There are five of them. I did my homework. Five sisters.
I watched them for weeks before I ever dreamed of approaching them. I know where they go and who they see. I know what their work schedules look like. I even know when they have their periods.
Yeah, I might have looked through their trash a time or two, trying to find out as much as I can before I make my move. And it wasn’t easy, with all the security they have. It’s like walking up on the White House at times. But I did it.
Now I finally know enough to tell them I’m here.
My biological sisters are the easy ones. They call themselves Star and Wren, but when I knew them they were Jessica and Jenny. They now have the last name of Vasquez. But they will always be Taggerts, no matter how far they travel, how famous they get, or how much they change. No matter how much money they make, they will still be my sisters. My blood.
The others are more of a mystery. There’s Peck, and she’s the drummer. She just married Sam Reed, the reality TV star and retired pro football player, and they are about to have a baby. She has a really bad speech impairment, and she struggles to talk in public. Just hearing her try to talk on TV makes me cringe for her. Well, more for me than for her. But still.
Then there’s Lark. She’s the keyboard player. She’s also a self-professed germ freak and she wears long elbow-length gloves everywhere she goes. But I have a feeling the gloves are about more than just germs. And I have a bigger feeling that she doesn’t want anyone to know it. She’s not a germ freak. Something happened to her and she hides it behind fabric and color. I can relate. I hide my past too. I hide it really well. So well that I’m not even sure who I am most days.
Then there’s Finch. Fin. Finny, they call her. She’s lead guitarist in their band. She’s also famous for her one-night stands. She’s as famous for them as she is for her music. And her music is pretty darn fabulous. She’s tiny, but curvy, and watching her butt shake as she walks down the street makes me want to stick my tongue in all her wet places every time I see her. But I have to shove my wants to the side.
I have an image I’ve cultivated. A face I show to the rest of the world, and it’s the face I have to show my sisters so they’ll let me in.
I iron my button-down shirt and shake it out in front of the motel mirror. I spent my last thirty dollars on this room, just so that I could get ready to go to them. I pull my jeans on and slide my feet into some sneakers. I bought all this stupid stuff at Goodwill for less than four dollars. Then I spent eight quarters washing it at the Laundromat. I button my shirt up high and put on the blue tie, which is already threatening to choke me.
I pick up my duffle bag and glance around the room to be sure I didn’t forget anything. Nothing here is mine. I step into the bathroom and grab the free soap and shampoo samples. No idea when I’ll see a shower again, so I might need them. I can wash my hair in a rest stop bathroom, if push comes to shove. I stuff them into the front pocket of the duffle bag.
Now it’s time to go and find my sisters. I know where they live. I’ve watched them come and go for weeks, so I know their schedules as well as they do. They’re not touring right now since Peck is about to have a baby.
I wait for residents to go into their apartment building, and I slip through the door just before it closes. I pretend like I belong here, even though this swanky building with its fancy doorman isn’t anything like where I come from. I walk beside one of the building’s residents and pretend to talk to her so the doorman will think I’m with her. I don’t want him to stop me.
The woman regards me with interest. She likes me. I can tell. But I’m on a mission. I ignore her when she keeps talking. I got what I wanted from her, which was entry into the building. She’s expendable, and she’s aware of it. She flounces off the elevator at her stop and I breathe a sigh of relief.
I go up a few more levels, stop outside their door, and drop my bag to the floor. I force myself to halt and take a deep breath. The door opens and it’s like falling back in time.
“Jess,” I breathe.
She startles and stumbles into the doorframe. I reach out a hand to catch her, but she jerks herself back at the last minute.
I smile at her. “Hi,” I say.
She slams the door in my face. The cool rush of air smacks hard against me and I force myself not to throw open the door and chase her into the room.
I knock. No one comes to the door. I know she’s in there. There’s not another exit, not that I’m aware of. I knock again and lean my forehead against the cool metal. “Please,” I whisper.
The door flies open and I nearly stumble into the room. I catch myself on the doorjamb and look at Jess’s face.
“Hi,” I say again, like an idiot.
“Go away,” she says. Then she ducks under my arm and passes me in the hallway, slamming the door shut behind her.
“Wait,” I call. “Can we talk?”
She turns back to face me and points her finger at my nose. “Talk? Talk?” She shrieks the last word. “After all this time, you suddenly want to talk?”
I nod. “Yes. Please.”
“No.” She turns and stalks down the corridor.
“Come on, Jess–”
She turns back and advances on me so fast that I retreat, my back striking the door. “My name is Star. And you would know that if you had returned any of the letters I sent to you over the years, you jackass.”
“What letters?” I never got any letters.
“I wrote you every day for a year, you piece of shit excuse for a brother.”
Well, at least she acknowledges that I’m family. That’s a start.
“I never got any letters,” I say. I hold up my hands like I’m surrendering to the cops.
She freezes. But then she lets out a hiss of breath and starts to shake her head. “Fuck you,” she says. She turns and walks away. I chase after her, but she leaves me standing there in the hallway. The elevator doors close behind her, and I think about racing down the stairs so I can intercept her, but I have a feeling that won’t help me.
Well. I messed that up.
I walk back to her doorway and sink down onto the floor and cross my legs. I’ll wait. I can’t give up on this. I have too much at stake. If I wait here, she’ll have to talk to me eventually, right?
It’s two hours later when the elevator dings and I hear footsteps in the corridor. I sit up. It’s not her, though. My heart clutches in my chest, because it’s Jenny. “Jen?”
I lumber to my feet, my ass sore from sitting on the floor.
Jenny freezes and stares at me. “Tag?” Then she breaks her gaze and looks at my duffle bag, her eyes skittering from place to place.
“It’s me, Jenny,” I say softly.
She sticks her key in the lock and swings the door open, then nods for me to follow her. My heart rejoices. I’m in the fucking door. So far so good.
She lays her things on the kitchen counter. “What are you doing here?” she asks. She looks like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders.
“I wanted to see how you’re both doing,” I say quietly. “Are you okay?”
She snorts. “You’re asking that now? After all this time?” Her eyes narrow. “Why do you care?”
“You’re my sister, Jenny,” I remind her. I need for her to remember that. I need them.
“My name is Wren. Wren Vasquez. My father’s name is Emilio and my mother’s name is Marta. I’m twenty-four years old and my sisters are Star, Finny, Lark, and Peck. I don’t have a brother. Not anymore.” She turns and takes a cold drink from the fridge. She doesn’t offer me one, but I’m okay with that.
“Wren,” I say. Her new name sounds foreign on my tongue. “It has been so long,” I tell her.
Looking into her face is like staring my mother in the eye. They look so much alike that it’s disturbing. “You look like Mom,” I blurt out.
Her eyes fill with tears and she blinks them back. “Tag,” she breathes. “Damn it. Why now?”
“I’m in trouble.” I didn’t mean to say it, but I did. “Lots of trouble. Back home.” I scrub my hands down my face.
“What kind of trouble?”
“The really bad kind.” I look everywhere but at her. “I was hoping I might be able to stay with you for a few days maybe.” A few days…or just long enough to get you to trust me and give me money so that I can take care of something back home.
I hold my breath and wait for a response. But none comes. “Or maybe just long enough to save up a few dollars?” I need to put the fact that I need money directly in her face.
“Star won’t like it,” she says.
I wince. “I already saw her.”
Her eyes narrow at me. “What happened?”
“She pretty much told me to fuck off.”
She laughs. “That sounds like Star.”
“So, can I stay?” I hold my breath. I need this. I really need it.
“Put your stuff in Peck’s old room,” she says, pointing to a door down the hallway. Her phone dings and she smiles down at it. “I have to go to the hospital,” she says as I come back down the hallway after dropping off my bag.
“Hospital? Are you okay?”
She waves a breezy hand in the air. “I’m fine. But Peck’s having a baby. We need to get there.” She motions for me to follow her.
“Do you just want me to wait here for you?”
“Dude, I know you’re my brother, but I’m not leaving you alone in our apartment.”
“I understand.” I nod and follow her to the door.
At the last minute, she turns back to face me. “If you hurt Star, or anyone else in my family, I will make you regret it. Do you understand?”
My heart stutters, but I nod.
They’re going to hate me when this is all over.
She’s kind of quiet in the cab on the way to the hospital. She texts a lot and makes a few calls, cursing when she doesn’t get an answer. She makes some small talk with me but she doesn’t really say much. Finally, she pays the driver and we get out. I run a hand through my hair.
She laughs. “You look fine,” she says.
“Will your adoptive parents be here?”
She nods. “Yep. You’ll like them, though. They’re awesome.”
We stop at the reception desk and they send us to maternity, where Jenny—I mean Wren—asks for Peck’s room. They show us to a waiting room, and we walk in, but it’s empty except for Jess—I mean Star—and a man in a wheelchair.
Star jumps to her feet when she sees me. “What’s he doing here?”
Wren glares at her. “Where the fuck have you been? I’ve been trying to find you everywhere.” She holds up her phone and points at Star’s.
“Why did you bring him here?” Star asks. “He doesn’t belong here.”
Wren puts her hands on her hips. “Yes, he does.”
People start filing down the hallway, and I recognize some of the girls from Fallen from Zero, the band my sisters belong to. I also recognize Star and Wren’s adoptive parents. I’ve seen them in publicity photos. Her dad glares at me but he doesn’t say anything. He knows who I am, though. That much is obvious.
Star gets up and walks down the hallway. She’s pissed.
“Well, that went well,” Wren says as she flops into a chair. She points to the guy in the wheelchair, then at me. “Oh, this is our brother, Tag. Tag, this is Josh. Josh works at the tattoo shop I was telling you about, with the Reeds.” She’d mentioned the Reeds briefly when she was prattling on about nothing in the cab.
I shake his hand. “Nice to meet you,” I say. He has ink across his knuckles and pretty much everywhere else.
“Aren’t you going to see the baby?” Josh asks.
“Is it here?” Wren cries.
Josh nods and smiles. Wren shrieks and gets to her feet, then runs down the hallway.
I sit with Josh for a minute. The silence wraps around us like a warm wool blanket. It’s heavy and oppressive. “Where are you from, man?” he finally asks.
“From the past,” I say. “And apparently I should have stayed there.” But I need this. I need my sisters in so many ways.
“What brings you to New York?”
I shrug. “I needed a change.” And a lot of money to pay off a girl so I can get a baby.
“So you thought looking up long-lost sisters was the way to go?”
I laugh, but it comes out sounding pretty insincere. “It was now or never, you know? I needed to be in the city. I just didn’t expect to walk into a mess.”
“Some call it a baby. Some call it a mess.” He holds his hands up like he’s weighing two things, lowering one and raising the other.
“Yeah, Wren filled me in on the way here. Babies are pretty special. A gift from God.” I find that people trust a God-fearing individual. So, I am one. Or at least I want him to think I am. My own faith is currently on shaky ground. But he doesn’t need to know that.
“I’m going to go and find Star,” he suddenly says. He starts to roll down the hallway and I stay in my seat. My sisters have to walk by me in order to exit, so I wait.
“See you later, man,” I say.
I wait. And wait. And wait…and when no one returns I’m worried that they left without me.
I get up and go down the hallway, peering into doorways until I see Josh in his wheelchair inside a room. I knock on the door and stick my head inside. “Can I join you?” I ask. I flinch inside, worried they’ll say no.
Star sits up and says, “No, you may not.”
“Oh, shut it, Star.” Wren motions me into the room and makes introductions. Sam Reed, who I recognize from TV, looks curious. And Peck doesn’t look like she appreciates my presence at all.
After a few minutes of awkward silence, Peck yawns. Josh says, “I’m going to go home so you guys can get some rest.” Sam takes his baby from Josh, who had been holding him.
“Where’s he going to stay?” Star asks, nodding toward me.
Wren heaves a sigh. “He’s going to stay in Peck’s old room for a few days.”
“No, he is not!” Star jumps to her feet and punches her hands into her hips. “No!”
Wren closes her eyes and massages her forehead. “The room is just sitting there empty. He doesn’t have anywhere to go.”
“And this is our problem why?”
“Because he shares our DNA!” Wren yells. The baby startles and Sam growls at them both. But inside, I rejoice because it has been a long time since anyone has taken up for me.
“Knock it off,” Sam warns.
“Why can’t he get a hotel room?” Star asks, her voice growing quiet.
“Because he doesn’t have any money!” Wren whisper-hisses back.
“Money,” Star bites out. “That’s what this is about.”
Yep. She pegged me in two seconds.
“He’s going home with us. That’s all there is to it.” Wren clenches her teeth.
“Then I’m not.” Star stares her down.
Wren sighs. She glares at our sister. “If that’s how you want it.”
“Fine.” Star leans over and kisses Peck on the forehead, whispers in her ear, and then kisses Sam’s cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Then Star walks out of the room.
Sam nods his head subtly at Josh, and Josh follows her out, rolling in her wake.
“That didn’t go very well,” I say. “I should go and get her.” I get to my feet.
“You better not,” Peck warns.
I jerk my thumb in the direction she went. “But she’s leaving.”
“Let her go,” Sam says. “Josh will take care of her. He’s been taking care of her all night.”
Wren grins. “Oh, do tell,” she says.
Sam starts to tell us about Star dancing on a piano, so drunk she could barely walk. My conscience prickles a little, since I know I caused that.
“Star never gets drunk like that,” Wren says quietly. She looks worried.
“Josh will take care of her,” Sam says again. He doesn’t look worried at all. In fact, he winks at his wife and she grins at him, rolling her eyes.
“I feel bad that she’s not going home. And it’s all because of me,” I say quietly.
“She’ll come home when she’s ready,” Peck says.
The question is, will she be ready in time for me take care of things back home? I need for them to love me and to trust me. Then I need for them to give me money, and I can’t get them to do any of that if they’re not around.
I haven’t seen Star since I got here. She refused to come back to the apartment, and she has been away the three days I’ve been here. But Wren has been here. All it took was some reminiscing. Bam. Got her.
“Do you remember the yellow house on Chestnut Street?” I ask her.
Wren blinks her eyes furiously. “Yes, I remember.”
It was the house we lived in when Mom and Dad died. “Dad taught you how to ride that old pink bike on the sidewalk out front.”
“I remember.” Her voice is thick and tight. “That was before…”
“Before they died,” I finish quietly. I force out a laugh. “You scraped your knee when you fell off the bike and you wanted to quit, but Dad wouldn’t let you.”
She chuckles. It’s a watery sound. “He made me get back on it and stay on it until I could ride it around the block.”
“Then they couldn’t get you to come inside for supper,” I remind her. My breath catches at the look of devastation on her face. But I push on. “You wanted to stay outside all night.”
“The streetlights came on and I wanted to keep riding.”
“Dad sat on the porch and counted your laps around the block.”
A tear finally falls over her lashes and my gut twists. “I miss them,” she whispers.
“You got a good family,” I remind her. Not like the one I got.
“We didn’t at first,” she blurts out. Then she looks like she wants to take it back.
I drop the fork I’m holding and it clatters to the tabletop. “What?”
“Our first foster family…” She shakes her head. “Never mind.”
“Tell me,” I say.
“You don’t want to know.”
“I do.” It can’t be as bad as the hell I went through. “Tell me.”
“He was a pedophile, and she was clueless.” She closes her eyes. “Star bore the brunt of it.”
I suddenly want to throw up. “What?”
She nods. It’s a quick jerk. “Social Services took us out of there and we went to a group home. It was better.” She smiles at me. “Then we met Marta and Emilio and they adopted all of us.”
“I didn’t know,” I manage to respond. I can barely breathe, much less speak. No wonder she hates me.
“Star wrote to you all the time. She kept thinking you were going to come and rescue us.” She laughs, but there’s no humor in it. None at all. “That’s why she’s not here. She’s still a little sore over it.”
“If I had known–”
But she holds up a hand and waves it to stop me. “You were a kid.”
“I was glad you didn’t end up where I went,” I blurt out. I want to bite it back as soon as it comes out of my mouth. But it hangs there in the air between us.
She blinks her big brown eyes at me. “Why?”
“It wasn’t good.” I cough into my fist. “He wasn’t good.”
“He was family,” she rushes to remind me.
“There was a reason why Dad didn’t talk to him. Think back. Do you remember Dad ever having anything nice to say about him?”
She shakes her head. “Not really. But there’s a lot I don’t remember.”
“He wasn’t nice or good or kind. And he’s no family of mine. Or yours, for that matter.” I get up and start to clear the table. “Just thinking about him makes me sick.”
“What happened?” she asks from behind me.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
I take a deep breath. “He got paid by the state to keep me.” I don’t say more, hoping she’ll draw her own awful conclusions. “I was like their servant. I took care of their younger kids and kept their house clean.” And I took the beatings for the ones who were smaller than me.
“You weren’t an only child, at least,” she prompts. She’s looking for a happy ending, but I can assure her there isn’t one. Not in my uncle’s house.
She sounds so optimistic I almost hate to shatter her illusions. “I took care of everyone. I cooked and cleaned and changed diapers and put the kids on the bus. I nursed fevers and soothed nightmares.” I shiver at the thought of it. “And then they sent me to my room, when my chores were done, while they were a family and I had no one.”
“We didn’t know…”
“No one did.” I shrug and force out a laugh I don’t feel. Just going back to those days in my head makes my skin crawl. “When I was nineteen, I met a man who worked at a church. He had a daughter, and she made everything better. She helped me. We were the same age. Julia.” Just the thought of Julia makes my heart speed up a beat. She’s why I have to go back. She’s why I’m here at all.
“That’s good,” Wren says.
I force my own memories to the back of my mind. “Do you remember the time that you and Star decided to build a tree house?” I ask. I force her to slip back into the memories, and I go with her. And I’m happy for a little while, as I bask in the glow that is my family.
Suddenly, I realize that I’ve had too much to drink. My emotions are sitting directly below the surface of my skin. They’re not hidden down deep in my soul where I usually keep them. They’re floating just below my sanity, and they’re peeking through.
“I need to go to bed,” Wren says. She presses her beer toward me. She cracked it open but never drank any of it.
I have already had a six pack or so. I’m not drunk, but I’m losing my inhibitions and I’m sober enough to know it. I push the beer back toward her.
“I can’t,” she says on a laugh. “Not possible.” She narrows her eyes at me though, and I immediately worry. Did I say something I shouldn’t have said? Did I lie? Does she know it? “I want to give you something,” she says. She digs into her purse and pulls out a blue faux-leather bank book. She slides it toward me. “I set this up for you today.”
“What is it?” I ask. But inside my heart is leaping.
She winces. “I kind of went through your wallet to get your information for the account.”
“Oh.” I immediately wonder what else she found.
“I wasn’t really snooping. Just trying to figure out how to set this up for you.”
“Okay.” My heart is pounding. She just made all my dreams come true and she doesn’t even know it. She thinks she just did a good deed.
“I want you to stay. I want you to stay long enough for Star to get to talk to you at least, once she gets over the hurt. But I understand if you can’t.” Her voice is quiet but strong. “No matter what, I want you to be taken care of. I want you to know you’re loved.”
My heart leaps into my throat. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. I was supposed to trick them into loving me. They weren’t supposed to just do it. I push the bank book back toward her. “No, I can’t take it,” I say.
“It’s not much. Just a nest egg.” She comes toward me and lays her hand on the top of my head. She gives my head a shove and kisses my forehead just like our mom used to do. It was more like getting assaulted with affection when Mom did it, and we all loved it so much. So having her do it brings tears to my eyes. “I’m glad you’re here,” she whispers to me. Then she goes into her room and closes the door softly behind her.
I drop my head to the tabletop and bite back a sob. I can’t cry. I can’t. I haven’t shed a tear since I went to live with him—at least not where anyone could see me. I open up the bank book and see a blank set of checks with my name on them. And there’s a total written at the top of the register.
She put fifty thousand dollars into an account for me.
For me. Holy shit. Fifty thousand dollars…
I lay my head on the cool tabletop and roll my forehead across the surface. If I were a better man, I wouldn’t take it. But I’m not. I’m desperate.
A key jangles on the other side of the door and I lift my head, swipe beneath my eyes, and try to pretend like my emotions aren’t slapping me in the face like lightning in a summer storm. I’m probably failing at it, but I do try.
The door opens and Fin comes in. She’s wearing a pair of black jeans that hug her ass and a black leather jacket. She’s bad-ass. And beautiful. And I’m a little bit drunk.
She trips over the doormat and grabs hold of the wall. She giggles. Oh, hell. She’s tipsy too.
“Hey,” she says as she tosses her keys onto the counter with a clatter.
“Hey,” I mutter back. I roll the bank book in my hand, trying to figure out if I can take it.
“Where is everybody?”
I nod toward Wren’s room. “Wren just went to bed. Lark’s not home yet. And Star is at Josh’s apartment, still.”
She nods and shrugs out of her leather jacket. She’s wearing a thin camisole and no bra. Her nipples press hard against the sheer fabric and I have to force myself not to look. She bends over and looks into the fridge. “What happened to all the beer?”
I pick up my can and drain the last of it. “Drank it,” I murmur.
She gets a bottle of water and sits down across from me. “Bad night?”
I shake my head. “Good night. You?” I arch an eyebrow at her.
She shrugs. “Good as any other. I’m a little bit drunk.” She holds up her thumb and forefinger about an inch apart.
I laugh. “Oh, good. Me too.”
She goes into her room and comes back with a guitar. I watch her as she goes to the couch and plops down on it. She settles the acoustic guitar in her lap so that it’s facing up and she starts to pluck at the strings. A melody jumps into the air and dances in front of me.
“That’s really good,” I say. I’m drawn to the music almost as much as I’m drawn to the girl. I get up and go into the living room. “Can I sit?”
She shrugs. I plop down on the other end of the couch and watch her. She plucks and hums and plucks some more and then she stops and writes something down.
“Are you writing music?” I ask.
“Something like that,” she murmurs.
“It’s really good. Does it have words?”
“Yeah,” she says, as she chews on the tip of her pen. A lock of dark hair falls into her face and she blows it to the side. I reach over and brush it back when it falls again. She startles, jerked out of her musical trance, and she stares at me. “You want to hear the words?” she asks, her voice quiet, almost fearful.
“Yes.” I can’t think of anything I’d like more.
She starts to sing. It’s tentative and wary and so fucking beautiful that she steals my breath. She sings about heartbreak and shame and lust and love and hurt, and under it all…there’s beauty. Just…sheer beauty.
When she stops playing, I realize that I haven’t even breathed, so I take in a breath and fill my aching lungs. “That was amazing.” I sigh.
“How drunk are you?”
I shake my head. “Not very.”
“You should drink another.” She nods her head toward the kitchen.
She stares hard at me. “Because I want to find out what makes you tick.”
I’m not even sure I do tick. I kind of just exist. Ever since I got the call from Julia that she didn’t want our baby, that she wanted out, I’ve felt like someone pushed the pause button on my life.
“What makes you tick, Finny?” I ask.
She snorts. But it’s an adorable sound and I find myself grinning. And it’s not just because I’m drunk. “Sex,” she says. “Sex makes me tick.”