Chapter 1: Family Stick Together.

My head rested against the sill of the rental car’s window. Rainy tears streak down the glass. They run, battling its trajectory, then free fall until the brink. They gather themselves into bulbous droplets, huddled together as if they’re cold.

Bored, I shift and flop over unto my other side to watch my dad. His one hand on the wheel and the other idle on his lap. His loam-grey eyes are trained ahead of him, his scythe eyebrows furrowed in intensity. So pensive.

I hope he’s having regrets. Wandering if abandoning us to estranged relatives is really a wise choice. I know he’s doing it for our own good, but on behalf of my brothers I would like to think that we would all prefer to stay together. Since mom walked out, it’s always been us four, through hail and fire. But it seems our limit has exceeded.

“Having second thoughts?” I ask, the last minutes, moments I have with him, I will use it to its full exploitation. Besides, we don’t know when we’ll see him again.

He glances at me and a smile accentuates his half-moon cheeks. “Regret taking you on a vacation to meet your family? Never.”

Here we go again.

Distant family,” I correct, with all the loathing I can muster. “You’re my family, not some relatives that I didn’t even know existed until it was convenient for us to know.”

His head on a swivel, managing to impale me with several sharp looks. “You better watch yourself,” he cautions, his voice like bottled thunder, rumbling with verve.

I grip on my words, clenching my jaw. I peer over my shoulder to take a peek at my brothers at the backseat. Atticus sits upright with his legs wide open, too long to be kept closed. A far-off look in eyes as he vacantly gazes out the window, a pair of black headphones nestled on his ears, volume blaring at a maximum. Joshua lies beside him, sound asleep, his head propped on his lap. Atticus’s one hand rests on his shoulder and the other absently runs through the dome cut of Joshua’s dark curly hair.

I look back at my dad with a no-nonsense look on my face. “You’re going to do what you feel is best anyway, and I will respect that. But please, at least don’t feed us with lies that we’re going to some kind of summer family reunion.”

He lets out a heavy sigh, his hand lifts and he scratches his gritty, full-grown beard.

Unbelievable. He’s going to lie again.

“Lele, it is a reunion because your meeting a part of your family you haven’t before.”

Told you.

I release a dry laugh. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I’m not Joshua’s age anymore, you’re going to have to put much more effort than that, daddio.”

He dodges my gaze and fixes his eyes ahead of him again. Disconnecting.

Not this time.

For his sake, despite what I knew and what I didn’t. I nodded, did what I was told and soldiered on. But before we are deserted to God knows where, I want the truth for once.

I straighten in my seat and set my facade-melting stare on him. “Back home. You don’t think I find it’s weird that you had uncalled meetings with our schools.”

He doesn’t budge.

I probe further.

“Without a destination in mind, you tell us to start packing, what we can carry we keep, other non-essentials are to be boxed and put into storage. Days later, then only did you announce the surprise family reunion,” I say, needling him unabatingly.

He wipes his mouth with his hand, jaw ticking.

“I think the real giveaway was the eviction notice.”

Enough,” he whispers harshly.

Struck a nerve. Bullseye.

He shoots a panicked look over his shoulder. He seems to deflate when he sees Joshua sleeping, content; he looks forward.

“What I don’t tell you these things, is not treat you like a child, but at the end of the day. You are one. I don’t care that you’re eighteen or the eldest, you’re still my baby girl and I don’t want my baby burdened by daddy’s problems. Worry about exams, your finals, friends, not about—”

“Where were going to live? How we’re going to survive?”

He winces like my words wounded him. Consequently, hurting myself.

“They retrenched me from the construction company I was working at, been trying to look for a job ever since.” His knuckles whiten around the wheel. “Time passed and the debts kept piling on each other, bills unpaid, mortgage unpaid. We lost the house.”

A world’s weight of guilt hangs around my heart and it sinks to my stomach.

“Dad, why didn’t you say anything? I could have taken a job and—”

“And nothing,” he seethes, he jabs the heel of his palm against the top part of the wheel. “No, you and Atticus are going to finish school, graduate then by sweat and blood. You will go to varsity, get a degree, and get a chance at a better life. That’s all I ever wanted was to give you three… a better life.”

I inhale a deep breath and close my eyes for several moments. An unseen force threatens to kick my world off its axis. I grapple for my calm.

I open my eyes and my gaze is pulled to his outdated android, fitted in the stand. The active GPS, its electronic voice utters new directions.

“Dad, we already have a good life,” I murmur. “The house is just a house; our home is our family and family stick together.”

“No, Lele. A house is a shelter,” he snaps. “Something as basic as that, I can’t even provide.”

I open my mouth to retort and he chops down a hand to cut me off.

“I raked my brain, trying to figure out what I’m going to do. Joshua’s school was aware of this and threatened to call social services. I lied and said I was going to take you all to live with my family for some time.”

He tilts his head to the side, and he frees a hollow laugh. “Turns out it wasn’t a lie. I eventually found them, contacted them and they replied with swift response.”

“The Apions,” I say for the first time without contempt in my tone. “So, they just agreed to accommodate us?”

He scratches his beard. I arc a brow.

“It’s a good thing the holiday was around the corner, you all are just taking an earlier break.”

Dad,” I say with moderate reproach.

He yields and continues, “I told them the truth, I was desperate. All I need is time to get back up on my feet, I just don’t know how long that will take. Then I learnt they lived abroad, knowing my situation. They paid for our flights and borrowed me enough money to rent a car and drive you to them myself. To make sure you’ll be happy and safe, just until I come back.”

I sneak a glance at the backseat, and I notice that Atticus’s one headphone slid off his ear, exposed, his gaze still far-flung.

He's listening.

I say nothing. He deserves to know, same as I.

“So, Mr and Miss Apion are totally cool with having two teens and a kid crash at their place for… an unset amount of time?”

Dad bops his head. “More than happy,” he says truthfully.

“Look.” He steals a look at Joshua through the rear-view mirror. “I know this isn’t ideal, and this is the last thing I ever wanted to put you through. But I need to face the reality that—” His voice breaks as if the words are too painful to utter. He looks away momentarily.

“I can’t take care of you,” he pronounces each syllable strenuously. “I only need a bit of time before I’m able to again, then I will come right back, you know that. Don’t you?”

I look at him and I feel as if for the first time in a long time; we see each other. Truly.

“Of course, I know that.” I lightly punch his beefy arm. “One way or another, we all do,” I say more to Atticus than to him. “I just hope its soon.”

He nods sullenly. “Me too, kiddo.”

The summer rains ceased, and the windows’ tears are dried to dust. We are navigated uphill; the road seems to wind endlessly ahead. It seems each house we pass; they grow in size and mounts in affluence. Opulent homes encrusted by luxuriant foliage, trees rowed in precision and healthy hedges trimmed into neatness. Open driveways flaunt expensive cars that stand on display.

We exit the rich neighbourhood and ascend even higher.

We reach a flat plane and the car cruises down a wide private road flanked by a sequence of centurion trees. Beyond, a forest of verdant nature that crowns the broad hilltop sprawls down its spine. A canopy of verdant leaves looms above, curious beams of sunlight sift through the leaves as if trying to glimpse us, new visitors.

On the horizon, a Hades-black gate soars and lengthens in height. I spot a security booth in the left-hand corner in front of the entry, two armed guards manning the booth are outfitted in a burgundy uniform. Dad slows the car to a halt, right before the tall iron gates. Both bristle and unwelcoming with a row of wrought thorns on its head, except for the letter moulded into the centre. A.

Dad’s window slides down halfway and soon a man’s head appears behind it, a military-looking gun positioned across his chest, so large it occupies both hands.

“Hi, I’m here to see Mr and Miss Apion,” he says slowly, his eyebrows furrowing as his eyes dart to each visible guard on duty. 
I count four. The one in the booth, the two outside of it and the one beside our car.

Well this is insane type of security.

Who the hell are the Apions?

“Mr Ballo, yes. They’ve been expecting you,” he says flatly, no distinguishable emotion.

He straightens out of my field of view. He saunters to walk forward. In the windshield’s corner, I see him motion a hand signal at one of the guards. He reacts and twists his torso to pounds a few knocks on the booth’s door.

Promptly, the ‘A’ in the top centre of the gate splits in half and the gates grandly opens inwards, as if opening its wrought arms in welcoming.

Dad thanks the guard with the small wave. The station-wagon-styled car smoothly rolls forwards and breaches.

This is not what I was expecting.

And neither did Atticus, I hear him inhale a sharp breath as he bolts upright, jolting Joshua awake.

My jaw slackens and both hands cup over my mouth as if to hold it together.

The front yard itself is acres of virescent green pastures, a football size field on either side of us. The single, paved prime palaver of the road is fringed with queues of manicured shrubbery that guide us further down the straightened path.

“Papa, where are we?” Joshua drawls, prolonging his vowel sounds, sleep still weighing on his words.

The manor itself is a sight to behold, four-storeys of architectural supremacy. A crown of stone towers bedecks its head. The coat of the broad-breasted manor is a roasted ivory colour, like a deep cream with an orange tinge. Emerald green trailing plants cling to the walls, ropes of dark vines twine around the cathedral-like windows. The expansive property itself crests a cliff, with the great blue sea as their backyard. I can smell it, the briny scent of the ocean breeze, the sharp salty smell so potent like we’re right next to it.

The gradation of the road from the prime palaver leads unto the extensive cobblestone parking lot, the right-hand side has a steep decline that must lead to an underground garage.

The car glides to the left and he parks perfectly in one of the demarcated spots.

Dad turns off the ignition and the engine powers down. “Listen up,” he announces in his serious voice, looking at the boys through the rear-view mirror.

Atticus removes his headphones and rests his head against the seat, his Adam’s apple bopping. Joshua scrambles to sit up, slanted, leaning against his brother, more for comfort than stability.

“I want you all to be on your best behaviour, do you hear me?” His gaze bounces to me, then back at the boys with a fear-evoking look.

“Yes, dad,” we all say in unison.

“Listen to Mr and Miss Apion, but also remember to enjoy yourself. They are your family after all. Their blood and there’s nothing more sacred than that.”

“Papa, are you going to fetch us before the school holiday ends? I promised Ben we’d hangout together when I get back home. Aunty Eveline promised to take us to the new water park.”

Dad’s expression grows dim, a woeful pall cast across his face.

“Yeah, papa,” Atticus says, speaking up for the first time since we landed here.

“When are we going home?” he asks, merely to stoke the flames of discord. A penchant for chaos, something he must’ve inherited from our mother.

Dad shifts in his seat and pivots his torso so that he can look at them, at least try to since Atticus is tucked away from his vision, seated directly behind him.

“Well… a wise woman once said that home is with your family.” He looks at me pointedly, and dad and I share a wholehearted smile. “So as long as you’re with your sister and brother, you will always be at home. And papa is not far behind, you’ll see me soon, my boy. Just enjoy your holiday, and guess what?”

Joshua perks up in excitement. “What?”

Dad slaps a hand on the bolster of the seat. “Mr and Miss Apion have… horses.

Really?” A grin explodes on his face and he excitedly drums his hands on his thighs.

Dad’s gaze lifts and nods his head upwards. “Yeah, you can ask them yourselves.”

I jerk around to see the tall, iron-bound double doors open outward and two figures emerge through. The heavy venetian brown giants beside them render the two specks in comparison. After, a string of maidservants flows out of the threshold, clothed in maroon uniforms with white aprons tied around their waists and their hair tied into tight low buns.

Dad pops his door open and climbs out and moves to the trunk of the car.

I look at Atticus and although his right in front of me, he might as well be oceans away.

“Hey, you okay?”

He scoffs and shakes his head at me condescendingly. “What do you think?” Tone slick with derision.

I pull a face and scold him with an austere look. “Things could be worse, Atty.”

He then looks me dead in the eyes like I’m completely transparent. “No. It literally can’t.”

He opens the door and bursts out, Josh following after with him.

I look forward and inhale a ready breath.

I exit the vehicle.

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