They say blood is thicker than water. That saying is no truer anywhere than in the O’Connell family. They will do anything to protect their own, even if it means losing something or someone else.
As Riley came out of the kitchen, Karla pushed the front door open. She turned back and spoke to someone Riley couldn’t see. ‘See, I made it all the way down the driveway and into the house, safe and sound. You can leave now…Goodnight boys.’ She waved at the unseen companions and shut the door, groaning as she did so.
‘Your brothers walk you home?’ Riley asked, making Karla jump a little.
She turned around and smiled at him. ‘JC and Boyd, yeah. Dad refused to let me walk home by myself.’
‘He’s a wise man. There are lots of bad people around here.’ Karla raised an eyebrow. ‘How was dinner?’
She nodded. ‘Great, thanks. Really good to just spend time as a family. I don’t remember the last time the five of us had a meal together.’
‘I’m glad you had a good time,’ he smiled warmly, before taking a sip of his tea. He cupped his hands around the china mug which sported a photo of the young Zeller siblings posing in front of their paddling pool, all acting silly, arms spread out across one another. Liam was only a toddler, sitting at their feet in his nappy, oblivious to the shenanigans.
‘What is that? It smells weird,’ she asked, pointing at the steaming mug.
‘Peppermint,’ Riley replied, holding it out to her. ‘Want some?’
Karla wrinkled her nose and recoiled. ‘Ew, no thank you.’ She nodded towards the kitchen, where the continued bickering could be heard wafting down the hallway. ‘Jo winding Jay up about Natasha again. If I were you, I’d stay well away.’
‘Anyway, I’m going to go read before bed.’
‘You’re such a nerd,’ Karla teased.
Riley put his palm on her head and pushed it away. ‘Shut up you. We all know you’re illiterate.’
‘I can read, I just choose not to.’
Riley smirked. ‘I’ll see you in the morning.’
‘Night,’ Karla replied as he traipsed up the stairs, careful not to spill any hot liquid onto the wood. She looked at her watch. It was nearing bedtime, but her body clock was fourteen hours behind and she felt pretty awake after her nap that afternoon. She noticed a light on in the living room and went in to find Ada sitting on the sofa, feet tucked under her, reading.
‘People in this house really love books,’ Karla commented as she slumped onto the adjacent sofa.
Ada smiled and put her book down, her white teeth contrasted against her black skin in the soft glow of the lamp to the side of her. Her thick hair was tied up on top of her head, as it always was in the evenings. She hated sleeping with it on her neck. ‘Stick with us girl and we might rub off on you.’
‘Nice time with the family?’
‘Yeah, it was awesome.’
‘Were Laura and the twins there?’
‘No, they’re all in Queensland until Monday.’
‘You should go see them when they get back. The twins would love to see you, and I’m sure Laura would appreciate the gesture.’
Karla nodded. ‘Yeah,’ she replied, non-committal, but her father’s warning to make an effort ringing afresh in her ears.
‘I know you’re probably not feeling very tired right now, but if you want your body clock to adjust, you should stick to sleeping and waking up at the right time as much as possible,’ her surrogate mother encouraged.
‘Is that your way of telling me to go to bed and leave you in peace?’
‘You understand me as if you really were my child,’ Ada teased. ‘Now go get. Sweet dreams darlin’.’
‘Night Ada,’ Karla replied as she obediently stood and left Ada to her romance novel.
The next morning, Jordan and Riley were on their way to pick up their little brother from surf practice. As they approached the book store, Jordan looked inside and gave Riley an apologetic look. ‘I just need one book.’
Riley knew what ‘one book’ meant. ‘Not a chance. We’ll be here for half an hour.’
‘But I’ve so nearly finished my book and I want to get the next one so I’m not held in suspense. Five minutes, I swear.’
‘We cannot be late for picking up Liam.’
‘I mean, you don’t actually need me to go with you,’ she attempted.
Riley shook his head and wagged his finger adamantly. ‘Oh no, it’s your turn to collect him. I’m just going to meet Rocco.’
‘Whatever, but if you hadn’t been arguing with me, I could have already been in and out by now.’
Riley huffed. ‘Five minutes,’ he conceded.
Jordan grinned and dashed inside, Riley following at a more sedate pace. He located her in her usual spot, browsing through the science fiction case. Jordan glanced up as her brother nonchalantly picked a book off the next shelf, and spotted Connor stacking some books on a display the other side of the store. Jordan elbowed Riley and nodded in their friend’s direction.
‘I saw him yesterday and he totally blanked me,’ Riley whispered.
Jordan raised her eyebrow. ‘It’s not a library, you don’t need to whisper.’
‘It’s called being discreet.’
‘It’s called bein’ a dork. But whatever,’ she shrugged, turning her attention back to the book. ‘He probably just didn’t see you.’
‘He saw me, I’m sure.’
‘Only one way to find out,’ she replied, wafting her brother away from her.
He unquestioningly walked over to his friend. Connor didn’t so much as glance up from arranging the new stock of books on the appropriate stacks. ‘Hey Connor. How’s the stacking going?’ Riley asked.
Connor bent down to take another handful of books from the cardboard box by his feet. Riley furrowed his brow and tried again. ‘I saw you yesterday in the café in Geelong. I called out to you, but I guess you didn’t hear.’
‘I’m working, go away,’ he replied, not taking his eyes from his task for even a moment.
Riley was shocked at the curt response. ‘Hey man, is everything alright?’ When Connor didn’t respond, Riley tried again. ‘Have I done something to upset you?’
Connor snapped his neck round and stared arrows at Riley. If looks could kill. ‘What part of “go away” do you not understand?’ he snarled, before abandoning his task and walking back through the shop. ‘I’m going on my break,’ he informed his manager before heading out the entrance.
Riley wasn’t about to let this go and followed him outside. He caught up to his friend who had begun walking down the street and grabbed his arm. ‘Hey!’
Connor shook his arm to remove Riley’s hand. ‘Get off me!’.
‘What is going on with you? Why are you ignoring me?’
‘If you even have to ask, you’re an even bigger idiot than I thought,’ he replied, before walking away again.
‘Connor, stop acting like such a child and talk to me!’
His father’s comment from the previous night stopped him in his tracks. He whirled around and marched back toward the stricken young man standing confused in the street. ‘She’s my sister! Mine. Why can’t you keep your stinkin’ hands off her?’
Riley huffed, but was no less calm. ‘So that’s why you’ve been blanking me? You’re mad because Karla’s living with us?’
Connor clapped slowly. ‘Well done, good Riley.’
‘Hey, don’t talk to me like that. If you had a problem, why didn’t you come talk to me rather than be such a baby about it?’
‘Because I don’t even want to look at you, let alone talk to you.’
‘Come on man, we’re supposed to be friends.’
‘Exactly. I guess we were both wrong. Now do us both a favour and leave me alone.’ And with back, he shouldered past his former friend and went back into the bookshop just as Jordan came out.
She looked over her shoulder and back at Riley in confusion, her new purchase clasped in her hand. ‘What’s up with him?’
Riley shook his head. ‘He’s an idiot.’
Jordan looked like she wanted to ask, but saw her brother’s expression and thought better of it. She put her arm around his waist, too short to reach comfortably round his shoulders. ‘Come on, let’s go get the little monster.’
‘Alright little gromits, come on in!’ Boyd called from the waist-high waves, beckoning his class of eight ten-year-olds back to the beach. Rocco, his co-instructor, pulled one teary boy in backwards by his leg rope.
Boyd noticed his distraught face as the boy glided past. ‘Hey, what’s up little dude?’
The boy sniffed. ‘Jackie bet me she could catch a wave before me and she did and now I have to give her my fidget spinner.’
Boyd looked confused. ‘I thought fidget spinners went out like, two years ago?’
The boy’s face sank and his bottom lip quivered before a fresh wave of tears mixed with the saltwater already staining his cheeks. Nice one, Rocco mouthed as he continued pulling the wailing child to the beach. Boyd ushered the rest of the group out of the water as parents stood at the edge of the beach to collect them.
‘Good job today everyone, see you next week!’ Boyd called as Liam ran up to his big sister and threw his arms around her waist. She promptly pushed him away and looked down in disgust at her now-soggy clothes.
Rocco strolled up to them and held his fist out to Riley, who simply looked at it. ‘I’m not fist-bumping you Rocco.’
‘Ugh, you leave me hanging every time.’
‘Then take the hint.’
‘Whatever. I just need to finish up here, then we’ll head off yeah?’
‘Cool,’ Riley replied, but he was eyeing Boyd rubbing his hair, the bleach-blonde tips of his short spikes now hanging limp with saltwater. He walked over to his friend, who nodded his chin up as he approached.
‘Hey. Good lesson?’
‘Yeah, it was alright. Apart from managing to make a kid cry.’
Riley laughed. ‘All in a day’s work.’ He paused and ran a hand through the neat, short crop of his afro. ‘Hey listen, are we cool?’
Boyd stood up straight from packing his rucksack, his brow furrowed. ‘Of course; why wouldn’t we be?’
‘I had a run-in with Connor.’
Boyd sighed. ‘How mad was he?’
‘Pretty mad. I confronted him after he’d spent the past two days ignoring me, and he flew off the handle.’
‘He reckons you’re trying to steal our sister.’
‘And what do you reckon?’
Boyd gave Riley a gentle punch on his bare arm. ‘Come on man. Look, I’ll admit I’m thrilled that Karla’s not coming straight home to us, but it’s not your fault she’s still got her knickers in a twist over Laura. I know you’re just looking out for her. Just promise me you’ll make her come home soon.’
‘Of course man. She should be with you guys. This is just temporary.’
Boyd smiled and put his hand up. Riley clasped it and the boys pulled each other into a man hug, clapping the other on the back.
‘Oh alright, I see how it is!’ Rocco called from a few metres away, catching sight of their display.
‘Well he is my favourite,’ Riley called back, teasing.
Rocco stuck a finger in the air. Riley walked up the bank and hook an arm around his mate’s neck, forcing him to bend over slightly. ‘You know you’re my guy really.’
‘Get off,’ he complained, smiling, pushing his mate’s chest away. ‘Come on, let’s go get a feed.’ As they walked up the beach, Rocco asked, ‘By the way, could you lend us a lend tenner?’
Sunday morning was church. As always, the Zellers arrived halfway through the first song, on a good week. Riley was the exception in his family and couldn’t abide anyone being late to anything. He’d left early to run the projection anyway. Karla however quite liked the excuse of an extra few minutes in bed and sidled up to her family’s row halfway down the centre aisle. It was a light and airy building, with posters and boards along the walls displaying church groups and events, and children’s craft of varying qualities. The church had a family feel about it and Karla had always felt at home here. She was also grateful for the Lord’s provision of air-con, a welcome escape from the stifling summer temperatures outside.
‘Morning,’ she greeted Connor brightly. ‘Can I come sit?’ she asked, pointing to the chair between him and JC, currently occupied by Connor’s trusty brown satchel.
‘No, I need my bag there.’
Karla cocked her head. ‘Funny.’ She tried to move past him, but he remained firmly planted in her way. ‘Stop being an idiot.’
‘You can’t sit here,’ he insisted without taking his eyes from the song words projected onto a large screen at the front.
JC placed Connor’s bag on the floor and whispered across, irritated. ‘Stop being a tool and let her past. We’re in the middle of church.’
Connor sulkily stepped back enough for his sister to squeeze past him and stand in the gap. JC put his hand round the side of her head and pulled it towards him, kissing the top of it. ‘Morning KJ. You ok?’
‘Yeah. It’s good to be back here,’ she smiled, looking around at familiar faces. She poked the boy in front firmly between his shoulder blades and bounced on the balls of her feet, clasping her finger in her fist behind her back. ‘Mornin’,’ she grinned as he turned his head.
Ali winked at her but didn’t stop singing the chorus of ‘Lion and the Lamb’, his smile natural as he sung in joy of what he believed. She loved how he always smiled when he sang.
Just over an hour later, before the Pastor had time to take a breath after his final Amen, Connor scooted away next door where refreshments would be served. Karla turned to the remainder of her family. ‘Ok, why is Connor in such a bad mood this morning?’
‘This morning?’ Boyd remarked, which earned him a dig in the ribs from JC.
‘Nothing serious. I’m sure he’ll be fine once he’s had some caffeine,’ Sam replied in the convincing way only fathers can, even if they are saying the opposite of what they mean. ‘Anyone want a drink?’
‘Yes please,’ the three of them nodded.
‘One of these days, when you say yes to a drink, it’s going to mean tea or coffee, not a glass of milk,’ JC teased.
‘What’s wrong with milk?’ Karla asked, looking and sounding offended.
‘Nothing, if you’re five,’ Ali replied, turning around in his seat, one arm bent over the back of the cushioned wooden chair.
‘No-one asked you. Mind your own business,’ Karla whined jokingly, trying to turn his shoulders back to face the front. She failed. He laughed and flicked her plait with his finger.
‘So why is Connor really in a mood?’ she asked, her father’s tricks only viable when present.
Ali and JC exchanged a subtle look which, as usual, neither Karla nor Boyd noticed. ‘Leave it for now, hey?’ JC replied gently.
Ali put a hand on her shoulder and gave it a light squeeze. ‘Come on, let’s go find Mrs Lee. Mum had her over yesterday and told her you were coming and she was so excited to see you.’
Karla allowed her best friend to lead her over to the petite Chinese woman who’d served as one of many surrogate grandparents to the two teenagers over the years. But she wouldn’t let the distraction last for long. She knew something more was going on and she was going to find out what it was.