I dumped an ungodly amount of sugar into the strong black coffee that tasted and smelled like jet fuel. The restaurant my dear brother had picked for us to eat breakfast served the worst coffee on the planet. I should have remembered that fact before I took that first sip that nearly sent me into convulsions.
“Do you want some coffee with your sugar?” Patrick asked with a heavy dose of sarcasm.
“This is not coffee. This shit is nasty.”
“You’re uppity with your coffee,” he replied, taking a sip of the muddy water. “It tastes fine.”
Once I had doctored my coffee with enough cream and sugar to turn it a milky brown, I got down to business. “We need to up the game,” I said.
He acted as if he didn’t hear me. I stared into his green eyes, which were just a shade darker than my own. He was my big brother and a lot of people commented on how much we looked alike. I supposed we did but he was painted with a darker hue. My fair blond hair compared to his darker shade. My fair skin and his olive tone. But we had the same high cheekbones, which I loved as a woman, but he wasn’t quite as thrilled.
“I don’t want to up anything,” he replied before taking a bite of crispy bacon. “We’re doing fine.”
“But we could be doing better. If we could get a bigger storefront in a better part of town, we could really be raking in the cash. We have some great pieces in our inventory, but no one knows because no one knows us.”
He shrugged. “Mae, we make enough money selling the pieces we do get. I don’t like the idea of an antiques store. That is so old fashioned. I don’t want to be the guy wearing an ugly sweater vest and roaming around piles of old dusty things.”
I rolled my eyes. “That is so dumb. And so stereotypical.”
“And so true. The majority of antique shops we visit have a guy exactly like that.”
“That’s the problem,” I said, glad he had brought it up. “We need to quit shopping around at other shops and find some actual dealers.”
“We’re doing fine,” he argued.
“Well, yes, but we could do better. Let me put my marketing degree to use. Let me market the business and make some real money.”
He didn’t look like he cared. That was because he didn’t. “We’re fine,” he insisted.
“Yes, we are fine, but I would like to be better than fine.”
“Look, we make enough to pay our bills. Neither of us is living hand to mouth. We don’t have to report to some corporate asshole. We get to do our thing and live without anyone breathing down our necks. If we get bigger, then we deal with bigger clients. We will have to have investors that bitch and moan about every little thing. I like our business just the way it is.”
“But it could be so much more,” I insisted.
He shrugged. “It’s more than what Dad left to me.”
I rolled my eyes. “First of all, he didn’t leave it. He abandoned it, and secondly, he left you a pile of shit that was in the red.”
“Exactly. Now it’s better.”
“But it could be more. We need to think about our future. We need to think about Hayden’s future. God knows our parents are not thinking about anyone but themselves.”
“We’ll take care of Hayden,” he said without committing to helping me make the company bigger and better.
“I’ve got to run,” I said and took one last sip of the nasty coffee. “I’ll meet you at the office later.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to brave the den of nastiness and try to find that book Dad had with all his contacts,” I told him.
He cringed. “You’re going to their house?”
“I have asked Dad for the thing a million times. He always says he’ll drop it by the office and then he never does. I want those contacts. If we can find a source that hasn’t been tapped into in a while, we could maybe find some real gems.”
“Good luck. If you don’t show up to the office by the end of the day, I’ll send out a search party.”
I rolled my eyes. “Thanks for the help.”
“I’m not going there. I won’t go there.”
I nodded. “I know,” I said, touching his shoulder before walking out of the restaurant.
Patrick couldn’t be in the same room with my parents. There had been too much said and done between them. He was the oldest and had shouldered the bulk of the stress growing up in that house. He’d always protected me. He’d always made sure I was safe and had something to eat on days my parents disappeared.
Our family used to be normal. I missed normal. I missed the days we would take vacations that were actually work trips for my father to collect antiques for the business. I didn’t mind that it had been a little work mixed with pleasure. Our mom had kept us busy and we had a good childhood.
Then one day, we didn’t. My dad picked up the bottle and my mother picked up a bottle of pills. There was no turning back once that started. There had been a happy break when my mom found out she was pregnant with our little sister, Hayden Marie. I had been fifteen and thrilled. Patrick had been less thrilled. He was already out of the house at that point but came back because he didn’t trust our parents to take care of a baby. They did. They pulled their shit together and things had been great for a few years.
I pulled my little Nissan into the driveway of my family home. It looked like every other home on the street, minus the nice yard and spring flowers. The two-story home was once considered a beautiful house in a nice neighborhood. Over the years, the neighborhood had become less affluent and more average. My parents were part of the downfall. No one ever said it aloud, but everyone in the neighborhood knew my parents were a little off.
They weren’t off. They were addicts.
I knocked on the front door before letting myself in. If I waited for someone to answer, I could be waiting all day. “Mom?” I called, stepping into the dark foyer.
I heard a snort, followed by a growl. No, we didn’t have a family dog. That was the sound of my father snoring. I flipped on a light, not wanting to step on him in case he had passed out on the floor. I spotted him on the couch, facedown. I sighed, shaking my head and not at all surprised to find him that way.
“Here,” I heard her answer.
I walked into the kitchen to find her sitting at the kitchen table with an empty cup in her hand. She was high as a kite. “Nice,” I hissed.
“Don’t start with me,” she said. “I have a headache.”
“You have a hangover that you cured with your happy pills,” I spat.
“Oh, little miss perfect Mae. Always the perfect, pretty girl. Always smarter than everyone else. You don’t know what it’s like to live with that man. You would have a headache too if you lived here.”
I scoffed. “When I have a headache, I take a couple Advil. I don’t go out looking for drugs.”
“Why are you here?” she groaned. “Are you here to lecture me? I know, I know, you hate me. Your parents are a disappointment. We ruined your lives. Blah, blah, blah.”
“Well, I guess something managed to stick in that empty brain of yours,” I shot back.
She moaned, rubbing a hand over her temple before taking a sip out of the empty cup. I watched her, waiting for her to figure out it was empty. She frowned, put the cup down, and peered inside. “Someone drank my coffee.”
I rolled my eyes, shaking my head. It was a typical Monday morning in the Kendell house. They had probably started partying on Friday and were just now on their way down. “I’m going to Dad’s office,” I told her.
“You stay out of there,” she ordered.
I walked through the kitchen, noting the dirty dishes piled in the sink and a pizza box with flies buzzing around. The house was a mess. It was always a mess. I pushed open my father’s office door and gagged. The smell of stale alcohol and what smelled a lot like old puke nearly took me to my knees. The door was always kept closed at my dad’s orders. It had always been that way.
I walked inside, holding a hand over my nose and mouth, and made my way to the desk. I should have brought gloves. I shuddered as I rummaged through the scattered papers and wadded-up napkins. I didn’t want to know. I just wanted the stupid book. I knew exactly what it looked like. I opened one of the drawers and found it sitting right on top. I snatched it and rushed from the room, closing the door behind me.
When I walked into the kitchen, Hayden was at the kitchen sink, loading dishes into the dishwasher. “Hayden!” I exclaimed. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be in school?”
She shrugged. “I overslept and missed the bus. Mom can’t take me.”
I looked at my mother, who was still staring into her cup. There was a moment of realization. I couldn’t leave my little sister in this shithole. We had talked with my parents about letting her come to live with me in the past, but they’d always refused. They always promised to clean up their act. I had consulted a lawyer, but my parents were really good at putting on a hell of a show.
“Okay,” I said, softening my tone. “Why don’t I take you to school?”
She looked at my mom, then me. “Okay.”
“Let’s go get your things.”
She looked at me with a curious expression. “My things?”
“After school, you will be coming to my house.”
Her eyes widened. “Really?”
I offered her a smile. “Let’s go pack.”
“What are you doing?” my mother asked, apparently coming out of her little trance.
“I’m packing Hayden’s clothes. She’ll be living with me from now on.” I turned to Hayden, who was still standing in front of the sink. I could see the uncertainty in her eyes. I put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay. Go pack what you need.”
“Are you sure?” she meekly asked.
The look of relief on the poor girl’s face made me hate that I had waited so long. She rushed out of the kitchen, and the sound of her footsteps running upstairs followed. I turned to look at my mother, who had risen from her chair and was scowling at me. “You are not taking my daughter.”
“Yes, I am.”
“She’s my kid!” she shouted.
“You gave birth to her, but you are not a mother. You let her go with me and I won’t call the police. If you want to fight me on this, I will take you down. Do you hear me?”
She looked as if she was going to have a heart attack. “How dare you?”
“I’m daring. Now sit down, shut the hell up, and let me try to help this girl before you completely ruin her life.”
I heard Hayden coming back down the stairs, shot my mother one last heated look, and pointed at her. She was too stoned to do a damn thing about it and we both knew it. Hayden appeared in the kitchen with a single suitcase. Judging by how fast she had packed, I imagined she was in a hurry to get out.
“Ready?” I asked her with a smile.
She slowly nodded, looking behind me to the table where our mother sat. My mom was back to staring into her cup. The hurt on Hayden’s face almost killed me. I quietly took her suitcase and wrapped my arm around her shoulders. “Let’s go home.”