Sun's pregnancy quickly becomes official. She's not really sure how to feel.
Outwardly at least, neither is Tula.
"Thanks for letting me do homework over here," Tula says to her cousin, Gregory, "Things at my house are kind of weird right now."
"Uh, no problem." Gregory stares at his homework. He scratches his head, trying to find a delicate way to ask what he overheard his mom discussing over the phone with his uncle, Tula's dad; his new cousin.
Tula sighs, sensing his discomfort, "You probably want to know about the new baby, right? Everyone does," she grumbles. Lately it seems everyone at school is hedging around her. She found out later that Guy, in typical absent minded fashion, told their homeroom class about their impending family member. With the size of Appaloosa Plains being what it is, soon everyone knew.
She's not really sure why having a younger brother or sister would make her uncomfortable, but that's what everyone seems to be assuming. Tula figures she'd better roll with it. Her best guess about the uneasy buzz is that it's because her sibling will be from someone who isn't her mother.
Honestly, though, why should she care? Her mother is gone. Even if she weren't, she and her father might not be together by this point. It's impossible to know. No use ruminating on what could have been.
Gregory shifts in his seat, "Sorry, I didn't mean to offend you..."
Tula, in an attempt to salvage the conversation, sighs and rearranges her features to look apologetic and regretful, "No, I'm sorry. It makes sense that you'd want to know, it-er, I mean the new baby's your cousin and all."
"Still, it's um...a big change to adjust to and everything," Gregory panics at the sight of his cousin's downcast expression. Is she going to cry? He'd hate himself if he made her cry...
"Yeah, it is. Soon my dad's going to be pretty busy," she says with a defeated sigh, "And everything's going to be chaotic and just...ugh, it's horrible to say, but I'm kind of scared that I'm just going to be on the backburner, you know?"
She blinks back non-existent tears, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't be laying this all on you. Every kid feels like this when they have new siblings, right?" she says with a watery smile.
Gregory stares despondently at the table. He has two younger brothers, one not much younger than he is, and the most recent addition who's barely old enough to crawl. He knows exactly how Tula feels.
Tula closes her eyes for a moment and sighs, "You have younger siblings. What's it like?" she asks, an edge of despair to her voice.
She just wants to hear that it'll be ok, Gregory chides himself. He's not sure what it is, but something makes him want to cheer her up so badly.
"It's ok," he says, trying to seem non-chalant, "Omar can be a pain in the ass, but what sibling isn't? Always getting into my stuff... but actually mom is home a lot more because of him, since she doesn't want him to be raised by babysitters, so I see her more often..."
The front door opens and closes, as if marking Gregory's words.
"Hey guys," Xara's upbeat voice greets from the entrance, "Doing homework?"
Xara looks down at her nearly completed essay, "Eh, pretty much done," she says with sparkling eyes and an easy smile. Gregory stares at her, perplexed. How does she change so easily? Then again, with everything she'd been through, it made sense... she's used to putting on a brave face.
"Oh let me help you with that," Tula offers, seeing her aunt struggle with armloads of groceries. She pushes herself away from the table and walks over to the front door, holding it wide open for Xara and her groceries.
"Thanks, nice to know someone helps me around here," Xara says with a pointed glance in Gregory's direction.
"B-but I'm doing homework!" he splutters "This essay is due tomorrow and-,"
Xara just laughs, earning a grumble from her son. Of course she'd end up having a sulky honors student as a son. It reminds her so much of her younger brother...
After all the groceries are unloaded, Xara pulls Tula to the side for some small talk. Truth be told, after Paolo told her his news, she was a bit worried about how Tula and Guy would handle the sudden change. But staring at Tula's exuberant expression with her free smile and wide eyes, she wonders if there's anything to be concerned about. She's always been strong.
"School's going great," Tula responds to her aunt's inquiries about her academics, "I'm in all honors classes and I think I'll be getting into advanced placement next year. I was thinking of maybe joining the soccer team later, but I'm not sure if I'll have time with school and the new baby..."
Xara notes Tula's slight deflation at the last word, and nods. She puts a hand on Tula's shoulder.
"Hey kiddo, listen... if things at home ever get too crazy for you or for Guy, you're always welcome here, ok? Any time, really."
Xara's heart breaks a little when Tula looks up at her with shining eyes and a small, shy smile.
"You...you really mean that? I-I don't know what to say...Thank you!" she throws her arms around her aunt, taking her by surprise.
"Oof. Haha, no need to thank me. Anything for family," Xara laughs, returning the hug. How in the world did her niece manage to be so sweet with all the chaos in her life? A not so minor miracle, that was for sure.
Having to be on maternity leave was the last straw for Sun's already souring science career; she didn't quit in the end, but was fired. She feels detached from everything except for an electric nervous energy. It fills her veins with a low but constant buzzing, separating her from her surroundings. Nothing she touches really connects with her.
This is it. She is bound here forever. She can never be independent again.
It's a simple fact to accept, and yet every time Sun thinks about it, she feels all sense of reality ebb away from her. She can get a new job, but she will always have this child. She will never have time to herself again. She will have to chain herself to her baby, and she'll be at home smiling at her child, reading bedtime stories, singing lullabies... it will be idyllic but it will be a lie.
She feels some tears well up. She wants her old life back.
Paolo, on the other hand, has been willingly spending more time at home. It's as if this new child has snapped him out of his "work, eat, sleep, exercise" routine and driven him back here. If Guy were less worried about all this homework he doesn't understand, he might have noticed Paolo's increased presence.
What he does notice, even if only vaguely, is Paolo's sudden interest in his life.
"Are you thinking about joining any clubs? Maybe a sport?" Paolo asks, trying to sound casual. How did all this time slip by? He could've sworn the kids just started high school, and here they are already halfway through. Tula's already talking about advanced placement classes and joining activities. It reminds him- almost unbearably- of his older sister Tulip at her age.
"Um I was thinking of trying out for the soccer team like Tula," Guy lies. He's not sure why he's lying. He's never done an after school activity before and no one cared. Why didn't he just shrug and say he didn't want to join anything?
Paolo nods approvingly. "Good, it's important to keep in shape." He chews a bite of his cheeseburger thoughtfully.
"Any plans for after high school yet?"
"What is this, interrogate-Guy-day? I dunno," Guy says, uncharacteristically snappy.
"What don't you know?" Tula plops down next to Guy, only catching the tail end of his sentence. "If it's homework, I can always help out."
Her leg brushes up against his under the table. He moves it away, she moves hers closer.
Guy squirms uncomfortably, "It's no big deal," he squeaks.
Tula shrugs, her features relaxed. She takes a languid bite from her lunch, "If you say so."
Guy quickly abandons the table and scurries off to his bedroom.
"He seems a bit jumpy," Paolo remarks.
"Maybe it was something you said," Tula says with another shrug, reaching for her burger.
"I was just asking him about his plans for the future..."
"Well that explains why he was confused," Tula says, standing up and clearing her plate away, "He's probably not used to you caring."
The words are said casually, as if she's just talking about the weather, but they cut deeply. Paolo doesn't meet his daughter's eyes, but he's completely frozen in his chair. He can't deny his lack of involvement in their lives, and the shame is paralysing.
Tula scoffs at her father's lack of response, but puts her dishes away without another word. His guilt is not her problem.
He gets dressed and tends to the garden outside. He wishes badly that he could take all of that lost time back. How long did he "check out" for? How does he connect with Tula and Guy again?
He sighs deeply and wipes away the moisture gathering in his eyes. No apology can make up for what he's done and he knows it.
So how does he fix it? How can he move forward?
Nothing but guilt and despair seem to answer him.
AN: Short update, the next chapter(s) should be quite a bit longer.