Eli squinted at his youngest niece clutching a worn-out teddy bear to her chest. “You don’t have a reason for pouting, Karla. If anything, it should be me throwing a fit, but I’m not.” He turned about to study the line of codes on his laptop. “It’s a good thing I hit save before stepping out. Although I don’t even know why I kept this thing here, knowing good and well what could happen.”
“Aw c’mon Uncle Eli, I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“Uh-huh.” He quickly typed a string of text. “This is gonna take all night.”
“I said I was sorry…” she whimpered with a sniffle.
Eli didn’t bat a lash. “Nope. Not falling for—” The stuffed animal hit the back of his neck. “Kindly pick up Mr. Teddy and put him back where you saw it.”
“Mr. Teddy needs a bath,” She scoffed, snatched it up and tossed it unceremoniously on the bed.
“Yeah, like treating Mr. Teddy badly’ll get me to forgive you.” He heaved a sigh as an error message flashed on the screen.
Karla scrambled to his side. “Did we mess it up, Uncle?”
Her timid tone had him glance over his shoulder at her. The furrow between her brow eased his frustration a bit. “It’s alright, Kay. It’s nothing I can’t solve.”
The furrow eased away and she gave him a smile. “Can I get you cookies?”
“Sure.” He returned to face the screen. “Oatmeal raisin.”
The door opened.
“Good, you brought the cookies,” Karla announced, leaving Eli’s side to address the visitor.
“Hey!” August protested as his cousin snatched the box from his arms.
Eli rolled his eyes, typing lines of texts. “No fighting.”
“He’s pinching my arm.”
“You poked my eye!”
“That’s a lie!”
“Nu-unh! You’re always stealing from me!”
Eli turned, spotting August holding one hand over his eye and the other on the box. Karla held one hand to her arm and the other tightly on the cookies. He heaved a deep sigh and scooted away from the table. “Sit down.”
At his stern tone, the two reluctantly shuffled to the bed, not letting go of either.
“You two fight a lot,” Eli folded his arms across his chest, and eyed the cookies. “Give ’em to me.”
The two blinked, both reluctant to relinquish their war prize.
“For the madness you’d wreaked on my comput–” he held back a smile to accept the proffered prize and squinted at them. “Now apologize to each other.”
“Sorry,” they mumbled in unison.
Eli shook his head. “I swear you two act like you’re still in kindergarten. Now go and leave me in peace.” He turned about, dismissing them both.
The two stood. “What about dinner?” Karla asked. “Want us to bring you some?”
“He said to leave him in peace,” August said, nudging Karla toward the door. “Aunt Zo can bring it later.”
Eli paused and swiveled about. “Zoey’s here?”
“Uh-hm,” August answered. “She brought the cookies.”
It took less than a moment for Eli to hit save and stand. He pointed at both. “Don’t touch.”
“We won’t,” they answered emphatically, hands up in surrender.
Eli rushed past them to the stairs, following the laughter and the aroma of roasted garlic to the kitchen. From the side door, he spotted Zoey standing across the island counter from a smiling Abe and Phoebe.
“I can just imagine the beautiful chaos,” Phoebe said amid giggles. “Nigeria sounds like such a fun place.”
“It has its days,” Zoey answered. “Though some days are treacherous depending on your experience.”
Phoebe’s gaze lifted. “I wonder what your reaction will be, Eli. Stop standing there like a guilty man.”
“Dunno,” Eli answered, winking at Zoey who looked up at him. He strolled up to her and draped an arm over her shoulders. “Haven’t gone yet.”
“And when were you gonna tell us?” Abe’s stare pierced through Eli. “Planning on sneaking off like you did to Ethiopia?”
Phoebe nudged Abe’s side. “Relax.”
Eli frowned. “I didn’t sneak off. Junior invited me.”
“You invited yourself, Eleazar.”
“This is most likely why he didn’t tell you,” Darah spoke from behind Eli. She was empty-handed now, having put her sleeping daughter in the master bedroom. “The way y’all freak out about the littlest things.”
“Then why did you tell them?” Eli frowned as she stepped up beside him. Zoey’s shoulder tensed under his hand and he scowled at Darah.
“Traveling across the world to an unknown place where you don’t know anyone is little?” Abe frowned. “Are you two okay?”
“Relax Abe,” Phoebe cautioned, her eyes moving between Zoey and Eli. “We have a guest.”
“Zoey is not a guest,” Darah rolled her eyes. “And she’s the reason Eli’s going across the world.”
Eli squinted at her. “You trying to make this better or worse?”
“Neither. Just stating facts.”
“Take your facts somewhere else—”
“Eli!” Abe glowered and Phoebe frowned with disapproval.
Zoey flinched at the raised tones. Eli grimaced. “My bad.”
“You too,” Abe pinned his stern glare on Darah. “Enough.”
“Alright, fine.” Darah raised both hands and took a step back.
“It’s my fault!”
All eyes faced Zoey and Phoebe frowned. “Not your fault, Zoey. Eli just has a terrible habit of keeping secrets from his family.”
“Speaking of secrets—”
“Don’t you ever shut up, Darah?”
“Eli, enough!” Abe roared, slamming his hand on the counter.
Zoey stiffened against him and Eli scowled. “This is why I don’t tell you guys anything. C’mon Zoey, let’s go…” He frowned when she remained rooted and unyielding to his nudge.
“I’ll stay here,” she mumbled, gaze averted.
“Right.” He dropped his hand from around her. “Do whatever you want.” Without glancing at either of his siblings, he walked out of the kitchen.
Zoey grimaced the minute Eli stormed out, regretting her decision to remain behind.
Abe grumbled under his breath and followed suit.
“Men.” Darah clucked her tongue. She arched both brows when Phoebe squinted at her. “What?”
“You’re such a troublemaker.” Phoebe shook her head. “Yet you complain that your kids are a handful. I feel bad for J.R. every single day.”
“Whatever, like your boys are complete angels.”
“Never said they were, kid. Now come slice the bread.” She glanced over at Zoey. “Hey, don’t blame yourself for Eli’s behavior.”
Zoey bit her bottom lip, counting on one hand the times they’d fought. Eli could be grumpy, but what man wasn’t when things didn’t go his way? An image of Eli exchanging heated words with her father flashed before her eyes. A tickle down her spine had her wrap arms around herself.
“You cold?” Darah asked casually, placing thick bread slices on the platter dish.
“We spooked her with all that yelling,” Phoebe sighed.
“No I’m alright,” Zoey insisted. “Just…” Her gaze shifted between the two women. “Worried?”
Zoey’s eyes fell on Phoebe. “I guess I didn’t really consider how Eli would fare in Lagos.”
Phoebe smirked. “He can handle himself even in the craziness that is your home city.”
“I don’t mean that.” Zoey paused and sighed. “Nevermind.”
“You’re already regretting it?”
Zoey turned to Darah. “Kinda.”
Darah grinned. “I’m sure he is too–stop nudging me, Phoebe. It’s true. Most men are inherently childish. They feel like you’re against them if you don’t agree with their point of view. Take Abe for instance. He’s probably sulking that Phoebe nagged him just now, even after eighteen or so years of being married. Phoebe’s gonna have to go placate her man and make peace with him in a minute.”
“Nope!” Phoebe huffed, crossing her arms. “He’s not a baby.”
“And whether you’d like to hear it or not, Zo, Eli was spoiled growing up. By us and definitely by his grandma, may her soul rest in peace,” Darah continued, rolling her eyes.
“Darah,” Phoebe warned, squinting.
“It’s true. Anyway, yeah. Because we spoiled him rotten, he could never take confrontation or being reprimanded too well. And you not standing by him just now might seem like a betrayal of sorts. Or maybe not, who knows,” Darah shrugged. “But to be safe, you should go check on your guy in any case.”
Zoey nodded readily. She didn’t like fighting with Eli, even if he was mostly wrong. “I’ll go do that.”
“You too, Phoebe.”
To the sound of Darah’s laughter, Zoey turned and hurried out of the kitchen in pursuit of Eli.
Approaching the bedroom door she’d shared with the Karla and her female cousins, Zoey rehearsed her apology. She imagined Eli brooding on his childhood bed and her footsteps slowed to a stop. Darah’s words echoed in her ears, painting the picture of Eli as an adolescent.
Her lips curved in a wry grin as she imagined his adorable pout and ruffled sandy curls. It must’ve been difficult staying mad at him as a child. Her smile eased away as she imagined him as a mouthy youth and grimaced. Her brother Law was a pain during puberty, and she could only wonder what a spoiled brat Eli must’ve been.
Zoey shook her head, grateful that she’d met him as a matured young man.
A muffled squeal snatched her from her reverie. Zoey approached the door, hand hovering over the knob.
“I’m gonna get you!”
“Not before I do!”
“What in the world…?” She frowned. Those voices belonged to Karla and August. Zoey opened the door.
The two adolescents sat on the bed with game controllers in hand, glaring at the screen. Sound effects of explosions and crashes filled the room. Her eyes moved over to the desk facing the window where Eli hunched over, headphones over his ears.
She shook her head and stepped inside. “Can you give us a minute?”
Zoey propped her hands at her hips. “Your mom’s counting to ten—” she hid a smirk as the two tossed aside the controllers and scrambled past her out the door. Their rumbling footsteps down the stairs were followed by Phoebe’s muffled reprimand.
Closing the door slowly, she crept up to Eli and wrapped her arms around him. He was watching a tutorial video on computers and she smiled, placing a noisy kiss on his cheek.
He turned his head, giving her a low-lidded look she imagined he’d given to his siblings countless times.
Zoey snorted a laugh.
His brow furrowed.
She laughed harder.
Eli rolled his eyes and looked away.
“I’m sorry,” she said amid giggles. Releasing him, she perched on the bed beside the desk. “You’re just so cute.” She reached up and tugged the headphones off, ruffling his curls.
He only looked miffed. She mimicked his expression and he scoffed, returning his attention to the screen.
“You mad at me?” she faked a pout he didn’t bother inspecting. Zoey whined. “Are you?”
“Quit,” Eli muttered, typing on.
“My baby is so cute and smart and awesome.” She nudged his hand holding the mouse.
“Your baby isn’t in the mood.” He nudged hers aside.
She pouted. “Aww.”
“You have something to say, Zoey, ‘cos I’m kinda busy.”
Zoey rolled her eyes. “Okay, I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to do. Everyone was yelling and…”
“We’ve yelled at each other countless times. Harvey should’ve shown you that.”
Zoey shrugged. “Those were intense times, even a monk would freak out in that condition.”
“Well, we’re not monks. Everyone’s got a problem with patience, understanding and tact.”
She regarded him carefully. “My family’s the same way, E.”
He looked her way. “What are you trying to say?”
“You yelled at your forty-something-year-old brother, Eli. Yeah, he’s your brother but he’s not your mate. Where I come from, you could get pimp-slapped for that.”
Eli frowned. “We’re not in Nigeria, Zo.”
“But you will be in a few weeks, remember?” Zoey eyed him. “I can’t have you yelling at my dad or his friends, man. He’ll bust your jaw. Heck, everyone will stand in line to slap you.” She chuckled at the dubious look on his face. “I’m being serious, Eli.”
“Then don’t laugh about it.”
She sobered instantly. “No but seriously, you gotta learn to let it slide. Be the bigger man.”
“You want me to be a doormat around your folks, even if–”
“Even if, Eli. Even if they insult you, you stay chill.” Zoey sighed, watching the conflict on his face. “I know it won’t be easy and I’m actually worried how you’ll respond to them provoking you, because they will.” She paused again, hesitant to mention her deepest concern.
“You want me to be the bigger guy,” Eli mumbled, resembling a pained man.
She wondered how many times he’d exercised self-control when provoked and anxiety nipped at her conscience. She needed to prepare him now. “E, I…”
“Okay,” Eli answered.
Zoey blinked. “Hmm?”
“Okay.” Eli looked her straight in the eye. “No matter how they provoke me, I’ll chill.” He smiled in response to her furrowed brow. “Trust me.”
Except Zoey couldn’t muster a sliver of hope in his confidence. Eli had no idea what he’d agreed to.