People say you can’t choose your family. I beg to differ. Sharing DNA doesn’t always make family. Often, those you are closest to share no blood, but are people with whom you’ve shared things that hold you closer than blood ever could. And sometimes, those are the people you know you can depend on most, no matter what.
Compared to cafés in Melbourne, Old Joe’s had a pretty low customer turnout. But for a café/bar/social hang out in a small coastal town at three o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, the place buzzed.
Jordan sat in one of the booths in the corner, miserably sipping a banana milkshake. She still wore her purple Old Joe’s polo shirt and felt sorry for her sore feet. She didn’t notice as Lauren came through the door, hustling in Rocco and Jess. Lauren located Jordan and ushered the sheepish boys in her direction. Jordan didn’t look up as the boys stood by her booth looking mildly scared.
‘Uh, Jordan?’ Jess stuttered hesitantly.
She looked up from her drink and frowned before turning her attention back to the glass in front of her and taking a slurp. ‘What do you want?’
Rocco and Jess looked back at Lauren standing behind them with her arms crossed. She nodded at them and, stuck between two girls neither of them wanted to mess with, Jess had no choice but to continue. ‘Um, we just wanted to come and apologise for yesterday.’
‘Yeah,’ Rocco bravely added.
‘We were just making a joke. We didn’t mean to insult anyone.’
‘We’re sorry you took it the wrong way,’ Rocco said.
‘Rocco!’ Lauren exclaimed, whacking his arm from behind.
‘I mean, we’re sorry for saying it,’ he corrected. ‘Even though it’s true.’
Jordan looked up at her friend incredulously. ‘Are you trying to apologise or are you asking for a fat lip?’
‘He’s trying to apologise,’ Jess hurriedly replied, glaring at Rocco. ‘And doing a really bad job of it. But we’re really sorry Jordan. We won’t make any more jokes about Karla. Will we Rocco?’
‘No. Sorry Jordan.’ He sounded like he at least half meant it. ‘Can you stop being mad at us now?’
Jordan pondered this for a moment, then looked up at them. ‘I guess so.’
Immediately, Rocco smiled and slid into the booth opposite Jordan. ‘Good, cos I’m skint and Lauren’s tight. Can you lend me a tenner?’
She gave Rocco evils as Lauren smacked him upside the head. Thankfully for Rocco, Jordan spotted her two younger brothers enter and beckoned them over. ‘Hey Jay!’
They looked over and spotted the group, and ten-year-old Liam bounded over jubilantly. ‘Rocco!’
‘Every time,’ Jordan complained.
Rocco ruffled the little boy’s curly black hair. ‘How’s it going Gromit?’
‘Great! I just had surf practice and I rode a wave almost all the way to the beach!’ Liam had adopted the local culture much more than the rest of his family since they moved from Texas three year prior. He was also the only child young enough to have dropped the southern slur and developed an Aussie accent in its place.
‘Nice one little dude!’ Rocco put his hand up for a high five which Liam eagerly slapped.
‘I thought you finished your shift a half hour ago?’ Jay asked his sister.
‘I did, but I’d been dying for a milkshake all day and I thought I’d enjoy a little peace and quiet before the ensuing madness of mum with a house-guest.’
‘Fair enough. We’re heading back now if you want to come with?’
‘Yeah.’ She downed the rest of her drink before grabbing her bag and standing up. ‘See you guys later.’
‘Yeah, see ya,’ Lauren replied.
‘Come on Liam,’ Jay beckoned to his brother, who’d latched himself on to his hero.
‘Can Rocco come with us?’ he pleaded.
‘No, Rocco has his own family to annoy. Let’s go,’ Jordan replied as she and Jay started walking away.
‘Hey, what about my juice? You promised,’ Liam complained, sticking out his thin bottom lip.
‘Alright, alright, I’ll get you your juice. Takeaway.’ Jay put his hands on Liam’s shoulders and marched him towards the bar.
‘Hey, what about that tenner?’ Rocco called after Jordan.
Lauren shook her head in dismay. ‘One day you’re gonna get a slap, and I’m not going to do one thing to stop it.’
Riley and Karla were on the freeway, halfway through the hour and a half-long drive back to their small coastal town of Barunga. ‘So, how are you feeling about going to live with your dad?’ Riley asked, turning down the music slightly.
‘Does it matter? It’s not like I have any other choice.’
‘What if you did?’
‘What do you mean?’ Karla looked across at him, confused.
‘Theoretically, if you had the option to live somewhere else, would you?’
‘I mean, yeah. Obviously living with dad isn’t ideal at the moment. But I need somewhere permanent to live; it’s not like I can crash at yours forever.’
‘Not forever, but what about a few weeks?’
‘Ri, can you stop being cryptic and just say what you want to say?’ she demanded, growing mildly irritated.
‘I just did.’
She raised her eyebrow. ‘You want me to come live with you for a few weeks?’
Riley glanced across at her. ‘Why do you say that like it’s a crazy idea? I think it’s actually pretty sensible. Look, you’re gonna have so much change to deal with: starting at a new school, making friends, getting used to the different culture again. I reckon that’s enough to deal with without throwing in family dramas too, don’t you?’
Karla slid down in her seat and put her feet on the dash. ‘I don’t know Riley. The whole point of me moving back here is to be with my family.’
‘You will be, just not right away. Just think of it as a two-step readjustment process: first, town and school and friends. Second, family. It’s just spreading things out a bit so you don’t get overwhelmed.’
She stared out the windscreen at the barren landscape, thinking. ‘I guess that would make sense. But I can’t ask that of you.’
‘You don’t have to, I’m offering.’
Karla laughed. ‘Well thanks, but your parents might have something to say on it!’
‘They’re up for it, I already asked.’
Her smile dropped and she raised her eyebrows. ‘You don’t hang about, do you?’
‘Nope,’ Riley smiled. ‘So theoretically, if everyone’s happy, you’d want to move in with us for a few weeks?’
‘Yeah, I guess so. But it’s one thing to say it and another thing to make it happen. I mean, dad’s expecting me to live with him and it’s not like I can just go home and say, “Oh hey dad, nice to see you. By the way, I’m moving in with Riley, not you, but can I crash for a couple days while they get ready for me to move?” Not likely.’
‘Everything’s ready for you at ours, you can move straight in if you want.’
‘Yeah, we got it ready for you.’
Karla sighed. ‘Even so, that doesn’t change the fact dad’s still expecting me home.’
‘About that,’ Riley replied sheepishly.
Karla shot a look at Riley, her stomach immediately knotting. ‘What did you do?’
‘In my defence, you didn’t exactly give me much time to discuss this with you. And you were going to be here in a couple days so I had to move quickly if I was going to make it happen.’
‘Make what happen?’ Karla asked accusingly.
Riley’s face contorted in the discomfort of saying his next sentence. ‘I kinda already spoke to your dad about you moving in with us.’
‘You did what?!’ Karla shouted, furious.
‘I’m sorry, but I made an educated guess that this would be your preferred option and I wanted everything ready for when you got back. To avoid that whole awkward situation you just described.’
Karla blew up. ‘I cannot believe you went behind my back and arranged with my family where I was going to live! I mean, what if I’d said I wanted to live with dad? You’ve essentially just barred me from my own home. And what would dad have thought, that I’d been too much of a coward to talk to him myself and sent my lackey in to reject him for me?’ She huffed loudly before turning her head to look out the passenger window, refusing to even glance at Riley.
‘What else was I supposed to do? Mum and dad wouldn’t agree to having you unless Mr O’Connell was fine with it, and you’ve been on a plane for the past thirty-six hours so it had to be me who talked to him. If you’d told me you were planning to come back a week ago when you decided, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. So really, it’s all your fault.’
Karla opened her mouth to retort, then decided against it and bit her tongue.
Riley realised he was treading on thin ice and quickly continued before she really lost it. ‘I told him it was all my idea, I hadn’t put it to you, but I wanted the option to be there for you when you got in. He agreed and he understands. He knows you’re comfortable and looked after at ours, and he said it made sense to ease you back in. And he knows it’s only short-term and that the end goal is to move back with him soon. You’re free to go to his now if you want, but the option is also there to come straight to ours.’
Riley waited patiently for Karla’s response. At least the fact she had allowed him to continue uninterrupted meant she was at least partially placated.
After pondering, Karla sighed. ‘Ok, ok, I’m sorry. I guess it makes sense and you’re right; I didn’t exactly give you much notice. But you’re sure dad’s ok with it, and your family?’
‘Obviously your dad was a bit upset, but he loves you and he just wants what’s best for you. Besides, like I say, it’s only for a little while. And of course my family are fine; they’re really excited. Especially Liam.’
Karla laughed. ‘He’s so cute.’
Riley grunted. ‘Yeah, you won’t be saying that at five in the morning when he’s jumping on your bed asking you to take him surfing.’
‘He can ask all he wants but there is no way on earth I am taking him surfing.’
‘You’re still being obstinate about the beach?’
‘I have always hated the beach, and I will always hate the beach. I’ll take him wherever else he wants to go but if you expect me to take him surfing you have another thing coming.’
Riley looked across at Karla and smiled. ‘It’s good to have you home K.’
She returned her friend’s grin. ‘Well obviously. Hey listen, do you mind swinging by The Compound before we go back to yours? There’s just something I gotta do first.’