Gage couldn’t believe how lucky he’d been last night. As he lay awake, his mind drifted to images of Lakshmi and her sweet tender smile and voluptuous curves. Now here was a woman he could enjoy being with – he was certain. As he was contemplating his conquest from the previous night, Gage was interrupted by the jingling of his phone.
He bent to roll up his sleeping bag. In the light of day, the design was a bit girly, but Aunt Missy said she didn’t have anything else given the short notice, and this was Rhoda’s old sleeping bag. The red-and-pink, starry skies roll had done its job. He made a mental note to save up for a bed of his own. Yesterday, Sam had talked about remodeling the attic for the two of them. While he wasn’t keen on manual labor, Gage figured it would occupy his days for the time being while he looked for work. His phone jingled again – this time a recognizable ringtone. Gage debated letting it go to voicemail but then decided it was best to pick up.
“Hi,” he couldn’t think of how else to answer the phone for his former foster father.
“Gage, is that you?” Pablo Martinez’ voice came through his phone with a classic worried tone.
“Gage, it’s good to hear your voice. I was wondering if you were going to call after you left the Valley and when I didn’t hear from you, I thought something might’ve happened. Why didn’t you call me? I would’ve liked to have known you were safe.”
“It’s early there, Pablo,” Gage replied, avoiding the question. “It is only 8 A.M. here so it must be… what? 6 o’clock.”
“Sí, but I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to know if you were okay.”
“I’m fine. I arrived late yesterday afternoon. Aunt Missy is nice, and I met my cousin, Sam. We went to a town festival last night that’s why I didn’t call.”
He purposely left out the part about his one night stand. Pablo had been upset to discover Natalya the morning after his wife’s funeral, stumbling down the stairs, still getting dressed as she ran out the door. He had been too tired to lecture Gage, but his expression was disappointed and something else… hurt… Gage couldn’t stay in the house much longer and he knew it. He didn’t want to see his foster dad hurting, and he especially didn’t want to do the disappointing.
“Oh a festival,” Pablo said in his thick Mexsimcali accent. “How exciting! And the bus ride was pleasant and the fare not too outrageous to get there?”
“Bus ride was fine and the fare was… expected.”
“Good. Good. And you’re liking it there?”
“I’ve only been here one night… but… yeah… I like it,” Gage said, and he couldn’t help a small smile as he spoke. “How’s… Shameka?”
“Your sister is well. She found a job in Bay City at a hotel and it pays more than the Grand Admiral. I am helping her move this upcoming weekend.”
“That’s great. Tell her I say congrats.”
“You can tell her yourself. I was going to surprise her with a celebratory breakfast of Huevos Rancheros but she’s already up squeezing oranges for juice. I’ll go get her.”
“No, that’s okay. I’ve got to get going. Busy day today with the job hunting and all myself. Thanks for calling.”
“Oh…” Pablo sounded disappointed. “Are you certain? Shameka would love to say hello. You did just leave without any warning.”
Gage felt a twinge of guilt. He looked over and saw his cousin stirring in his sleeping bag.
“I have to go. Sam’s up. Bye Pablo.”
He hit the end button before he could hear any more protestations. He didn’t want to… he couldn’t listen to Pablo’s voice now. Too many painful reminders. He really didn’t want to talk to his sister either. She would only lecture him and berate him for leaving in the middle of the night.
“Morning,” Sam mumbled as he rolled out of his sleeping bag.
“Sorry if I woke you, man…” Gage apologized. “My…” he didn’t know how to refer to his foster dad. “…a friend from Sunset Valley.”
“Yeah,” Sam rubbed his eyes. “Do you want first shower?”
“Sure,” Gage accepted the offer.
Aunt Missy met Gage at the bottom of the stairs with an exuberant embrace and a plate of piping hot pancakes. She’d even made little roses out of the apples. Gage carried his plate gratefully into the kitchen to retrieve the syrup for the family. He found Sam, still in his pajamas, standing at the microwave.
“Coffee?” he mumbled.
Gage made a mental note. His cousin was not a morning person. “If you have some…”
“Pot is over there…” Sam yawned, waving to the machine next to the sink. “Although it’s been turned off for about an hour so it’s a little cold.”
Hence the microwave.
Gage decided to skip the coffee and wandered into the dining room with his plate of pancakes. He avoided the first chair and plate, assuming it was for Rhoda.
“Did you sleep all right?” Aunt Missy asked.
“Like a baby,” he grinned.
“What time did you get in last night?” Missy inquired. “It was quite late.”
“I was… I met someone,” Gage replied vaguely. “Thanks for leaving a key for me.”
“Already?” Missy tilted her head and gave him a quizzical look.
Gage fixed his eyes on his plate and began eating.
“Making friends,” he smiled between bites.
“Well, that’s very nice,” Missy said politely, though Gage was sure she wanted to say more.
“Hey Ma! You made pancakes!” a young woman walked through the doorway.
Gage assumed this was his other cousin. She was dressed less conservatively than his aunt or Sam with her see-through top with fishnet sleeves bearing her midriff, animal print bra, and low-rider jeans. Missy had explained last night that his cousin was an dancer and waitress at a local establishment, although now that Gage could see her in work attire, he surmised she meant exotic dancer.
“Yes,” Missy exclaimed. “To celebrate your cousin Gage’s arrival. Rhoda say hello to Gage.”
“Hey,” she said with an edge of annoyance in her tone.
“Hi,” he replied.
“Sam, did you leave any hot water?” Rhoda immediately snipped at her brother. “I’m in desperate need of a hot shower.”
“Gage, you ready to get to work later?” Sam asked, standing up without making eye contact with his sister.
“Yep,” Gage cracked his knuckles. “Ready when you are.”
“Good, I want to go get some paint for the walls. You want to ride to the store with me?”
“Jerk! You didn’t leave any hot water, did you?”
“I didn’t shower yet. Gage did. You can take it up with our cuz.”
“I took a quick one, I promise,” Gage inserted for good measure.
Rhoda shoved a piece of sausage in her mouth, and smirked. “Then I’ll be taking a shower before you.” She glared at her brother.
Sam sighed. Gage sensed the hostilities between the siblings. This would be interesting.
“Can I help with dishes, Aunt Missy?” Gage asked, breaking the awkward silence.
“You most certainly do not need to,” Missy shook her head. “It’s summer and your first day here. Go enjoy the weather.”
“That’s a first, Ma,” Rhoda snickered.
“Thank you for the breakfast,” Sam said meekly.
“You’re welcome, and I should cook more often now that your cousin is here.”
“We’ll see about that,” Rhoda said, breaking off a piece of pancake and eating it with her fingers. “Ma hardly ever cooks,” she said as she chewed.
“Oh Rhoda, do sit down and eat like a civilized person,” Missy gave an aggravated sigh.
“Not if I want that hot water,” she rolled her eyes and walked out of the room.
Sam sighed heavily. “I guess I’ll go get dressed. She’ll never get out of there now that she knows I’m waiting on her. You can wait for me in the living room if you want.”
“Thanks,” Gage replied.
He offered to help Missy with the dishes once more, and finally convinced her to let him put away leftovers, but then she shooed him from the kitchen. He found a book from his knapsack and wandered into the living room to read and wait for his cousin. Rhoda flew down the stairs, surprising him.
“I thought you were showering,” he remarked.
“Oh…” she rolled her eyes. “Letting it heat up for a bit.”
Gage decided to refrain from making a comment about wasted water resources.
“So cuz, what’s your angle?” she glowered at him.
“Angle? What angle?” he frowned.
“You want money? You want in on the family biz?” she interrogated. “You think Ma’s loaded or something and can just afford to feed another mouth around here?”
“Uh… no…” he took a step back. “I just wanted to get to know all of you… my family…”
“Well, family looks after family and you’re gonna have to earn your place here, cuz,” Rhoda replied with an icy tone. “After all, we don’t know you and we don’t owe you nothing.”
“I didn’t come looking for anything,” Gage shrugged, trying to play it cool. “Just an opportunity to get to know the family.”
“Yeah,” she eyed him up and down suspiciously. “So you say… we’ll see about that…”
“I promise I just want to know my dad’s relatives.”
“Ha!” Rhoda sneered. “We always knew Uncle Kody was hiding something dark in his past, but I never expected his bastard child to show up.”
Gage swallowed hard, trying not to take offense. “I… heard he was a decent guy…”
“Yeah who slept with someone other than his wife and I guess… you… are that… result… Well results always come begging for something… like they earned it just by being born. You didn’t earn anything yet in my book. I don’t care how much Ma says I gotta like you and be nice to you. If I catch you snooping through my things or you double cross Ma and steal from us…” her expression darkened. “Wham!” she slammed her fist into her palm.
Gage grunted. “I got the picture.”
“Yeah, well… I don’t trust you and you certainly aren’t much to look at even if you’ve got family genes. You and Sam definitely got the butt end of the stick with your pudding faces…” Rhoda added for mean effect.
“I’m told I look like my dad,” Gage coughed and straightened, purposely avoiding engaging with Rhoda. “It’s a compliment, I think.”
“Compliment?” Rhoda hooted. “You’ve got Burroughs genes, but there’s too much of your mom in there and if you ask me, your mom should’da kept her knees together and we wouldn’t be stuck with you then.”
“What the hell is your problem?” Gage snapped, balling his fists. “Why are you insulting my mom? You don’t know her and you don’t know me. You better keep your mouth shut or we’ll have a problem.”
He’d met girls like Rhoda in foster care and he knew he had to hold his own. He wasn’t going to let her insult him any longer.
“Sounds like you don’t know your mom either so there’s no reason to defend the whore. I heard she’s had dozens of kids, popping them out like Ma’s hot cakes. You’re just a blot in her history.”
“Shut up! Rhoda! I swear to Padre, I will tear you in two if you don’t stop slandering my mother,” Gage thundered.
He heard dishes crashing in the kitchen and half expected to see his aunt come into the room.
Rhoda blinked in surprise. “So you’ve got a spine?” she smirked, and dropped her arms to her side. “Unlike Sam…” she looked up toward the ceiling before lowering her eyes to the ground. “Maybe you can teach him a thing or two about testosterone.”
“GAH!” Gage yelled.
Rhoda straightened to her full height and met his eyes with a glower.
“Don’t get in my way, bastard,” she said tersely.
“Don’t get in mine, bitch,” he snarled back.
She laughed, and Gage couldn’t tell if she was amused by his show of bravado or just insane.
“Sure thing, cuz,” she saluted him with an inane smirk on her face.
With that, she stomped back up the stairs and slammed the door, leaving Gage bewildered. He wondered what he had done to her. Growing up in foster care certainly prepared him for rejection. He had experienced plenty, enough to fill several lifetimes, but his exposure still didn’t take the sting out of each little bite. His aunt seemed pleasant enough, his cousin, Sam accommodating, but Rhoda seemed downright baffling – overprotective of her family at times and tormenting her brother at others, accusatory and suspicious and then collected and coy. Gage realized he would have to be careful around Rhoda, but he wouldn’t let her intimidate or insult him. He was serious when he told her not to get in his way. He would not be crossed either. That was her first… and only warning.
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