The call came at ten o’clock. The longer I stared at the name on the screen, the more memories I thought I’d forgotten--of him caring for me alongside the other two, and of him chasing me around a tent pitched in our grandmother’s yard--flooded to the surface of my mind. Just before his name could disappear, I swiped my finger across the green icon and pressed the phone against my ear.
“Vera Parker speaking.”
“Hey, Vee. It’s Connor.”
I wanted to tell him off for using a nickname he no longer had the right to use, but the news that he had to deliver filled me with dread--and not because of the news itself. I didn’t mind having to excuse myself in the middle of a dinner with my colleagues, or having to call a sister I hadn’t seen to in three years to share the news that affects our entire family. I didn’t even mind having to drive all the way from the airport to the shabby little town I hadn’t visited in eleven years. But with every passing moment between booking a ticket on the next flight and kissing my husband and daughter goodbye, the dread of having the four of us together again consumed every cell in my body.
But no matter how awkward I knew it would be for us, I couldn’t run away. I wouldn’t disrespect Grandma like that. She practically raised the four of us when our parents failed to. I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t see her off with them.
It’s why I dropped everything and made sure my sister didn’t miss it.
It’s why the three of them were back home and waiting for my arrival.
He stood next to the gate’s metal frame the same way he used to wait for the three of us to come back from school. Even in the dim glow of the street light overhead, I could see that the little boy who used to make sure we all felt loved on a daily basis has grown into a broad shouldered adult. His hair is still styled in a neat comb over and he still hasn’t traded his spectacles for contact lenses. The only indication that time has passed is that his lankiness morphed into a lean, muscular build and he’s sporting the neatened shadow of a beard.
As soon as I stepped out of the car, his eyes swivelled towards me. A grin graced his lips while the nerves in mine seemed to have forgotten how to turn upwards. While walking towards him, I remembered how we used to practically tackle each other with warm embraces whenever we saw each other. This time, I decided to just wipe a sweaty hand against the side of my pencil skirt before reaching to shake his hand. He surprised me by engulfing me in a hug. It wasn’t quite a tackle, and it wasn’t void of affection, but I still found myself freezing up.
Do I hug him back?
Should I hug him back?
Too many seconds have passed. I can already feel the awkwardness seeping in.
He must too, because it wasn’t long before he pulled away and took a whole step away from me.
Finally able to breathe once there was some space between us, I flashed him a polite smile.
He mirrored my polite smile and rubbed the skin at the back of his neck. “Sorry. It’s been a while since we last spoke. Or saw each other.”
Which is why neither one of us knew how to properly greet each other anymore.
“I hope I’m not too late,” I said to fill the silence between us. “The only flight I could book was an evening one.”
“I know. Jessalyn told me.”
Jessalyn, not Jessa.
So he hasn’t maintained contact with her either.
“Oh. Jess is already here?”
Connor nodded. “Both she and Adam are inside setting the table. The last of Grandma’s neighbours left before you came. Now that we don’t have to entertain until tomorrow, we were planning on having dinner. Have you eaten already?” he slowly added, a little unsure of himself.
“I ate at the airport, but that was hours ago.”
“Great. You can eat with us.”
“Wait, I don’t--”
But Connor was already carrying my luggage down the driveway. I had no choice but to silently follow him into the house. One glance is all it took to see that nothing had changed. The kitchen was still covered in the same faded yellow wallpaper. The same ancient stove, microwave, cabinets, fridge and sink were in the same positions and conditions they were in years ago. After glancing around the room, my eyes settled on the man in front of the fridge.
He used to be the shortest one in our group, but now he’s outgrown his brother with his lanky build. His brown curls lie in a messy heap atop his head. With headphones around his neck and a casual black shirt, unlike his brother’s formal black attire, it’s easy to see that Adam hasn’t grown past being the baby of our family.
He grabbed a few sauces before turning to face us. His eyes widened slightly at the sight of me.
“Hi, Vera,” he hesitantly drawled out. “It’s good to see you again.”
“You took so long that we honestly didn’t think you were coming.”
Connor cleared his throat. “Now that Vee is here, we can start eating. Where’s Jessa?”
The twenty seven year old shrugged. “She went downstairs to change into her pyjamas.”
I grabbed my bag from Connor’s slackened grip. “I’m going to get settled in.”
“Sure,” he said. “You and Jess are sharing your old room. It’s on the second door down the--”
“I remember where it it.”
“Oh,” Connor said, glancing over his shoulder at Adam, who watched us with raised eyebrows. “Dinner’s in ten, then. In the dining room. By the lounge.”
“I think she remembers where the dining room is, big bro.”
Before the situation could get any more awkward than it already was, I walked out of the kitchen without a backward glance. By the time I reached the bedroom I used to share with my sister, Jess is already dressed in her silk nightgown and applying an array of branded facial creams onto her face.
I let out a relieved sigh at the sight of her familiar face. Her glossed lips curved into a smile when she caught my eye through the vanity mirror.
“I’m guessing you ran into our dearest cousins.”
“The next time you say you can’t see me for years because of work, I promise I won’t complain.”
A giggle escaped her throat. “Eleven is worse than three, but you can’t deny that it isn’t good to see Connor and Adam again. They’re still family, after all.”
“Don’t you feel uncomfortable by all this?”
Turning to look directly at me, she flashed a knowing smile and said, “We haven’t seen the two people we were closest to since birth in eleven years. We’ve grown so distant, and to top it all off, the person who wanted to see us reunite after all this time is dead. The four of us are like complete strangers now, but we’re supposed to host her funeral tomorrow. So even if we aren’t close, we have to at least try to rebuild our relationship with the boys. It’s what Grandma would’ve wanted.”
“When did my little sister become so mature?” I asked, pinching her cheek.
She immediately slapped my hand away. “I was mature the second I was born.”
“Right. It only manifested recently, after you turned twenty eight.”
“Vee, my maturity isn’t important. We have to find a way to be closer to our cousins so that tomorrow--”
“We need to eat dinner first.”
“Stop changing the subject!”
“I’m not changing anything,” I said. “I just don’t know how you expect us to suddenly rekindle a bond that completely died seven years ago. How do you expect to rekindle the type of bond we shared in our youth in the span of a few hours?”
Jess rolled her eyes, but before she could open her mouth and say anything, the room was plunged in darkness. The whole room. And not just the room, but the hallway too. I was on my feet before I could register what was happening. Something crashed to the ground. Jess swore under her breath and tried to reach for me in the dark, but I was already on the floor. The darkness surrounded me. It completely closed in around me. I felt tears sting my eyes. In that moment, I felt like I was six years old again. Trapped in a dark house while everyone else was at the hospital with Adam. Being left alone in this house with no one around to get me out, to teach me how to get rid of all this darkness. I wrapped my arms around my head to block it out but it just made everything worse.
And then I saw a beam of light. And then another. I felt someone pry my arms away from my head. Their warm hands cupped my cheeks as someone else shone the light even brighter so that the whole room was no longer dark. The more I took in the light, the clearer his voice became.
“Vee, it’s okay. You’re okay. Vee, look at me.”
I looked into Connor’s eyes to see the same amount of concern in them as when we were children.
“It’s okay. You aren’t alone. We’re here. We’re all here. You’re okay.”
I looked behind him to see that Adam and Jess were shining torches toward the ceiling. Seeing the three of them like that, seeing them use the same routine to chase away the panic attacks I had whenever the power went out years ago, it was almost easy to believe that nothing had changed.
“I’m okay,” I mumbled, pushing my cousin’s hands away. “I’m okay now.”
The three of them let out a relieved sigh and took a step away from me.
“I almost forgot how often the power goes out in this town,” Connor grumbled.
“Definitely something I don’t miss,” I agreed.
“It has its advantages, though,” Adam said. Shining his torch in Jess’s face, he added, “Now we don’t have to see this clown’s face. Who wears a full face of make up when preparing for bed?”
Jess swatted his hand away. “I did remove my make up, you oaf. My face is shiny from my face cream.”
“Adam’s right about one thing,” Connor interrupted. “Power outages in this neighbourhood have their advantages. Especially for kids.”
Jess nodded. “Besides Vee’s panic attacks, they gave us some of the best memories of our lives.”
I let out a little laugh of disbelief. There was no way the four of us would fit into that tiny, ancient tent now that we were adults. But even I couldn’t deny the part of me that wanted to carry on our little family tradition. Part of me wanted to see if we could recreate those happy memories from our childhood. So I helped Jess dust and set up a few blankets on the lawn while Connor and Adam set up the tent and dinner on the coffee table they grabbed from Grandma’s living room. While I helped Connor set up a fire just like we used to when we were little, Adam helped Jess walk down to our makeshift campsite in her fluffy pumps.
“Why would you even buy bunny slippers with heels attached to them?”
“A famous client personally designed them for me as a gift, okay?”
“So? Who in their right mind voluntarily wears heels, especially such a ridiculous pair, to a farm? Vee, back me up on this.”
“He isn’t wrong, Jessa,” I said.
“Jess,” she hissed back.
“You’ll always be little Jessa to us,” Connor teased with a fond smile. “The same little girl who wanted to become a princess when she grew up.”
“Well, at least her dream of becoming a twenty eight year old spoilt brat came true” Adam said with a playful nudge to Jessa’s ribs. “The fashion industry must love you.”
“I’m not in the fashion industry. I’m a doctor.”
Both boys stared at her in shock. I couldn’t help but laugh at their reactions.
“When did you become a doctor?” Connor asked.
“Why did you become a doctor?” Adam asked.
Jessa glared at him from the corner of her eye. “You were always visiting the hospital when we were growing up. Vee gets panic attacks. Grandma had chest pains. I thought maybe I could try and help our family. But then we--”
“We started leading separate lives,” I finished for her. “We all moved to different cities, contacting Grandma every now and then, but told each other we were busy… even when we weren’t.”
The three of them exchanged glances before Jess laid down on her blanket. Looking up at the stars, she said, “You know, just because I don’t speak to you guys doesn’t mean I don’t miss you.”
Adam smiled and laid down beside her. “You can’t miss me more than I missed you.”
Jessa scoffed. “Wanna bet?”
“I’m serious, Jessa. I spent half of my childhood in the hospital, but all of it with you guys. And then suddenly you weren’t there anymore. I wanted to go back to the way things were, but as time went by, it got harder and harder to express that.”
Adam glanced down at his older cousin to find that she was already sleeping. Connor and I watched him scoff in disbelief.
“I can’t believe she still falls asleep at ten on the dot.”
But he soon turned towards her and close his eyes. A few minutes later, Jessa’s hand reached between them and sought out his hand. The two of them slept curled towards each other with their hands held between them--just as they had when they were kids.
I turned to look at the cousin I was closest to in my youth. In the glow of the fire, I could see the serene smile on his face. I couldn’t help but imitate it.
“Did you miss me, too?” I asked him. “Did you miss me as much as our siblings missed each other?”
He turned to look at me with a fond smile. “Your husband’s name is Mark. You wore a beautiful mauve dress that day. Your reasoning is that you wanted to be original. Your daughter was born six years ago. Her name is Debbie. She’s as precious to you as you are to me. Grandma used to say that you take care of her the same way I took care of you when we were growing up”
At the shocked look on my face, he grinned and ruffled my hair. “I asked Grandma about you every month. I never stopped looking out for you, Vee. You stopped taking my calls, so you only thought I did. But I never did, and I always missed you--way more than Adam missed Jessa.”
I didn’t even contain my smile as my favourite cousin--the boy who used to make sure I was fed and did my homework, who I could always depend on and who made me feel loved during my childhood--wrapped his arm around me and watched the stars with me, just like how we used to when our siblings were asleep in the past.
When the fire died down, I came to the bitter sweet realisation that I was wrong; Jessa was right.
No matter how much distance separates the four of us, our bond is one that can only be strengthened over time.
Even if we don’t always speak to each other, the bond between us cousins, between my family and I, is a bond that can never be broken.