5 | Family

◇ KEL 

Another photo shoot consumed my entire day. It was a local eyewear brand, and my agent said they paid well. Quarter past five, I took the bus and a cab to head back to Miles' house, two hours away from the photo shoot venue.

His car wasn't in the driveway. It was still early evening; he was out with his best friends, probably drinking again. I locked the gates and scanned the lawn before heading to the front door.  Everything looked in order.

Exhausted, hungry, and alone, I retreated to the warm confines of my bedroom—the bigger one among the guest rooms—and immediately rang my sister's number.

For seconds, I just waited for the ringing noise to end, eager to hear Jill's voice again.

"Hey. Done with the shoot?"

"Yeah. Home now. How's Dad?"

"A little better, but..." Jill's voice thinned. "The doctors don't recommend surgery. For now."

So surgery wasn't an option.  I scratched my forehead at the discouraging news.

"Still under heavy meds. He's asleep most of the time." Jill sighed. Her long exhalation made static noises over the line. "When you comin' home? Mom keeps asking."

"I'll call her," I muttered, unsure of what else to say. "What else did the doctors say?"

"Nothing you'd like to hear."

We both fell silent after that. What she said just filled my eyes with tears. I hugged my pillow. I actually missed home. I missed our dad, his gruff but endearing voice, seeing his graying head of hair bowed next to our living room altar, his caring demeanor and generous advice, as well as the air of quiet but respectable authority he always had.

Was he going to recover? He'd been in hospitals way too many times we'd long forgotten the count. At the moment, all I could do was pray he wasn't suffering that much.

"But the tumors need to be removed ASAP?" I sniffled.

"They're growing. Still trying to shrink them with meds, then maybe chemo," my sister replied with another sigh. "We miss you."

"Miss you, too. I wanna fly out, but, I still have commitments till—"

"Not rushing you," Jill reasoned with a gentler tone. "But, soon as you can. Okay?"

"Yeah. Okay." I  wiped away more tears, the blanket covering me from neck to toe now. My pitch-black room remained soundless when we didn't speak for a while. Jill could clearly hear me sniveling. "Thanks, for taking care of stuff."

"David just got here to help me with Meesha. Took time off work. Thank God." Jill's voice over the line sounded groggy now. "You in bed? It's like, way past midnight over there."

"Yeah. Call again tomorrow."

"Hold up—  That letter from the university."

"Is my birthplace correct?" I  muttered. "Someone from the university questioned my background sheet," I told Jill.

"Questioned?" Jill echoed. "You submitted CTCs, right?"

"Of course."

"Just your birth certificate? What'd the letter say?"

"I'll email a copy." I rubbed my eyes dry of tears, glad that I didn't feel like crying anymore. Talking to my sister always had that calming effect on me. "It was like a warning, really. Ruined my day."

"I'll check it out tomorrow. Sleep."


"Later." Jill said goodbye and hung up.

Lying on the side of my bed, I kept snuggling to my pillow, enjoying the warmth the thick blanket provided. I kept my eyes shut until a car parked in front of the house.

Miles.  Finally home.  Not the usual time he got home, but it was him. His BMW's engine just had that distinct revving sound. I glanced at the clock on the nightstand.


Was he driving under the influence?  Pretty sure he'd been having a good time with his best friends.  The absence of a reply from him after my last text message told me enough.

For a quiet minute, I listened and waited for a car door to open and shut. Instead of Miles' voice,  another guy downstairs was mumbling something about locks and keys. His best friend Paul, probably.

Then the front door opened.  I could hear enough because my room was directly above it.  Heavy, dull noises of metal hitting against metal followed. The door was being locked from the inside using the dead bolts.

His best friend must be sleeping over tonight.  Miles rarely invited friends over, and he seldom let anyone else in his house.  Not even the guards.  Paul must've been the most sober one in the group.

Not in the mood to say hi or socialize, I put my phone away and ignored the shuffling noises from the living room.  I buried myself under the padded blanket.  I started my night routine with prayers I'd memorized way back in Catholic school.  My eyes stayed shut tight.

Four prayers in and I was already fighting off yawns, surprisingly. Thoughts of my dad's hospitalization still disturbed my peace of mind,  but my fatigue had kicked in. My eyes remained closed until the doorknob twisted.

The door slowly opened, making discreet noises that made me frown a bit.


He probably thought I was out of it. His footsteps barely made any noise as he walked into my room and carefully closed the door behind him. He thought I was already asleep.

My vision remained pitch-dark under the thick blanket, and I tried to continue praying, opting to ignore his presence in the room. The bed was near the doorway, and when Miles stayed immobile, I did the same under the covers.

It was a while before I heard more noises. He stepped closer to the nightstand to my left. I knew it was just Miles; his scent was unique, crisp but mild to the nose, even with all that alcohol stench and sweat. It was his cologne.

Strange how I could still smell him even from under the covers. Maybe he'd been sweating so much the past few hours. Where in the city had he been partying hard with his best friends? I didn't even want to know.

I was about to peek at him from under the blanket when he grabbed something on the nightstand.

He muttered a swearword when the thing landed on the floor. Hastily, he picked up my phone and proceeded to the other side of the room, his footsteps muffled by his bare feet.

I couldn't resist the temptation and slowly pulled the blanket down. The room was still too dark that I could only make out his slumped figure on the floor. His back leaned against the closet. My phone was in his hand, but Miles didn't do much but stare at it.

An odd, funny feeling of suspicion and distrust kept me still and speechless on the bed.   I kept my breathing quiet and steady.  Why take my phone without my permission?

When Miles started tapping on the screen, the white glow gave me a clearer view of his face. His stubble looked darker, and his hair was shorter than I remembered.

When did he get a haircut?  I studied his glum expression. The hem of the blanket touched my nose this time. I didn't make any sudden movements, careful not to alarm him or disrupt his almost stealthy attempt to look through my phone.

"The fuck are you even doing,"  Miles muttered to himself before dropping my cellphone onto his lap. 

Was he browsing through my inbox? His swearing just left me more curious and puzzled. I watched him from afar. Why did he feel the need to check my phone? 

Ugh. A sudden bout of anxiety settled in the pit of my stomach. I didn't like the feeling at all. Trust wasn't an issue between us.

"No secrets."  It was one of our rules in this house. But  his actions and impulsive behavior lately were starting to make me think too much.

Ignoring the thought, I  shut my eyes tight and resumed my silent prayers, hoping the anxiety would just leave me alone. But I felt his concern more than the need to be upset by his snooping.


What the actual fuck.

The bad hangover shocked me enough the second I'd dragged myself out of bed, and now I couldn't tear my eyes away from the blurry phone screen. Past eleven in the morning. The heck. My parents were already at the airport, just waiting for me to show up, apparently.

What're they doing here so early? My birthday was two days from now, and the timestamp on Mamma's text was half an hour ago. It was her third call that woke me up.

"Merda." Cussing louder all the way to the bathroom, I rushed to type a reply and ran to the cold shower.

Then I picked out clean clothes after toweling myself dry. I couldn't help the scowl that stayed on my lips while I brushed my teeth. In five minutes, I dashed out of my room without bothering to comb my shorter hair.

Somewhat nervous, I scanned the rest of the house in a quick minute, appreciating the neutral tones I'd personally picked as accents. Pappa and Mamma preferred elegant but simplistic themes.

I skimmed the two-storey house another time. Relief assured me after a moment of hesitation—everything looked tidy and pristine enough for my parents' immaculate tastes.  The spacious living room looked like one of those in staged furniture stores.

Mykaela must have cleaned up the mess last night;  I recalled Paul and I had some fun with the Xbox and one of my stocked red wines before Paul dozed off on the sofa.

Where was he, anyway? I looked around for a messy-haired blond guy in a sleeveless shirt and a pair of jeans. "Paul? Yo! Pee stain!"

"Guest room," a female voice called out from the other side of the house.

"Oh." It was all I said to my roommate. I heard her giggle. Muscles tensing up, I proceeded to the dining room and hoped for a pleasant smile from her.  I'd been drinking the hard stuff for hours the previous night, but I could still recall in vivid detail the sneaky five minutes I'd spent in her bedroom while looking through her phone.

"Hungry?" Kel raised her dark brows at me when I reached the dining table filled with food. She sat in the corner chair. Her jaw-length hair looked damp. Her blouse revealed her cream-smooth arms. She ate rice and poached egg, her face bare and paler than usual. Still beautiful, though.

The lack of a smile on her expression made me glance away. I stood behind the seat next to hers. My concentration flitted from the events of last night to the alarming thought of my parents already waiting for me outside the arrival area. "Mamma called. Gotta pick 'em up at the airport."

"Wait." Mykaela grabbed my wrist before I could leave her and race to the front door. "Eat something," she mumbled with a frown. "Coffee?" She handed me a mug full of my favorite brew.

It smelled like a coffee shop and tempted me to sit beside her for a quick meal. But I just couldn't.

"Airport?" she repeated. "With your dad?"

"Yeah." Hesitant to stay another minute, I took a long sip without bothering to sit down. The dining area remained noiseless, and I still couldn't look her in the eyes. I'd been all over the place last night, and I knew she wasn't fond of my wild side after a couple of drinks with friends.

"But your birthday's on Sunday," Mykaela mumbled after swallowing the last of her meal. She stared at me until I mustered up the guts to meet her gaze. "They're already here?"

"Annoyingly." In haste, I placed the coffee mug back on the table and checked my phone for any new messages. There's another one from my Mamma Eleana.

"Drive safe." Kel stared at me and failed to hide a worried look. "Why didn't the guards pick them up or drive them here?"

"Gotta go." I leaned down to kiss her on the side of her lips, catching her off-guard. "Thanks for breakfast."

"Why're you here early?"

"Ciao, bambino." My Mamma Eleana greeted me with a teeth-bearing smile and stretched her svelte arms to embrace me. The cool wind made her long brown locks a bit frizzy, and her coat covered a dress which I knew was more expensive than my entire outfit from head to toe.

"Sorry; I woke up late."

"When did you cut your hair?" Her full lips and makeup-free face wrinkled upon inspecting my shorter cut.

"Just a trim," I replied after spotting the casually dressed bodyguards behind my parents. Two brawny guys dawdled to their sides, their pretense of being just another passenger among the crowd rather poor.  "Pappa." I faintly bowed my head to acknowledge my quiet father.

He just looked at me as he stood next to my mother. 

"It's cold today," Mamma remarked with a slight frown that slightly wrinkled her jowls.

"Maxim." My Pappa Stefano put on a tight smile. It made his slightly graying beard move a little. "Che ora e'?"

"Mi dispiace, Pappa." I shook my father's hand in greeting, the formality of the gesture not surprising. Him calling me by my childhood nickname instead of the usual "bambino" was enough indication that my tardiness probably ruined his entire morning, only because I made them wait.

"Va bene." Pappa drank from the water bottle he held and simply nodded to their security detail. In seconds, their bulky baggage of three suitcases were in the trunk of the car.

"You wanna have lunch first?" I put on a pleased look, dismissing my increasing heart rate while keeping quiet about ignoring the speed limit for most of the drive.

"I'll cook something nice. I missed your kitchen," Mamma said. As she stood next to my Pappa Stefano's stiff 5'10" build, my Mamma Eleana stepped forward and smiled wider. The small lines around her dark, almond-shaped eyes multiplied. "Is Mykaela home?"

"Yes." I pressed my lips together and glanced away. "Why?"

"Great! We're going to Umbria." My mother swiftly spread her arms for effect. Her smile bared her pearly whites again. "Surprise!"

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