For a lot of people, one family is more than enough. Not in this case.
The chink of metal on metal was all that could be heard in the quiet hallway, followed by the click of the lock and the jangle of keyrings as the front door of the Zeller household slid open. Riley walked in, backpack slung over his shoulder. He carried two material bags full of groceries in his left hand and the unnecessarily sizeable bunch of keys in his right. ‘We’re home!’ he called out to whoever might be around to hear.
As Karla followed him into the house, laden with luggage, Jordan came thundering down the stairs and threw her arms around her friend. ‘You’re here! It’s so good to see you!’
‘You too!’ Karla said, unable to quite return the affection due to a lack of free hands.
‘Share the love, share the love,’ Jay said as he pushed his sister aside, having appeared from the living room. ‘Hey friend,’ Jay greeted as Jordan let go. Karla took the opportunity to unburden herself before walking into his outstretched arms.
‘Hey yourself,’ she replied, before stepping back and looking him up and down. ‘Jay, you must have grown a foot in the last five months. What have you been eating?’
‘He finally hit puberty,’ Riley teased.
‘Well at least I hit it,’ Jay countered.
‘I’m older than you!’
‘Tell that to your height, short-stack.’
Karla laughed and shook her head as Jordan stepped in between her brothers. ‘Cut it out you two,’ she warned, looking between them with a frown.
‘What are you gonna do about it?’ Jay retorted, thoroughly resenting any sense of superiority from his sister.
Jordan squared up to him. ‘You really want to find out?’
Despite being almost a head taller, Jay shrank back. ‘I’m good.’
Riley looked at Karla, smirking. ‘Welcome home.’
Karla only laughed. ‘Where’s Liam? I thought he’d be bouncing in as soon as I walked through the door.’
‘Mum took him to drum practice,’ Jordan explained. ‘He threw a proper tantrum when he realised he wasn’t going to be here when you arrived.’
Jay laughed. ‘Mum literally had to prize him off the banister.’
‘Aw, bless him.’ Karla laughed, but it morphed into a yawn. ‘Man, I am exhausted. I could sleep for a week.’
‘You wanna have a nap before dinner? It won’t be ready for a while,’ Riley offered.
‘Would you mind? I don’t wanna be rude, but I cannot think of anything better right now.’
Jordan smiled and motioned up the staircase. ‘Don’t be stupid. Go, sleep.’
‘I’ll show you up,’ Riley said.
‘I know where my room is Ri,’ replied Karla, raising an eyebrow.
‘I know, but I can bring your bags and make sure you have everything.’ He held the laden shopping bags out to his younger brother. ‘Jay, take these in to the kitchen, will you?’
‘Why, have your legs stopped working?’
‘Just shut up and take them.’
Jay stamped his foot and saluted. ‘Yes Sir.’ Karla’s bottom lip wobbled as she tried to keep a straight face in front of an irritated Riley.
As Jay took the bags and stalked off to the kitchen, Jordan turned her attention back on Karla and gave her a knowing look. ‘So Karla, didn’t your flight get in like three and a half hours ago?’
‘Well, it takes an hour to get through passport control and baggage reclaim and an hour and a half to drive back here. I was just wondering what you two were doing for the other hour?’ She looked between the two suggestively.
‘I went to see Ali and my family on the way back, Riley went to get groceries.’
‘Uh huh,’ she replied, a coy smirk slapped firmly on her face.
Karla punched Jordan lightly on the arm. ‘Don’t you “uh huh” me!’
‘Why, you got something to hide?’ Jordan taunted further.
‘No. You can ask them if you don’t believe me.’
‘Grow up Jordan,’ Riley berated.
Jordan raised her hands in defence and surrender, ‘Whatever, I didn’t say anything. Go, enjoy your nap.’
‘Rather than making stupid suggestions, you could go make yourself useful and help Jay put the groceries away,’ Riley suggested.
Jordan looked offended. ‘Me, in the kitchen? I’m shocked you’d even suggest such a thing. It’s like you don’t know me at all.’
‘There’s always time for personal growth.’
‘Which means I don’t have to do it now. So, I’m going to get back to my book. The rebel hero just got captured and was about to get torn apart by the mutant prison hounds.’
‘Lovely.’ Karla gave Riley a sideways glance as Jordan disappeared up the stairs.
‘I apologise for my twin.’
‘Come on, let’s get you into bed.’
Karla put her hand on her chest and gasped, feigning disgust. ‘Riley Zeller! I at least expect dinner first.’
Riley shoved her playfully on the shoulder. ‘Shut up, you know what I mean. Come on.’
Karla picked up one of the bags she’d dumped on the floor at her feet as Riley swung her rucksack over his shoulder and picked up the other suitcase. She held out her hand, beckoning for him to lead the way, and followed him up the staircase.
‘You do make me blush.’
Riley stopped and turned around. ‘I’ll make you sleep outside.’
‘I hate you.’
JC and Boyd went to find Connor before heading back home. It wasn’t like him to fly off the handle, let alone storm out of the house. The beach seemed the most likely refuge as Connor and Boyd both tended to go there when they needed to clear their heads.
Their instincts were right and they found him slumped down on a sandbank, hugging his knees and staring out across the ocean. He didn’t so much as blink as they sat down either side of him. The boys sat still, waiting for Connor to break the silence when he was ready.
After a few minutes, he said, ‘Why does she have to go live with them? It’s not right.’
‘You know why,’ JC replied.
‘But it’s stupid and childish. I don’t see why she kicks up such a fuss about it.’
‘Yes, you do,’ Boyd countered. ‘And yeah, it sucks. We all want her back with us. But pushing her isn’t going to convince her. Trust me; she’s basically the female version of me.’
‘That’s a little harsh don’t you think?’ JC teased.
‘Rude,’ Boyd retorted, giving his brother an awkward shove from behind his younger brother. ‘Anyway, we just need to give her time and let her come back on her own terms.’
‘Boyd’s right,’ JC nodded. ‘Give her a couple weeks to get used to being back. Then once she feels a bit more settled, we can chat to her about coming home. But just leave it for now, ok?’
‘I don’t like it.’ Connor’s face remained stormy, much like the distant sky.
‘You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it.’
‘Fine, whatever. I won’t say anything to her. For now.’
‘For now is all I’m asking.’
A couple hours later, the kitchen was sweating steam and abuzz with activity. Ada was flitting around trying to stop pans boiling over and wafting smoke out of her face as she opened the oven door to check on the joint. Liam, Jordan, and Jay were sat at the table playing a game of ‘Go Fish’.
Liam was concentrating hard on his cards, the tip of his tongue poking out from between his small lips, just as Jay’s did when he was concentrating. But his ears pricked up as his oldest brother and a sleepy Karla appeared in the kitchen doorway. Immediately, he jumped up from the table, his cards falling all over the floor. Before she had time to react, the ten-year-old attached himself to his honorary sister’s waist in glee. ‘You’re here you’re here you’re here!’
Karla laughed and put her hand on Liam’s back. ‘Well observed. How’s it goin’ Smallfry?’
Liam stepped back to look up at her, using his index finger to straighten the glasses he’d knocked off kilter. ‘Mum made me go to drum practice so I couldn’t see you when you got here but I really wanted to be here and then when I got home Riley said you were asleep and I couldn’t go see you but I wanted you to sleep in my room so it would be like a really long sleepover and then I could just see you whenever because it was my room too and I could just go in…’
Liam sucked in a deep breath but before he could release it in part two of his verbal tsunami, Karla bent down and put her hands on his shoulders. ‘Slow down there Smallfry, you’re gonna pass out!’
‘No I won’t. Do you know what I did at surfing practice today? I did a Fin Throw! It was so cool. I haven’t done one before. I was the first person in my class to do one, though Molly Gerard did one right after, and I think Jackie did too, but-’
Ada, having dumped the oven gloves on the counter top, came up behind her youngest. She placed her hands on his shoulders and gave them a small squeeze, making him jump a little. ‘Ok Liam, give the poor girl a chance to rest. You have plenty of time to tell her everything you want to tell her.’
‘The Lord will have returned before Liam has said everything he wants to say,’ Jay mumbled to Jordan, causing her to snigger.
Ada tapped the little boy on the back. ‘Go sit down.’ He obediently obliged as she pulled her new houseguest into her arms. ‘Karla! It’s so good to see you. I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you got in earlier but Liam couldn’t miss another drum lesson. He’s been off with the flu.’
‘Yeah, Riley said. And don’t worry about it, I don’t expect you to drop everything just because I’m here.’
‘Still, I’d have liked to have been here.’
‘Are you sure it’s ok for me to stay a couple weeks?’
‘Karla, as far as we are concerned, you are a member of this family and we’re delighted that you’re here. Now take a seat and I don’t want to hear another word about it.’
Liam pushed Riley along the bench to make some room and looked longingly up at Karla with big brown pleading eyes. She smiled and did as instructed. Liam’s grin could not have been bigger as he swung his legs and rapped his small fingers on the table lightly in excitement.
A few minutes later, as Ada was putting the steaming dishes onto the table, a flustered Gustav walked into the kitchen. He kissed his wife on the cheek. ‘I’m sorry I’m late. Just as I got up to leave, one of the servers decided to malfunction. I had to sort it before I left.’
‘That’s ok,’ she smiled as her husband took his seat at the head of the table and hung his jacket over the back of the chair. Once she’d placed the gravy boat on the table, she sat down opposite him.
‘Right, shall we say grace?’ It was less of a suggestion than an instruction and Gustav held his hands to either side. The family joined hands and bowed their heads. ‘Heavenly Father, we thank you for this wonderful meal, for time together, and for bringing Karla back to our home. We thank you for her safe journey and pray that she may settle back here quickly. Bless this food to our bodies and our conversation together this evening. In Jesus’ name, Amen.’
‘Amen,’ everyone echoed, before tucking into the sausages, potatoes, and veg.
‘So how was your flight Karla?’ Gustav asked as he spooned some mashed carrot and swede onto his plate.
Karla nodded, a forkful of mashed potato and gravy still being chewed. ‘Good thanks,’ she replied once her mouth was clear. ‘Long, but nothing I can really do about that.’
‘Have you got lots to unpack?’
‘Not loads. I had two suitcases on the plane with clothes and laptop and things; essentials. The rest is getting shipped over next week, but I’ll leave most of that at dad’s. No point getting everything out here when I’m going to have to pack it up again in a few weeks. The less unpacking I have to do, the better.’
‘Do you want any help with it?’ Jordan asked.
Karla raised an eyebrow. ‘You want help me unpack, seriously?’
Jordan cocked her head backwards. ‘Me? No no no. I was going to offer Jay’s services. He’d be more than happy to oblige.’
‘Oh would I now?’ he demanded.
‘That’s ok Jay,’ Karla assured. ‘I think I’ll be fine. Everything I don’t need tonight I’ll do tomorrow.’
‘Good, I’m not here tomorrow.’
A devious smile lit up on Jordan’s face and she pointed her fork at her middle brother. ‘That’s right, you’ve got that date.’
‘It’s not a date!’ Jay shot back.
‘Yes it is,’ Jordan mouthed to Karla, nodding her head.
Karla laughed and looked at her friend, who was scowling. ‘A date, huh?’
‘It’s not a date!’ he insisted, turning his glare on her instead.
Jordan refused to let up. ‘It’s a girl from his class. Nat-a-sha.’
‘Shut up Jordan.’
‘You loooove her!’
‘I do not!’
‘You wanna maaaarry her.’
‘Oh grow up Jordan.’ Jay’s face was turning the slightest bit red and his brow could not have furrowed any lower if he’d tried.
‘Jordan, that’s enough,’ their father ordered.
Ada nudged Karla’s arm with her elbow and leaned in sideways to her, smirking. ‘It’s not too late to move in with your dad.’
Karla looked at the six faces around the table. Jay refused to look at Jordan, and Jordan flipped out as Liam flicked a pea in her face. Gustav began rebuking his youngest. It was a chaos, but Karla couldn’t help smiling. For the first time in a long time, she was in a place she felt totally secure, totally comfortable, totally happy. She shook her head. ‘This is perfect.’
Later that night, Karla was snuggled in bed, the thin sheet pulled up to her chest, the ceiling fan whirring gently as it cooled the warm night air. Her eyes scanned the penultimate page of a well-read X-Men comic by the soft glow of her bedside lamp when her phone buzzed on the bedside table and a Whatsapp message flashed up onto the screen. She lay her comic in her lap and picked up the phone, as far as it would stretch with the charging wire connected. It was from Ali and simply read, ‘I’m really glad you’re home.’
‘Me too,’ she typed out. And she meant it. Smiling, she locked her phone, placed it back next to her clock, and shut off her lamp. In the darkness she sighed contentedly to herself, feeling completely in place. Then with the warmth of happiness and home she closed her eyes and drifted off in a dream.