There are approximately 53 people in the combined space between my living room and front hall. I counted. Heads of blonde, brown, black and red as they mill about, voices sewn together in one collective murmur.
I watch them from the staircase of my new house. My father's colleagues, college buddies and every friend he's ever made has gathered and honestly, I wonder why they didn't just move in with us if they were going to travel all this way for a housewarming party. Most of them drove nearly nine and a half hours from Isvan Toronto to Magnolia Pennsylvania just for a night-long party.
A few new neighbors file in. I guess now this is an open house. I count their heads as they walk in. One, two, three, four, five, six. There are now 59 people just in this space and I honestly don't see how we can fit any more people in our townhouse. My blue eyes flitter to my brother setting up our small speaker on the cart my dad uses for all house functions. Somehow Lyon ended up with such platinum blonde hair it's basically silver.
My father shoulders his way through the crowd, grins and calls of, "Jacob!" can be heard as he greets his old friends. I sometimes wonder if his friends would still be his friends if they knew the Jacob Milkovich I did.
Mom and Ultear follow close behind him, Mom's smile to passing guests kind, Ultear's stiff and formal. The females of the family are nearly carbon copies of each other, with the same purple-brown hair and deep brown eyes. Ultear is the oldest and I myself am the youngest.
My father picks up the microphone, which blares in response with a loud screech as 60 heads flinch simultaneously. His head whips towards Lyon and hisses as him with a hand over the microphone just loud enough for me to hear, "Tape it in the speaker if you have to, I don't want this happening during my speech." If the guests heard too, they don't acknowledge it. Lyon reaches onto the mantle and grabs a roll of duct tape my dad keeps perched for occasions like this, squatting down and taping the wire in place.
When the low buzz dies down my dad smiles, tapping the microphone and saying, "Hello, hello, hi… hi, can I-can I have your attention please." The game goes on for another minute or so until the crowd finally looks his way and quiets down and he grins at them.
"Thank you." My father's voice is sickly sweet and overly happy when addressing friends and guests, and I vaguely wonder if he's ever used his real tone of voice around them.
"Thank you so much for coming to our housewarming parties. You all took time out of your lives to send us off to Magnolia, Pennsylvania and for that we thank you. The journey from Isvan, Quebec was long and tiring and we are so grateful you would face that trip to give us a final goodbye. Even though they need no introduction, I would like to present my beautiful family to you all." He speaks with flourishing hand and arm movements as he half turns to my family grouped behind him, feigning shock when he notices I'm not amongst them. I don't know why he keeps this act going every time—I'm never there when he begins the "introductions."
"Well where has my dear son gone off to?" He asked to air, a hand on his hip as he fakes puzzlement. This jig always gets a laugh from the audience and I try to decide whether his repetitive actions are getting old to them too, or if they're genuinely amused by the dance we do every time a group is present. He and I make eye contact as he finds me still perched on the staircase like I had been since the first guests began filing through our wine red front door.
"C'mon up here, Gray, you're a part of this family too. Such a shy little bugger, this one, always preferring the stairs to the sofa. That wild mane of hair too. I swear this kid thinks he's Billie Joe Armstrong." The horde of people chuckles in one loud roar, turning towards me as I push myself off the dark mahogany stairs. I feel their eyes on me as mine remain trained on the rug path on the staircase.
The crowd parts like the Red Sea as they make a path for me in the packed living room. I hate how my dad draws this attention to me. It's the same song and dance and the same awkward embarrassment every time.
I take my rightful place at the end of the line of kids, my mom smiling down at me as she ruffles my hair. The crowd sees a picture perfect family, what they didn't see was the thorough inspection of the entire house and our own beings before they arrived.
Ultear passed the inspection with flying colors, her bedroom spotless, boxes hidden, and hair neat without a single flyaway. Lyon would've passed too if it weren't for a sloppily tied tie and a clump of his spiky hair that he accidently left drooping downwards. Dad doesn't like the look completely, but he figures if Lyon insists on keeping it, he should at least have it neat. He reminded us as he licked his hand and used the saliva to plaster the platinum strands in an upwards position. I fail miserably, a box still in the corner of my room, my colored pencils still spilled across the wooden floor, the dark blue one caught in my rug, and my hair sticking out in different directions.
My mom defended me, saying that I'm only 10. I commented weakly that as long as no one goes in my room it should be fine, right? Wrong. My dad smacks the mantle of the fire place and then yells, "That's not the point. We have guests coming. And when guests come you prepare for them, get it?"
My father begins speaking to the crowd again, placing a hand on Ultear's shoulder as he smiles at her. "This, is my daughter, Ultear Milkovich. My only daughter and oldest child. Lucky for her, she got Ur's looks. At only 15, she was an alter server at our old church and she intends to do so here, always the top of her classes and everything." The mob claps as he moves on to Lyon.
"This is my athletic young son, 13 year old Lyon Vastia-Milkovich." It's probably a good time to mention that Lyon and I weren't born to my current parents. My dad, liking people to think he gives us freewill, let us keep our original first and last names, simply slapping his onto the end of it. I think he was hoping we would drop the old family markers completely, but I didn't want to forget my original last name and neither did Lyon. Vastia and Fullbuster were a part of us.
"When Ur wanted to adopt a child, I steadily agreed, but I told her straightforward, 'That pretty young girl over there looks just like you, I want this boy to feel like he belongs here.' In other words, I want a son who looks somewhat like me." The crowd roars with laughter and I flinch when the microphone picks up the noise as well.
My dad certainly got his wish. Despite having a father different from Dad, Lyon somehow has his dark, slanted eyes, the same nose and a similar jawline. It's almost as though God knew he'd be adopted by the man.
"I never kept his origin from him either, if he wants to ever find his old parents, that's fine by me. But moving on, Lyon is our star athlete of the family, pitcher of the baseball team, always picked first for gym class. I just know this boy is going to go to the big leagues. Give us a swing, Lyon."
Lyon rolls his eyes as he steps forward and half-heartedly swings his arms, hands cupped as though holding a bat.
My father then arrives to me.
"And last but certainly not least, we have the baby of the family, Grayson Fullbuster-Milkovich. Of course, he insists on being called Gray. He's nearly eleven. He draws. Always lost in his own little world of colored pencils and music. Gray's taking piano lessons and already plays a mean When the Saints Come Marching In. Training to be the piano player for church choir." Lies. I play piano because I wanted to. My dad can't stand my creative genes, saying that it'll all lead to dead-end jobs. He curses my birth parents for instilling the traits on me daily. It took my mom telling him I could play piano for church to convince him to let me learn at all.
"Like Lyon, I wanted to give this young boy a home that he could feel safe and loved in. He may stick out like a sore-thumb appearance wise with that wild black hair, but he's as much a part of this family as Ultear and Lyon." A collective aww rises from the room. "Whoever his parents are, I'm certainly grateful that they gave me this bright young boy. The second I saw those crystal-clear, liquid dark blue eyes, I knew he was my son. I could practically feel him begging me to take him from that adoption center."
Dad's lying. I know it. My mother told me she chose me out when I asked last year if this story was true.
"I treat him like he's my own son." This is true, despite having different birth fathers than him, my dad treats Lyon and I like he conceived us. I occasionally wish he didn't. I'd rather not be treated like I don't belong, but he doesn't have the most stellar behavior towards his own children either.
"And finally we have my beautiful wife, Ur Milkovich. The mother of my children, the love of my life. The only woman for me." Awwwww. My mom smiles at him a bit as he goes through the motions of telling the men to back off—she's his.
Finally the ceremony is done and I hop off the stone ledge in front of the fire place and try to return to the staircase. My father's voice stops me as he leads us into an empty room.
"Ultear great job with the smiles; Lyon we could do without the eye rolls; Gray—Goddammit Lyon, unplug that annoying speaker, I can't hear myself think—Gray, try to pay attention more next time. Smile at the right times. You looked like a zombie up there. Ur, how did the speech sound?"
"Do you think everyone heard?"
"I really don't know."
"Gray, was there anyone in the kitchen or dining room when you left the stairs?" Ah, yes—this is why my dad lets me stay in my chosen perches while getting the guest's attention, so I can check the kitchen for stray people.
"I dunno, Dad."
"You don't know? How do you not know?"
"I forgot to check." My dad sighs loudly, putting his hand to his forehead as the he clenches his teeth. I watch his Adam's apple bob as he swallows his saliva.
"That's just great. This is priceless. You forgot to check." He puts his hands on my head and shakes it. If he were retelling a story where he did this to "shake" some other idea into my head, it was a playful wobble. He and I must have different memories, not that mine is the best, as he often reminds me, but I can remember the difference between the playful jiggle and a violent, exorcism-like, pulsating shove. "Do you have anything going on in that head of yours? Huh?" I nod slowly.
"Words, Grayson. Use your damn words."
"Really? Because I don't think you do." He lets go of my head, Lyon catching my shoulder before I fall backwards as he returns from unplugging the speaker. He gives me a sad smile. My dad forces a grin on his face and returns to the living room, where he gets into a friendly debate about the Toronto Maple Leaf's chance of winning this season with Mr. Stevens. I hear his opening statement of that crazy family of mine, huh?
My mom asks me quietly if I'm alright after she gives me a vague explanation to try and warrant his actions. She knows the answer will be yes. He does this too often for the answer to be no. I'm too used to it.
I finally manage to slip through the crowd and return to my bedroom upstairs. I can hear Meg Rogers and James Byron making out in the bathroom like they often do at house gatherings. It's still better than listening to another false, overly cheery impression from my father.
Lyon knocks on my doorframe as he passes and smiles. "Don't let him get to you, Gray. Dad's an overly religious cock-sucker, who despite worshiping God every five seconds, curses like a fucking sailor. We all know it."
I laugh shortly as Lyon walks into my room and picks up the drawing on my floor. A sketch of another one of our house parties, the guests blurry and my dad in the center of it, my family members clear as crystal in their positions in the room. It's bad, and I know it. After all, I'm ten. What can I do? But Lyon just grins at me and ruffles my hair.
"Looks good, kid." He's only three years older than me yet insists on calling me kid. I don't mind. It's better than some of the things Dad's dubbed us. "Well, I'd better get back down there before the warden finds me. You coming?" I shake my head and Lyon gives one more slanted smirk before leaving the room, his dress shoes clacking down the wooden panels in the hallway then pounding down the stairs.
My family isn't all bad. Even my dad has good nestled somewhere within him; I just wish he'd get better at showing it.