As soon as I walk in the door, I'm surrounded by children, all running in circles, giggling, throwing tissue paper at each other in manic delight. "Emily?" I call out, peering around the spacious lounge, which seems utterly devoid of any proper adult supervision.
My sister's head pops around the corner of the kitchen, and she smiles at me. "Taylor, hey! I thought you said you weren't going to make it?"
I shrug. "I RSVP'd a while ago, and when the interview fell through, I decided to head out here and spend some time with you guys."
Emily grins softly, drying her hands on a towel and enveloping me in a hug. She smells like cinnamon and lavender. "Well, thanks for making the drive, we would've missed you otherwise. David and Charlie are upstairs, by the way, they'll be thrilled to see you again."
I glance at the stairs, and Emily gives me a playful shove. "Go on up, they're in Liza's old room."
Liza had gone to uni earlier that year, and unfortunately wasn't able to make it, but David and Charlotte, Emily's old flatmate and her husband, had somehow managed to fly all the way from across the country.
A little girl with dark hair and deep blue eyes comes running over, already reaching for me. "Up, up?" she asked.
"Well I'll be darned," I say, picking her up. "You got taller, Alana."
She shakes her head happily, grinning up at me and revealing a gap where her front teeth should have been. "The Tooth Fairy gave me a dollar!" she whispers in my ear. "But don't tell anyone, okay?"
I nod. "Our little secret. Pinky promise."
Alana nods seriously, linking her tiny pinky with mine. She throws a glance over her shoulder at the other kids, who have begun some sort of new game, and I set her down. She flashes me one of her gap-toothed smiles and runs back over to join her older sister and twin brother, Marina and Tyler, respectively.
With that, I wave at my sister and head upstairs, wincing as the fourth step creaks loudly under my foot. Well. Now at least everyone knows I'm here.
I round the corner and into the upstairs hallway, reaching out to brush my hand along the door of the guest room. Liza's door down the hall is just plain wood, but her walls are a rainbow of color. She's always been a very active member of the local LGBT+ support group, and her decoration choices show it proudly. The rainbow flag on the far wall is gone, but she probably took it with her.
David is sitting on Liza's bed with his back turned, but I clear my throat to announce myself. He jumps, glancing at me, and immediately leaps to his feet to hug me.
"Taylor, I didn't know you were coming!" he exclaims.
I laugh. "You sound like my sister," I reply. "Job interview was cancelled, I had to reschedule it. My calendar was clear, so there was no reason not to come."
David nods along. "Well, I'm glad you were able to make it, Alana and Charlie really missed you."
"She's gotten so tall," I say. "What are you feeding the kid, MiracleGro?"
We laugh, and the door creaks behind me. I turn in time to catch a flash of blonde hair before Charlotte is hugging me as tight as she can, face buried in my shoulder. David laughs. “Did I mentioned that Charlie missed you?”
“Think you might have,” I say, wrapping my arms around Charlotte. “How’ve you all been?”
David shrugs. “It’s been about the same.”
Charlie suddenly releases me and bounces back, grinning ear to ear. I can’t help but laugh at her childlike energy. “Hard to believe that Alana is the six-year-old, and not you,” I tease, bopping her on the nose. Her eyes cross to watch my finger, and she sticks her tongue out at me. I reciprocate the action, and we both giggle like schoolgirls.
She sits on the edge of the bed. “Did you hear about Alexis and Riley?”
I frown. “Conner and Alicia’s kids? What happened?”
She quickly launches herself into a tale of how Alexis and Riley had gone out in the pouring rain to help the mailman when he’d accidentally dropped his bag in a puddle. Both girls were sick and bedridden, unsurprisingly.
We fall back into a rhythm easily, exchanging tidbits of gossip and silly things that come to mind. David interjected once in a while, but was mostly content to watch us, sipping casually from a plastic Solo cup filled with water.
“You’ll be staying the night in the guest room, I assume?” Charlotte asks.
“It’s brass monkeys in that room at night,” I complain. Charlie nods sympathetically.
“There are spare blankets in the closet at the end of the hall,” she reminds me. “Feel free to grab some of them. Lord knows we won’t use them.”
“Thank you,” I say, moving from the chair I’d been sinking into to collapse on the bed next to Charlie, sighing as I tugged a pillow closer. “Stars, I’m knackered.”
“Does anyone want biscuits?” I hear Emily call up the stairs. I scramble to my feet.
“Never mind, Em’s biscuits are to die for,” I gush, already dragging Charlie and David down the stairs. Lexie and Shane, my mother’s friends, emerge from the far bedroom, hands entwined.
“Have you seen Ashlynn?” Lexie asks, peering over her shoulder. “Or Conner and Alicia, on that note?”
I shake my head. “Haven’t seen anyone but Em, and these two. How have you guys been?”
Lexie shrugs. “Oh, we’re alright. How’re things back home?”
I grimace. “Could be better, could be worse.”
Lexie nods. “I know the feeling. It seems like the world’s gone bonkers. Oh! Tasha is in the basement,” she says, gesturing down the stairs. “I know you haven’t seen her in forever.”
I nod. “It’s certainly been a while.”
We enter the kitchen, where Natasha, Conner, Alicia, Ashlynn and the kids are already standing, the adults holding chocolate squares and laughing. I wave. “Hey, mum.”
Ashlynn glances up and grins at me. “Taylor, how are you doing? It’s been forever!”
I laugh, moving to embrace her. She's shorter than me by nearly a foot, and I feel like a giant standing next to her. She reminds me of Emily; the two could be mistaken as relatives. While Em took after our mother, I’m more like our father. If you saw us side by side, you would never think we were related. We’re opposites in almost everything. Emily is short, I’m tall. She’s tanned and dark-haired, whereas I have blonde hair and fair skin. She’s slender, and I have broad shoulders. Even our personalities are different, which is a blessing. She’s usually happier, hyper, and I’m the calm, reserved one. We might be sisters, but no one would ever think that on first glance.
“I’m alright, Lynn. How’ve you been holding up, all things considered?”
Ashlynn immediately starts rambling to me about how things have been since I’d moved away, (we were neighbours before I moved so I would be closer to work) and I half-listen to her as I grab a biscuit to munch on. Emily rushes about the kitchen, shooing us away whenever we ask her if she needs help as she sets things out along the table.
“Finished!” Emily finally announces. “Everyone go wash up for supper!”
I wash my hands and sit between Emily and Conner, grasping their hands as Tasha says a quick prayer. As the chatter rises around me, I settle back into my chair, content to listen.
We might not all be directly related, but we’re family. And that’s all I really care about.