Two weeks later,
Abraham rubbed the tension from the back of his neck, his brow furrowed in thought.
Beside him, Bart grunted and set the letter aside. He then leaned back in his seat and regarded his older brother. “What do we do now?”
Bart sighed heavily. “Think faster, Abe. You read what it says; one week. That’s like tomorrow.”
The tension climbed up the back of his head. Abe rubbed a hand over his face, frustration mounting.
A day remained before a social worker would come to collect the younger ones, Darah and Eleazar. At seventeen, Clement was old enough to decide if he wanted to stay with his brothers, but with him refusing to talk, there was no telling if he’d stay or go. Things were falling apart more quickly than Abe expected. And Bart certainly wasn’t helping matters.
“Can’t they see we’re still in grieving mode?” Bart carried on, standing from the chair. He began pacing their father’s cramped study, stepping over stacks of books not yet filed on the shelves. “Between the funeral and selling the house—“
Abe looked up. “Selling the house?”
Bart paused his pacing and faced his brother with his brow furrowed. “Houses on this block are selling like hotcakes. We need to put it on the market while we still can. Delaying it won’t be for our benefit.”
Abe scowled. “Leave that real-estate nonsense for your workplace. This is our parents’ house, Bartimeus.”
Bart’s lips pursed. “Don’t you think I know that?”
“Good ‘cos we’ve got more important issues to worry about, Bartimeus.” He snatched up the letter, re-reading the bolded words that could seal the future for Darah and Eleazar, and possibly Clement. He and Bart were into their twenties and wouldn’t be affected by this decision, but the thought of not seeing their younger siblings felt too cruel so soon after their parents’ death. He had to do something and fast.
A grunt was all Bart gave as a response; mostly annoyed with Abe’s use of his full name, a right reserved for both their parents and not his brother only two years his senior.
“And just for your information, we are not selling this house.”
Bart scowled. “And what’s the point of keeping it if no one’s gonna live here? You want to rent it out?”
“No.” Abe looked up, the conviction of his thoughts strengthened by Bart’s exasperation. “We’ll be living here. Me, our siblings, and you.”
Bart’s eyes widened and his mouth parted. “What?”
Nodding, Abe reached for the phone sitting on his father’s walnut desk.
Bart rounded the desk and grabbed the phone from Abe’s hand before he could make a call. “Are you insane? What about your career? What about mine?”
Abe looked his brother in the eye, feeling only compassion for him. He’d had time to come to terms with this decision; Bart was yet to process it all on top of everything else. He retrieved the phone from Bart’s loose grip. “It’s okay if you can’t, Bart, but I’ve made up my mind. I’m moving back home.”
Bart gave him a hairy stare, unable to believe what his older brother was spouting.
“Wanna order pizza for the kids while I take care of this?” Abe asked, dialing the number on the letter. “Junior should be home soon. You know how cranky he gets…”
In silence, Bart backtracked out of their father’s study and shut the door behind him.
Abe lowered to the chair as though realizing for the first time what he’d just agreed to. At the peak of his life with no real cares except going to work, paying off loans and bills, he was signing up for the greatest responsibility he could fathom; becoming a foster father to his younger siblings.
“Department of Family and Protective Services, how may I help you?” a woman’s voice pervaded through his thoughts.
He sat up in his chair, resolution strengthening his spine. If his father could’ve made this life-changing decision at the same age, nineteen years ago, so could he. “Hello. My name is Abraham Teka. May I please speak to someone about becoming a foster parent?”
Bart shook his head as he stepped away from the door after hearing Abe’s request for information on foster care. He told himself that Abe just needed time to grief and if that was the case, Bart was willing to give him at least that much. In the event that Abe decided to sacrifice the rewards of his hard work and move back home, that didn’t mean he had to.
Exhaling a breath, Bart rounded the steps and jerked to a stop.
A glaring Darah stood in his path, Eleazar at her side with one hand in hers and the other at his mouth.
He managed a smile at his twelve-year-old sister who refused to return his smile. His faded. With a sigh, he skirted around her to the living room, hearing their footfall behind him. “What’s up, Darah?”
“Who said you can sell our house, you traitor!”
He turned at the accusing tone and arched a brow at her scowling face. “Excuse me?”
She hitched up her stubborn chin, her hazel eyes blazing with indignation. “No one told you to come here. Just go away if you want to leave too. We don’t need you.”
Eleazar inserted his thumb in his mouth, peeking up at Bart.
Bart paused briefly, stunned at his sister’s vehemence. She had no idea what she was saying, he told himself. This had to be the grief talking. “Now, wait a minute—“
The front door behind Darah swung open and a voice spoke before the owner stepped inside. “What’s the noise? Can hear you from down the street.”
A woman stepped inside, clad in red flannel and overalls. Her work boots scuffed the wooden floor and Bart frowned as Eleazar tugged his hand from Darah and scurried toward her.
“What’s with all the shouting?” she drawled out, lifting six-year-old Eleazar to her hip as if he was a baby. Her eyes barely skimmed over Bart, finding Darah instead. “What’s wrong, niña?”
Her softly-spoken words caused the fury to fade from Darah’s eyes, though she didn’t turn to address the woman now jostling Eleazar at her hip. “He wants to sell our house.”
Bart glanced back at the woman, seeing her eyes narrowed in suspicion at him.
“Why would he do a thing like that?” the woman’s voice sounded pleasant enough though there was conviction in her tone as though she had the right.
Bart snorted a laugh, drawing both their frowns. He shook his head. They were trying to make him a villain in his own house. “Now, wait a minute.”
“No, you wait a minute.” The woman nudged the door close with one hand and the other securing Eleazer close. Her expression hardened on him. “We get that you’re a big shot real estate guy, but no one’s selling this house. Not now, not ever.”
Bart scowled at her audacity to assume authority over a decision that was his and Abe’s to make. But more so, that she acted like she knew him. He stared at this woman with a round freckled face and pouting lips, her brown eyes piercing into him. Then he squinted. “Do I know you?”
Her plump mouth twisted in a derisive smirk. “You should.”
Abe emerged from the shadows before Bart could probe further. His older brother strode over and smiled at the woman. “Hey.”
“Hey.” She smiled shyly, edging closer when Eleazar started reaching for his brother.
Bart arched a brow as this fierce woman became a meek kitten in front of his brother, passing Eleazar into Abe’s arms. Squelching the momentary irritation at the warm look shared between the two, Bart eyed her suspiciously. “And who are you?”
“She’s Aunt Geri,” Darah said coldly, glaring at him again.
Bart arched a brow. “Aunt… Geri?”
“Geraldine Peña,” the woman said with that duplicitous smile on her face and extended a hand to him. “Pleased to meet you again, Bart.”
Again? Bart looked down at her hand and up at Abe, seeking answers.
“Don’t be rude,” Darah admonished like a mother rather than a little sister.
He clenched his jaw and looked back at Geraldine whose eyes shone with scornful humor. As though weights anchored his wrists to his side, he dragged his hand up to hers. As her short, stubby fingers closed over his palm, Bart realized that her hands were as rough as her manners.
“She’s helped Mom and Dad with house repairs for years now,” Abe supplied once the two disengaged hands and Bart shoved his in his pocket. There was pride in Abe’s voice that drew a shy smile on Geraldine’s face and a frown on Bart. “Maybe she’ll be of great use to you, y’know, helping us get the house back in working order.”
Geraldine smiled coyly. “I’d love to.”
Abe then turned his smile to Eleazar. “Ready for pizza?”
The boy perked up and nodded.
Chuckling low, Abe moved toward the kitchen. “Darah, come help order the right one this time.”
Darah didn’t budge, watching her second oldest brother like a hawk.
When Abe called for her again, she heaved a great sigh. “Don’t cause trouble,” she said to Bart in a stern tone before stomping off to the kitchen.
Geraldine smirked. “She’s funny.”
“A real comedienne,” Bart muttered, eyes stayed on her.
She broke eye contact and tucked tendrils of silky brown hair behind her ears. “Well, love to stay and chat but I’ve got work to do.” She started to turn away but stopped, glancing over her shoulder at him. “Save all that real-estate for Cali. Your family’s staying here if I can help it.”
Bart scowled, watching her move to the stairs. “Who are you?!”
“Try to remember, Bartimeus!” she called back, stomping up the stairs in her work boots.
The front door opened and Clement entered, shouldering the door close. Bart turned to him, waiting for acknowledgment or something. Instead, Clement just breezed past him to the kitchen as though he didn’t exist. Voices from the kitchen filled the silence and he stayed in the living room, feeling like the odd-one out.
Bart chuckled in self-derision. “Well isn’t this fantastic?” He turned to the mantle, seeing the family photos resting there from baby pictures of Eleazar to graduation pictures of both him and Abe.
There was no corner of this house that didn’t invoke a memory of Yonas and Ester Teka. His eyes stung and Bart blinked it away. He was clearly the only one thinking practically; this house needed to be sold and the sooner the better.