When Phoebe didn’t see Clement in their regular scheduled session, she worried. When she asked the teachers before and after their therapy session and discovered he’d not come to school, she fretted. When she called his house number and Abe’s and both went straight to voicemail, she panicked.

It took all of her not to leave for the rest of the day and go down to the house. She told herself that there were other students to listen to, others to help. Granted, Clement’s situation was more pressing than the occasional pubescent issues that the other students faced. For one, his family was at risk of breaking apart.

The day was a blur; Phoebe replaying the last sessions, wondering what would stop Clement from coming to school.

Abe seemed strict in that regard, insisting that his younger siblings continue attending school, reasoning that it was what their parents would’ve wanted for all of them. She didn’t agree; believing that the kids needed time in private to mourn properly and being in school wasn’t conducive to the healing process. So she should’ve been relieved that at least Clement was taking a break at home, finally allowing himself some much-needed time to grieve.

Instead, the lack of answer from either the house phone or Abe’s cell made her crazy with worry.

So with the first bell dismissing the students, Phoebe was the among the eager bunch heading out of the school. She ducked into her car and raced down the isolated street and up the highway to the Teka home. Her heart wouldn’t stop beating fast even when she saw the cars parked in the driveway.

Barely remembering to take off her seatbelt and grab her purse, Phoebe stumbled up the stairs.

“Stay calm,” she told herself, ringing the doorbell once. When no one answered, she began slapping the door and pressing the doorbell at the same time.

The door opened and a disheveled Clement clad in PJs stood in the doorway. “Ms. Randall?”

Then she heard the unmistakable sounds of a child crying. Her eyes lifted over his head to the dimly-lit room, the curtains drawn to keep out the sunlight. She jerked her eyes back to him, heart racing a mile a minute. “I-Is everything alright?”

He frowned deeper. “Not really.”

She gestured to the door he held to his side, barring her entry. “M-may I come in?”

He hesitated, the sounds of crying unrelenting behind him.

“Who is it?” a voice groused behind the door and a ragged-looking Bartimeus came to stand by Clement. His eyes widened in recognition. “Ms. Randall.”

“Can I come in?” she repeated, hoping he’d see to reason. The crying had to come from their little brother Eleazar and the sound was breaking her heart. “Please.”

“My God, Bart, let the woman in before we get complaints from your neighbors!” Geraldine snapped, nudging both men aside. She eyed Phoebe warily before stepping aside, pulling the door wider.

“Thanks,” Phoebe answered, stepping inside. Her eyes adjusted to the minimal light in the room and she could detect a faint smell of smoke smothered in cinnamon. She rubbed the tickle from her nose.

“Can’t you make yourself useful?” Geraldine said to Bart, putting her hands to her hips. “Go look up a solution or something.”

Bart snorted. “What do you think we’ve been doing all this time? You look it up since you know everything, woman.”

Phoebe heaved a sigh and stepped away from the two, not understanding why they always seemed to yell instead of talk quietly like adults. She moved toward the kitchen.

The pitiful scene made her heart do somersaults. Abe sat beside an inconsolable Eleazar, both covered with mush on their faces and in their hair. Darah looked a little better for wear, sporting an apron over her skinny body. She hovered Eleazar’s chair, biting her thumbnail as she watched Abe attempt to coax Eleazar to try and eat.

“Maybe it’s yucky,” she said over Eleazar’s crying.

“It’s fine, Darah…” Abe heaved a sigh and rubbed his forehead, not caring that he was smearing the mush on his skin. “Just wish those big kids would stop bickering.”

Phoebe swallowed hard, eyes welling up with tears. She could feel Abe’s frustration, knew he was overwhelmed. She could feel the heaviness from the doorway and turned to the living room, to the big kids having a screaming match.

“Hey, you two! Why don’t go outside or shut up? You’re not helping with all this yelling and bickering.”

Both Geraldine and Bart gaped at her. Even Clement’s jaw was slack as he stared at her.

Then with a sigh, she moved back into the kitchen. “Can I try?”

Darah and Abe were staring too, the shadows under their eyes matched Bart’s and Clement’s. It was clear that these siblings hadn’t been able to sleep, their youngest keeping them up with whatever ailed him.

“Ms. Randall,” Abe eked out, staring up at her.

Darah circled the table and came to stand by Abe’s chair, watching Phoebe take the seat opposite him. She bit her bottom lip as Phoebe scooted her chair closer to Eleazar.

Phoebe gave them a reassuring smile and looked at Eleazar, her heart in her throat. “Hey Eli…” She didn’t know much about his condition other than what Abe had shared. He wasn’t mentally challenged, but emotionally unstable. Most certainly the death of his parents rocked him harder than his siblings could handle. She hesitated only a moment before reaching with one hand to his head.

Darah and Abe stiffened; both recalling how Eleazar had bitten all who reached out for him except and only because Clement didn’t attempt to carry him.

With light fingers, Phoebe touched the crown of his head. His skin and scalp were hot to the touch but she didn’t recoil her hand. Her eyes met his, silently mourning the redness that framed his deep-brown eyes, eyes just like Abe’s; sorrowful, pensive eyes. Eleazar was more astute than anyone thought, sensitive and aware of his family’s pain. He didn’t say much but Phoebe knew he mourned when no one else would.

Tears started to fall, streaming down her face.

Eleazar’s sobs caught in his throat, his pouty mouth parted, brown eyes swimming with unshed tears.

Phoebe couldn’t stop the tears from falling. She wished she could do something; wished she could wrap her arms around them all, heal their pain. Her lips trembled, holding back a sob.

Then Eleazar reached out, his hand covered with mush, and touched her cheek. Darah gasped low. Phoebe smiled as Eleazar wiped the tear from her cheek and she leaned in to let him wipe her other cheek, not caring about her foundation in this moment.

“Don’t cry…” he said gently, voice hoarse from crying. “Don’t cry.”

Phoebe smiled, eyes only for Eleazar. “I won’t, if you won’t.”

The little guy sighed and nodded. “Okay.”

Darah gaped at her little brother sitting composed. “Wow, that’s it? That’s all it took?”

Phoebe turned to Darah, aware of Abe’s eyes on her. She could see the siblings staring from the door but kept her gaze on Darah. “Did something happen?”

“Darah was crying. Then I cried.”

There was conviction and shame in his voice that drew Phoebe’s eyes back to him.

“It’s okay to cry, Eli. It’s okay for all of you to cry. Crying is nothing to feel bad about.” She smoothed a hand over his downy curls and gave him a smile. Then Phoebe turned to the family who stared at her as if she had two heads or something sticky on her face. “You need to cry because if you don’t, someone else will cry for you. In this case, Eli must’ve cried for himself and the other three who haven’t.”

Eleazar nodded emphatically and Abe frowned in thought. Phoebe knew then what must have happened, and sympathy warmed her all over for this man doing this all on his own.

“Do you really believe that?” Bart asked, earning him a glare from Geraldine.

“I do. Crying doesn’t mean you’re weak or helpless.” Her gaze skimmed over him and Clement. “It just means you’re paying your respects to your parents, showing just how much you love and miss them. And I’m sure each of you misses them very much.” Her eyes fluttered down to Abe. “So instead of trying to act macho and tough, just cry. No one’s gonna beat you over the head if you do. If anything, I might beat you over the head if you don’t.”

Bart whistled under his breath, slightly amused. “That’s harsh, Ms. Randall–”

“Phoebe,” she said, her eyes remained on Abe. “And it’s for your own good.”

Then her cheeks warmed when Abe didn’t answer, his eyes glued to her face. She laughed a nervous laugh and turned to Eleazar. “How about I make you guys some lunch?” She stood from the table and Eleazar scooted out of his chair, reaching for her hand.

“No pizza please,” the little guy groused, glancing over his shoulder at Abe.

“Okay,” she laughed, squeezing his hand gently. “No pizza. What should we eat?”

With everything under control, Clement lost interest and retreated to his room to catch up on sleep.

Darah leaned into Abe and he wordlessly put his arms around her slim waist. She draped her arm around his shoulder. “She’s perfect,” she said in a loud whisper. “We should keep her around.”

Bart smirked, watching Phoebe listen to Eleazar’s list of things he would prefer eating and turned away when he noticed how stiff Geraldine stood at his shoulder. He arched a brow at the odd expression on her face and turned in the direction of her gaze. She was looking at Abe who was staring at Phoebe. His brow furrowed, not liking what he saw or felt.

<<Chapter 4 || Chapter 6>>