“Is it morning?”
Derek chuckled slightly. Max had less frequently spent the night in the past few months, ever since Eva had returned from home college. Derek hadn’t realized how much he’d truly missed this. Nothing quite made him happier than seeing his best friend’s groggy smile first thing in the morning.
“Do you think everyone’s awake yet? I can try to sneak out before Eva realizes I’m here.”
Derek shook his head. “You can’t sneak out of a house like this. Thin walls.”
A sudden crash from downstairs jolted both men out of their sleepy state. Derek let out a deep sigh. “Besides, it sounds like someone’s already up.”
They hesitantly made their way downstairs, reluctant to find out what the source of all the ruckus was. By the time they reached the top of the staircase, they could already hear the furious bickering of Derek’s younger siblings. The people in this house argued far too much considering how thin the walls were.
The two lanky messy-haired twins each pointed at the other and instinctively shouted in unison, “He did it!”
Derek closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. “Did what?”
“They broke the fridge,” said Mimi, the youngest of the family who was sitting cross-legged on the kitchen counter, stuffing her face with Oreos. Unfortunately, this wasn’t all too unusual for a typical morning in this household. Nearly every surface showed damage as proof of the boys’ hijinks.
Derek reached for the refrigerator handle and the boys practically tackled him, yelling “no!” He sat down at the table while they explained that they had collapsed every shelf inside the refrigerator and the only thing keeping an avalanche of food from pouring all over the kitchen floor was the closed door.
“How did you manage to collapse every shelf?”
“They were climbing it,” chimed in Mimi, brushing chocolate crumbs off of her pink nightgown. “Idiots.”
“What else am I supposed to eat? It’s not like I can open the fridge.”
Derek tossed his little sister a banana. It wasn’t quite ripe yet, but it would have to do.
She scowled. “You can’t be serious.”
“Tell you what. Help us clean up the mess inside the fridge and you can eat anything that’s still in one piece.”
She leaned back, fanning herself with her hand and looking towards the ceiling. “Sorry, I have a strict no-manual-labor-before-breakfast policy.”
Max laughed, earning an annoyed glare from Derek. Max’s smile quickly faded, instantly forcing Derek’s gaze to soften. He would never ask Max to step into the parental role he’d been forced to take on. It had always been his intention to keep the different sides of his life completely separate, but things didn’t usually go according to plan for Derek. He could only hide four children from his suitors for so long before they got suspicious. Most men ran for the hills when they learned of his situation, but not Max. It had been four years and he hadn’t run away yet.
“How about I go pick up some bagels and we’ll deal with this later?”
Derek smiled. “What would I do without you?” He instantly felt himself tense up as the words escaped. Saying things like that made him feel so guilty. It was true, but why should he admit that? Why would he want to remind Max of all he did for him and his siblings, knowing how little he got in return.
Eight years ago, Derek was twenty-one and just starting his senior year of college when he’d received the news of his mother’s untimely death. Since then, he had tried his best to be the parent his half siblings needed, but he clearly had no idea what he was doing. After years of raising them on his own, he’d just about given up on ever finding love. Four kids was more baggage than he could ask another person to carry. Then he met Max, and he’d been a saving grace, one he certainly didn’t deserve. He tried his best to force these thoughts out of his mind.
She had returned home after college graduation a few months ago and unlike her three younger siblings, hadn’t exactly warmed up to Max yet. But he never stopped trying.
“Good morning Eva,” he replied, “Always great to see you.”
She smiled. “It’s always great to see you leave.”
Max looked toward Derek for assistance, but he simply averted his eyes. He’d always been such a coward when it came to conflict, particularly when it came to those he cared about.
Max took in a shaky breath. His eyes blinked and slowly tilted towards the ground, as he shook his head and left.
Eva stared at Derek, almost taunting him, just because she could. She constantly pushed him, knowing he wouldn’t push back. Neither would Max. The dynamic was clear to everyone and Eva seemed to enjoy this little game she’d arranged, always trying to see how far she could go. Derek couldn’t speak for Max, but he felt himself getting closer and closer to his breaking point with each word she said. Even now, he felt flames behind his ears, wanting to scream at his sister for the horrible way she acted towards the best man he had ever known. But he swallowed his pride once again, waiting for someone else to break the silence and hopefully change the subject.
“I’m off carbs,” Eva replied smugly, tossing her long curly hair.
“Since when?” Derek asked.
“Derek says if you clean out the fridge you can have something else!” offered Mimi.
“If I…what?” Eva reached for the refrigerator door and the twins yanked her away from it. “God, what did you two do this time?”
“It’s Luke’s fault.”
“Fuck you dude!”
“Both of you, shut up. Eva, don’t open the fridge. Mimi, where did you find more Oreos?” Derek pressed his fingers to his temples. “It’s too early for me to already have a migraine.”
A sudden steady banging brought a scowl to his face.
“What? That wasn’t even us!” shouted Luke.
“Can someone just please get the door?” Silence filled the room as everyone sat perfectly still, refusing to make eye contact. “You’re all useless, you know?” He stomped towards the door and pulled it open, aggressively shouting, “What?”
A thin teenage girl stood on the porch, her hand interlocked with a chubby frizzy-haired little girl. The older girl gulped. “Um…is there a Derek Gallo who lives here?”
He untensed his body, realizing he shouldn’t take his frustration out on the random strangers at his door. “Yes, that’s me. Can I help you?”
She nodded furiously, as she wiped rain from her face. “Yes! Hello. My name is Heather Montgomery, and this is my sister Lulu. I’m pretty sure you’re our uncle.” Derek squinted. “Our mom is Nina Gallo.”
Derek felt a sharp pain in his chest at the sound of that name. How long had it been since he’d seen Nina Gallo? It must’ve been sixteen, maybe seventeen years.
Heather must’ve noticed his change in demeanor. “You’re her brother, right?”
Derek blinked repeatedly, trying to bring himself back into the present moment. “Half-brother.”
A breathless smile formed on Heather’s face. “Thank God.”
Derek suddenly remembered that they were standing in the rain.“Come inside. You must be freezing. Not that it’s much warmer inside, really, but at least you can dry off a bit.”
The girls stepped into the shelter of the foyer. “I’m sorry for banging on the door like that. I tried the bell. Twice, actually.”
“Doorbell’s broken,” Luke said, not even bothering to look up from his phone to see their mystery guests. “Has been for months.”
“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to fix that. We put a note on the door, but it must’ve blown away in the wind. It looks like it’s getting pretty bad out there.”
“Who are they?” sneered Eva, the only one interested enough to bother asking questions.
“Apparently, these are my nieces, Heather and Lulu.”
The twins looked at each other, attempting to understand that complex sentence. Eva raised her eyebrow. “How do you have nieces? Literally all your siblings are in this room and we definitely don’t have any children.” She side-eyed the twins, “at least none that we know of.”
“They’re my sister’s kids. On my dad’s side.”
“Since when do you have a sister on your dad’s side?”
“Literally for my entire life.”
“I don’t remember ever hearing about this.”
“Maybe that’s because you ignore everything that doesn’t directly affect you.” The two stared each other down until Heather became visibly uncomfortable with the tension.
“I’m sorry,” she interjected, “We don’t wanna cause problems. I just wasn’t sure where else to go.”
Realization finally hit Derek. “What are you doing here anyway? Where’s your mom?”
Heather gulped and looked toward her younger sister. It told Derek everything he needed to know.
“Is she dead?” Mimi asked, because subtlety had never been her strong suit. “Our mom’s dead too. And so are most of our dads. Except mine. We just don’t know where he is.”
“He’s probably dead too,” said Aaron.
Before Derek could respond, the front door swung open and Max entered with two big bags. “The storm’s getting scary out there! I hope none of you have anywhere to go today. Turn on the weather channel. They might be calling it a hurricane by now.” He stopped in his tracks after nearly crashing into Heather. “Are there more kids here than when I left?”
“Max, these are my sister’s kids, Heather and Lulu. This is Max, my…uh…friend.”
The men locked eyes for half a second before Derek had to look away and nervously chewed his fingernail. Max took in a deep breath and smiled wide.
“It’s great to meet you, girls. You like bagels? I got plenty. Is your mom here too? I remember Derek told me about her once. Nina right?”
“See! At least someone listens to me around here.”
“Or maybe you just tell Max more than you tell us,” Eva sniped.
“Why don’t we eat breakfast? Maybe some food will help you all remember these things I’ve definitely told you.”
After gathering some extra folding chairs from the basement, the eight gathered around the table. Heather and Lulu inhaled their bagels as if they had never even seen food before.
Eva stared at them with her nose scrunched and her lips curled downwards, “How old are you kid?”
“I’m sixteen and Lulu’s seven,” Heather answered through a mouthful of bagel.
“So, Derek, when was the last time you saw your… other sister?”
“I guess it’s been at least seventeen years.”
“Interesting. It isn’t at all strange that these girls would show up at the house of someone their mother hasn’t seen in at least seventeen years. How did you even find us?”
“She told me all about you when I was little and we didn’t have anywhere else to go. I only knew your name and approximate age, but it only took five hours of cyberstalking to find your home address.”
“Oh, is that all?” Eva’s eyes nearly bulged out of her head. “Derek, could I speak with you in the other room, please?”
Secluded in a bedroom, Eva stared at her older brother. “She’s insane.”
“What are you gonna do?”
“What do you mean?”
“You can’t actually let them stay here.”
“They’re total strangers.”
“How do we even know she’s telling the truth?”
“Why would she lie?”
“It could be some sort of scam.”
“What would be the point of scamming us?” Derek asked, “We don’t have anything that people would want.”
Eva furrowed her brow. She knew he was right, but she wasn’t ready to give up. “What if she’s a serial killer?”
“And? Teenage girls are crazy. I should know. I used to be one.”
“Oh, and you had some secret double life as a serial killer I didn't know about?”
“I could have.”
“You’re being ridiculous. We at least have to let them stay the night. It’s pouring rain out there. Tomorrow we’ll figure out if they have any other relatives, but for now, we can’t turn them away.”
Eva crossed her arms and shook her head. “You have absolutely no regard for this family’s safety.”
“They’re family too.”
“They’re not my family.”
“That’s a technicality. They’re your family’s family.”
“Your half-sister went off and got herself knocked up twice. I have no responsibility to her children.”
“You do if they’re in our living room.”
“Easy solution then: tell them to leave.”
“God, you’re exhausting.”
“I’m trying to save us from the teenage serial killer that you let into our house!”
“Eva, I know this is really hard for you to believe, but not everyone is out to get us. You’re too paranoid.”
“And you’re too trusting. I mean honestly, you’re just like Mom.”
“Anytime someone gave her any attention, we had a new step-dad. You’re the same way. You let your walls down for anyone who shows the slightest interest in you.”
“Is this about Max? He isn’t just anyone, Eva.”
“He should be no one. You can’t trust a guy like that. Or have you learned nothing from your past mistakes?”
“I knew you were gonna bring up David. When are you gonna let that go?”
“You gave your boyfriend a key and he almost burned the house down. I’m never gonna let that go!”
“How was I supposed to know he was gonna do that? He seemed perfectly normal!”
“And that’s my point. Just because someone seems normal, doesn’t mean we can trust them. I’m sure Mom always trusted the guys she brought back here and look how that turned out. You’ve gotta be careful when there’s kids involved. Think about Mimi and the twins, okay?”
“Heather and Lulu are just kids themselves. Shouldn’t I think about them too?”
There was a knock at the door. It was Mimi. “Just so you know, we can all hear everything you’re saying. These are thin walls.”
Eva stormed out and into her bedroom across the hall, slamming the door. She spent most of the afternoon up there.
With the family still procrastinating on the broken refrigerator, Max offered to order pizza for the family.
“It’s a good thing we called when we did. They said this was the last delivery of the day, because of the storm.”
Eva ate with the family but didn’t say a word for hours afterwards.
Just as the sun started to set, Derek pulled her into his bedroom. “You can’t give us the silent treatment forever.”
Eva tried to speak, but nothing came out. With that, all the tears she’d been holding back came flooding out. She collapsed onto the bed, sobbing. Derek instantly ran to cradle her in his arms but she pushed him away. Two more attempts later, she finally let herself sink into her arms.
“I’m scared, Derek. Nothing good ever happens when we let people in. It’s you, me, the twins, and Mimi. We’re all we’ve got. We’re the only ones we can really trust.”
“But that isn’t true. We’ll always have each other, but that doesn’t mean we need to close out the rest of the world. You can’t be scared forever.”
She swallowed hard, still sobbing softly. “I don’t know how to not be afraid. I just keep thinking of all of Mom’s exes. All the crazy things they did.”
“I’m not Mom. I learned my lesson, alright? I don’t just bring random people here. Max is special.”
“Max is mentally ill.”
“He’s on medication and he’s stable.”
“Oh, like how Luke and Aaron’s dad was stable? How do I know I’m not gonna come home one day and find Max bleeding out in our fucking bathroom?”
“I know that was hard for you, but that’s not going to happen again. I promise.”
“You can’t promise things like that. I don’t trust him.”
He shifted away from his sister and slowly breathed in and out, at a quarter of the pace of Eva’s unsteady intakes. “I know. But I trust Max. I love Max. He isn’t just some guy and he’s done more for this family in the last four years than you have.” Derek paused, realizing this was the first time he’d truly stood up to Eva. “I want to spend the rest of my life with him. So I really hope you can find a way to be okay with that.”
She wiped her eyes, repeatedly, as her breathing began to slow. “Honestly? I don’t think I can. I don’t think I’ll ever feel safe with a crazy person in my house.”
“He’s not crazy.”
“Either he leaves, or I do.”
Derek nodded, very slowly. “I really wish you didn’t feel that way.” He blinked back tears he hadn’t realized were forming. “Because I’ll miss you.”
There was a clap of thunder and the room suddenly went pitch black. Derek was oddly grateful for the convenient timing. Maybe it was a divine intervention, because he didn’t want to see his sister’s face at that moment. They sat in silence for a few minutes before it became clear that the lights weren’t coming back on. Eva lit her phone’s flashlight and they found their way downstairs.
A single candle sat on the table, giving off a tiny radius of light. The rest of the family was relying on their cell phones, while Max rummaged through the cabinets for another candle.
“Where are the flashlights?” Derek called out. “I don’t want you all to waste your phone batteries. We don’t know how long the power will be out. Did we blow a fuse or is it from the storm?”
“It looks like the whole block is out,” answered Max. “Something must’ve hit a power line.”
After some chaos and yelling over each other, they found batteries under the sink and four streams of light appeared.
Derek shined his flashlight towards the refrigerator. “Did you break the freezer shelves too or should we eat the ice cream before it melts?”
“Fantastic idea!” Mimi shouted, zooming towards the freezer in the dark.
A few hours passed while they enjoyed ice cream and cold pizza, shadow puppets, and ghost stories by candlelight. Eva stayed in her bedroom but no one except for Derek seemed to notice.
Eventually, Derek declared it bedtime. The kids retreated to their rooms, while he gathered blankets and pillows to set up Heather and Lulu in the living room.
He smiled. “You never turn your back on family.” He walked upstairs with a warm feeling inside. Until, of course, he noticed Eva standing in the hallway against the wall.
“Never turn your back on family, huh?”
“No one’s making you leave. You realize that, right? You can stay here as long as you want. You’re the one who wants to go.”
She let her body relax into itself. “I think I should’ve moved out of here a long time ago. This hasn’t felt like home to me for a while now. I’m really grateful that you stepped up when Mom died. Mimi and the twins needed a parent and you filled that role. But you’re not my dad. I was a teenager already when you became our guardian. It just wasn’t the same for me as it was for them. So slowly this has become your family, not mine. It’s you and your boyfriend, and your pseudo kids, and now your nieces. It’s like I went off to college and came back to a house that isn’t even my home anymore. I’m glad you’re happy, but maybe I shouldn’t keep trying to fit into a place I don’t belong.” He could see in her eyes that she was trying to convince herself that she actually would leave. He knew she had expected him to give in to her ultimatum like he always did. For once, he had to stand strong, even if it meant losing her forever.
“If you feel like you need to go, I’m not going to stop you. But just remember that you’re always welcome here.”
She sniffled but didn’t say anything. He knew deep down that if she left, she would never come back.
“You’re not going anywhere tonight at least,” he reminded her, “Go get some sleep.”
He entered his bedroom, where Max sat waiting on the edge of the bed. He wrapped his arms around him from behind and they sat quietly in the dark, listening to the rain and wind outside their window.
Finally, Max spoke first. “So,” he whispered, “Eva’s leaving?”
“How did you…?”
“Thin walls, remember?”
“Right, of course.”
“Is it because of Heather and Lulu?” He looked over in Derek’s direction, though he could not see his face in the darkness. “Or because of me?”
He swallowed hard. Deep down Max already knew the answer. “She gave me an ultimatum. You or her.”
“And you chose me?” His voice almost broke, with so much doubt in the question.
Derek smiled. “Of course I did.”
“But you always say you never turn your back on family.”
“You are my family.”
Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, Ian Rose CastroWrite a Review