A Bad Girl's Love

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Chapter 15: Shawn

“Hey, is Grandpa home?” I ask through my phone that I hold up to my ear.

I make sure my voice is on the lower side so I don’t wake Aaron or Xavier up just yet, especially knowing that Amaya told me he was tossing and turning all night long. I can’t help but feel like that was all on me, which it most likely is. We haven’t spoken much and he’s been thinking about our newer situation with high hopes of it being different soon. I think that after the conversation with Amaya that maybe things will be different after this whole mess with the Panthers that is, but that could be solved further down the line.

Right now we’re just sitting in their driveway, but there are two cars I don’t recognize instead of Grandpa’s blue year 1994 Dodge Challenger which is his prized possession, not to mention it’s worth a whole hell of a lot. Grandma’s crimson red year 2013 Chevy Malibu that I remember Grandpa surprising her with for one of her birthdays isn’t out here either.

I know they love their cars and definitely wouldn’t replace them for a white Nissan Rogue, year 2014, or a Ford Explorer, which means their cars are in the garage so that these ones can be out here.

Whenever Grandma and Grandpa know they’re going to have visitors they put their cars in the garage and allow the visitors to get the driveway. It fits enough cars that they actually don’t need to, but it’s just what they do each time. I don’t really know the reason for it, but then again, I really don’t care. It just means I have fewer people that need to ask me if I can move to let them out.

Oh shit, wait a second, who else is here?

“Yes, he’s talking with your Aunt Jaelyn and Uncle Judah.” That small bit of newly provided information makes me groan before I place my head on the steering wheel. Son of a bitch. “Shawn? Hello?”

“I’m here.”

I look in the backseat to see Aaron snuggling with Brownie as his chest slowly rises and falls. Those tiny snores ring through my ears as he twists in his seat to get just a bit more comfortable, though I don’t think it’ll work much. His head turns to face the door a bit more than it already is as it tilts to the side. I think he’ll get a crick in his neck.

Xavier sits beside him with one of Aaron’s small hands in his own, his head slung back in the slightest as it rests on the hard shell of Aaron’s car seat. His mouth hangs open just a bit as both their snores are in sync and they each have hair falling over their shut eyes that sways a bit with each snore. I wish I had the time to sleep and better prepare myself for this.

“Why are they there?” I ask while not giving away the fact that I’m sitting in their driveway just yet. I might just make a quick getaway.

Quite honestly, this is the last thing I need to hear. I mean, I love my family a lot, some people more than others, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean I like to speak on every personal issue with them. I need to tell my grandparents about Aaron which I know is going to be kinda impossible and hard as hell for me, but Mom’s siblings… I thought I’d have more time before having to say anything to them. Why couldn’t I get that needed time?

My family isn’t the type that likes to keep their opinions hidden from anyone, they instead enjoy making it clear as day for everyone else to pick up on which can be really aggravating. Mom is accepting of my complicated relationship with Amaya and loves Aaron. I know when she first found out that there were some things she wasn’t happy with, we spoke about it all and I was nothing but glad about the way things turned out.

Mom has always loved Aaron, she was even the second person that Amaya told about her being pregnant. She’s been in the picture since the very beginning as I have too. In the end, she only wanted to make sure I could handle everything, all she’s done is watch out for me, from day one. She also wanted to make sure that I’d be there for Aaron all the way, though I was all in from the day he came into this world and then when I met him for the first time it hit me hard.

She wanted me to know that even though timing didn’t seem right that he’s still a major blessing that I should be grateful for. Aaron coming along meant that things are going to be that much harder for Amaya and I both, but the moment I was told he was mine I made it very clear that I want to be there for my family. I told her I refuse to let go of what we have and everything we have which she understands and wants to be there for me no matter what. I love that even though I don’t always make that much known.

Mom was there to witness all of the pain and heartbreak I went through without having Amaya as my own. I let out a small sigh. She still sees how broken that goddess of a woman can get me, but she also sees that I can’t give up on her. Mom felt that same way when it was her and Dad’s situation except for a few moments every now and then.

Her heart has been broken in more ways than one and she didn’t deserve a single ounce of that pain that my dad continuously put her through. The worst part is that I don’t think it’ll ever be repaired to the way it once was, but she has gotten better than she was right after everything happened. It just sucks to think that the heart wants what it wants, even if it’s not best for you or could end up with you getting majorly hurt in the future.

She didn’t want to give up on him. She fought as long as she could, but eventually, he pushed her too far away to the point where it was healthier to let go. Though it shattered her heart as she didn’t believe the man that she had promised her life to could break her as much as he did.

I don’t care if Amaya continues pushing me away, I can’t give up on her. For Mom, it was best to let go, but it’s not for me. I’ll never be able to do so. Not many people have been in her corner, but me, I’ve been there since we were just four. I’m not going anywhere.

I remember when I was just around Aaron’s age there was a man that Aunt Jae was dating and she fell for him. Really, really fell for him. She thought he’d be the type of person that she could spend the rest of her life with, but he was constantly checking out other women and then one time she caught him making out with another one. Her heart was shattered and she didn’t believe she could fall for someone in the same way she did with that man, but then she met Uncle Bennett who treats her the right way. Like she is his whole entire life and nothing could change that.

Like she is his queen.

It all went along so quick with them, and in the span of two months, they were in a serious committed relationship, plus him meeting the family. You have to really like someone to bring them to meet the family too, since they can drive anyone off. The ones that mean everything are the ones that last through, even when members of the family don’t like them as much. Cough cough, Grandma with Amaya.

Xavier and I both approved of him from the moment we met him as he was nice and treated us like we were equal to him, not to be looked down at just because we were younger. Hell, the majority of the adults in our family were doing that, but not him. And the guy Aunt Jae was with before him was a total asshole to us.

He’d always smoke around us when nobody else was around and would laugh at us when we started to choke and cough. Then he’d have a switch and pretend to be nice for when the others were around. I hated that guy for it, but he’s gone now with Uncle Benny in his place who, once again, liked spending time with us when we were at the age where we didn’t know what we were talking about half the time. He’s what makes Aunt Jae happy and they’ve been together for years now. Not to forget their two daughters, Madison and Kayla, who are 10 and 7 years old.

I hope she didn’t bring them along with her. Knowing my luck she most likely did.

They’re really sweet and all, but when I come around they always want to be with me and ask questions about Amaya and if I still liked her to which my reply would always be, “How could I not, she’s amazing” then they’d get all giggly and weird. They really admire her and that I have stayed true to what I feel for her as they say that’s what true love is and they aren’t wrong, but I don’t want to speak about her.

I know with Aaron here I’m not gonna have a choice since they don’t know about him and there’s a whole story within all of that which requires me being open about everything.

Well maybe it wouldn’t be all that bad to have the girls around, maybe they could convince Grandma to give her a chance if I can’t.

I can’t even get started on Uncle Jude, I mean, in some situations he can be the most understanding person in the room, but then in others, he can be a total hard-ass. You never truly know which side you’re gonna get until you say what you’re gonna say and receive either a calm to whatever you’ve said, or he explodes at you over it. On some occasions, you do need the hard side as it reveals the light of the situation that you didn’t see; plus, he’s only trying to do what’s best for us.

I respect that he cares enough to make it clear for me, though it can be on the harsher side. But most importantly, though he’s my uncle, he did kinda take up the role of fatherhood with me too and stopped me from making some very stupid mistakes. He was there when Dad was nowhere to be seen.

His children are lucky to have him even if they most likely don’t agree with that statement right now. When they reach to be around my age or if they ever have children they’ll be grateful as hell for that overprotective behavior that has kept me in check for the most part. I don’t really get how that has happened since there are so many morons in the high school that do really stupid things and try to drag you into that too, but I was raised better than that.

Now I won’t lie and say there haven’t been any relapses, but I’m actually on the better side compared to a lot of people though some of the other kids in school would tell you the opposite.

Anyway, Judah’s eldest, Ezra, is just 14 years old and hates that he can’t get any ‘personal space’ or go even a few minutes without having his father breathing down his neck about getting his homework done or doing his chores around the house before going out with his friends. That wasn’t bad at all, but at his age, I could understand how he felt, hell, I was forced to skim the pool since Uncle Jude told Mom it’d teach me about responsibilities. He made Xavier clean the gutters instead since he said something so I wasn’t about to complain because I thought they’d try to make me do more.

Marcus, Jude’s other son, is 12 and has engrossed himself into the magnificent world of sports. Whenever he gets the chance to speak to me or Xavier, the topic is always on sports and how they work in the high school which keeps me sane from when Madison and Kayla are around. It places me in my natural element. I can’t just speak about Amaya all day when I’m here, it’d make me go insanely mad.

Mark has his moments when he’s alright with his dad and can hold a conversation with him while in others he’ll end up blowing up at him in one of those hard-ass moments, once again, younger me could understand that feeling. Sometimes things can get really frustrating on him, but what he doesn’t realize is that they are actually very alike.

I hope Aaron and I don’t ever end up like that. I want him to know that he can come to me when he needs.

I can full-heartedly say that when Aaron gets older and is in school that I’m going to be like Uncle Jude when it comes to his school work. Amaya most likely will be too as she did that with Jonah almost all the time, not to mention they always studied together, helping each other when there was a problem one of them couldn’t understand.

Homework should definitely be on the top of the list, but I know that occasionally he’s gonna be slacking off, I mean look at me.

You know, it might not be such a bad idea for the other kids to be here if they are. They could possibly take Aaron out of the room and distract him so I can get what I need to say out and go in depth with everything so nothing has to be repeated.

I don’t want or need Aaron around hearing us talk about Amaya or anything about him and how he came to be, especially if they end up saying some stupid remark that can’t be taken back.

“They found out that one of their nephews was coming to visit when they haven’t seen you or your brother in months before they decided to drive over here. Unlike others that don’t know how to come around,” Grandma’s tone of voice changes as she ‘subtly’ goes on about us not coming around. Good thing Xavier’s here too then, huh?

I groan once again as I imagine her standing in the middle of the living room with a hand on her hip as Mom would do whenever she gets pissed off at me or Xavier before she starts to explode. I’m actually pretty surprised Aaron hasn’t done anything to get to her yet, just shows he acts way better than when I was around that age.

Mom’s got the same eyes as Grandma and I’m not talking about the color even though that’s the same too. But Mom has this thing where her eyes can be so kind and full of love and then have it disappear so quick you would think you imagined the love from before. The anger can always be seen there and sometimes I just try not to look them in the eye. I don’t want to turn to stone, but I do want to know if they see red if they get pissed enough, then again, curiosity killed the cat.

I can strongly admit with my pride still in tact that at 18 years old, Mom, Grandma, Grandpa, and sometimes Aunt Jae do terrify me. They aren’t the type of people you want to cross and each of them have shown me that much over each of the years that I’ve been on the planet.

“Look Grandma, I know this isn’t an excuse, but I live three hours away and in these past several months that none of you have seen me I was going through a lot. And I truly am sorry, but I can’t change that much.

“This whole visit is supposed to be me explaining everything that has been going on since you haven’t heard about any of it yet, and I was planning to do that privately with just you and Grandpa, but I guess I can’t do things that way anymore. There’s going to be an audience for everything that I’m about to come clean about.” I take in a deep breath and stare up at the roof of my car, trying to calm my nerves.

I really didn’t want that, but now I’ve got some mixed feelings about all that.

“Well I’m outside, so we can talk more when I’m in there,” I say before taking the keys out of the ignition to the car.

“Sure, now what is it that you had to tell us?” Didn’t I just say we can talk more when I’m inside? I sigh as I silently open the car door before getting out and closing it as quietly as I can.

“I’ll tell you once I’m inside, it’s easier for you to just see what I’m talking about instead of me just saying it over the phone.” That’s actually a fact, the words might come out wrong and I know that if I’m in person with them that I can calm them down or have Grandpa chase after me ready to spank which is just embarrassing as all hell.

Now as I told Amaya previously, it doesn’t matter how old he is or how old I am, he will chase me down until he catches me. I don’t think he’s reached the point where he’s not physically capable of catching me. The only way to stop him will probably come if he’s in a damn death bed, that man has some motivation I tell you.

I hold my phone up to my ear with my shoulder blade so I have both hands free as I open the back door and unbuckle Aaron from his carseat. He whimpers just a bit as I transfer him slowly into my arms, half of the reason being not to wake him and the other half is because of this ridiculous cast I have on my arm.

I reach over to shake Xavier just a bit so he wakes up, but he barely moves, just makes this grunting noise. “Xavier, wake up,” I say before not so gently shoving him, his eyes open up before he looks to me with irritation written all over his face. I smile as he grabs Aaron’s backpack and hops out of the car, but stumbles a bit.

I look down to Aaron and see that he’s holding Brownie that much closer to his chest. Even in his sleep he’s got a strong grip like his mom. My smile becomes just a bit brighter as Xavier and I move to the front door and that’s when I notice he has Aaron’s Flash blanket snuggled up in his arms.

He glances to me before saying, “What, it’s soft.”

“Nothing.”

I stare at the tan two floor house in front of us that has two guest bedroom, their bedroom, Mom and her siblings’ bedrooms, and the two bedrooms they set up for me and Xavier to use whenever we spend the night like we’re planning on doing tonight. I haven’t even changed the arrangement of my room since I was around ten or so.

I’ll have to go up there, but I can’t waste my time thinking about that. I need to get the nerve to tell everyone about Aaron and Amaya.

The moment I lift my hand up to knock the door is thrown open before I’m pulled inside, Xavier soon to follow.

I almost trip over my feet but I manage to steady myself as I catch the eyes of Aunt Jae, Uncle Jude, Grandma, and Grandpa before hearing footsteps heading over to me and Xavier. I turn just a bit and notice Madison with her long dark brown hair draping down her back and Kayla with her shorter chestnut hair held up in a tight ponytail you catch the girls wearing for gym class. My head turns in the opposite direction before seeing Ezra who stands with a smile on his face as he swipes his black hair out of his hazel eyes that match his father’s, and then there’s Marcus that stands furthest away with wide eyes as he runs his hands through his equally dark hair.

“Who’s that, Shawn?” Aunt Jae asks me while resting her hand on her hip and narrowing her eyes to me with that look. I look away from her, turning to Xavier who stands there silently, not saying a word but holding that blanket a bit tighter. Dammit, how am I supposed to do this? Do I come out and say it or…? Why isn’t there some type of guide to this? “Shawn. Matthew. Harper. Who. Is. That?”

“What are we chopped liver?” Xavier asks before stepping forward just a bit. “No ’Hey Shawn or hey Xavier? Long time no see?” He crosses his arms over his chest with a pout now showing up. “I woke up from a glorious dream for that, this sucks.” The other kids laugh before Marcus runs over to Xavier and throws his arms around him.

“Don’t worry, I missed you guys.” Marcus lets go of Xavier to hug me too, so I wrap my free arm around him before he lets go.

“Thanks, Mark,” Xavier and I say in unison.

The adults each stares a bit harder at us as each of the other kids come up to give us hugs which makes a smile appear on my face. The only one that didn’t make a move to hug us yet was Ezra who stood watching us as the gears shift in his head, I can tell when his eyes widen before he smirks.

“I know who he is, it actually seems pretty obvious,” Ezra says while leaning against a wall beside him.

“Always knew he was smart,” Xavier whispers while we stay with our feet planted on the ground, not moving a step.

“Ezra,” Uncle Jude’s voice turns to that of a warning as he doesn’t look away from me but it still sends a message. Should I just let him spill the beans instead of me? I think I like that option, less work for me.

“What, come on, Dad, you can’t seriously say you don’t see the similarities. The boy literally looks like him, and if you don’t see it you guys might just need some glasses,” Ezra makes the decision for me before he moves closer, placing a hand on my shoulder. “You, my cousin, are so screwed with them, but congratulations. I already know you’ve got to be a great dad.” I smile before thanking him. “So… what’s his name?” he asks while staring down at Aaron, eyes full of curiosity.

“Aaron,” I answer almost immediately.

“Well he’s lucky to have you, and so is Amaya, now I’m gonna give you some advice, don’t give up on her. Some of that Justin Bieber never say never type of not giving up.” I give him a weird look before he laughs. “What, don’t act like the Karate Kid wasn’t your favorite movie for a whole year, or that you were obsessed with that song for like a-”

“Stop. We don’t talk about that, ever.” Ezra nods, still smiling.

“Anyway, I know that you got back together and then broke up again, I have her on Snapchat and Instagram, she hasn’t posted anything about you in a few weeks, now that I think about it, she hasn’t been posting as much in a while.” I nod to him, finding myself at a loss for words. “I have no doubt that you’re going to fix things though, you’re a problem solver.”

I wish the adults went about things like this, if they did I would come to them more often to speak about pressing matters like this. I ignore the eyes on me as I simply stare at Ezra who refuses to look away from me.

“That’s actually really helpful, thanks.” Ezra nods once, clapping me on the back.

“Next time you talk to her in person, tell her I said hi,” he says while flashing me a smile. “Oh yeah, I was gonna ask if you wanted me to take him while you handle… that conversation.” I was actually thinking about asking him about that.

“It’d be helpful.” Ezra doesn’t say another word before slowly taken Aaron out of my arms, making sure not to jostle him too much. Once he has him in a good place he takes his backpack along with grabbing the Flash blanket from Xavier. “If you want to put him down you can just place him down in my bed.”

I wait for him to be gone and the other kids to follow after him, yanking Xavier back when he tries to leave with them. We look back to the adults as they stand still with their faces set in the same exact look that I can only find on their faces or on Mom’s. I can barely breathe. They move closer in sync.

“Maybe if we don’t move we’ll turn invisible,” Xavier whispers while standing straight like a soldier.

“Highly unlikely,” I say back while still standing still, might as well try, right?

“Answer the question,” Grandpa commands before I huff out.

“Ezra isn’t wrong, he’s mine,” I answer.

“Yep, his, not mine.” I turn to Xavier, glaring for a moment before turning back to the adults. Uncle Jude starts to laugh like a maniac; I give him a look. “What the actual hell?” I hear from beside me, thinking the same thing.

“Nope, sorry, I thought that at 18-years-old I heard you say that you are a father and have a son but that must be a joke, or maybe I’m hearing wrong. That’s probably it, there’s no way you could’ve been irresponsible enough to do something like that.” I shake my head at him, stepping forward just a bit as I shove my left hand into my pocket and allow my right arm to hang at my side.

“Uncle Judah. I am a dad,” I come clean, not even looking to Xavier for support. “Right now he’s four and-” I start but get cut off.

“You had unprotected sex when you were 14?! With who?! And why would that even be running through your head at that age?!” I shush Grandma before shaking my head once again, now needing to run my hands through my hair.

“Can you please not yell that when there are children in the house that could possibly be eavesdropping as we speak? And second off, no, it wasn’t unprotected, we used a condom, but it managed to break which I’m happy about because I love him more than anything,” I admit before each of them nod except for Grandma.

“You know, I am also happy it broke, that kid has done a lot for us without even realizing how much he means,” Xavier smiles at a thought that comes to mind. “I think you’d actually be brand new if he wasn’t around, and not in the good type of way.”

“Alright, who’s the mother?” Isn’t it obvious?

“It’s not that hard to put together, Mom. The mom’s Amaya,” Aunt Jae answers for me.

“Are you sure he’s yours?” Everyone gives Uncle Judah a look while I just stand there, my face neutral. It’s not a bad question. He didn’t even see much of his face.

“I am as sure as you ever could be, even if you don’t see how similar we actually look. Hell, I couldn’t see it for the first few years of his life before I found out some tests were taken and received the results. Amaya’s mom got a paternity test behind her back since they thought the father was her stepdad, but it came back negative, leaving me as the only person who could be Aaron’s dad.” My voice is as calm as I can manage because these four are not the type for me to lose my patience with, I don’t need to be put in check with them right now. It’s not worth it.

“Hold up, they thought his father was her stepdad? She slept with a creep like-” Aunt Jae starts before I hold up my good hand, successfully silencing her. I could care less if people consider it to be rude or not, I need to nip shit like that straight in the bud.

The moment they want to start on the path of judging the mother to my child and my love without the full story is when all respect and the disciplined side of me is thrown straight out of a window.

“If you must know, Amaya was raped by her stepdad, and I really don’t think she even wants me to say that much but since practically everyone knows about it now, there’s definitely no point in hiding this information. She hates it though when people look at her like she’s damaged from it, because she’s not, she’s okay.” Xavier looks to me with those blue eyes taking a pained turn as I know mine have too. The thought of what happened to her still gets to me.

I listen to the lack of breathing in the room as I force down the lump that’s forming in my throat. Just breathe, dammit.

“We had our first time three weeks before it happened, but since he had used protection she ruled me out as the father since Derrick didn’t even consider it. On that night I remember she called me and I cried my eyes out. I didn’t know how else to cope with everything that happened. I stayed crying for a bit longer before I could muster up the words to tell Mom what Amaya had been through. We got her out of the house and she fell asleep crying in my arms, body still trembling.” My eyes begin to water before I lift my shirt just a bit to wipe at my eyes.

“She was raped,” Grandma repeats. I nod while staring down at the ground, still fighting off tears.

“You didn’t know, Grandma, we both know that, but can you at least try with her? She needs people to be patient with her, sometimes she can be a piece of work which I’m very aware of, but she’s worth it… and she knows that you don’t like her.” I feel a hand on my shoulder before looking up to see Xavier giving me a small smile, telling me that I’m doing alright so far.

“It’s not that I don’t like her. I knew the impact she had on your life, I just didn’t like the way you were so ready to throw everything away at such a young age for her. When she broke your heart I couldn’t comprehend why seeing as you two were so happy, I could see it in your faces, but it wasn’t like I could’ve really spoken to her…” I give her a funny look.

“Of course you could’ve. She needed as many people that were willing to talk to her and be in her corner as possible. She has always had things rougher than others and I guess that’s why I was so ready to throw things away for her or give her what nobody has never offered. She deserves so much more than what this world has given to her. All I wanted was for her to take some of what I had and hold onto it because the world wasn’t so happy for her, in fact, all it has done is beat her down when she needs to be lifted up.

“When she was out with us and the boys she was always this quiet person, scared of showing everyone who she wanted to be. She didn’t want to get hurt anymore because at home she had to be the loud one, always keeping the heat on her shoulders to protect Jonah and make sure that if they couldn’t both make it out of the situation without a bruise, cut, or broken bone that he’d stay as safe as she could keep him.” Xavier and I look away from each other, our shoes now becoming the only thing we can stare at.

“What he did to her on that night is nowhere close to all that he placed her though all these years. She has been abused since she was just Aaron’s age, scared of the smallest sounds made because she thought it’d mean she got hurt. She was initiated into a gang against her will along with her brother. They were forced to fight and if they didn’t would end up hurt.” I suck in a bit of air as I feel all my air leaving my body.

“A few months ago Aaron had to watch her nearly bleed out because I wasn’t there to protect her. I wish I could change that, and how he gets nightmares about everything that happened. I showed up after it all happened and only because Aaron was the one to call me and tell me what happened, but what if he wasn’t able to do that. What if I wasn’t there in time and she was gone?” I finally stop fighting the tears and allow them to stream down my cheeks, pouring like a waterfall. I don’t even try to wipe away the tracks they make on my light tan skin.

“When I came and found her lying on the floor in her living room, not able to speak when Aaron was pleading with her to just move as blood was gushing from her side, permanently staining that shirt. I thought that we were about to lose her and that Aaron would have to witness such a brutal ending. It broke me, but I knew I couldn’t show him how much, it’d only get him more terrified, but I can’t hide certain things from him either. There’s a line, and I was approaching it very fast.” My voice cracks at the end, but I sigh at the end knowing that this is off my chest. They’re actually the only people that I’ve actually managed to sit and explain that to from what I was seeing, it was… different.

Aunt Jae makes her way up to me, pulling me into a hug that I manage to melt into. I guess I really needed one.

“Is she alright?” I nod into her shoulder while holding onto her a bit tighter as that night flashes through my head like it’s been doing for the past few months. Never as harshly as it does Aaron’s head though, but I still feel that same feeling that I had as I watched her on that ground and realized that there wasn’t much of anything that I could do for her.

In the moment where I noticed that she might be gone in just a few moments I prayed to God, someone who I’m not all too sure if He exists or not. When she was alright I wondered if it was the big man upstairs that could’ve brought her back to me and saved her from a possible unknown journey. I’m not going to say that He’s real, but I’m going to say there’s a chance I might just believe in Him being a possibility now. And if He’s real or not, they say he’s in control of everything that happens, but it makes me wonder why He’d let people like Derrick do bad things to people that don’t deserve it.

Nobody deserves what Amaya, Jonah, and so many other kids have to go through because of people like Derrick who were meant to protect them but instead ended up hurting them in ways unimaginable.

“She’s just got this badass scar on her body, but even after everything that happened, she still pushed herself so damn much and it made me feel like I was losing her all over again. I couldn’t tell her that, I still can’t,” I make sure to look at Xavier as I say it so he knows not to repeat it back, he silently nods. “She says that she doesn’t care if she lives or dies as long as she’s made up for what she was forced to do in that gang and make other people’s lives better. Not to forget making sure her family is safe, but I care.

“I care if I’m gonna have to say goodbye to her and never get the chance to say hello again. I care if I have to get into a damn tux and get Aaron into one too to go to her funeral instead of her walking down the aisle to me and one day bringing other children into this world. I care if I lose the one woman I’ve ever loved in that way for good, it already hurts to know that I’ve managed to lose her again,” I whisper as Aunt Jae rubs my back in small circles.

“It’s okay. You’re fine,” her voice is small in my ear. It doesn’t reassure me all that much but it did make a bit of a change.

“What do you mean you lost her again?” Grandpa asks.

His light brown eyes stay on me as I focus myself on staring at his dark black hair that has parts of silver coming out. I don’t want to look him in the eye as I answer the question. I set Aunt Jae free from the hug.

“We got back together October 23, we lasted a few months which for the majority of them we were living together for since the incident with Derek happened. Anyway, she broke up with me three weeks ago because-” “And one last bit of advice, when you go to see your grandparents though it’s tempting, do not tell them about the Panthers.” Shit. I shouldn’t. I’m not going to tell them about that. Amaya told me it made the chances of the Panthers finding out that much more likely.

“Because what?” Uncle Jude asks.

“Another girl kissed me and I stood there like a complete idiot. It was like I was glued to that same exact spot and I just- the kiss meant absolutely nothing to me. That girl means nothing to me,” I say, my voice making a turn to the defensive side when I notice the looks on their faces, except for Xavier who looks to me with disapproval.

I already know what he’s thinking and we can talk about it later.

“Calm down, Tiger, we’re only processing,” Aunt Jae says while placing a hand on my now tense shoulder.

“Well does she mean to you? Amaya I mean.” I can hear a new sense of patience in Uncle Jude’s voice. My heart begins to pound away in my chest as I reach into my pocket and pull out the ring that only comes out of the pocket of my pants when I change them or am going to sleep.

I open the box to reveal the ring.

“What the fuck?” Aunt Jae forces out while staring at the ring, her eyes bulging out of their sockets. Grandma and Grandpa give her the look before she sheepishly turns her head away. “Sorry,” her voice is frail, “you were going to propose to her?” Just like that the attention is all back on me. I sigh before nodding.

“I’ve had the ring for about six weeks. I save some money along with dipping into my previous savings to get it. I wanted to put my future first. I continuously kept saying I was going to ask her but each time I ended up chickening out every moment I was supposed to, now it kills me to think that she might never wear it,” I clear my throat as everyone except for Xavier stares at the ring since he’s seen it plenty of times.

“Don’t tell me that you’re giving up on her?” Grandma’s voice reaches my ears, I sigh while looking down at my hands.

“You need to be safe from all this before we get involved again,” she had told me, but when will I truly be safe from all this. What if that time never shows up, because I don’t think there’s a chance for it, that’s the precise reason that I want us to happen now instead of waiting for that time. Neither of us are ever going to be fully safe, so there’s no point in me sitting and waiting for that time. It’s only gonna cause us both pain.

“I don’t plan on it, but sometimes things don’t go according to plan. If there comes a day when she decides that I’m not the person that makes her happy, then I’m going to let go of her though it’s going to hurt like a son of a bitch. I’m not giving up on everything with us. That could never happen, but if I don’t get the chance to be with her for the rest of my life in the was I want more than anything, I want her to know that I love her. That she has done so much for me without knowing it. I want her to know what my plans for us were.” I stare Xavier down as he stands there in dead silence, looking at me like he doesn’t know what I want of him, but he does. He should.

“If the time comes where I can’t, you tell her that, Xavier. You got me? You tell her.”

“Okay,” his voice is small as he looks to me with sad eyes.

“What do you mean if a time comes where you can’t?” Uncle Jude asks, his eyes and voice now full of concern. I shake my head.

“Don’t worry about it, I’m fine.” Lies. I place the velvet box with the ring back in my pocket, trying not to look into anyone’s eyes. If I do, I think each of the words would explode out of me.

“Anything else major happen in the past few months besides you being a father and your work in progress relationship with Amaya?” Uncle Jude asks, changing the subject when he notices that he won’t be receiving any answers.

“As a matter of fact, Dad actually came back for a day, then we received a phone call from Derrick who was keeping a new friend of ours dad captive for a few months. We went after him, Jonah got shot and is now in a wheelchair though the doctor says he should be out of it by the end of the school year since he’s actually pretty strong. The wheelchair is supposed to help him at the moment since he can only take three steps or so, even with a cane. He’s been in physical therapy.

“Derrick got shot after which is a whole thing that I’m not about to get into right now, but roughly a month ago he let Amaya and Jonah out of the gang officially. As far as anyone knows, he’s skipped town, he told Amaya he wasn’t planning on coming back.” I take in some much needed air before continuing to get them up to date on basically everything that has occurred over the past couple of months.

I guess it would’ve been smarter for me to speak to them more than I did, but there has been an awful lot on my platter. I miss being as close as I used to be with my family and I think Xavier also misses that connection that hasn’t been there for a while.

I glance to Xavier, seeing if I’ve missed anything.

“There’s this girl,” he starts, “I’m really into her and she’s nice with some kick to her. The type to put you in your place if you overstep, but she’s always willing to be in your corner. She’s the exact opposite of her sister though they’re triplets with a brother who’s on the football team with us. Ironically, her sister is the crazy person that kissed him, but once again she’s not like her sister, she’s nice and is actually really close friends with Amaya though they haven’t known each other all that long.

“I talk to her a decent amount too, but when I ask why she won’t give me much of a chance she tells me about something that happened to her while she was still going to her old school. It bites, but I have to respect her decision and let go of what I would prefer to do instead, which isn’t giving up on her. It’s giving her time to think things through along with also giving myself that much needed time.”

“It would seem you boys have been up to a lot, huh?” I let out a small laugh while scratching the back of my neck.

“Trust me, you have no idea,” Xavier and I say in unison before he chuckles.

“What’s wrong?” I ask when I notice the others running down the stairs with scared looks on their faces. I place my hands back to my sides. My eyebrow raises when Kayla takes my good hand in her small one, pulling me in the direction of the stairs.

“Aaron’s sleep still but he’s crying for his mommy,” she practically shouts at me. I nod before excusing myself from the adults along with Xavier.

They run up the stares ahead of me, and I make sure that I’m only a few steps behind them, following as they lead me up to my old bedroom where I find Aaron stirring and whimpering in his sleep as he calls out “Mommy, Mommy” on a repeat. It’s been a week since he’s had a nightmare.

“Is he alright?” Kayla asks while looking up to me, her eyes big before she transitions her gaze to Aaron.

I move over to the bed before lifting Aaron up and into my arms so I can now rock him as I pace around the room. “He should be okay, it’s a recurring nightmare he has. It just really manages to spook him, that’s all,” I inform them. I begin to soothingly rub Aaron’s back in small circles, calming him down. “Hey buddy, it’s time to wake up. I’m right here, Mommy’s alright, she’s only at work. Please wake up,” I whisper in his ear, placing a small kiss on his head. “Wake up, buddy. Eres seguro y sonido, así que es su mamá. Lo prometo.”

I remember Amaya said something like that when he was just about to turn three, I wish I could remember what happened. I do know the words that she was speaking because she had taught me a bit along with our school teaching us a bit more. I mean each part of the promise I had just made, he is safe and sound, so is Amaya. The only person who might not be so safe is me.

I notice Aaron’s eyes flutter open as he holds me tighter than he already was. Those green eyes full of tears stare up at me, making him look so fragile and broken that I want it all to just disappear. When they finally stream down his tan colored cheeks I wipe them away before kissing his forehead.

“You’re okay. He’s not going to hurt her again.” I hold him closer as I stop pacing but continue to sway.

“I wanna call Mommy.” I nod already expecting that.

Of course he wants to call her after that, I’d want to call her too. I want to call her for other reasons, but if I had those nightmares as often as he does, I’d want to make sure she’s alright. Hell, I’d feel the need to do it before I could even think about going to sleep.

“Okay,” I say before taking my phone out of my pocket to dial Amaya.

I make sure the settings are in check to have it set in video chat all the while praying that she’s on her break and can actually answer. I move over to the bed, taking a seat and laying back before placing him down so his back is against my chest. When she answers Aaron sniffles before saying, “Hi.”

She looks up at him before moving away from wherever she is to the point that I can see the outside of Dylan’s restaurant.

“What happened?” Her voice is soft.

“Nightmare,” he whimpers out. She nods before biting down on her lip and pulling the paper hat off of her head to just hold it in her hands. “I don’t want to see it anymore. I only want it to go away, but it won’t, I’m trapped,” he forces out while holding the phone tighter. I hold onto him a bit tighter to console him as he leans into me just a bit more.

“Kangaroo, look at me,” he does as told, “one day, it’s going to go away and you won’t have to see that any longer. I’m so sorry that you had to see it in the first place, and I wish that you didn’t, but can you do something for me?” she asks with this fake smile on her face. It’s fairly different than her usual bright one that usually causes a smile to appear on my face too, but this time all I can do is frown at how defeated her eyes reveal she feels.

I can tell she’s forcing herself not to cry so he doesn’t see her reach that breaking point of hers that she’s so close too. But that doesn’t mean she’s doing a good job, at least not at convincing me. It’s only a matter of time until it’s more noticeable and I hope for his sake that he isn’t here to see it.

“Maybe,” Aaron hiccups out. I smile down to him.

“I need you to be strong. You, mi amor, are stronger than anyone I know, including myself. You never let anything stop you from making those around you feel that much better, even when you’re down yourself. Don’t let that nightmare stop you from being that super strong boy that I know you are, okay?” Aaron nods as a small smile creeps onto his face.

I know she intends for the advice to be for Aaron, but I’m going to take it too. I’m never going to stop fighting to get her back, even if it means fighting death itself which I feel I have to prepare myself for. That’s a fight that not many people are capable of winning… I just hope I’m on the short list of people that does survive it.

She’s worth everything to me. Every single bit of the pain that I have gone through so far and might have to see in the future. I can’t be gone yet.

“Okay, Mommy, I’m going to be strong for you,” he whispers before a bright smile appears on Amaya’s face, this one actually is able to make me smile.

“That’s my boy, I love you,” she tells him.

I miss her so much. I can barely sleep at night, and from what I’ve heard, she has trouble getting sleeping too. All I know is that I want to go back to having her in my arms, and one day I’m going to have just that.

“I love you too, Mommy. See again Sunday, but talk later?” he asks hopefully.

“You bet. Now hand the phone to your daddy, please.” My eyes go wide. What have I done now? I don’t think I did anything. Did I? He hands me the phone before I hear a bunch of whistles from outside the bedroom door. Aaron giggles while pulling out of my arms and climbing off the bed to leave the room.

“Sorry if they were listening, you know how my cousins are,” I say as my cheeks begin to burn. They really had to whistle? Was is necessary? Amaya only nods to me but that smile stays on her face. “So uh, what do you need to talk to me about?” I ask with a raised eyebrow, clearing my throat at the end of the sentence.

“I want to apologize for yesterday.” My eyes widen in shock.

“There’s no need to apologize. You did nothing wrong. You want to tell me why you feel the need to apologize? Don’t say it’s that kiss.” Amaya licks her lips before looking down. So that’s what it is. “I’m not sorry that you kissed me. I couldn’t ever be sorry about that. You could kiss me more often if you wanted, I would very much like that. You already know what I want.”

“I do, but we can’t, not now.”

“The way I see it is why not now, Wonder Woman. I love you so damn much and you say that you want to wait until after all this is over. What if it’s never over? What if I’m never safe and one day I’m- I don’t want to be gone and not have you as my own. I want a life with you, but what if we don’t get that?” I look her in the eyes. This is not a conversation that I wanted to have over the phone.

“Stop.” She looks to me with those eyes pleading.

“Amaya. Please look at things from where I stand. I don’t want to die,” I whisper out, “I don’t want to not be around for you, Aaron, or the others that we care about, but what if things don’t work out for us? You can’t promise me that I’m going to be here next year, or the year after that. Nothing is sure except for the fact that I love you and need you.”

“I love you too, that’s why I can’t let anything happen to you. You’re going to be okay.” I can feel the tears building up in my eyes and notice that hers are already watering.

“I want to believe you. More than anything I do. But I know that those people are unpredictable, there’s a lot more of them than there is you. They won’t come for me when I’m around you or Jonah or even Aaron, but that doesn’t mean anything since I’m not always around one of you. I can’t just stay around my house all day. I have to go to school and other things.” I look down before closing my eyes. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do anymore.”

“I know you’re scared, but you have to believe that you can get through this. I can’t lose you to them. I just fucking can’t. They’ve taken too much from too many people, they’ve taken from my childhood, and I can’t let them have you.” I look up and into those eyes through the screen of my phone, just wishing that she stood in front of me rather than us staring at our phones and talking to each other.

I want to hold her in my arms. I want to be there with her and have her try to reassure me face to face because even though it’s not going to change my mind, I can get lost in her and maybe forget our problems for a few moments. I want to forget that much more. It’s stronger than it was just two days ago.

“I know.” My voice cracks.

“I wish we talked about this face to face instead,” she chokes out.

“I do too.” Tears simultaneously begin to stream down both of our cheeks and I can feel my heart lurching forward, searching to comfort her like I wish she could me. “Please don’t cry. I should’ve waited to say anything until I saw you later. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize for this,” she says before running a hand through her hair. “I wish I could take you out of this situation-”

“That would mean not getting involved with me-”

“I wasn’t finished, Shawn. I was going to say that I don’t regret being in a committed relationship with you. I don’t regret having Aaron, and once again, I don’t regret you. When I’m with you it’s indescribable what I feel. I just wish you didn’t get dragged into all this other shit, I don’t even know how it happened.” She lets out a frustrated groan and I just take in her face. All the defeat is worse than it was when Aaron was still in here. I pushed her to this point.

“You sound like you blame yourself for this,” I point out before her jaw sets.

“That’s because I do.”

“Well I don’t blame you, stop always trying to put the blame on yourself. You haven’t done anything wrong. This is on them no matter what happens. Please just know that I don’t blame you. I couldn’t ever blame you for any of this.”

“But you should,” she says in a small voice.

“No, I shouldn’t. You didn’t go up to one of those Panthers and say ‘Hey, the love of my life is an asshole and I need you guys to handle him’ or anything along the lines.” A smile appears on her face before she wipes away her tears.

“Love of my life, eh?”

“You know it, and there’s no use denying it.”

“I’m not… but I have to go now.” I can tell she doesn’t want to but she has to because of her break most likely being over. “I’ll speak to you tomorrow or something.” I nod.

“Bye Amaya, and I love you.”

“I know, love you too. Bye,” she says before her face disappears from my phone screen and I can feel a new ache in my chest forming.

I get up from my bed while tucking my phone into my pocket. I move to the door and pull it open to find Uncle Jude creeping down the hall one way with Ezra just a bit in front of him while Aunt Jae goes the other with everyone else. I shake my head before clearing my throat to grab their attention.

“What were you guys doing?” Nobody says a word before Kayla lets out her signature giggle that has been around since she was just a toddler. “Kayla?”

She steps forward while holding Aaron’s hand on her side. Good to see they’ve bonded. Aaron looks up to me with one of the most innocent looks I’ve ever seen, eyes big and now brighter, erasing that destroyed look on his face. Kayla uses her other hand to point around the hall to everyone else.

“They were listening to your talk with Amaya, but we weren’t, isn’t that right, Aaron?” she asks before turning to face him.

Now I know they were listening to it at least a bit, Aaron would know who I was talking too and I know he wouldn’t say much about his nightmare. He never talks about it unless Amaya or me brings it up.

Aaron looks between me, everyone else in the hall, and lastly Kayla.

“Nope, not doing that, nah-ah. I didn’t see nothing and wasn’t part of nothing no matter what was going on,” Aaron answers while looking me in the eye. I smile before moving a bit closer to them, ruffling his hair up just a bit.

I get down on one knee in front of Kayla and Aaron before motioning for her to come closer. I bring my lips to her ear so nobody else can hear what I’m about to say. “Pick up on what he just said. If your parents ask you if something happened, you don’t know anything and wasn’t a part of anything either. Don’t throw your sister or anyone else under the bus. I’ve used the strategy before, it works, and make sure your face is full of innocence.”

I stand back up before she nods and I look to everyone else in the hall.

“Y’all want to tell me why you guys were trying to listen to my conversation. I’m not mad about it.”

“Yeah, no, whenever Mom says that she always ends up exploding on us after finding out the truth, it’s not a good experience,” Madison says while Aunt Jae just turns her head away, while now whistling. “She knows it’s true too.” I shake my head before stepping closer to everyone else.

“Well I’m not Aunt Jae, I used to be the person on the receiving end of that whole routine thing, a million times over actually. I would usually go dead silent and just plead the fifth because that’s the only thing that really could save me. Now remember that you each have passes.”

“What’s passes?” Aaron’s voice meets my ears. I look back down to him.

“Well, I’ve made a system where if I do something that is stupid or that manages to aggravate someone, I’ll give that person three passes where they can say whatever they want and I can’t get angry or overreact over it. I can also never say anything about it unless another brings it up, and even then, I can’t get angry like that over it,” I explain with a soft smile.

“Maybe Mommy should get a pass system for herself.” My smile gets just a bit larger.

“Maybe, but then we’d both owe each other some passes… and other things.” Aaron sighs. “How about you go play and I’ll come get you in a bit, okay?”

He nods before Kayla and him head off downstairs, the other kids following close behind. I look to Uncle Jude and Aunt Jae who are now standing side by side, staring at me in silence.

“So you guys left Xavier alone with Grandma and Grandpa?”

“Yes and no, he went on the couch and knocked out the next second.” That’s not surprising at all, I did interrupt his sleep. “We came here to ask you if Aaron was okay.” I nod before leaning against the wall behind me.

“He’s fine once he realizes that he’s safe along with Amaya. Bounces right back to normal actually.”

“I know it’s a hard question for you to answer, but has he ever been hurt?” I quickly shake my head as I run a hand through my hair.

“Thanks to Amaya, no. On that night I was told Derrick was coming after Aaron which was the first time. Neither of us know what his intentions were when it came to him that night, but Amaya took quite a beating to make sure he was safe. That’s why he blames himself for that night,” I lower my volume, hoping that nobody is eavesdropping to this conversation. “No matter what Amaya and I have told him, he still doesn’t believe that it wasn’t his fault and we both know it. It’s just so much for them both.”

“Have you guys gone to the authorities over any of this?” My hand drops from my hair before I shake my head. “Why not? That’s serious, and-”

“Aunt Jaelyn, you don’t understand. I have wanted to go to the cops, Mom has even tried to get Amaya to go to them, but she has good reasons for not going. One of the things being that she didn’t want to end up in foster care, separated from her brother or any of us, she also didn’t want to have the chance of Aaron being taken away.

“Mom was caught in a hard place with all this. When her and Dad found out about all this they tried on multiple occasions to have to speak to someone about the abuse and everything, but she refused. If they had tried to go to the police without her admitting to anything it wouldn’t change a damn thing. She’d end up back in the house with Derrick.

“So Mom has offered her and Jonah a place to stay since we were just little kids. If there was ever a time when they needed to get out of their place they could come stay with us for however long.” I go dead silent while staring down at my shoes. Every single time that I talk about this it’s like it manages to hit harder with each word.

“Why didn’t her mom stop it?” Uncle Jude asks, confusion meeting his voice.

“I’ve thought about that for as long as I can remember. I feel like there’s this resentment that I do feel for her, but I don’t say anything. She’s Aaron’s grandmother first off, the person that made it so I knew that Aaron was my son, and she gave me Amaya. I don’t need to start any problems.” I can keep my problems with her to myself.

“That may be so, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that she knew her child was being abused by someone she was in a relationship with, that should’ve made her realize that she needed to leave.” My hands start to bunch up into fists as I take calming breaths.

“I know, and it doesn’t, but I don’t need more problems with Amaya right now. She cares about her mother so damn much. When we were talking about colleges and possibly going across the country to New York, she said she didn’t want to leave her mother behind with Derrick, yet her mother left her alone with him,” I let out a low growl before sliding down the wall until I’m sitting down. I bring my legs up to my chest, hugging them.

“It gets me so angry. I look at Aaron and sometimes I my brain wanders to if things weren’t to work out with Amaya and the two of us were in separate relationships. I know if I ever was with another woman and she raised her hand to him I wouldn’t hesitate to kick her out of my place and making clear that she wasn’t welcome anywhere near my place again. Amaya would do the same with some other guy.

“Aaron means far too much to me and if something were to happen to him and I knew about it but didn’t stop it… I couldn’t live with myself,” I find myself clearing my throat at a forming lump before I look up to them.

“Hey, it’s okay. Aaron’s okay. Amaya’s okay. Jonah’s fine. There’s no need to cry about it,” Uncle Jude says before getting down right beside me and wrapping an arm around my shoulders. I didn’t even realize I was crying. “I’m so sorry that you’ve had to go through all this and I wish you would’ve told us sooner, maybe we could’ve helped.”

I hold onto him as Aunt Jae comes down to our level too, reaching a hand out to wipe away my tears. Her hazel eyes looking all sad as I notice her eyes getting watery.

“Damn kid, you’re going to make me cry.” I chuckle before muttering an apology. She grabs me by the chin, forcing me to look her in the eye. “Don’t be sorry. Something I admire about you is that you get in touch with your feelings and you reveal them in everything you do. It’s almost like I can feel your pain. God, I haven’t cried in just about four years. You and your damn mother being on the short list of people that can make me feel things.”

“I second that,” Uncle Jude says before squeezing me. “Now I’m requesting a change of subject before you get her crying, she’s an ugly crier and she gets all loud with it too.” He laughs at himself before Aunt Jae punches him in the arm. “What the hell?!”

“Don’t act like you didn’t deserve that you rat bastard,” she grumbles out before smirking.

“Fine, sorry.” His lip puckers out into a pout.

“Mhm, I’m sure you are,” she says before her attention is back to me. “You okay now?” I nod slowly. “Alright, so how is sister dearest adjusting to the world of being a grandmother?”

“She already had a bond with him before we even found out that all of us were blood related because let’s face it, we’re family either way. Each of his birthdays and Christmases we’ve had at our house so that the days could be chill for him, Amaya, even Jonah if he showed. When we found out she wasn’t mad, more like shocked, and I don’t believe the transition was all that hard on her. She loves him in the same way that we all do.” I find my smile returning.

“How about your father?”

“Not in the picture, as I’ve said, he only came around once and hasn’t been around since. He’s something completely different though, and honestly, I think it’s best that he doesn’t get involved. Aaron is one of the sweetest people I know, and when he’s hurt, it lasts for longer than the average person. I don’t want him getting emotionally damaged in the ways I once was with all of Dad’s face promises.” My voice is rock solid as only some of the feelings I’ve felt come forward.

“You know it’s alright to miss him and what could’ve been if he stayed, right? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.” Uncle Jude places a hand on my shoulder and I find myself biting down on the inside of my cheek.

“No, it’s not. When he was around me I couldn’t take it and there was so much that I wanted to say to him. I remember it was a month or so after he had left, I knew that he wasn’t planning on coming back. I wrote down what I’d say to him if we were to ever see each other again. I forced myself to memorize that paper, every single word is imprinted in my head.

“But then I had the chance to say what I wanted to say and ask all of those questions and I just froze. I’m constantly trying to convince everyone that I’m over the fact that he left Xavier, Mom, and me when we needed him. But I’m not over it. I don’t think I ever could be. Aaron ended up pointing that out to me.”

“How’d he do that?” Aunt Jae asks.

“One night Amaya, Jonah, and Aaron had stayed over at the house. He was only a few months old, I think seven give or take a bit. He was having trouble sleeping and Amaya had passed out from exhaustion since Derrick had made her and Jonah fight before putting them through hell at home.

“I was the only person awake, so I got up and went to him before lifting him up into my arms. I rocked him, sang a song, anything and everything to get him to fall asleep, but he wasn’t having any of it. Turns out that all he wanted was some company, so I held onto him until he finally fell asleep, but even then I didn’t let go.

“All I could do was look at him as I held onto him and realized that he didn’t just need me, he wanted me. It’s funny, because I wanted and needed him too, I couldn’t imagine leaving him even when I didn’t know what we were to each other. When I looked at him, all I could feel was all this love towards this child that wasn’t even in my life for a whole year.

“Dad had fourteen though he wasn’t around much. It made me wonder if it was me… if it was us. How could he just up and leave us like we didn’t matter? Why didn’t he feel that feeling I felt for Aaron when he wasn’t even around as much. That wasn’t fair, does he even know how broken I was? All these questions were eating away at me.” I look away from Uncle Jude and Aunt Jae as I hold onto my legs, bringing them just a bit closer.

“I’m so sorry,” they say in unison.

“You guys aren’t the ones that left, he is, and one day I’m going to come to terms with that and not wonder how he could’ve just let us go. Aaron’s managed to help me out this far and so has Amaya. But I’m done talking about him, he’s had enough of my time and pain.” My voice is full of finality and they nod, knowing not to push the subject. I might’ve snapped if that conversation continued.

“One day your dad is going to regret the things he’s done if he doesn’t already regret them now.” Aunt Jaelyn stands before holding a hand out to help pull me up too. I take it and find myself standing fully, Uncle Jude following our lead as he now dusts off his butt. “Let’s go outside and get some fresh air, it’s getting very stuffy in here.”

“Sure, why not.”

We move down the stairs to be caught by the sight of Grandma and Grandpa standing in each other’s embrace, slightly swaying to an imaginary beat. A smile plasters itself on both of their faces that seem never ending. I hope that I make it to their age and Amaya and I could be like that.

I find myself fighting off a laugh when Xavier’s snores meet my ears and I notice him curled up on the couch, holding one of the throw pillows like it’s his old stuffed Kermit the frog.

“Boy doing alright?” Grandpa asks while refusing to take his eyes off Grandma.

“I’d say so, he’s running around with Kayla somewhere around here, though they are mighty quiet, which isn’t like either of them.” The moment the words left my mouth I could tell something was up. Aaron never keeps quiet unless we end up taking a nap and he doesn’t want to wake the person up that’s with him.

“Definitely up to something,” Uncle Jude lets out a small laugh, “but I could care less as long as they aren’t causing any problems that is.”

“With Ezra being anywhere near them you know they must be. You’ve met the kid.” A smile appears on Aunt Jae’s face at her own words. “Reminds me of you growing up, Judah. I know he must be a handful on you and Ellie, not to mention that Marcus has inherited that little angry gene of yours.”

“Damn, you guys are really trying to make me go and play the investigator?” he asks with a groan following close behind.

“Just because I have a kid now doesn’t mean I’m about to go and break up whatever fun they could possibly be having. A few months ago, that would’ve been me. And Aaron’s been having a hard time with everything going on between Amaya and I. If he’s happy I’m going to take it in any way that I can take it,” I sigh at the end before moving over to the love seat that is across from the couch Xavier knocked out on.

On a table beside me there are pictures of when all the grandkids were younger, but the one that catches my eye is a picture of Xavier and I, his arm slung over my shoulders as we both laugh at something. You can see he was missing his two front teeth while only one of mine is gone. We were just about six or so, still innocent to the temptations of the world as the only thing able to get us super giddy was going in a bounce house.

A smile appears on my face as I lift it to get an even better look, seeing a young Dylan and Cody running around in the background. It’s crazy to see how much we’ve changed. Our appearances seem slight compared to everything else.

I place the picture back down before standing and moving over to Xavier’s sleeping form, I notice a throw blanket near his feet so I unfold it to throw it over him. The only movement he makes is to hold it closer to him while his face bunches up just a bit.

“Sweet dreams,” I whisper. I look over to Unce Jude and Aunt Jae as they watch the small moment, I roll my eyes. “Can we go around back now?” They don’t say anything but instead start heading to the kitchen, I do too.

Uncle Jude moves over to the fridge, grabbing a beer, sparkling water, and a Dr. Pepper. He keeps the beer for himself before holding the sparkling water out for Aunt Jae who mutters a thank you, and the Dr. Pepper out for me which I so graciously take.

“Thanks.”

He doesn’t say anything but just closes the fridge so we can head to the backdoor that I make sure to unlock before closing behind us. I don’t want anyone to be able to hear this conversation. I open up my Dr. Pepper, taking a long sip as I look around the backyard that Xavier and I used to run around whenever we came here.

“What’s on your mind, kid?” Uncle Jude asks before taking the cap of his beer off with just his teeth, I cringe. “You keep staring ahead like your mother did when she was thinking of… well you know.” He takes a swig of beer.

I watch as Aunt Jae takes a seat on the beach chair that is literally always out on the porch, there’s a few more but they’re out in the shed. She looks up to us while opening her sparkling water.

“I’ve been thinking about Thursday and the days since.” I don’t offer up much information.

“Well what happened on Thursday?” I take a deep breath. So damn much.

“Everything that I talk about cannot be spoken to with anyone else. Not Mom. Not Grandma. Not Grandpa. Not your significant others. Nobody else, alright? I’m being dead serious.” I need to tell someone here. I need to say something.

“Go ahead, we’re listening.”

“I’m in trouble, deep, deep trouble.” I take a deep breath before telling them everything, from the Panthers being after me, the night with Amaya, my getting drunk off my ass, anything that has happened in these last three days they now know.

I look to them and see how shocked they looked before it switches over to anger. Aunt Jae’s is more intense as she stands from her seat, going inside for a minute before coming back out with three beers in her hands. She shoves one into my hand while keeping the other two for herself. She pops one of the caps, chugging half of the first bottle, holding it with a firm grip.

She doesn’t say a word, neither does Uncle Jude.

“Are you guys going to say anything about what I’ve just said?” I finally choke out. Aunt Jae just drinks a bit more, glaring down to the porch.

“What’s your plan?”

“What do you mean?” I ask while looking to Uncle Jude as his gaze is almost emotionless. “I can’t do much of anything. It’s been that way for a while, I’ve got no control. Amaya doesn’t want me to be alone at all, my friends are tracking my phone so they always know where I am if something does happen.”

“That’s not good enough,” Aunt Jae growls out. “You didn’t even tell your mother, she has a right to know that her son might- those are gangsters coming after you, Shawn.” Her voice gets low.

“I’m telling her when I get home. After I drop Aaron off at Amaya’s. I just needed to come here and tell everyone about Aaron before it was too late and I didn’t have the chance. I needed it to come from me.” I look down to my shoes. “I didn’t want my time with Aaron to be ripped away from me because if I die, I want to know that I spent as much time as I could with him.”

“You’re not going to die,” her voice turns strong.

“You don’t know that.”

“I know that you can’t just leave that boy, Shawn. He needs you and so does everyone else, find a better fucking plan than standing here and telling us that you might not be here. You’re the first damn nephew that came into my life, I’ve always been close with you and it’s almost like you were my own, I don’t want to watch you get taken away by some assholes.” Aunt Jae stands from the seat before wrapping her arms around me for a hug, we both slightly shake in each other’s hold.

“You’re also kinda like mine.” Jude’s voice shakes. “I have always been there. When Ryan was nowhere to be seen, I was there. I remember that one night you ran away from home, came knocking on my door, your mom was worried sick.”

“Yeah, I sure did scare her that night,” I whisper before letting go of Aunt Jae to instead hug him. “She’s gonna be more than a little scared when she finds out about all this. I don’t think she’ll allow me out of her sight.”

“Knowing Jourdyn, no way in hell are you going anywhere without her, or maybe if you’re with that girl of yours. From that conversation you had earlier, I’m sure she’d be very willing to hang around and protect you.”

“I knew you were listening to my conversation,” I grumble out before he lets me go from the hug and places a hand on my shoulder instead.

“How couldn’t I?” I ignore that.

“Anyway, I don’t want her to want to be with me as some sort of protection. I want her to want to be with me because she loves me and likes my presence around her. I don’t want someone putting their life on the line for me.”

“I don’t think she’d care much about what you want if she cares as much as I’ve seen her care,” Aunt Jae says before taking a swig of her beer. “I know I wouldn’t care, and if it was her in this situation, you wouldn’t care either, isn’t that right?”

“Yes.”

“So how could you expect her to care? Think about that one for a second, to protect you or those that she cares about she’ll give everything up if she has too. You told us about that Derrick situation, think about what she’d do for you.” I find myself holding my breath, Aunt Jae is a hundred percent right. I don’t know what Amaya would be willing to do for me, but laying down her life is something she’s said she’d do oh so quickly.

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