I had to bite my tongue, but I kept silent.
She looked back at the picture. “As a family, you have to stay together. Through anything. Even if it’s terrible, like what happened with your poor mother. Everyone needs to be an anchor for everyone else.”
A tear fell from her eye, but she continued talking with a steady voice. “Anyway, I’m glad you brought the pictures up. Even if he did what he did, he’s still a part of the family, and we can’t abandon him or his memory. He doesn’t deserve that.”
She paused a moment and pressed her lips together.
“When I think about it, I wish I had done more to reach out to him. He was always an obsessively focused person. In the end I guess it killed him—and it was bad for his marriage, of course—but he did accomplish an awful lot.”
Tears began threatening to come from my eyes, but I fought them back as well as I could. I didn’t want my aunt to stop talking, even if the mention of my parents’ marriage made me upset.
“He was always focused on something,” she said with a sigh. She looked back at the picture again. “Maybe something positive to focus on would help you move on too.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said, not completely convinced.
She smiled. “I’m going to go downstairs and start on lunch. That boy Hunter eats like a horse. Will you be coming down?”
“Yeah, I’ll be down in a minute.”
She nodded and walked out. I watched her go and thought about what she’d said.
I threw the covers off and swung my feet around to get out of bed. Everyone in a family needed to be an anchor for everyone else. Had my family been like that?
Probably not. But the Perkins family was welcoming me in and they were family too. Maybe I wasn’t pulling my weight yet, but I could work on it.
What about Hunter? I had felt like he was my anchor, but after the last few weeks maybe I needed to be more careful about that. He needed me to be his anchor as much as I needed him. We had certainly made progress, but we weren’t fully there yet.
I looked at my desk, where I had hidden the letter to Marco. Maybe if I could get some answers about why everything had happened, I could be a better anchor for Hunter too.
I snuck a stamp from the kitchen drawer my aunt kept them in and sent the letter off the next morning. Before I was ready, it was Saturday evening. Hunter had spent most of the past two days working on the dining room. Even though we hadn’t talked alone since he’d found me in the basement, his presence in the house was comforting.
I helped my aunt with the dishes after dinner while Hunter read to the kids in the living room. From the sound of it, there was little actual reading being done, and a whole lot of chasing the kittens.
“Sounds like the boys are having fun,” I said.
My aunt let out a hearty laugh. “Having Hunter around is like having an older brother for them to play with. They haven’t had this much fun since I can remember.”
I giggled. Hunter was just like a big boy, in his own way. It wasn’t surprising my cousins got along with him so well.
After a few minutes of raucous laughter in the living room, the noise in the living room died down. Aunt Caroline raised an eyebrow at me. “Do you hear that?”
“What? They’ve finally quieted down.”
“That’s the sound of two boys about to raise some trouble. I’m going to go check in on them, can you finish up for me?”
I nodded and started stacking the plates into the drying rack. Hopefully my cousins weren’t getting into too much trouble.
As I was drying my hands, Hunter walked into the kitchen. I smiled at him when he came in, noticing his messy hair. One of the kittens had probably been sitting on his head just seconds before.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey yourself. Thanks for playing with Joel and Billy. I think they really look up to you.”
He laughed. “I’m hardly somebody they should look up to.”
“I don’t know about that,” I said, frowning. “What’s going on in there, anyway? Aunt Caroline thought you boys were getting into trouble.”
“Ah, nothing. We finished the book. Or I did, anyway. Right now I think they’re trying to coax Frida out of her hiding spot.”
“Maybe we can help,” I said. I started to walk towards the living room, but stopped when Hunter didn’t follow me.
His eyes darted to me for a moment before he looked aside. “What? Oh, uh . . . yeah.”
I felt my muscles go tense. Something was up.
“What’s going on? Are the kittens okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. Nothing like that. Can we—” He stopped and tried again. “Can we talk?”
“Of course!” I answered, a little more cheerfully than I intended. He was acting weird and it was making me nervous.
“Let’s go to the guest room,” he said. He grabbed my hand and led me down the hall.
My pulse pounded in my ears. What did he want to tell me that he didn’t want anyone else overhearing?
After I stepped through, he locked the guest room door, his shoulders hunched over and tense. His face was grim and he didn’t say anything. I didn’t know why, but my eyes were starting to sting. The past few days with Hunter had been wonderful, but I knew it couldn’t last forever.
Did he need to go back to Studsen? He couldn’t just skip all of his classes, no matter how smart he was. Even so, I wasn’t quite ready for him to leave yet.
Hunter cleared his throat, breaking into my thoughts.
“Uh . . . so, I know we didn’t talk about this a lot, but . . . ”
“What is it? What’s wrong?” I asked, my chest tight with anxiety.
“My MS . . .”
My heart raced. “Oh my god. Is it getting worse? I thought—”
“No!” he yelled.
I flinched at his tone and took a step back. I hadn’t expected such a strong reaction from him.
He shook his head slowly. “No,” he said, more softly this time. “It’s not like that. I’m fine.”
“It’s not? You’re okay?”
First I felt relieved, but then I noticed the look on Hunter’s face. His eyes were downcast and he shook his head. “Listen, I can’t stand you thinking that I’m gonna die any second. That kills me.”
“I’m sorry. I just . . . ”
I knew Hunter was right. Even though it was too late, I wished I could take my words back. Why was he always able to be so strong for me but I kept messing it up? He was trying to tell me something important, and the only thing I could think about was my own irrational fear. I was treating him the same way everyone else did when they found about about his MS. I had hurt him.