Chapter 48: Winter Seeds - Freelance Whales
My mother lost her life to cancer when I was thirteen years old. My father was left alone with seven children under the age of eighteen. We all took it hard because of the suddenness, but we felt most sorry for Zoe and the twins. Zo was four. She kept asking when mommy would come home and making plans for when she returned. Febe and Flora weren’t even a year old; they would never be able to form a memory of her. Those of us old enough to understand the situation handled it in different ways. Elias was seventeen years old and his upper secondary school’s star athlete; he had many games and social events to attend, but he always found ways to drive us younger kids to and from places when our father could not do it. Andreas was fifteen and was already viewed as the wild child before our mother’s passing. He would disappear into the night and be back by morning, and skipped school to the point of almost being expelled; his natural intelligence was the only reason he was not dismissed. Only nine months younger, Boris always assumed the position of Andreas’ shadow. He lacked the recklessness to truly run wild, so he made sure Andreas was able to do it without getting into too much trouble. I was always close to my father. He was a civil engineer. We build model trains, planes, and boats together on the weekends before my mother died. We had a lot in common. When we lost mom, I helped him with the girls as much as I could. It made us even closer. He sent me to military school to give me an opportunity to do something for myself. I knew better than anyone how hard he tried. I owed a lot to him, that was why I wanted to settle all of his debts with the money I earned guarding Milo.
We had composed a new definition of typical family life by the time I was nineteen, but holidays remained hard for us. It was her favorite time of year and her birthday was December 23rd. She was on most of our minds more than usual.
I adjusted my tie in the mirror and left my room.
“Is there anything you would like me to do?” I popped my head into the twins’ room. My father was supervising as the two of them dressed themselves in matching black dresses and white tights.
“Do you mind checking on Zo and making sure she is getting ready? She has been awfully quiet.” He helped Febe pull her dress over her head when it got stuck.
“I can do that with ease. Let me know if you need anything else.”
I continued down the hall and stopped when I reached the room with her name on the door.
“Zoe,” I knocked.
I waited a few moments, no answer. “Zoe” I knocked harder.
“Zo?” I pressed my ear to the door.
“I’m coming into the room.” I warned as I slowly opened the door.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Stapleton, your husband will make a full recovery.” She conversed with her bear as the one seated beside its head was wrapped in bandages. Her bears were seated on her bed and she was standing before them in her doctor’s coat, bearing a clipboard.
I sighed. “Zoe, stop playing and get dressed.”
“I have another appointment. Whatever it is can wait.” Shewent toan imaginary sink and pretended to wash her hands.
“We need to visit mom. Put on your clothes.” I remained in the doorway.
“I don’t have a mom. “ She remarked objectively as she went to her toy box to fetch another stuffed animal.
I walked in and shut her bedroom door to prevent dad from hearing our conversation. “You have a mother and it is her birthday. Put on your dress. We are visiting her grave.” I argued sternly in a hushed tone.
“I don’t remember her. Why should I pretend to?” She finally looked at me.
She was the spitting image of her – thick mound of curly brown hair, deep dimples, and forest green eyes that required the aid of glasses.
Her appearance in conjunction with her callused remarks knocked the wind out of me. I shook my head as tears welled in my eyes.
“Because she loved us and we must honor her memory.” I clenched my fists at my sides.
“I’m not going and you can’t make me.”
“Stop being a brat and put on your dress!” I lost my head.
“You’re not dad! You can’t tell me what to do!” She shouted right back at me.
I stormed out and slammed her door.
“You’re being a baby!”Was her immature retort to my actions.
I rolled my eyes and stalked away.
“How is she?” Dad called to me as I passed the twins’ room.
“She is lagging a little behind, but she will be ready.” I ground my teeth and continued to my room.
I whipped my door closed and angrily paced my room. An airplane mobile hit me in the head. I ripped it down and threw it across the room. My phone started vibrating in my pocket and I fished it out and pressed the talk button without checking the caller ID.
“Hello?” I responded abruptly.
“Oh, I – I can call back at another time. Sorry.” Morgan muttered timidly.
“No, I am the one that needs to apologize. You did not deserve the way I spoke to you. I am sorry.” I took a deep breath. “Is there a reason you called?”
“I was calling to ask if you read the article I sent you. That can wait. Are you okay? You don’t sound like yourself.”
I put my free hand into my pocket and resumed pacing. “My sister refuses to visit our mom at the cemetery. It is her birthday; we do it every year. Zoe has declared that she doesn’t have a mother and is tired of pretending to remember her to make us happy.” I gnawed on my bottom lip to keep myself from crying with her on the phone.
“I had no idea you lost your mother. You never said anything.” Her sympathy was as genuine as it came.
“It is not a fresh wound. She died when I was thirteen.”
“Still. I’m not going to pretend that I know what you are going through, but you have my full support. Is there anything I can do to help?”
Hearing her voice made me feel better. She had such a calming effect; she was always so nurturing and kind.
“Perhaps give me some advice on how to get a ten year old to do something against her will without force.”
“I babysit a lot, so I am a very familiar with how to speak to kids. I have never dealt with a situation of this magnitude, but I will think of it in terms of what I would say to my brother Max. He’s ten too.”
“And tell me what you’d physically do too.”
She took a few moments to think. “I would describe the ways in which she cared for him. I’d describe her likes, dislikes, her mannerisms, and the way she smelled. I’d do my best to remind him that she was a person, not a name and a photograph. I’d hold him in my arms the entire time. Zoe’s not angry because your mother’s gone, she’s angry because she has forgotten what it was like to have her around.”
I looked down at the ground with a hint of a smile. “You are amazing.”
“No, I just have a way with people. What time are you leaving?”
“We will probably be heading to the cemetery in about an hour. None of my brothers are here yet.”
“You have plenty of time to talk to your sister. I wish you the best of luck.”
“Thank you. I –um, I did read that article, by the way. I really liked it. Thanks for thinking of me.” I blushed.
“It was nothing. Hanukah’s over and perusing articles and fan fiction is helping me stall on my senior project. I will see you soon. Don’t forget that we have a group chat scheduled for New Year’s Eve at 11:59 eastern standard time.”
“I will be there. Thank you again, Morgan.”
“You should know this is what I am here for. Bye, Adam. Good luck and happy holidays.”
I picked up the framed photograph of my mother that I kept on my nightstand.
I returned to Zoe’s room, knocking once before entering. She was seated on the floor, wrapping a bandage around the neck of her stuffed giraffe.
“Zo, we need to talk.” I shut the door behind me.
“I am in surgery.”
I turned off the music player emitting classical music.
“Hey! I need that to operate!” She barked, turning her head in my direction.
“We are talking.” I sat down beside her.
She huffed and hugged her giraffe. “I don’t want to talk about her.”
“I will. Just listen.” I looked down at the photo in my hands. “You look just like mom.” I handed her the picture.
“She was pretty.” She studied it.
“So are you.” I nudged her lightly with my elbow. “Do you still want to be a doctor when you get older?”
“That’s very similar to what she did. She was a pediatric nurse. She helped sick kids. She loved it.”
“What else did she love?”
I put my arm around her. “You.”
I told her the basics, mostly things that directly related to Zoe. It ultimately made her cry. I held her as she did so. She agreed to get ready. I was enjoying a bowl of cereal when Andreas arrived.
“I thought you would have bulked up after being in the military for four and a half years.” He ruffled my hair.
“You know I am on the technical side of things.” I smoothed down my hair as he riffled through the cabinet.
“And it’s what makes you dad’s favorite.” He placed a mug on the countertop.
“He does not have a favorite.”
“He does and we all know it’s you. Hey, what’s Prince Milo like? Dad mentioned you were babysitting him now.” He poured himself a cup of coffee.
“I was hired to serve as an undercover bodyguard, but we have since become friends. Why are you attacking me like this?”
“I have news that dad’s going to kill me for. And here you are, -- “ He gestured to me. “Making him prouder with each breath you take.” He shoved the glass pot back into the coffeemaker.
“What kind of news?” I scooped a spoonful of corn flakes into my mouth.
“I had a one night stand over a month ago. She called me this morning of all days and told me that she is pregnant and she wants to keep it.”
“Does she know what you are like?”
“Thanks, Adam, I really appreciate that.” He remarked sarcastically as he brought his mug to his lips.
“Are we picking on Adam?” Boris mussed up my hair the way Andreas did.
I ground my teeth and fixed it without making allowing him to have the satisfaction of getting a rise out of me.
“Andreas is the one that deserves ridicule. He will be a father in a few months.”
“Does she know what you are like?” He walked to the refrigerator.
“No, she does not. I met her at a bar. I gave her my number the next morning to be polite.”
“Why did he get a response, but I didn’t?” I frowned.
“He could easily be in this situation. He can figure out a way to get me out of it. You can join the conversation when you’re no longer a virgin.”
“That stung, truly.” I placed my hand on my chest.
“Get you out of what?” Elias put his arm around me and gave me a quick side hug.
“He got a random girl pregnant.” I spooned cereal into my mouth.
“Does Clara know?” He sat down on thebarstoolbeside me.
“Who is Clara?”
“His girlfriend of four months.” Boris was the first to respond.
“Oh, An.” Elias shook his head.
“We were on a break!”
“What does that even mean?” I propped my elbows on the table.
“Get a girlfriend and find out.”
“I am gathering that not having a girlfriend is the main idea.” I contested his jab.
Elias chuckled and offered me his upturned hand. I hit it with a smile.
“Are you even into girls? No judgment.” Andreas held up his hands.
“You are still interested in your friend Morgan, correct?” Elias nudged me with his elbow.
I blushed and looked away when all of them started looking at me. “I never said I like her. She is just a friend.”
“But you talk about her all the time.”
“Is she friend friend or like a friend?” Andreas asked for clarification.
“What is the difference?” I asked between bites of breakfast.
“Is it genuinely platonic or are you angling for more?” Boris contributed.
“She is a girl that I enjoy spending time with. I would say she is afriendfriend, not a girl I am trying to make my girlfriend.”
“Sure.” An disregarded.
“Ooooo, does Adam have a girlfriend?” Febe and Flora sang in unison.
I huffed in frustration. “No, I do not have a girlfriend. Since when is the middle child the butt of jokes? I am supposed to be ignored.”
“It’s either you or Andreas. You’re the safer option. We all know he shouldn’t be trusted alone with a baby.” Boris poked fun at him.
“I obviously won’t be alone in this venture.” He retorted.
“I bet you don’t even know her last name.”
“What is it?”
“It--it’s--whatever, her name is Tatiana. I can look up the rest.”
“You only have eight months. You better get to work.”
They started bickering. Elias continued to ask me about Morgan, despite my wishes. The girls kept trying to butt into both conversations, lacking the knowledge to do so effectively. The volume rose louder and louder, to the point of virtually everyone raising their voices in hopes of being heard.
“Enough!” Our father shouted over us.
We immediately fell silent.
“Where is Zoe?” Heasked a normal volume.
“Upstairs. She should be down any minute.” I replied, the only one knowing the situation.
“Good. I want to get this show on the road.” He adjusted his tie. “Why were you arguing this time?”
“Andreas is having a baby and Adam has a girlfriend!” Febe proclaimed with a smile and a bounce.
“Only mommies can have babies.” Flora argued.
“Nuh uh. He’s having one with a table.”
“Suca?” Dad turned to Andreas.
“Adam should be allowed to date. He is nineteen.” He gestured to me.
“No, the part about you impregnating whom I presume to be a one night stand.” He placed his hands on his hips.
He looked down at the counter. “It was obviously an accident, but she wants to keep it.”
Dad sighed and scratched the back of his head. “We will talk about it when we get home.”
Zoe walked right up to me when she entered the room.
“Do you think mom would like this?” She whispered as she displayed her dress to me.
I offered her a soft smile. “She would love it.”
“Good. I want to look nice for her.” She adjusted her headband.
I kissed the top of her head.
My brothers rode to the cemetery together. I rode with my father and sisters.
“I cannot believe Andreas would put himself in such a situation. What was he thinking? It’s safe to assume he wasn’t. He never does.” He vented as soon as we pulled out of the driveway.
“He made a mistake.” I gently reasoned.
“One that will greatly impact the rest of his life. He is 22, still in university, and far from responsible enough to raise a child. And who is this girl? Does he know anything about her?” He remained erratic.
“Her first name. She rang him this morning. He’s pretty shaken up about it. I would take it easy on him for the time being.”
“You would never do this.”
“I would cool it with that. They all think I am your favorite.” I looked out the window.
“I do not have a favorite, but you are the most self-reliant and helpful. You have made this ordeal so much easier and I appreciate you for it.”
“That may be the case, but you still need to keep the appreciation to a minimum, they keep mocking me because of it.”
“They love you. They are just messing around. I wish she were here to see all of you. Current situation aside, she’d be pleased with who all of you are shaping up to be.”
“I like to imagine so.”
“Do you truly have a girlfriend?” He asked minutes later.
“Is it Morgan?!” Zoe butted into our conversation with excitement.
“No. She is my friend.”
“His girlfriend.” Febe sang.
I huffed. “I do not have a girlfriend. I hardly see how my lack of a romantic life is anyone’s business but my own.”
“Morgan and Adam sitting in a tree, ” Flora started.
“K-i-s-s-i-n-g.” All three of my sisters concluded, giggling.
“Leave him alone, Ladies. He has not found someone yet, but he will. Save your songs until then.” Dad intervened.
“Have you started dating?” I asked him once they had settled down.
“No, I have been busy with work and the girls.”
“You cannot hide behind them forever. They will grow up and move out like the rest of us have.”
“Andreas still needs hands-on parenting. I will still have many years to come if they follow suit.”
“I am finally managing it all on my own. I need more time before I can allow another to infiltrate my system.”
“Take your time.”
Our squabbles were the furthest things from our minds when we reached her plot.
“We love you, Mommy.” The twins walked up to her tombstone and hugged it.
The rest of us spoke of the year we had had, each of us concluding with ‘I love you’. When we were finished, we wished her a happy birthday and placed flowers in front of her grave. I wiped away falling tears as I recalled our final moments together. I was sure to hide them from Zoe, wanting to put on a brave front for her. I picked up her hand when she started crying. She rested her head on my arm and I stroked her hair. We left when the twins started sobbing loudly, begging for their mommy. Elias carried Febe and Boris handled Flora. I held Zoe’s handand our father had his arm across Andreas’s shoulders. Our lives were resumed and we had a firmer grasp on the reality that they were fleeting.