Oh shit. Am I going to cry? I look up at the roof of the van and blink back any tears. “I didn’t check in with the family much, not as much as I should have, I was just so immersed with living this new life, trying to be the person I always dreamed I could be. I had no idea what was going on at home. The wedge between April and I grew stronger. I stopped knowing who she was, knowing the person she was growing into. Then, then my parents died, and I was back here, and I was thrust into the middle of this…this family that was mine and wasn’t mine at the same time. And we’re hurting, you know? We’re all hurting and we’re sad and we’re picking up the pieces and yet we’re also drifting even further apart. Now I look at April and I don’t just see my sister, I see a stranger. And she hates me.”
I take a moment to catch my breath, my heart is racing even faster than before. There’s silence in the van except for the sound of the engine ticking. I sneak a glance at the Swede.
He’s watching me with this quiet intensity in his eyes and sympathy etched in his brow. “It sounds like you’re doing the best you can,” he says and though his voice is soft, it emits a low, deep rumble I feel in my bones. “You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself.”
He might be right. But if I’m not hard on myself then how will I ever get better? Be better? I have to be hard on myself in order to grow. I’m in charge of this family now and to fail is…not an option.
I open my mouth to tell him this but a movement by the house catches my eye.
I crane my neck past him to see the front door opening and April stepping out, walking toward the station wagon in the driveway. Her dark hair is hanging in her face, she’s wearing the same jeans and cardigan I saw her in yesterday, dirty Converse on her feet.
“There she is,” I say, and before I know it, I’m getting out of the van and storming across the street toward her. I hope the Swede has enough presence of mind to stay in the car while I deal with this.
“April,” I bark and in seconds I know I’m not taking my dad’s role of quiet disappointment, but my mom’s volcanic one.
She jerks back in surprise, stopping in her tracks by broken beer bottles. “What are you doing here?” she says, and I watch as her eyes go from shocked to angry. Angry that I’ve intruded into this part of her life, angry that I have the nerve to act like her parent.
“You didn’t come home last night,” I tell her, doing my best to keep my voice steady, to keep my emotions in check.
Think like dad, think like dad.
“So?” she answers defiantly. Hands go to her hips, hair gets flipped over her shoulder.
This is not going to be easy.
“So we were worried first of all,” I tell her, “and second of all, what are you doing here? You know you can’t spend the night anywhere without telling me first, especially not here!”
“If I told you, you wouldn’t have let me come.”
“I know, no one in their right mind would have,” I tell her and reach out, grabbing her arm. “But now you’re coming back home with me.”
“Whatever,” she says, ripping herself out of my grasp and fixing the most bitter, damaging eyes on me, the kind that really tells me how much she hates me. “You can’t make me.”
The front door to the house opens and Tito steps outside, immediately walking toward me with enough posturing and bravado to make me think he’s going to fuck me up. “What the fuck is going on? Fucking, Maggie McPherson. You’re looking good.”
“Yeah hi, Tito, just claiming my fourteen-year-old sister here,” I tell him, reaching for her again.
“Fuck off,” April swears, immediately going behind the wall of Tito. “We’re going to the mall.”
“The mall?” I repeat. “The mall? There is no damn mall in this town.”
“There is in Bako,” Tito says, taking a step toward me. “She’d like some new clothes for school. Do you know how she gets bullied for wearing that shit you dress her in?”
“I don’t dress her!” What the fuck. I look at April. “Bullied?”
She shrugs. “I’m tired of wearing second-hand shit. Tito is going to buy me a whole new wardrobe.”
“Oh yeah, and what are you giving him in return?”
“Fuck you,” April says.
Oh, I am seconds away from saying “fuck you too” but I can’t, I can’t. I have to push through this, be the better person, the older person, the guardian, the parent. Fuck, even the wise older sister will do.
I jerk my head to the van. “Please, April. Now.”
“She’s not going,” Tito says putting his hand on my shoulder and pushing me until I have to take a step back. “You’re not her fucking mother.”
That shouldn’t sting but it does. It does enough that I forget to be afraid that he just fucking touched me.
“I’m her legal guardian,” I eke out the words, trying to hold back tears. “She’s coming with me.”
“Go home, Maggie,” April says but now her tone is quiet and unsure. She actually looks a little scared until she pushes her hair into her face and hides behind him again.
“Yeah go fucking home you little bitch,” Tito says, getting in my face. He reeks like pot, his eyes are bloodshot, his forehead pale and sweating. I don’t care if I have to call the cops, but I am not leaving my sister here with him. She can hate me for the rest of my life, but I’m not backing down.
“Are you okay, Maggie?” I hear a voice from behind me and my stomach tightens. I look over my shoulder to see the Swede striding over to us. And while the sight of his gloriously tall and commanding frame coming this way feels something like a knight in shining armor, I know this isn’t going to go well.
“What the fuck?” Tito snarls as he takes in the stranger. “Who the fuck is this?”
“A friend.” The Swede cocks his head, stopping right beside me, observing Tito like an animal at the zoo. “And who might you be?”
“Fuck off,” Tito says though I pick up slight hesitation in his voice. The Swede towers over him and though Tito is packed with muscle, I know, personally, the Swede is too.
“Not the best manners,” the Swede says, pretending to wipe spit off his face.
“Who is this?” hisses April as she looks him up and down.
“This is Mr. Sverige,” I tell them because, shit, in my panic I’ve forgotten his real name. “A friend of mine.”
Having him here now gives me the courage to step around Tito and reach for April again.
She shrinks back but I see the fear in her face again, like she’s acting out of her own control and now Tito is stepping to the side, his chest blocking my view, his meaty, dirty hand on my shoulder and shoving me back.
“She doesn’t want to—”
Before Tito can finish his sentence, the Swede is placing his hands on Tito’s shoulder and shoving him back. He shoves him back so hard that he stumbles and almost goes down on the ground.
“Fuck!” Tito yells, throwing his arms out, one of his arms colliding with April on her chest and knocking her over.
She yelps as she falls and I scamper over to her just as Tito lunges himself at the Swede.
“You fuck!” Tito roars, trying to tackle him, arms out, head first, but the Swede is quick and steps out of the way rather effortlessly. But instead of just avoiding contact, he then brings his elbow down on the back of Tito’s head and the guy goes down in a second, sprawled out on the gravel.
“Oh my god,” I say, and the Swede meets my eyes, breathing hard and looking somewhat ashamed. “Is he–?”
But my question is answered before I can finish my sentence.
Like the T-1000, Tito is suddenly up on his feet, coming to life again before my very eyes. The Swede barely has the time to turn around before Tito is throwing a punch, getting him in the corner of his jaw.
I yell something.
April yells something.
The Swede barely reacts except for the look of pure fire in his eyes.
With one hard, smooth swing he punches Tito square in the face, making him spin and tumble to the ground yet again. He lands with a groan, head in his hands, trying feebly to get to his feet and failing.
The Swede shakes his hand out, wincing, and then looks around with a wild look in his eyes. “We should go, yes?”
I stare down at Tito. He seems okay but…
“Tito,” April cries out pitifully, ready to fall to her knees by him like Broken Juliet over Thug Romeo but I grab her by the arm and yank her toward the van.
“He’ll be fine,” I tell her, my nails desperately digging into her cardigan.
“We need to go,” the Swede says again and I’m wondering why he looks so cagey. Maybe getting busted for fighting when you’re a foreigner means him getting deported, who knows. But I don’t want to stick around here either.
“I don’t want to go with you!” April yells at me, tears in her eyes, and for a second, I am struck with the deepest fear; what if she runs off? What if she physically won’t go? I’m only five-foot-four, she’s an inch shorter, I have more muscle, but she can fight like a wild, cornered animal. If she’s not scared of me, of my discipline, if she doesn’t care and hates me and is full of spite, how will I survive this? How will I survive the next four years?
But for some reason—praise the Lord—she relents. She lets me take her over to the van and I watch with my breath in my mouth as she climbs in the backseat, worried that at the last minute she’s going to bail.
She doesn’t. The door slides to a close with a punctuated click.
I let out a long, shaking breath and look up at the Swede who is standing right at my side.
“I am so sorry you had to see that,” I tell him, my voice small. “That you had to witness that. Do that.” I glance at his knuckles that are raw and bleeding. “Shit.”
He quickly glances at his hand and shrugs.