After the doorbell rang, Nora opened it with a giddy and half-drunk smile with a bottle of tequila in her hand. “Alright, who’s ready to get wasted for gir—” She stopped mid sentence when instead of her thirty-four-year-old best friend, Nora found her best friend’s seventeen-year-old daughter instead standing next to a man in a suit that was one size too big.
With a huff, Nora lowered the bottle and her eyes. “Thing One? What are you doing here? Where’s Thing Two?”
“My sister is at sleepaway summer camp until next Saturday,” Taylor said with a tad too much attitude, even for a teenager, as she rolled her eyes.
“Careful. If you roll them back far enough, they’ll get stuck.”
“Bullsh*t. What am I? Five?”
“Certainly not for the way you curse, but in terms of immaturity? I’d say lower, infant. Where’s your mom? Where’s Kelly?”
The suited man stepped up. “Ms. Mason has unfortunately… been hospitalized in a car accident.”
The bottle slipped from Nora’s fingers and shattered on the floor like her heart. “Is this some kind of sick joke? Well… well I’ve had enough. Get off my porch.”
Staying calm, the man continued, “It’s fine—nothing too serious. They’re just keeping her overnight as a precaution. But since visiting hours are over, there is a matter of Ms. Mason’s unaccounted minor daughter. You were listed as Ms. Mason’s children’s guardian in her will in the unfortunate case anything ever happened.” He handed Nora a thick, heavy folder but she didn’t even feel the weight of it. Something else was crushing her.
“But—that was a drunken joke. Kelly knows I don’t do kids. And Thing Two is what—like four?”
“Nine,” Taylor corrected.
“See? I don’t know what I’m doing. There’s gotta be something else—”
Taylor snorted. “Told you. First chance she’d get she’d try to pass me on to someone else. This is a waste of time.”
“Ms. Goldberg, please. I understand this is a bit of a shock to you, but the last thing Taylor needs is to be shuffled around right now. Please. At the very least, you are still required to act as their legal guardian until Ms. Mason is out of the hospital.” With that, the man left.
In the background, the old grandfather clock Kelly had dared Nora to buy at the flea market for twenty bucks ticked lightly in Nora’s living room. And it continued to do so until Taylor reached her limit, stood, and exclaimed, “Can you turn that stupid thing off already?”
“My my. So full of teenage angst that you want to power off something that predates electricity, are we?” Nora quipped.
Taylor growled at her.
“You’re not a cat. Use your human words.”
“Fine? You wanna hear what I have to say?”
“Kind of have to. Unfortunately, my ears don’t have a turn off feature either.”
“I’m starting to see why Mom didn’t want you involved with raising me or my sister.”
“Actually, she did.” Nora stroked the arm of her pale pink sofa as she averted eye contact, too occupied with the thoughts of when Kelly first announced her pregnancy to Nora. That big eyes look she gave Nora, with fresh hope gleaming. “She wanted me to be Aunt Nora.” She snapped out of it and returned to reality and into the conversation. “And I said no. So, we made a deal to keep the kids out of our friendship.”
Taylor scoffed. “Wow, I pity your future kids.”
“I’m not going to have kids. Never really been a fan of diapers and projectile vomiting.”
“Accidents happen,” Taylor chided.
“So do hysterectomies~” Nora sang in a mocking tone. “Had mine done years ago. But let’s make a deal, yeah? I won’t ask about your uterus’s life plans and you don’t ask about mine’s.”
Leaning back into a stiff leather brown armchair with a sneer, Taylor said, “Whatever. I still don’t get why I’m here. I’m seventeen. I can handle myself for one night.”
“You don’t even have your full license. You can’t drive past eleven at night—which it is by the way.” Nora sighed. As awkward, miserable, and worrying as this situation was, she was still the adult in charge. She had to step up—for Kelly’s sake. “Tell you what, since this night is such a trainwreck and the only thing we have in common is your mother, why don’t we order a pizza and pull down some old mementos for us. I’d imagine seeing your mom in mustard yellow and orange prom dress might lift the mood.”
Before she left for the attic, Nora paused. “And I know you’ve probably been told this a hundred times, but don’t worry.”
“Because there’s nothing I can do right?”
“No—well yes—but also because your mother is going to be fine. Trust me, if that girl can handle mosh pits at age eighteen, a little car crash is nothing.”
Taylor perked up, slightly. “Woah, really?”
“Yeah, and I’ve got a few pictures of it too. Be back in a second.”
Around midnight, Taylor and Nora had found themselves on their knees, elbow deep in prom pictures and baby pictures. “[band] concert. Spring 2003. And there’s a number...” Taylor read off the back of a glossy photograph of three teenagers in edgy clothes at their first concert. Two were beaming so bright they might as well be headlights. The third had their face scratched off by a broken nail. “Who’s the dude?”
“Oh, actually—” Nora snatched the photo away and stuffed it under a pillow on the couch. “Not that one. Your mother would kill me if I showed you it.”
“Oh?” Curiosity lifted Taylor’s right eyebrow. “Do tell.”
“I can’t. It’s not my place.”
Dissatisfied, Taylor cranked her brain for an answer. “Spring 2003... Someone my mother hates... I was born in February 2004… Is this a photo of you two with… my dad?”
Nora’s bottom lip stiffened. “Taylor, it’s really not my place to…”
“Oh my god, it is! Who was he? What was he like? Mom literally never talks about him.”
“Yeah, there’s a reason for that called protection. He wasn’t a good guy.”
“Come on, it was high school. No one is exactly a saint there. Last week, a cheerleader stabbed her bf for cheating.”
“Yikes.” Nora spied a few more unsavory photos that would only bring up back memories. She really should have sorted these before bringing them down. Or even better, got rid of them years ago. “Tell you what, kiddo—”
“I’m not a kid.”
“Yes, I have noticed I have a stronger tolerance to you than other mini humans. Why don’t you go order a pizza while I clean up a little? There’s a landline in the kitchen.”
Nora waved her hand dismissively. “You’re a teenager; you’re good with technology; you’ll figure it out.”
“Or I could use my cellphone.”
As Taylor left, Nora added, “And don’t order more than two toppings!”
With a heavy heart, she turned back to her photos. Luckily, there was only one photo of Taylor’s dad that she could run into—the rest were burned in a bonfire the day Kelly told him about the pregnancy. The day he left. The day everyone but Nora left.
Nora thumbed a photo of her, Kelly, and Kelly’s family. The perfect nuclear family with two parents and two siblings. It had basically become three siblings once Nora came around. They took her under their wings. Nora crumpled the photo into a tiny, putrid, insignificant ball. They shoved Kelly out of their nest too soon for being pregnant too. And both of them knew she would have splattered on the ground as a feathery without Nora to swoop her up.
Sure, she kept an arms distance from the physical baby, but Nora supported her in every other way possible. Making last minute errands. Working multiple jobs to help support them. Being her shoulder to cry on. Supporting Kelly when she went back to college.
And Kelly was always there for her despite juggling a newborn. Through the loss of her parents in middle school. Her diagnosis and therapy. Her college struggles. They are best friends after all.
Nora cherry-picked the rest of any family-related photos and smothered them in her sweaty palms before chucking them in the trash bin near the windows. She eyed the curtains before nudging them over half an inch to make them completely center and covering the window. She just hated the thought of anyone being able to see inside at night. All of her thick curtains were promptly closed at sunset every day, exactly in the middle where they covered the whole window.
Placing her hands on her hips, Nora grew more suspicious as her stomach grew hungrier. “It’s been a while. Where is Taylor?”
As Nora entered the kitchen, the answer clearly became “not here”. The counter’s window was open, curtains blowing wildly in the wind. Taylor was nowhere in sight. But the concert photo was.
Nora snatched it off the kitchen counter. She must have stolen it back when Nora wasn’t looking. “Crap, she must have called her father and snuck off to meet him. Crap crap crap.”
First order of business: curtains. Second: panic.
Pacing around the kitchen, Nora could feel Taylor slipping farther away with every second. There had to be something she could do… something…
She spotted her car keys on the hook by the fridge. One car. Still here. Seventeen. Can’t drive after eleven. Nora stifled a laugh. God, Taylor may have snuck out, but thank god she’s so strict about following the law.
Wait, but this means she needed an outside ride? A friend perhaps? Or…
Nora smirked. Taylor took an uber using Kelly’s account. She’s never been more thankful for hers and Kelly’s joint uber account because now she could track exactly where Taylor was heading.
Calling Right Riverside the “bad part of town” would be a severe understatement. And while every fiber of Nora’s being was screaming at her “Hey Nora, don’t go into that abandoned warehouse. It’s practically a scene straight out of a horror movie. You’re going to die. Is this mic on? Nora. Hey Nora!”
Nora shook her head and pushed down the all-too graphic images of her murdered body popping into her head against her will. “They’re just thoughts. They’re just thoughts. They’re just thoughts,” Nora chanted softly. She spotted Taylor on the inside and groaned. “This is part of the reason why I don’t do kids.”
Like the terrified mouse she was, Nora crept inside. From behind, she tapped on Taylor’s shoulder and Taylor socked her in the nose before realizing it was her reluctant babysitter. “Oh sorry.”
Holding her nose and praying for no blood, Nora said, “Don’t be. You've got good reflexes.”
Before they could keep the casual convo going, voices echoed across the warehouse. The duo ducked behind a stack of wooden crates. Taylor peeked her head over the top before Nora scowled and shoved her down.
“That was my dad,” Taylor breathed with awe in her eyes. “He looks just like the photos. That’s him. What do you think they’re doing?”
The sound of crates being cracked opened and guns cocking answered their question. Nothing was shot—yet. It sounded like their handling was limited to observation. “Probably selling arms. Look, kiddo—”
“I’m not a kid.”
“Taylor, whatever. We need to get out of here. If this deal goes south, things could get hot.”
“But my dad—”
Nora pulled Taylor half an arm’s length away and stared her dead in the eyes. “Look, honey, your mother didn't want him involved for a reason. Even after all these years and all these struggles, she’s never once tried to make contact or get child support from him. You don’t want a connection to him. You’re not like him. You’re your mother’s daughter. Be proud of that because she’s twice the person Johnny—your father—will ever be.”
Slowly, Taylor nodded. “Okay.”
Across the warehouse floors, the voices, and their hostility, picked up. “You’ve got to be sh*tting me, man. Ten grand? You think I was born yesterday?”
“No, I think these guns are worth ten grand,” a steely voice returned without mercy. “And if you don’t like it…” The sound of more guns cocking followed.
A pause. A snort. “Jesus, Johnny, you’ve gotta realllll smug since you’ve taken over as head.”
“My dad is the head of the mob?” Taylor whispered, horrified.
“Head of the mob?” Nora whistled. “Damn, back in high school Johnny was a simple drug dealer. Nothing stronger than weed. Gotta give it to him, he’s really moved up in the world.”
“Let’s hurry this up,” Johnny said. “I’ve got to go and hurry and meet my daughter.”
“He knows?!” Nora whisper-screamed.
“Well, I did call the number on the back of the photo. He said to meet here after some ‘business’. Guess this is that.” Taylor quickly added, “But he doesn’t know anything else about me other than I might be my daughter. Not who my mom is or my name.”
“He knows your number now. First things first, when we get out of here we’re changing it.”
“Do you hear something?” One of the thugs asked.
Nora and Taylor slapped a hand over each other’s mouths.
Johnny snided. “First, you try to cut me short. Then, you try to get the jump on me. I don’t think so.” He snapped his fingers. Taylor’s eyes widened. And that’s when the gunshots went off.
A few were directed in their direction and got absorbed by the crates. But the suspicious gunmen were approaching fast.
“There,” Nora pointed at a sewer plate. “Ew,” she said as she slipped her fingers underneath to remove it. “You owe me a manicure.”
“Let’s just focus on getting out alive, yeah?”
After removing the cover and killing whatever was left of their dignity, the girls jumped into the slimy sludge below. Nora slid the cover back on top and fooled the dimwitted thugs into leaving them alone. Luckily, they couldn’t hear anything over the other gunshots.
It took two hours of trekking in the sludge to find another exit to the surface. Then, another hour to find a cab willing to take them with an awfully generous tip. Finally, three hours each to get the sludge out of their hair. But the smell stayed. It was a part of them now.
By the time all that nonsense was over, it was time to go to the hospital to see Kelly. Reluctantly, the girls piled into Nora’s car, still trying to decide if they were gonna use a cover story or lie. Lying looked good, but the smell was gonna be hard to explain.
As the girls pulled up into the hospital parking lot, they gave each other one last look. “Well, that… that certainly happened. Didn’t it?” Nora said.
“Yup,” Taylor agreed. “Kinda strange you would do all of this—risk your life—for someone you don’t even consider family.”
“Kelly is my family. She always has been. So I guess… by some extension… that makes us family as well.”
“Can I call you Aunt Nora?”
Nora exhaled. “Fine.”
“What about ‘Thing Two’? Can she call you it too?”
“Let’s not bring Addie into this? I’m making an exception on my no-kids rule because you’re right. You’re not a kid.”
“I knew you knew my sister’s name wasn’t ‘Thing Two’. Why do you try to avoid kids anyway?”
Nora sighed. “Fine. I guess so many secrets are being spilled tonight I might as well explain. Plus, we’re family now, right?” She took a deep breath. “When your mother first got pregnant, her family disowned her, so I wanted to do whatever I could to help. I tried to babysit for extra money but… every time I was around kids—especially babies—I couldn’t stop seeing horrible things happen to them. Some things I did. It was like. Weird flashes in my mind. I went to therapy, found out they’re called intrusive thoughts that I have zero control over, and got diagnosed with OCD. I was always terrified that the second I was alone with a child, I would screw up and something terrible would happen. So, I avoided them. Your mother understood.” Nora rubbed the back of her neck. “I got sterilized because I didn’t even want to entertain the thought of bio kids. On top of this fear, if I passed this stupid thing onto them… to see them suffer as I do… I don’t think I could handle it.”
Taylor leaned back into her seat. “I never—never knew.”
“How could you?”
“You’ve never like… had anything thoughts about harming me, have you?”
“Not besides wanting to strangle you when I found out you ran away.”
Taylor laughed. “Okay, yeah, that one is one me.”
Nora joined her in the laughter. “Honey, all of last night is on you. It’s time for your mother to know that too.”
“So, we’re telling the truth?”
“Unfortunately…” Nora opened the car door and headed towards the hospital. “Yes.”