I was in a slightly better mood.
◊ ◊ ◊
The first day of school went well for me, and when I got off the bus, I decided to play basketball until the twins got home. That was, until I made the mistake of looking at my phone.
My mom had sent me at least fifty pictures from my brothers’ first day of school, and I sat down on the steps leading up to the front door to look at them. I couldn’t help but smile, seeing my brothers with their hair all neat because of their new haircuts and holding up dry erase boards that said their names and grades. I just couldn’t believe that it was time for Cooper to be in kindergarten already.
I took one of the pictures, in which Sam and John were making a heart with their hands, and set it as my phone background. Even though my heart hurt because I couldn’t be with them, the pictures made me happy.
I played basketball until the elementary school bus arrived and Rava, Jason, and Jacob got off. Jacob waved and headed to his house, and Rava and Jason came running up to me.
“How was your first day?” I asked.
“Good,” Rava said.
“All right,” Jason said, holding out his hands. I handed him the basketball and gave Rava a hug. “I’m glad you had a good day.”
After shooting a couple baskets, Jason and I followed Rava inside. Amber got out some grapes for us and we sat at the table talking about our first days. When we were full, Amber went back to writing and Jason suggested that we go for a bike ride.
As we rode around, racing when the street was flat, I thought about Mom, John, and my brothers and wished that we could all live together as one big family. I knew it wouldn’t happen, since Mom and Dad hardly ever talked to each other and were usually angry when they saw each other, but it was a nice thought.
◊ ◊ ◊
After about a week and a half of school, I was ready for a break. I sat on the couch next to Amber, waiting for the twins to get home and petting Nala absent-mindedly. “Where’s Dad?”
Amber kept typing for a couple seconds and I waited, used to her finishing a sentence before she talked. “Grocery shopping.”
“Okay. I guess I’m going to go sit outside and wait for Rava and Jase to get home.”
Nala followed me when I got up, so I put her leash on and took her outside with me. I walked up and down the street a couple times, checking the time on my phone every time I got back to the driveway. When it was close enough to the time that the twins should be getting home, I sat down in the driveway, letting Nala walk circles around me.
“Any minute,” I told her, and she licked my face.
When the bus finally pulled up, Rava and Jason got off, carrying big pieces of paper.
“What are those?” I asked, standing up. Nala pulled on the leash, trying to get to them.
Rava petted her while Jason showed me his picture. “It’s our art project. They finally dried so we could take them home.”
“That’s really cool, Jase,” I said, ruffling his hair.
“Thanks, B,” he said, smiling. Rava showed me hers, which I secretly thought wasn’t quite as good as Jason’s, and we headed inside.
Rava sat down at the counter to eat a snack and talk to Amber, but Jason claimed that he wasn’t hungry. We went to our room and he sat down at the desk to do his homework. I sat down on my bed, my back against the wall, to read.
After a while, we heard the garage door open. Jason set down his pencil and went out to the living room, so I went too, sighing. Rava and Jason always got so excited when Dad got home, even after he had yelled at them last night for not doing their chores before bed.
When Dad came up the stairs, Rava rushed to him and said, “Daddy!”
He smiled and hugged her. Jason joined in, and then Dad let them go. “Were you good at school today?”
They both nodded.
“Where are the groceries?” Amber asked, getting up from the couch. “We can help you with them.”
Dad frowned. “What groceries?”
“Bill, you said you were going grocery shopping,” Amber said, lines forming between her eyebrows.
My heart skipped a beat.
“I…” Dad said, “I got distracted. I’m sorry. I can go now if--”
“Distracted by what?” Amber asked. “A friend? A client? You’ve been making those excuses a lot lately, so I’d like to hear a new one.”
Rava and Jason looked at each other, then at me. I gestured for them to come closer to me, so they did, and I put an arm around each of them. Rava held onto it tightly.
“I can explain,” Dad said, holding his hands up.
Amber turned to us. “Go to your rooms, okay? Your dad and I need to have an adults-only discussion.”
I shepherded Rava and Jason into the room I shared with Jason and closed the door. I sat down on my bed and Rava curled up next to me. Jason sat down on his own bed, but when the yelling started, he came over to mine.
“Britton?” Rava said, looking up at me. “This is real bad, isn’t it?”
“I…” I said, not wanting to lie. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
After a few minutes, the front door slammed. Rava cried out, and Jason leaned into me.
“Come on,” I said, standing up. “Let’s go make sure Amber is okay.”
They followed me out to the living room, where their mom was on the couch with her head in her hands.
“Mommy?” Jason asked, sitting down next to her.
“My babies,” she said, pulling Jason close to her and kissing his head. Rava sat down on the other side of her and she did the same thing. “You’re going to go with your dad for a night or two, okay? There are some people that he wants you to meet.”
“But why?” Rava asked.
“Because it has to happen, okay? It’ll be all right. Go pack a bag as if you were going to sleep over at Jacob’s, okay? Make sure you get your toothbrushes.”
Rava and Jason went obediently, but I stayed.
“You too, Britton,” Amber said, looking at her feet.
I sat down next to her. “What happened?”
She sighed. “I don’t--”
“Please,” I said. “This already happened to me once, you know? And no one explained anything to me then. But I can take it now.”
Amber looked up at me. “Your dad cheated on me, just like he cheated on your mom. I should have known. I should have read the signs.”
“It’s okay,” I said, rubbing her back awkwardly and trying not to cry. “Where are we going?”
“To meet his wife,” Amber said, choking on the last word.
“His wife? I didn’t know Dad was married.”
Amber laughed bitterly. “No one did.”
“Sorry,” I said, feeling useless. “Why do we have to go? I really don’t want to.”
“He… He said he would keep coming back, keep calling me until I let the twins go meet his wife. And he wanted you to come too, of course. You can call your mom at any time--”
“I’ll stay with the twins,” I promised. “I’ll make sure they’re safe.”
Amber looked at me, tears in her eyes. “Thank you, Britton.”
I hugged her, and then she stood up and went to the kitchen. I followed her and found her pulling out a jar full of money from under the sink.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Our vacation fund,” she said. “Every time your dad or I got a ten dollar bill, we’d put it in here.”
She pulled out bill after bill, smoothing them into a pile. Then she handed it to me. “For emergencies, okay? Even if you need a bus ticket or something to get you guys away from him.”
I nodded and shoved the money into my pocket. “Thanks.”
“Go get packed quickly,” she told me, glancing towards the front door. “It won’t be long before he gets impatient and comes back in here.”
Rava and Jason were coming down the hall as I ran to my room. I told them to wait in the living room with their mom. I packed as quickly as I could, making sure to grab a few outfits and my school stuff, and then met up with the twins and went out to Dad’s car.
“About time,” he said, opening the driver’s door and getting in. Rava and Jason piled in the backseat and I got in the front.
“A wife?” I asked Dad, trying to sound as unimpressed as possible.
“And three beautiful, amazing children,” he said with a smile.
I scowled, wondering if Amber knew that he had more kids.
“Us three?” Jason asked.
“No,” Dad said smiling at him in the rearview mirror as he backed out of the driveway. “The children I had with my wife.”
I bit my tongue, trying to hold back everything I wanted to say until Rava and Jason couldn’t hear me. I knew that my dad had already cheated on my mom with some trampy white woman when I was little, and I couldn’t believe that he had done it again. And for how long, I wondered? The twins were eight, which meant that it had been even longer since he met Amber. Even after having children together, he hadn’t married her, which meant that I should have known he was doing the same thing to her that he had done to my mom. I wanted to scream, but I put all my energy into bouncing my legs and looking out the window to figure out where we were going.
Rava and Jason asked a few more innocent questions as we left Moorville and crossed into the next town south of Moorville, which was called Red Tree. The high school in Red Tree was Moorville High School’s rival, and everyone knew that they were a lot more rich than us because their football team got new jerseys every year and their band always had matching instruments.
Finally, I couldn’t hold it in. “Is your wife the same woman that you cheated on Mom with?”
Dad glanced at me. “‘Cheating’ is a complicated concept. It’s not something you’d understand at your age.”
“Is it her, Dad? Answer the question.”
“Yes,” Dad said, setting his jaw. “Her name is Christa. I let her know that we’re coming.”
“But Dad,” Rava said, her voice strained. “You said you have other kids besides us and now we’re going to see them. Why does Christa let you have us if you’re married?”
“Christa understands things that many other people cannot seem to comprehend. You kids are always taught that one man should devote himself to one woman, and vice versa, though it is more than possible for a man to devote himself to more than one woman. Christa knows that I love her, just as I love your mother, Rava, and as I loved Britton’s mother when she still loved me.”
“Don’t listen to him,” I told Rava and Jason. “Dad, what you did to Mom and Amber and me and now Rava and Jase is terrible. Even if you try to talk your way out of this like you always do, I’m not going to forget what you did to us.” I crossed my arms and looked out the window, grinding my teeth. How could Christa deal with the fact that Dad had other women in his life and other children? If she was okay with it, she must have been just like Dad and had other partners, just like Mom had told me.
Dad turned the car into a driveway.
“Whoa,” Jason said, unbuckling and leaning forward between me and our dad so that he could get a better look at the huge house in front of us. “Dad, you’re rich.”
Dad smiled smugly and I balled my fists. Mom always had to fight him just to get a little bit of child support every month and this was how he was living?
“Now, kids,” Dad said, turning off the car and smiling at Rava and Jason, who listened intently. “I expect you to be on your best behavior, do you understand? My wife and children may be expecting us, but you have yet to make a good first impression. You want your step-mom and your half-siblings to like you, don’t you?”
Rava and Jason nodded, and I scowled. I didn’t care if Dad and Christa were married or not. Amber was way more of my step-mom than she would ever be.
“Do you understand, Britton?” Dad asked, putting his hand on my shoulder.
I shook him off and scowled. “I understand that you think we’re trash compared to your perfect family here.” I got out of the car and slammed the door, wishing I could walk home. I could have if my phone had been at a higher percentage and if my portable charger had been charged, but it wasn’t. Besides, I had promised Amber to take care of the twins while we were here. I took a deep breath as Dad and the twins got out of the car. Dad eyed me sternly just to let me know that I was still in hot water, but I didn’t care. I took Rava and Jason’s hands and led them up to the front door behind our dad.
He opened the door and gestured for us to walk in, a big smile plastered on his face. I rolled my eyes as Jason pulled me forward and Rava clung tighter to my hand. Inside the house, which smelled like someone had put a lot of effort into making it smell like air fresheners and not like food or any other smells that houses usually had, we stepped onto a rug that said “Home” in cursive.
“Take your shoes off,” Dad instructed.
We obeyed and Rava pushed them into the corner between the door and four cubbies labeled with the decorative letters I, V, K, and C. I scratched my head, trying to figure out if maybe Christa had made the ‘C’ cubby for herself, but the shoes in the cubby looked like they could belong to one of my little brothers. I looked in the other cubbies, two of which had little girls’ shoes and one which seemed to have shoes about my size and something in the back that looked like ice skates. Dad had said that he only had other kids, hadn’t he?
“Our guests are here,” Dad called towards the stairs, the smile still plastered on his face. He turned back to us and gestured towards the living room, where two large leather couches and two red chairs faced a TV. “Sit on the smaller couch, all right? Get comfortable and get excited to meet your family.”
Rava and Jason headed to the couch obediently, and I followed them slowly, glancing around the living room. The walls had all of the stupid things that I saw in the magazines Mom looked at when we were in line at the grocery store, like signs that said “Live, Laugh, Love” and arrows hung on the wall, pointing to nothing. I sat on the couch between the twins and Rava latched onto my arm while Jason looked around, his mouth slightly open.
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