"Beep. The number you have dialed is not answering. Please try again later."
Please try again later.
Please try again later.
Please try again later.
Aria tasted the beginnings of burnt rage on the tip of her tongue. Beginnings and endings and the charred remains of an addictive flavor that was trailing the back of her throat, insistent on-
Aria blinked. The taste receded. Her soul was no longer burnt, but in a pool of cool, refreshing water. Aria inhaled deeply and realized she was holding her phone much too tight.
She relaxed, and turned around in time to catch Alexa's disapproving look.
"Lexie," Aria replied brightly, and not at all falsely, because Alexa - all the kids, really - could make her smile on her death day. "What can I do for you?"
Alexa didn't let up on the frown. "Was that your parents?" She asked, her voice low and breathy, like when she was about to go off on a furious tangent.
Aria sighed. "Yes, Lexie, but I don't want to talk about it." She tucked her phone into her pocket and smiled a forced smile at Alexa before walking towards the door. "Let's find the others, shall we?"
Alexa made a small sound of discontent. “Aria!" She whined. "I'm eighteen and half. I think I can understand whatever you aren't talking about."
Aria closed her eyes, then opened them again and continued walking, this time with a lot more thud in her step. "Alexa, I told you, this is none of your business. If my family doesn't want to-" She cut herself off.
She walked all the way to the entryway of the little house, where a quaint staircase curled up to the second floor in a sprawl of polished wood.
Alexa trailed behind her, her irritation evident in her huffs.
"Oi, Lex!" Andrew called loudly, and his deep voice boomed around the hall as he bounded down the stairs, two at a time. Behind him - descending far more gracefully - was Iraci, formerly Lia. Or, as she let Aria and the other residents of this house call her, Iraci Lia.
Andrew's excited expression melted off his face the moment he touched the bottom step and saw Alexa looking at Aria with crossed arms across her chest. He turned to stare at Aria as well, and Alexa didn't even have to tell him why.
In that moment, Aria truly saw them as twins, even though they had always been twins, just not identical. They could read each other's minds, they'd said. Right now, Aria could find little to refute of that.
Andrew sighed and shook his head at her. "Ari! Your parents aren't worth it! Come on. You saved us from ours, and yours sound so much worse!"
"They're fine, guys. I just hit a rough patch with them." Aria pressed her lips together. "It'll get better soon."
Iraci raised an immaculate eyebrow and stared down at Aria from her height of five foot five, currently the second tallest in the room. "You've been in this patch for more than three years, Aria. Parents do not stop talking to their children for so long unless there's a decent-sized problem."
"And in this case, the problem is them," Alexa piped up.
Aria bit the inside of her cheek to stop the furious denials from raging out. "And how would you know? I'm the one who grew up with them!"
"I am studying to be a psychiatrist," Iraci pointed out.
"And I didn't ask you to diagnose me!" Aria shouted, and her barriers broke. "They are my parents and my family, and I've lived with you guys trying to interfere in it for so long- I'm tired of this!" She stared at their still, stupefied faces, and stepped back, mouth and hands trembling as hot pricks of tears nudged her eyes. "I just... stop, okay?" She muttered in a small, wavering voice that, in the silent horror of the moment, echoed everywhere inside the house.
She swallowed the lump rising in her throat and pushed past the speechless three, stumbling all the way up to her room.
She slammed the door behind her, taking a little satisfaction at the flinch-worthy sound, and then kicked off her shoes, falling on her bed with the elegance of teenager she hadn't been for more a decade.
God, those kids annoyed her so much. They were the light of her life, but did they have to interfere in her business? She never interfered when they didn't want her to!
'Liar,' Her conscience whispered.
Her conscience was correct. She hadn't needed to use her place to provide a home for those kids who didn't want to - or couldn't, as a matter of fact - stay where they had grown up, but she had, and to keep a workable dynamic, interference had been... necessary.
Iraci had been her first boarder, knocking at her door with a closed off face and the flyer Aria had distributed to various colleges in her fist.
Her face had been streaked with day old tears and a determination that was mingled with the fear of being wrong.
"How much for a room?" She had asked.
"Nothing," Aria had answered, and Iraci had almost stepped back.
"Look," Aria had tried. "Come on in and have some snacks. I'll tell you my story and you can decide if you still want the room."
For a few moments of Iraci's hesitation, Aria had wondered if she had gone wrong somewhere. If she had come off more as a creepy person than a helpful one.
Then Iraci had nodded jerkily and followed her to her living room, where Aria set down a plate of nachos and a cup of water.
"My name is Aria Callingham," she had introduced. "I grew up with a lot of parental pressure. Mom and Dad wanted- want, actually, to control what I do. They want me to be rich and successful." She had smiled warmly at Iraci, and the then nineteen-year-old had flinched, something similar in her eyes. "I didn't. Want that, I mean. Sure, money was nice. But a few years of doing everything for money... I realized that more than that, I wanted to help others. And most of all, I wanted to help people not have to do something because they were forced to by other people, especially those who could control their lives. So, I bought this house and sent the ad to different colleges. I... can't do anything about the under eighteens, so I decided to start with those above."
Iraci stared. The plate of Nachos remained untouched.
It seemed that the moment extended forever, just a scared nineteen-year-old looking at Aria like she was scrutinizing her life choices.
And then a tear slipped and Iraci broke.
She had a brilliant life. Or, at least, it wasn't the worst out there. But her parents...
Iraci didn't want to be a musician. She didn't like music - not after the thousands of hours her parents had forced her to practice it over and over again in the confines of a house that felt more like a prison than a home. The sound of music grated at her soul, chipping it away piece by piece. She had had no freedom. Even in university, as an adult, her parents had forced music on her.
'You are a genius. Make us proud.'
Aria wanted to go and punch them in the face. "What do you want to do, then?" She'd asked instead.
Iraci had stared at her, then at her pocket, and with trembling fingers, retracted a slim sheet; a brochure for a local community college offering a degree in psychiatry.
Aria had grinned. "Then let's do that."
Before that moment, Aria hadn't known a smile could make her whole day (It could do far more than that).
She'd set up Iraci in a room, fended off the parents when they came (and talked them off - that had been the best part), and walked with Iraci, tall and gangly and slouching with fear, to the registrations office at the college and signed her in.
She used her savings, the savings catching dust in her account, and got Iraci into her psychiatry program.
Iraci aced the entrance exam, and after the first semester, Aria didn't even have to use her savings anymore, because the college was giving her a full ride.
Iraci began to smile more. Laugh more. Talk more. She stood straighter, taller, more confident...
And Aria felt her heart would burst with pride at any moment.
(She had helped someone actually achieve their dreams. Do what they wanted. Be who they wanted.)
And then, six months ago, with two years of just Iraci and her, because the only others who had tried to come stay had left in the next few days (possibly due to Iraci's glares), Andrew and Alexa had popped into the picture.
The twins had arrived at Aria's door with desperate faces. They had seen the flyer at one of their high school visits to the university open days, and Andrew had grabbed it.
They had packed their bags and left the day they turned eighteen.
Aria had let them in and showed them the rooms. They had refused to spill their life stories the first day in.
Aria let it go.
Iraci glared at them at first, like everyone, but there was something about Alexa, something vulnerable...
One night, Aria came downstairs, saw Alexa in the kitchen, raised a hand to clasp her shoulder, and Alexa flinched, a palpable resignation in her eyes.
Andrew had come running and pulled her into a hug.
"I'm so sorry," Aria had burst. Never, in all her thoughts had she imagined a kid would feel unsafe here. Not here.
Andrew had looked at her with the same scrutiny as Iraci had a few years back, and spilled, just like Iraci had.
The twins had lived with their Dad until he died in a plane crash during one of his business trips. Then they'd gone to live with their aunt.
Aunt Polly... well, at first, she'd just been frosty. It was understandable, sort of. She had just lost her brother and then handed two teenagers to raise.
But one month in, she warmed considerably.
... To Andrew.
Alexa was a different matter entirely.
According to Andrew, Alexa looked much too much like their mother, just as Andrew mimicked their father, down to the dimple in his left cheek and the way his hair frizzed up every day.
Aunt Polly, it turned out, had adored her brother, and hated the twins' mother for taking him away.
Their mother was dead, but Alexa was there.
It began with subtle ‘Shoo’s and separate fun days with Andrew. Then came the cold looks and the less than warm answers to any questions Alexa needed to ask.
At this point, neither of the two had realized – or had not wanted to – what was going on. Aunt Polly was all they had left in terms of family, and doubting her... well.
But then, Aunt Polly had begun to sneer. She’d glared at Alexa day in and day out, squeezed her much too hard when she clutched her shoulders, and snorted dismissively at her full marks from school. Alexa began to wonder if she had done something wrong. If there was something wrong with her.
Andrew still didn't notice.
Alexa didn’t think to say a thing.
It was six months before they turned eighteen that Andrew came home from soccer early that day. The coach had taken ill, so Andrew had decided to pick up his sister for that one movie she wanted to see.
He’d stepped into her room, and a slap had rung out. In front of him had stood Aunt Polly, arm extended, eyes disgusted, focussed entirely on Alexa. She had had no reason.
Six months later, Andrew and Alexa had left, and arrived at Aria’s.
Aria had spread her arms and, disbelieving but hopeful, the two had fallen into her embrace.
Aria sighed and propped herself up against the wall the bed was lined beside. Her conscience was right, she repeated to herself. She’d gotten their lives back into a schedule, why wasn’t she letting them tell her what to do like she had advised them?
... But her parents.
They were her blood and genes. They had raised her her entire life, and just because-
Her lip trembled. Just because she had chosen not to continue earning money like a robot and becoming more and more successful with Eric at his company... they had stopped. Oh, they still talked to her brother – Eric mentioned their calls to her. She’d asked him to.
No. They didn’t.
Success mattered to them more than she did. More than her happiness did.
‘But they’re still my parents.’ Her mind pointed out.
Her heart pumped silently.
Aria inhaled sharply and cleared her throat. “Come in.” It came out as a croak.
Iraci looked inside with a mixture of fear and lack of confidence she had not shown for nearly a year. “Aria?”
Aria swallowed and pushed herself off the bed. “Hello, Iraci.”
Iraci didn’t step past the doorway. “Could you come downstairs? Lexie and Andrew heated up the roast.”
Aria’s heart skipped a beat and a wave of shame impregnated her every cell. “You guys didn’t-”
“Please,” Iraci whispered and scurried away, much like a mouse from a cat.
Aria flinched. Then she took in a deep breath, exhaled and smoothed out her frock style shirt, and pursed her lips. Time to beg for forgiveness. (And hope they would give it.)
The three were in the kitchen. Iraci was laying down the place mats and the cutlery, while Andrew transferred the dripping golden roast to a dish and Alexa mixed up a jug of lemonade.
Aria quietly stepped inside and sat down in one of the seats by the dining table.
All of them had serious looks on their faces as they sat down next to her a few minutes later.
The roast sat in the middle of the table.
“Guys, I...” Aria began and trailed off.
Andrew and Alexa exchanged a look. “Please, may I speak first?” Alexa asked.
Aria’s eyes widened, but she was too stunned to respond.
“I... I shouldn’t have pushed,” Alexa added. “I know we said you helped us with our stuff and we wanted to help you with ours, but you also let us choose a time to come clean. We should’ve let you talk in your own time as well.”
Iraci nodded. “And I didn’t realize it was getting so serious, or I would have never-” She broke off. “This doesn’t excuse my quip. You were right. I don’t have any idea what your parents are like. I couldn’t give you advise because I wouldn’t know what would happen anyway,” She stared at her imploringly. “I’m sorry, Aria.”
Aria opened her mouth, but no sound came out.
Andrew spoke up instead. Usually, Andrew talked with joviality and a happy fervor. Now, he spoke with a sobriety that was terrifying to hear. “And- And if you want us to leave,” He added, but there were strangled tears hidden deep in his eyes and a choked tone to his voice. “If you want us to leave, we’ll go.”
Silence, in its purest form, isn’t terrifying. It just is.
But here... here, Aria felt her whole world crashing around her. “You... want to leave?”
A few seconds passed before the question registered, and those few moments were worse than the three years Aria’s parents had abandoned her for.
“What?” Iraci burst. “No!”
“You’re like our Mom, Ari!” Andrew shouted.
“Why would we ever want to...?” Alexa trailed off as burning tears began to pour from Aria’s eyes.
The table fell silent again, this time with a helplessness shared by all three.
Helplessness was better than hopelessness.
Aria began laughing.
She was crying and laughing, and laughing and crying, and everything was okay.
“God,” She sputtered over her sobs and giggles. “The thought of you guys leaving... Thank you.”
Alexa bit her lip and waited until she stopped hiccupping. “You’re not mad? That we... pressured you about your family?”
Aria stared at them, wiping her face with a napkin. She waited in contemplation, but in the end, she didn’t need to think about it. It was a truer truth than she had been willing to acknowledge. “My parents,” She began, a slow, satisfied laugh glinting in her eyes and in the crinkles in the corners of her smile. “Are no longer my family, I think. My family has been you for a long time. I just didn’t see it until today.”
Alexa’s eyes widened. Andrew inhaled sharply. Iraci broke out into a huge smile. “You’re our family too, Aria.” She answered, and it was as if some had begun to shine a light into Aria’s life, much, much brighter than before.
Aria had thought her life had been incredible before.
Now, it felt divine.
She pulled the dish of roast towards her. “Dibs on the leg piece.”
Andrew snapped out of his silent awe and lunged forward with a wider-than-ever-before grin on his face. “Hey! No fair!”