Theresa had come back to the surface as well.
Marie looked at her, both on the same page, and together they pounced. “Matt’s going down! Anyone can help.”
Cyclone had crawled up the ladder, but at that war cry he jumped in the water, trying to cannonball his brother. After that, chaos. Complete and total chaos, and I loved it. I was grinning ear to ear. I had to be. I couldn’t stop myself.
This. Right here. Fun with siblings—this is why I was here. I didn’t care for the real reasons, but if I were one to believe in a higher power, I did in that moment. Gratitude bloomed in my chest, filling me up, and I was a step away from blinking back tears. Good tears.
I was an only child growing up. Me. Chrissy.
I had family near Brookley, but Chrissy was prideful and stubborn. Hella stubborn. No family member was taken up on their offer. Anyone who watched me had to be someone who came into Chrissy’s life on her terms, not through family. And while I loved going to school with my cousins, my mom’s way put distance between me and them. We didn’t know at the time, but we felt it. It felt wrong to yearn to eat supper at my aunt’s house when my mom was working the second shift. And when I grew old enough not to have a babysitter, it was me and my computer.
Computers were endless.
There were friends in there, lives in there, daydreams I could create, and it was mine. No one told me who I couldn’t or could see. No one put restrictions on me. That was my domain. But this, standing by this pool and hearing Cyclone laugh as Matt pretended to toss him at Seraphina—I was absorbing every possible bit of this domain.
I would continue to, until I was told to go.
“Kash! Bailey!” Cyclone was paddling toward us. “Come in.”
I wanted to. God, I wanted to.
Then I felt a hand on my arm.
Looking up, I saw Kash was looking behind me. His glance went rigid before I looked.
Peter Francis stood on the sidewalk that attached the pool area to the area beyond the gates. Behind him, the pathway led back into the house, and it looked like he’d just stepped out as an afterthought. Dark navy dress pants. Loafers. A white-buttoned dress shirt, with even the neck collar buttoned up. He was holding a phone in one hand, a file of papers in the other, and he was standing half turned to go back to the house.
Peter cleared his throat, his eyes still on me. “Kash.”
I hadn’t looked away.
A second cough, his eyebrows pulled down, and he forced his gaze to the guy behind me. He held up his file. “A word inside?”
There it was. Another meeting of the guy who had helped to form me.
He called a name that wasn’t mine.
He asked to see someone who wasn’t me.
He turned and went inside, and I was trying to deny how the world caved in on me.
Kash remained beside me, his hand still touching my arm. “You okay?”
I forced myself to nod. I so wasn’t, but there was no way in hell they were going to see that. Plastering a smile on my face, I used an old trick I had used when Chrissy would ask if I was happy and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings: I thought happy thoughts. Central processing units. Motherboards. A hardware upgrade. Each one made my smile a bit more genuine, and I nodded. “I’m fine.”
He didn’t move.
“Really, Kash.” How to reassure someone 101: offer physical touch. I touched his arm. Ask how you can help. “Unless you need me?” Offer a gift as well, which I couldn’t. So I went down the list. Direct eye contact. A genuine smile on your face, head tilt to cement the look. And lastly, I squeezed his arm back, just a bit.
Then I waited.
His eyes narrowed.
I had a feeling he saw right through my bullshit, but damn, give me an Oscar.
“Yeah. Okay.” His mouth flattened. “I’ll text you the code for the house, if you need it for some reason.”
He was moving past me. A look back over his shoulder, he smirked at me. “We’re staying here tonight.”
My eyes got big. Oh. I hadn’t expected that.
He saw my surprise and a ghost of a grin teased me before he nodded in the direction of the pool. Leaning in, he said, for my ears only, “I don’t give a shit what Quinn wants. I’m here. You’re here. That’s how it goes. Have fun with them, don’t have fun with them. I don’t care. Just make sure no one pushes you around.”
No pushing around. I bobbed my head up and down as he disappeared from the pool area. I could do that. No problem.
Matt was giving me a look of pity. Marie wasn’t looking; her eyes were fixed on Cyclone, who was swimming around her. Theresa was pretending to fend off a splashing Seraphina, though it was more like a dribble coming at her.
Right. I could do this.
Claim my place. That’s what Kash was basically saying. Right?
Battle ready. No one was going to push me away or evict me again.
“Bailey.” Seraphina had stopped splashing to tread along the deep end of the pool, a hand on Theresa. Her smile—I melted at that smile. She was waving, water dripping down her forehead, and her cheeks were glowing. “Jump in! Matt did, with his clothes.”
It struck me later that this was the moment when I was the one to choose.
I wasn’t forced somewhere. I wasn’t told to leave or coerced to play. I could stay or go. I could’ve made up some excuse, lame or not, and disappeared to Kash’s house. He wouldn’t have judged me. No one would have. And I got that when Marie and Theresa both looked up after Seraphina’s request. Both had warmed to me during this last week. Marie never said the words, but I saw it now. Finally. There was a welcome in her eyes.
In that moment, I could do what I wanted.
If I jumped in that pool, it was because I was choosing to stay, to continue a relationship with my siblings.
There was no question.
I jumped in.
Kash joined us an hour later.
He’d changed into swim shorts and sprinted in, doing a full body flip in the air before landing right between Cyclone and Matt. I had no idea how he did it, but he aimed his splash to get Matt right in the face.
I didn’t care, because it. Was. Awesome.
Scowling, Matt wiped a hand to clear the water, and then a new battle was on. Matt lost. He lost bad. He’d launch at Kash, who’d evade him, either swimming around Matt or ducking to the side or jumping out of the pool and then get him all over again. After twenty minutes of this—with Cyclone trying to help, but he really only paddled one way then to the other and then he’d turn around all over again, and with Seraphina cheering from the side—Matt couldn’t stay mad. It was humiliating, but in the best way. He was no match for Kash.