The three younger Teka siblings with Geraldine crowded near the kitchen door, peeking out to the living room where Abe, Bart and Phoebe stood with the scowling Mr. Harry from the Department of Family and Protective Services. Phoebe and Bart stood with their backs to the kitchen while Abe and Mr. Harry faced them. Abe wore a disconcerted expression while Mr. Harry spoke in low tones to his niece.

Darah shook her head. “I hope Phoebe doesn’t get in trouble…”

“Probably will,” Clement muttered, leaning against the doorframe. “Conflict of interest.”

Eleazar turned his head to Geraldine. “What’s confl…” his brow furrowed, unable to comprehend the words.

Geraldine managed a smile to comfort the little boy, her hand squeezing his shoulder. “Don’t worry. Abe will handle everything.”

Clement heaved a sigh and pushed away from the door. “I’m hungry.”

Darah frowned at him as he grabbed a slice of garlic bread. “How can you eat at a time like this?” She ignored the hand Geraldine placed on her shoulder in an attempt to calm her. “What if we fail and have to sep–” she choked, tears brimming her eyes.

Geraldine turned Darah around to face her. “Nothing like that is going to happen,” she said firmly. “Everything will be fine. This interview will go well. Now clean your eyes.” She wiped the tears streaming Darah’s face.

Darah choked on a sob and buried her face in Geraldine’s chest.

Wide-eyed Eleazar stared at his sister and then turned to Clement who watched them with a perturbed frown on his face, half-eaten bread in his hand. “Junior…?”

Clement jerked his gaze to his youngest brother and gestured him over. The boy came over and Clement pulled him close, patting his back. Geraldine met his eyes and gave him a small smile. He swallowed the rest of the toast.

Phoebe would’ve preferred not having an audience for Uncle Harry’s scolding; especially not Abe and Bart. Now she couldn’t lift her head, didn’t want to see Abe’s disappointment. She felt responsible for sabotaging his interview and wanted to leave. If only her uncle had taken her out of the house.

“I thought I’d made it clear the day you left the department, Phoebe,” Uncle Harry said in that tight voice of his when he was trying hard not to yell. Most likely because of the children standing in the kitchen doorway. “You promised me you wouldn’t do this kind of thing.”

“Pardon me,” Abe spoke in his low baritone. “What kind of thing are you referring to?”

Phoebe jerked her head up and immediately regretted it. There was question and suspicion in his dark eyes, as if he couldn’t trust her. She rubbed her lips together, wishing she’d had a moment with him first.

“Phoebe is my niece and a former social worker for the Department of Family and Protective Services.”

Shame lowered Phoebe’s gaze. She couldn’t bear to look at Abe once Uncle Harry revealed it all.

“Not because she wasn’t a good social worker. My niece is gifted with a caring nature, overly gifted to be honest.”

“Overly gifted?” Bart echoed.

Phoebe squeezed her fingers tight.

“She has a knack for getting too involved in cases. Going beyond what is necessary as a social worker and a counselor,” Uncle Harry groused. “Getting herself into dangerous and avoidable situations that she can’t control but could’ve if she followed procedures correctly.”

She looked up then and met her uncle’s gaze, silently pleading with him to stop here.

“I have only one question,” Abe said quietly, drawing their attention. “Her being here, will it affect the decision for my siblings?”

Her pulse jumped in her throat. His expression was unreadable, as though he’d closed the shutters in his mind. His gaze stayed on her uncle’s face, dismissing her. Phoebe swallowed hard and looked back down.

Uncle Harry sighed heavily. “Considering the circumstance I found you both in… yes it could.”

She could feel the two older brothers stiffen and cringed. This was all her fault. After the struggle Abe had faced to prepare himself as a legal guardian for his siblings, she would ruin it all because she didn’t listen. From the look on his face, he probably blamed her too.

“If she leaves now,” Bart spoke up. “Would it still be a problem?”

Uncle Harry sighed again. “Being that I’m her biological relative, it’s not ethical for me to continue the interview… I’m sorry.”

Phoebe looked up. “Oh Uncle Harry, can’t you send someone else to continue the interview?” Her heart was racing fast, her face warm from the brothers’ eyes on her. “Please?”

He looked conflicted; weighing her words and the situation before them. Yes, she had nothing to do with the department anymore but she was still a counselor. She still shouldn’t be here.

“I’ll leave.” She pleaded with her eyes.

Uncle Harry then sighed. “I’ll see what I can do.” He fished out his phone from the inner lining of his jacket pocket. His eyes silently warned her that this conversation wasn’t over.

Relief drooped her shoulders. Phoebe nodded and she quickly moved around Bart to grab her purse. She didn’t dare seek out Abe’s gaze or that of the children standing in the kitchen doorway, her chest tight with tears she tried to hold in. “Thank you, Uncle Harry.”

“Phoebe?” Darah was suddenly at her side, holding her sleeve. “Don’t leave.”

She froze, keeping her head down.

“Let her go, Darah,” Abe said in a stern voice.

Both Darah and Phoebe flinched.

Geraldine moved in, putting her hands on Darah’s shoulders and drawing her away.

Phoebe’s heart broke a little more as she parked her purse over her shoulder and moved to the door, feeling like a weight was clamped to her ankles. It would most likely be the last time she’d step into this house.  Abe had every right to be angry with her, to never want to see her again. She’d jeopardized the future of his family and she only had herself to blame.

Closing the door behind her, the tears welled up in her eyes. Phoebe put a hand over her quivering mouth and hurried down the stairs to her car. Putting the car in reverse, she quickly escaped the subdivision and pulled up the side of the road before weeping aloud.

Abe and Bart exchanged glances as Mr. Harry spoke in hushed tones on his phone. Bart eyed Abe’s terse expression, him attempting to mask his reaction to Phoebe’s departure. But Bart could see anger plainly on Abe’s face.

For most of their childhood, Abe was the least expressive when frustrated or angry. Bart didn’t know whether it was because as firstborn, Abe felt responsible for setting the mood of the house, or if it was something else entirely.

Darah and Eleazar were trying to hold back their tears, sniffling noisily at the kitchen door with Geraldine holding them both. Clement stood with a frown directed at Abe. All three of the younger siblings were clearly blaming their eldest brother for Phoebe’s departure.

Then Mr. Harry sighed as he lowered his phone. “So I have good and bad news… which would you prefer first?”

“Good news,” Bart said.

“Bad news,” Abe said simultaneously.

Mr. Harry’s lips twitched. “I’ll just go ahead and say it. The interview is still scheduled. The thing is it’ll have to be in a week or two since the person is out of town.”

“A week or two?” Abe echoed, brow furrowed.

“As in Thanksgiving week?” Bart asked, exchanging a glance with Abe.

Mr. Harry nodded. “Maybe the day before or the day after. Will that be okay?”

The two older brothers looked at each other and then Abe sighed. “Do we have a choice?”

Mr. Harry smiled. “Of course you do. Thanksgiving Eve or Black Friday?”

Abe heaved a sigh, frustrated with the delay.

Bart nodded at Mr. Harry. “Let’s go with Black Friday. No one’s going shopping around here. We’ll be ready.”

“Good.” Mr. Harry pocketed his phone. “I’ll let them know.”

“Will you be staying for dinner?” Geraldine asked from the doorway.

Mr. Harry shook his head. “I better get going… Got someone I should see.”

The room was quiet, all thinking of the woman that had just left.

“Are you gonna punish Phoebe?” Eleazar asked in a feeble voice.

All attention turned to the boy with tears glistening in his eyes. Darah smoothed a hand over his head and he leaned into her, peeking up at the elderly gentleman.

Mr. Harry managed a smile. “It’ll be alright, Eleazar. Phoebe will be okay.” He then turned to Abe and extended a hand which Abe shook in farewell. He did the same with Bart and then gave them a warmer smile. “Good luck with everything.”

The Teka family watched as Abe walked Mr. Harry to the door before all released a collective sigh. Geraldine shook her head. “Poor girl…”

Bart rubbed the back of his neck. “She’s a grown woman. He won’t give her too much of a hard time. Let’s eat, I’m starved.”

“Bart!” Darah scowled, ready to scold him for thinking about food at a time like this.

When Abe returned to the house, resignation was plain on his face. He closed the door and stared at his family. “Let’s eat.”

Darah rolled her eyes but moved to the kitchen. “Might as well or we won’t hear the end of it…”

Clement smirked wryly, joining her.

Bart waited until Abe came to his side before asking. “You okay?”

Abe nodded. “Yeah… I’m okay.”

“She isn’t to blame, you know.”

Abe didn’t respond for a second and then he sighed. “Yeah, I know.” He moved to Eleazar who edged away from him and closer to Darah’s side.

Geraldine gave Abe a sympathetic look and passed him a plate.

Bart watched the exchange and stepped forward, hand out.

She eyed his open hand, grabbed a plate and swiftly turned away.

He scowled at her back. Why was she showing everyone but him how kind she could be?

<<Chapter 8 || Chapter 10>>

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