In a small town like ours it doesn't take much to cause a scandal, so when a nineteen-year-old girl became guardian of her five siblings after the 'tragic fire' that killed their parents, it shouldn't come as any surprise that it caused an uproar. I never thought I'd see that kind of havoc wreaked again, but, obviously, I wasn't expecting Anabel.
After hesitating for too long, I realise I'm not going to open the file- not now, not ever- at least, not on my own. I give in and pull out my phone, sending a quick text. The response is immediate, and three minutes later someone comes barging into my room, and stops abruptly, panting with their hands on their knees.
The tall, elfish blonde looks up.
"Actually, I texted."
Ella gives me a deadpan look, clearly not appreciating my humour.
"Where's Mia?" I ask, noticing the absence of Ella's daughter. Ella jerks her head towards the living room.
"Entertaining your siblings as of now," she says dryly. "So, what's up?" she asks, "And whose the newbie out there?"
I have to give Ella props- nothing gets past her. "Straight to the point," I say, chuckling weakly.
"You're scaring me, Anna, what's up?"
The words flow way too easily now. "I have a sister," I state.
Ella looks at me blankly. "Yes, Anna," she says slowly. "In fact, you have two."
"Haha," I say. "I mean, I have another sister."
I finally get a reaction from her. Her eyes widen and she makes weird gestures towards the living room.
"The cute blonde?" she asks.
I nod. "Her name is Anabel."
Even more of the whites of Ella's eyes expose themselves. "Annabelle," she repeats, "like Annabelle?"
I shake my head. "Anabel, like one n, one l."
"And I'm assuming she's not Olivia's daughter," she guesses, Olivia being my mother.
"You're on a roll today, El."
She lets out a huge breath. "Wow," she says.
"No, like, wow."
"Trust me, I know."
She glances at the little-huge paper elephant in the room- the file.
I stay silent, so she takes the initiative and opens it. I stare at her, waiting, but her face is a closed-book, giving away nothing. Finally, she closes the file, sets it down, and says, very calmly, "Did you know that Anabel used to live about an hour away from here?"
I snatch the file from her,
She nods, and I flick through it frantically. "Bloody hell," I whisper. I look up. "Our birthday's are days apart."
I continue flicking through it and feel a heaviness settle in. The story of Anabel's life with her mother is painfully familiar- I lived that life, too, before Mum married Paul. Now, it's just memories of council houses, Mum's unsteady jobs, her even unsteadier finances- all the details ring a bell, and even though I know that many people do, it still upsets me that someone else had to live that kind of life. At least Mum got a real chance at life with Paul.
Ella nods again, and says, too nonchalantly,
"You two must have had a lot to talk about."
When my voice doesn't make itself present, Ella's eyebrows begin to travel up her forehead. "Of course, that's assuming you two have talked."
I do a strange, little cough/throat clearing, looking anywhere but Ella, whose face I know is a mask of disapproval. "You're joking, right? You two haven't talked?"
"Anabel's not one for words," I say vaguely.
Ella scoffs, "Yeah, I can see that."
"Hey," I say defensively. "This is kind of big for me, too."
"Yeah," she retorts, "but you're twenty-three. She's seven, Anna. What do you expect her to say?"
I slump, defeated. Talking to Anabel would be the right thing to do- how many more people do I need to tell me that?- but my moral compass seems slightly off since yesterday.
"I know," I mumble, hating myself for this immaturity, and Ella softens.
"Have you been in touch with your father?" she asks, and the question is so unexpected that the only thing I can think to say is,
She stares at me, "Your father? You know, the guy who provided half of your genetic makeup, gave you an X chromosome-"
I roll my eyes, "I know what a father is," I say, then I stop. "I just don't know who."
Ella ponders this for a minute. "Maybe," she suggests, "you can't talk to Anabel because you don't know, like, the person who links you."
I stare at her, realising her words make perfect sense. "Were you a psychiatrist in your last few lives?"
She smirks, "Well-" she begins, but I cut her off with a little shriek.
"What?" she says, looking around wildly.
I push myself off the bed, using her thigh as a support, as she groans under my weight.
"My crumble's in the oven," I say sheepishly.
She glares at me. "Well, I hope it's not too nice, because you'll be giving most of it to me."
I tut, "That's just greedy, Ella."
"It's too bad I don't care." We walk out to the living room where the seven of them are sitting, eyes ridiculously wide, in front of the TV, watching SpongeBob.
"C-A-M-P-F-I-R-E-S-O-N-G song," they're all mouthing, leaning in closer and closer. I cough, but they all ignore me- even Rob just glances up and then back at the screen.
"Well, Ella," I say, loudly, "I guess all of that crumble is yours."
They look up simultaneously, like a horde of variously-aged zombies.
"I want crumble," Alan says, and Jake nods.
"Well I'm not bringing it to you," I tell them, going over to check on it. I peek into the oven and smile, turning to Ella,
"Does that not smell divine? I think that smells divine."
She nods, looking impressed. "Pretty damn divine," she agrees.
"First one gets the middle," I offer quickly, and, within the second, they're pushing and shoving their way towards me, ravenous mob that they are. Rob, being the strongest and tallest, practically places his hands on the others' heads to hold them back, as he all but snatches the bowl out of my hands.
"Cream," he demands. I raise an eyebrow. "Please," he adds sheepishly. I roll my eyes and point towards the fridge, the same fridge that we still have to empty for tomorrow for the move.
The move... Anabel. I see her, standing nervously behind the others, and guilt floods me. I carry a bowl over to her and, like I expect, she looks up, then down again, murmuring a small "Thank you."
I try to smile at her, and then feel the urge to hit myself as it finally clicks.
Anabel is scared of me. I don't know what she thinks of me- probably that I hate her or that I blame her. Maybe she hates me, for all I know, going by the way I've treated her in the last couple of days, her life in care might have been better.
I can feel Ella staring at me, watching us, and I know what she expects from me, and she's right to do so. I've been hearing it for two days now, but only now does it register: Anabel is family. But if Anabel's family, that means I have another shard of family out there, one that I've tried to ignore for as long as possible. If I'm going to accept Anabel as family, I need to come to terms with the one who makes us family: our father.