“Aunty! Aunty!” a squeaky voice beckoned Darah’s attention and she glanced over to six-year-old Karla standing with her cousin and age-mate Augustus. The girl gave her a toothy smile. “Watch me, Aunty.”
Darah smiled patiently. “I’m watching.”
Karla bent at the waist and performed a perfect handstand.
Darah clapped with a cheer when Karla righted herself. “Wonderful, Cabbage!”
The girl grinned and shifted her gaze to Darah’s shoulder. “Daddy, Mommy, you saw me?”
Darah looked over her shoulder to where a bearded Abe stood with an arm draped over Phoebe’s shoulders. The parents smiled with pride and Abe gave his only daughter a thumbs up. “Great job, baby.”
Phoebe winked. “Now come wash your hands. We’re about to eat.”
“What about me?” a diminutive voice beckoned them to turn to a pouting Augustus.
Darah grinned. “Sorry August, your turn. Go.”
The pout morphed into a smile and the little boy performed a handstand as good as Karla’s.
The three adults cheered in cue, earning them Augustus’ beaming smile. Abe gave his nephew two thumbs-up before he started for the stairs to summon the other kids. His deep voice echoed from the ceiling as he instructed the noisy children to tidy the rooms and get ready for dinner.
“Aunty, watch me!” Karla called, bouncing to Phoebe’s side. “I can do a gad-zillion jumps!”
“Me too! I do a gad-zillion and one!” Augustus piped in as he jumped faster than Karla. Then the front door swung open and the little boy turned, squealing as Bart stepped inside. Abandoning the competition with Karla, he sprinted over to Bart’s side. “Papa!”
A tired Bart lit up when his youngest son bum-rushed him and hugged his legs. With a chuckle, Bart swept an elated Augustus off his feet and planted loud kisses over his face.
Darah watched the two with a wistful smile. It seemed not too long ago, her older brothers Abe and Bart were both bachelors, clueless about love. Now they were doting husbands and fathers; Abe a father of three and Bart a father of four. She shook her head incredulously, wondering where the time had gone.
“Darah,” Phoebe’s gentle voice pulled her out of her thoughts. “Are you staying for dinner this time? We’ve set a place for you.”
“Auntie, will you sleep over?” Karla asked from her mother’s side since Phoebe held onto her shoulders. No more playtime for the youngest Teka children.
“I can’t, Cabbage,” Darah said regretfully. “But I’ll stay for dinner.”
“Why not?” Karla asked with wide, innocent eyes.
Darah choked a laugh. “Not tonight, Cabbage. I’ve got exams.”
“Which ones?” Bart asked with August propped on his back, the boy pretending his dad was a standing horse. “How to make pots or do the do-si-do?”
Darah rolled her eyes at his playful dig. “Don’t ask if you don’t care to know.”
“Of course we care,” Phoebe placated, giving Bart a warning glance. “I’ll pack you enough for the week.”
“Thanks,” Darah said as she stood, and glanced at Bart. “Where’s Geri?”
“Yelena’s in with a cold, so she’s nursing her.” Bart stifled a yawn and waved off Phoebe’s concern. “I’ll get a plate or two to go though. How were the kids?”
Phoebe led the way to the kitchen. “As you could imagine.”
“Means if they are anything like their father, they were rascally,” Darah quipped.
“I’m not rascuwwy!” Augustus protested, pouting from Bart’s shoulder.
Darah’s smile faded at her youngest nephew’s protest. “Sorry, August. Aunty was just joshing.”
“What’s jos-josh…?” Karla asked, tugging at her hand. She didn’t like sharing attention, especially not Augustus.
“It’s what you and August do,” Phoebe inserted, giving Darah a kind smile. “Except you and him will stop way before you’re adults.”
Karla made a face, tucking her hand in her mother’s as they entered the kitchen. “I don’t wanna adult.”
“Me too!” Augustus piped in, pouting when Bart set him down on his two feet.
Darah smirked. “Neither do I.”
“Who said you are?” Bart quipped, placing his hands on August’s shoulders.
With the children watching them closely, Darah managed not to stick her tongue out at him. She flashed a sweet smile instead. “Probably the same person who said you were.”
“Daddy!” excited voices interrupted Bart’s retort and everyone turned to the kids hurrying down the stairs toward Bart and Augustus.
“Be careful,” Abe drawled as though he’d said it a million times. He lagged behind, a bemused expression on his face.
Bart grinned as three rushed up to him, talking all at once. “Slow down,” he said chuckling. “One at a time.”
They began talking again; Joselyn at 11 years, the fraternal twins Fallon and Tomas at 8 years.
Smirking, Darah sought out the remaining two who stood close to Abe; 9-year-old Isaac and 7-year-old James. They watched their cousins with placid expressions, their temperament very much like their father. Their only sister Karla was more like Phoebe.
The two boys finally noticed Darah watching them. Isaac’s dark brows lifted in surprise and James grinned.
“Hey boys,” she said and opened her arms to accept their hugs. James reached her first, Isaac strolling behind. She laughed, reaching up to tap his forehead. “What, too big for hugs?”
He grinned in welcome, giving her a side hug. “When d’you come?”
She didn’t get to respond when the rest of Bart’s children rushed her with greetings; their smiles and excited chatter filling her heart with warmth.
“Are you staying?” Joselyn asked, stepping aside so her sister Fallon could give Darah a hug and a noisy kiss.
Darah smiled at Joselyn over their heads. “Hmm, for dinner though.”
Their disappointment was plain to see and Darah felt sorry. No doubt their little minds had anticipated her staying longer this time. If only she could…
“Why?” Isaac asked and all the children stared, awaiting her answer.
“She’s got an exam to study for,” Phoebe answered for her.
“Which one, pottery or dance?” Abe asked, earning a pointed look from Phoebe. He raised his brows. “What?”
Bart nudged his brother. “That’s what I said.”
“And just like I told him, if you don’t care don’t ask.” She then gave her nephews and nieces a smile. “Tell you what? If you promise to help me study, I’ll stay the night.”
She grinned as they all cheered, reminding her why she needed to come in the first place. Then Phoebe whistled, quietening the cheer. “Now that we’ve got that settled, let’s eat!”
Darah allowed the kids to lead her to the dining table, listening to the conversations going on around her. She’d missed her family; every single one of them. And once they seated, Darah noticed that someone else was missing from the group. “Where’s Eli?”
Phoebe busied herself cutting Karla’s chicken fried steak. Abe’s eyes shifted away from her and Bart shoveled rice into his mouth instead of replying.
“He’s with his grandmother,” Phoebe then replied tersely.
“But that’s okay though, right?” Darah arched a brow. Eleazar often spent time with his biological grandmother, Mrs. Sharma Crane who had actively sought out Eleazar for ten years.
“It’s fine,” Abe assured her as he placed a hand on Phoebe’s shoulder. Phoebe’s tight lips said otherwise.
“When’s Uncle Junior coming home?” Isaac inquired from his seat, curious about absent Clement away on missionary work overseas.
“Christmas for sure, Thanksgiving maybe,” Abe answered.
Bart cleared his throat. “Okay guys, finish up. Your Mom’s waiting for us.”
The three whined as they often did when it came time to end the nights with their cousins.
“Can’t we sleep over with Aunty? Please, Daddy?” Joselyn batted her long lashes, knowing it worked well with Bart.
Darah smiled. Even though Joselyn was not Bart’s biological daughter; born to Geraldine in her first marriage, he loved her as he did their other three children. She was their firstborn as far as any of them was concerned.
“Your Mimi needs hugs and kisses to get better, so maybe next time.” He turned to Augustus and wiped his mouth. “Now eat up so we can get going.”
“I’ll sleep over at your place next time,” Darah offered when Joselyn sighed heavily. Then she poked pouting Fallon’s cheek which earned her a dimpled smile.
When Bart and his clan eased out of the house, and Abe and the boys cleaned up the kitchen, Darah sought out Phoebe upstairs. She entered her old room that was now Karla’s. Standing in the doorway, she surveyed the decorations; artsy stickers and even her old paintings remained on the walls.
Darah smiled wistfully, crossing her arms over her stomach.
“I’ll lay out the pillows and blankets,” Phoebe spoke through Darah’s thoughts. Her eyes were focused on applying lotion to her daughter’s skinny body. “Don’t worry about studying in here, Karla’s a deep sleeper.”
Darah caught Karla’s eye and winked, earning another heart-stopping smile. She sighed inwardly, wondering what it would be like to have a child…
“Eli’s moving out.”
Darah’s smile faded. “What?”
Phoebe sighed, holding out printed pajama shorts for Karla to put on. “You heard me.”
“But he’s in a local college.”
“So are you.”
Darla’s cheeks warmed at the pointed accusation. “I’m not that local. It takes an hour and a half to my campus. He’s literally down the street from–”
“He says there’s no space here,” Phoebe continued, adjusting Karla’s sleep shirt. “That it’ll be easier living with Sharma. Easier, like we’ve ever complained about space before.”
She heard the bitterness in Phoebe’s voice and grimaced.
Since the day Phoebe met Eleazar, she’d taken to him and treated him like one of her own children. Of course she felt unsettled when Sharma Crane came into Eleazar’s life ten years prior, maybe a little betrayed by Eleazar’s loyalty to a woman who’d barely come to know.
Darah had heard of Eleazar spending time with Sharma Crane, accompanying her on weekend trips to visit her side of the family. Sharma had only one daughter, Eleazar’s deceased mother, so it was understandable that she clung to her only grandchild. Still, Phoebe loved Eleazar like a son and it was obvious she was hurt more than she let on.
As Phoebe quietly combed out Karla’s kinky hair, Darah could only stare in growing regret; for she too had betrayed Phoebe and the family in more ways than one. What comfort could she give when she’d done far worse than Eleazar?