Family is a tricky business. Sometimes they feel like the best people in the world and you’d do anything to be near them. At other times they can drive you so far round the bend and you’ll do anything to get away from them. They are the people who can love you the best and hurt you the worst. Life is often complicated and messy, and family is no exception.
Seeing her oldest and closest friend had made Karla’s day, but as she made the short walk to her dad’s house, her mood sank and butterflies began to flap in her stomach. This is ridiculous, he’s your dad, she coaxed herself as she walked. Yet still she twisted her ring in nervous anticipation. Upon arriving at the front door of her father’s house, she reached her hand up to knock on the blue-painted wood but hesitated, her fist hovering in mid-air. Then she shook her head in annoyance, steeled herself, took a deep breath, and knocked twice.
After a few seconds, a tall man with a straight-backed military posture and short, perfectly neat, brown hair opened the door and smiled broadly, deep creases forming in the corners of his bright eyes. ‘Hey there KJ,’ he greeted warmly, pulling his beloved daughter into a hug.
Karla wrapped her arms around his middle, her head resting on his chest, coming to just below his neck. ‘Hey daddy.’
‘Come on in,’ he beckoned, one arm guiding his daughter into the house and shutting the door with the other. The front door opened straight into a large, cosy living room, separated from the kitchen area only by a long island counter and a metal strip halting the grey carpet ahead of the wooden kitchen floor. A corridor stretched off to the side of the room leading to five bedrooms and a bathroom.
Sam sat down in his armchair and Karla took her place on the adjacent sofa. She positioned herself at the opposite end to her father, still wary of his true reaction to her decision. ‘So how was your flight?’ he asked.
‘It was ok thanks. Long. I’m pretty tired, didn’t get much sleep.’
‘I don’t blame you. I can never sleep on planes; too many blasted babies crying and kids fidgeting and people coughing.’
Karla looked around the room, surprised at the emptiness of it. ‘Where are Laura and the twins?’
‘Queensland. It’s her sister’s birthday so she took the twins up for a few days.’
Karla’s face fell. ‘And I stopped you going? Ah Dad, I’m sorry. You should have gone with them; I’d have been fine!’
‘You didn’t stop me; I already had this meeting today I couldn’t get out of. Besides, there was no way I wouldn’t have stayed to welcome you home regardless. She was sorry to miss you but she’s looking forward to seeing you in a couple days.’
‘That’s kind of her.’
Sam crossed his legs and leaned back into the chair, relaxing his arms along the rests. ‘So, are you ok? Not having any second thoughts?’
‘No, not at all. This was the right call. It feels so good to back.’
‘Well I’m certainly glad to hear that. Your brothers will be home soon. I’ve not mentioned anything to them, as requested.’
‘Great.’ Karla forced a smile. She felt she needed to ask the question but was dreading the answer. Like a magnet to metal, once again her thumb and forefinger gravitated to her leaf. It was getting to be nasty habit today.
Before she could decide whether to say anything or not, her dad noticed her discomfort. ‘Talk to me KJ.’
No hiding it now. So, she took a deep breath and asked, ‘Are you disappointed in me?’ Her eyes kept firmly glued to the carpet under her feet, unwilling to witness any disapproval in those of her father.
Sam’s eyebrows twitched upwards in surprise. ‘Disappointed? No, KJ. What makes you think I’m disappointed in you?’
‘For giving up. For leaving school rather than sticking it out ‘til I finished.’
Sam considered this for a moment. ‘I’d have been disappointed if you’d been unhappy at school and stayed rather than talking to me about it. Am I surprised you suddenly decided to come home after all this time? Yes. But disappointed? Quite the opposite.’
‘But me moving in with the Zellers for a while? Riley told me he came to talk to you. I promise you; I didn’t know until the car.’
Sam sighed and leaned forward on his knees. Karla could see a hint of sadness in his eyes, although he was trying hard to hide it. ‘I guess I am disappointed, but not in you. I was looking forward to having you home and I’m sad you don’t feel ready to be here yet. But I get it. You’ve never lived in this house or with Laura and the twins for longer than vacation. It’s a big adjustment coming back without that as well. But can you promise me that this is only going to be a few weeks and you’re not going to use it as an excuse to keep your distance from my wife?’
She nodded her head fervently. ‘I promise. I want to be back with you, you need to know that. It’s just til I get my bearings. Baby steps. But I want to be a proper family again.’
‘If that’s really true, then you know things need to change. Your attitude needs to change. I’ve put up with it for a long time, as has Laura, but if you really want to be a part of this family and live in this house, this all needs to stop; right now.’
Karla felt the colour in her cheeks deepen, a sensation she didn’t often get. But she heard the warning in her father’s voice and it always cut. ‘I know. And I promise I’ll try.’
Sam pushed himself out of his chair and sat down next to his daughter. He enveloped her much smaller hands in his. ‘That’s all I’m asking. Karla, there are only two things I want for you, and for all my children: that you trust in the Lord, and that you are happy. If you feel like you would be happier living with the Zeller’s for a few weeks then I can live with that. There’s no point rushing into things and making a mess of it. If you put in the effort in the meantime, then take the time you need. But know this is your home when you’re ready for it to be.’
Karla finally looked up at her father and smiled with relief at his acceptance, even despite his rebuke. ‘You know you’re the best dad in the world, right?’
‘I have been told once or twice,’ he smirked, eyes sparkling.
Karla leaned into her dad and wrapped her arms around him. ‘I love you daddy.’
‘I love you too baby girl, forever and always.’
‘Forever and always.’
Karla and Sam didn’t have to endure the awkwardness of time-passing small-talk for long before they heard the sound of the front door opening. She sat up as her older brothers JC, Boyd, and Connor walked in, talking amongst themselves. It took them a second to register her presence. JC noticed her first and pulled up short, causing Boyd to walk right into him. For once he didn’t complain as joy spread across his face at the sight of his little sister. ‘What on earth are you doing here?’
‘Surprise,’ Karla replied, a little sheepishly.
‘Too right! What’s going on? I thought your school already started back?’ Connor queried, nudging the bridge of his glasses up as he always did, just in case they had slipped a millimetre or two.
‘It has,’ she replied, standing up to face the boys.
‘You finally got expelled then?’ Boyd asked, only half teasing.
‘Why does everyone keep asking that?’ Karla complained, slightly annoyed at the low benchmark her nearest and dearest had set for her. ‘No.’
‘Are you just saying that because dad’s in the room? What did you do this time, really?’ Boyd pretended to whisper to her, hand ‘shielding’ his mouth. JC swatted his arm.
‘Pack it in, Boyd,’ their father reprimanded.
Karla matched the look Connor was giving their brother. ‘For the last time, I did not get expelled. I left.’ She stood up a little straighter and folded her arms across her chest in triumph. ‘As of today, I am once again a permanent resident of Barunga, Victoria, Australia.’
The boys all looked at her, not quite sure whether to believe her or not. Connor’s brow furrowed. ‘Are you being deadly serious or is this all some elaborate prank?’ he asked cautiously.
Sam nodded in confirmation. ‘It’s true. She just wanted to keep it quiet and surprise you.’
Karla grinned and laughed, unable to contain her excitement now that her family were all back together. Her excitement proved rapidly infectious as the boys immediately caught her grin and ran in to hug her, making noises and comments of jubilation.
Boyd pulled away to signal the end of the moment. ‘After seven years, the O’Connell family are finally back together again. This is going to be such a blast.’
Connor stepped back and looked around the room. ‘How long have you been here?’
‘About twenty minutes.’
‘And you’ve already put your bags in your room? That’s uncharacteristically organised of you.’
The grin dropped off Karla’s face as, one by one, the butterflies in her stomach once again took flight. ‘Actually, they’re still in Riley’s car.’
‘Did he pick you from the airport?’ asked JC.
‘Yeah, on his way back from Uni.’
‘Well, where is he? You didn’t leave him in the car by himself, did you?’ JC went into his native responsible-big-brother mode.
‘He went to run a couple errands while he waited for me to finish here.’
‘Finish? What do you mean?’ Connor asked, suddenly suspicious.
Karla didn’t know if she was more scared of her dad’s or her brothers’ reaction as to her temporary living choice. Part of her suspected her dad and JC would take it on the chin, while a bigger part of her knew that Boyd and Connor would not. Six years older, JC was the mature, protective one who had very much been her surrogate parent when he and Karla moved to boarding school together. The middle two were generally more impulsive in their reactions, particularly Boyd, so she expected no measured response from them.
‘Um, here’s the thing. So, I decided to go stay with the Zeller’s for a few weeks while I settle back in. Please don’t hate me.’ She squinted her eyes shut and braced herself for the impact she suspected was coming.
‘Are you kidding me?’ Connor shouted, throwing his arms out and stepping away from his sister in irritation. ‘Isn’t that the whole reason you moved back here in the first place, to live with us?’
‘Yes, it is, and I’m going to. But this is a huge deal and I just want to spread out the re-adjustment process a bit.’
‘We all coped fine when we came home. Why are you so precious?’
Boyd elbowed Connor, making him yelp. His pain was met with zero sympathy. ‘What he means is that we know it feels like a lot but you’ll be fine. We were. We’ll help you.’
The butterflies seemed to be practicing their knot-tying skills on her intestines. ‘I know you would, but Riley-’
Connor clapped and rolled his head. ‘Riley, we should have known. I assume this was all his idea?’
‘Yes, but it made sense.’
‘Of course it did. Because everything Riley says makes sense.’
Karla took irritation at this. ‘Connor, don’t be like that. He’s your friend.’
‘He’s a snake. And you know what? You want to go play happy families with him, be my guest,’ he bit back, motioning towards the front door.
Sam stepped forward and gave his son a warning look. ‘Connor-James, hold your tongue.’
‘Connor, it’s not like that and you know it,’ Karla pleaded with him. She and Connor had spent most of their childhood bickering, but this felt different somehow and she couldn’t bear the thought of him hating her.
‘Enjoy your new family. I hope you will all be very happy together.’ With pure anger painted across his tanned face, Connor stormed back out the door and slammed it shut behind him.
Karla went to follow him but JC caught her arm, gently holding her back. ‘Leave him,’ he softly advised. ‘He needs to cool off.’ Then he moved his arm around her shoulders and gave them a comforting squeeze, as he had done to soothe her many lonely nights.
‘It wasn’t meant to happen like this,’ she sadly said. If she had been a crier, she felt now would have been an appropriate time. Unfortunately for drama’s sake, she was not.
‘We’ll have dinner tomorrow night, just the five of us. Some proper family time to celebrate. How does that sound?’ Sam suggested.
‘Yeah, if Connor doesn’t still hate me.’
‘He doesn’t hate you, he’s just upset. He’ll be right when he calms down. If he isn’t, I’ll give the little sook a good bashing,’ Boyd smirked, punching the air with his fists in preview.
‘You will not,’ their father directed. He turned to his daughter. ‘Come on, you don’t want to keep Riley waiting forever. You should be getting off.’
‘We’ll walk you out,’ JC offered.
‘Bye baby girl,’ Sam said as he wrapped his no-longer-so-little daughter in his strong arms and kissed the top of her head. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow night. I love you.’
‘I love you too.’
The siblings walked in silence to the gate of The Compound. Riley was faithfully waiting outside in his car, reading a book. Karla hugged her brothers goodbye and passed through the gate.
She made Riley jump as she opened the passenger door. ‘Hey you,’ he smiled, putting his book down. He noticed her glum expression. ‘Everything alright?’
‘Yeah, fine. Let’s go.’