Joy; it was something none of them knew could exist after Yonas and Ester were laid to rest, never to be experienced again. Their lives as orphans was to be filled with grief, especially during the holidays, and no one would see cause to blame them for their despair.

However, Abe found himself smiling as he thought of the moment they’d gotten the call from the Department of Family and Protective Services after Mrs. Bessel’s visit. The entire family crowded around him, eyes riveted to his face, ears perked to hear the muffled voices from the phone, awaiting the news.

The minute he nodded, they all cheered. Both Darah and Eleazar couldn’t muffle their squeals of excitement, jumping into their older brothers’ arms. Abe remained seated though a smile was on his face as he listened to the instructions. He barely heard a word though, watching his siblings celebrate. This was joy; something once unattainable after their parents’ death had now become theirs to hold for a lifetime.

Darah jumped into Bart’s arms, her skinny arms circling his neck and squealing for joy as he spun her around. Eleazar was also in high spirits in Clement’s arms. Both Bart and Clement were grinning from ear to ear. Relief and joy filled Abe’s body and he allowed himself to smile finally. They were going to stay together, as a family.

Since they’d been too anxious about the DFPS visit, their Thanksgiving dinner was delayed. Thanksgiving dinner consisted of grilled cheese sandwiches, corn on the cob and apple juice for the main course, and mint chocolate cookies for dessert.

None complained of the lack of festivity, knowing that impressing the visitor from the foster agency was of a greater importance. They’d come together as a family and would now have the opportunity to live life together.

Darah sniffled on the table, breaking Abe’s thoughts. They now sat on the dining table, eating their more festive Thanksgiving dinner a few days later. All eyes turned to Darah, frowning at the tears streaming down her face.

“What’s wrong?” Abe asked, reaching over to put a hand on her shoulder. His eyes skimmed over his brothers, each of them shrugging, their expressions puzzled and wary.

Head down, Darah swiped the tears from her cheeks. “Nothing…”

“You’re crying for nothing—” Clement scowled when Bart nudged his foot under the table.

“You sure it’s nothing?” Abe asked gently, hand cupping her bony shoulder.

Darah nodded, lowering her hand. “I just… I just miss Mom.”

“I miss Daddy,” Eleazar piped in.

Abe’s shoulders sagged. Clement looked away. Bart sighed. This business of grieving would be a long one for the Teka family, that much was certain. And although they had much to celebrate, they also had two reasons to be solemn during the holidays.

“Like who’s gonna show me how to drive?” Darah continued.

“You have three brothers that’ll teach you when it’s time,” Abe answered.

Clement and Bart nodded, wearing identical frowns as they regarded their only sister.

She sniffed. “And who’ll show me how to straighten my hair? Or tell me whether to use pads or tampons?”

The three guys stiffened, Abe grimacing.

“What’s tampons?” Eleazar asked frowning.

Darah sighed heavily at their silence and pained expressions. “See? And when I have my first boyfriend–”

The men scowled. “What boyfriend?” Abe groused.

“You’re too young to even look at boys right now,” Bart added with a frown.

“That’s for sure,” Clement grumbled, his expression stormy. “Keep your head down.”

Darah rolled her eyes. “I didn’t say I was. Calm down.”

“Good we got that cleared up,” Bart said, returning to his sandwich. Clement did the same while Eleazar played with the lumpy mashed potatoes.

Sure she wasn’t done, Abe squinted at her. “What’s your point, Darah?”

She pinned him with her gaze and he felt every muscle in his body tense up.

“Whether you guys admit it or not, you know I need a woman’s influence.” Her lips trembled. “If Mommy was here…”

“Then Abe should get married,” Clement said matter-of-factly as he bit into the fried chicken. “Simple.”

Abe and Bart eyed him warily.

Darah sat up. “Oh yeah, but who?” her voice was entirely too cheery for Abe’s liking.

“Who else?” Clement shrugged nonchalantly. “Ms. Randall.”

“Ooh!” Darah clasped her hands together, face beaming. “That’s awesome!”

“I like Phoebe,” Eleazar said with a grin.

Bart’s shoulders loosened and a bemused smile twitched his lips. He eyed Abe who looked thunderstruck. “Looks like you’re getting married, Bro.”

Bewildered, Abe blinked at his siblings. “Marry… Phoebe? Me?”

“Who else?” Clement repeated, eying him curiously.

“I’ll marry her!” Eleazar said and Bart ruffled his hair.

“Wait your turn, kid.” Then Bart grinned at Abe. “You like her, don’t you?”

“Of course he likes her,” Darah said, beaming at Abe. “After kissing her like that, you better like her.”

Bart chuckled, Eleazar giggled, and Clement smirked. “The madam of the house has spoken. You’re getting married.”

Abe’s frown only deepened. “Now wait a minute. Don’t I get a say on whom and when I get married?”

Whom, shall or whatever,” Bart countered, smile only growing brighter. “Abe, you talk formally only when you’re uncomfortable… which means you’ve clearly considered it for yourself.”

“Oooh!” Darah sing-songed with a laugh. “Abe wants to marry Phoebe.”

“That’s ridiculous.” He shook his head, increasingly weary of this conversation. “No.”

“Uh-huh,” Darah continued, nudging him with her elbow. Everyone laughed at Abe’s exasperated expression. “Admit it, you wanna marry Phoebe. It’s plain as day in your eyes, Abe.”

“That’s enough. I said no!”

The smiles froze and the room grew silent. All eyes gaped at him, stunned by his outburst. Abe stifled a groan.

“Wait… you don’t wanna marry her?” Darah croaked, big eyes luminous with tears unshed. “Why not? She’s perfect.”

Abe sighed in rising aggravation. Her tears were his weakness. “Darah, not that again. Stop it.”

Scowling, Darah shot to her feet and glared down at him. “You suck.”

The brothers watched Darah storm up the stairs to her room, and flinched when she slammed her door. Then exhaling a harsh breath, Abe leaned his elbows on the table and covered his face with his hands.

Quietly, Clement and Eleazar left the table to go after Darah. Bart remained seated, the silence only interrupted by Eleazar’s pleas upstairs for Darah to open her door. Clement then gently instructed Eleazar to leave her alone for now, and both retreated to their shared room.

“What’s got you scared?”

Abe let out a humorless laugh. “You have no idea.”

“I think I do.” Bart waited until Abe looked up before giving his brother a smile. “You’ve just become the legal guardian of three minors… before turning thirty. According to the law, you’re officially a father.”

Abe rubbed his face, the word father resonating in his heart. Could he be the kind of father Yonas was to them? What if he didn’t have a clue?

“The thing is no one’s asking you to be Dad, Abe.”

He met Bart’s eye, his heart stopped.

“Not me, not Junior, not Darah and not Eli. You can’t be him, no one can.”

Abe swallowed hard, his eyes stinging.

“All you can be is yourself, Abe. That’s what counts.”

“What if that’s not enough?” His chest tightened, his fears rising to the surface.

“It is. Abe, it is enough.” Bart gave him a smile. “Stop giving yourself a hard time, stop acting like you’re this perfect son who has to meet everyone’s expectations.”

Chagrined, Abe looked away.

“You’ve been doing that since we were young. Aren’t you tired of it?”

Abe looked up, meeting Bart’s frown. He had no words in his defense. For as long as he could remember, he tried to be a good son and a good student, so Yonas and Ester would never regret their decision to adopt him. Even though they never failed to tell him he was their choice, not an obligation, he couldn’t stop striving to be the best he could be.

“Enough, Abe. Stop living to prove yourself. They’re proud of you. We’re all proud of you.”

Tears brimmed his eyes and Abe blinked them away, bowing his head. He knew those words, heard them a lot from their parents, but somehow hearing it from Bart felt different. Like a balm to heal the wound of their loss. His loss.

“And I’m here,” Bart said softly. “You’re not doing this alone. We’ll do this together, all of us. Not one person will be left with the responsibility of keeping our family together. Got it?”

His throat too tight to form words, Abe merely nodded. The thought of his siblings growing together in this house warmed him and terrified him all at the same time. And Darah’s worries only stirred up more what-ifs and unknowns than he was prepared to consider.

“This thing with Darah,” Bart continued with hesitation in his voice. “It’s foreign.”

His lips twitched. “You can say that again.”

“Going to the store to buy pads and tampons… it’s not something I imagined us doing now. But it’s what we’ve got to deal with.”

“Plus dealing with guys and other female stuff…” Abe trailed off, grimacing.

“Oh, she’ll have her first and only boyfriend at thirty,” Bart said confidently. “Not dealing with that until then.”

Abe smirked. “Not if she has anything to say about it.”

Bart smirked in return. “True, the rascal.” His smile waned. “Anyway about Phoebe… are you sure?”

Abe’s smile froze.

“I mean, are you serious about not wanting to marry her someday? You don’t like her?”

Abe frowned. “I like her. It’s not that. I…”

“Take your time, Abe,” Bart said gently. “No one’s saying you should get married tomorrow or next year. But if you like her and you see her being in this family, we’re in full support. She’s a good woman.”

“I know…”

“Then make your move before some other cat does.”

Abe sagged in his chair. “After the way I treated her that night, I really doubt she wants me.”

Bart chuckled. “That’s not what Junior said.”

Abe looked up in alarm. “What? W-what did he say?”

<<Chapter 14 || Chapter 16>>