Baby for Brother’s Best Friend by Sofia T. Summers

1

Lyssa – Sunday

Two Weeks Prior

“Come on, come on,”I muttered to myself as I looked around my brand-new apartment for the paper bag of groceries – the same bag I’d spent a whopping forty dollars on at Whole Foods, not two hours before. Finally, I spotted it – it was on the corner of the dining room table.

The table, which I had been so proud of when I’d first bought it, was now languishing under the weight of boxes and books. I had stood at IKEA, staring at it and marveling that in just a few days, it would be mine.

I’d never bought my own furniture before. At thirty-seven, that was a funny (if not downright embarrassing) thing to admit, but it was true. I’d promised myself that I’d keep my new apartment clean and cozy, the perfect shelter and home for me. I’d promised myself that I’d sit down at the dining room table and eat dinner every night while reading – a real book, not scrolling through TheSkimm on my phone or playing a game on my iPad.

But so far, it hadn’t happened. Ever since moving to Brooklyn and getting started, I’d been so busy with work and getting acclimated that I hadn’t sat down at my table once. If I wasn’t working late at the law firm where I was employed as a paralegal, eating a sad desk salad, I was at home, snarfing down Chinese takeout on the couch while I binged The Bachelor and other admittedly trashy reality shows that kept my brain placid and calm.

Oh, well, I told myself as I reached for the bag and tightened my grip around the paper. There’s always next week. A fresh start.

I’d had a huge fresh start lately, but I figured that there was always room for improvement. Now, I was about to head out to my parents’ house. They lived in Cos Cob, Connecticut, which was just over an hour’s drive. Back when I’d first told Mom and Dad that I was moving to Brooklyn, they’d pushed back a little.

“Hon, you’d be so much happier in Manhattan,” Mom had said, looking a little concerned. To her, Brooklyn hadn’t changed much since the sixties – and I knew that there was little I could do to convince her of that fact.

“And safer,” Dad added.

I’d had to hold my tongue so I wouldn’t say anything even more disappointing, but the truth was, I was so proud of myself. Proud for walking out of a disastrous situation. Proud for righting what had gone so very, very wrong in my life. It had taken years – I had been in my early- thirties when I’d started – but I was proud all the same. This was the first time in my adult life that I’d lived by myself, and I looked forward to establishing a real routine in my new apartment, even one as simple as having dinner at the real table every night.

Not everyone had the strength to leave a bad marriage, and I was still convinced that I wasn’t a particularly strong woman ... no matter what my parents and younger brother said. I didn’t feel strong at all. I felt that if I was truly strong, I wouldn’t have gotten into a bad situation in the first place.

The thought was beginning to depress me and I shoved it out of my head, eager to get on the road to Connecticut. For a Sunday, the traffic looked particularly wicked and I hustled down the four flights of stairs to the street, then retrieved my car from where it stood two blocks over and one block down. Despite the traffic, I still loved the city. I loved the people who came from all over the world to visit and marvel. I loved the smells of exotic food – from Caribbean jerk chicken to Ethiopian beef tartare – that filled the air. I loved that I could go out at three in the morning and get a slice of pizza ... not that I ever had the courage to do that, but the idea was appealing all the same.

It was so different from where I’d grown up. My parents had lived in the same house in Cos Cob since the seventies, and I hadn’t appreciated it much at the time when I had been living there. The house was beautiful, with wide open rooms and exposed ceiling beams. Fireplaces in all of the bedrooms and even a dumbwaiter, which I had often played with as a child. But that house, beautiful as it was, had felt like a prison.

Now, I cursed myself for having felt that way. If I hadn’t been so eager to leave, eager to establish my own life and my own identity that was separate from my parents’, I might not have gotten into such deep trouble.

Stop, I told myself as I got in my car, climbing in behind the wheel and jamming the key in the ignition. Don’t think about that.

Don’t think about him.

Not today.

As I moved further and further away from Brooklyn, the traffic began to thin. I put one of my old favorite CDs from high school into the drive – my car wasn’t new enough or fancy enough to have Bluetooth, or even an AUX jack for my phone – and I sang along, tapping my hands on the steering wheel.

Inevitably, as soon as I pulled up in my parents’ long, circular driveway, a strange feeling came over me. It was part nostalgia, part bittersweet – almost like I was a kid again. I knew it was ridiculous, especially at my age.

But sometimes, I wondered if I hadn’t missed out because I’d spent more than ten years of my life trapped.

Pressing my lips together, I cut the ignition, grabbed the Whole Foods bag from the back seat, and walked up to the front door. Knocking felt weird, but I hesitated before letting myself inside. An anxious tremor started in my hands and I shook them, hoping to clear it.

Cool it, Lyss, I told myself. No one is going to hurt you – you’re fine.

You’re safe.

My parents were sitting in the living room and they smiled at me.

“Hey, sweetheart,” Mom said as she got to her feet and hugged me. “Right on time!”

I held the Whole Foods bag out to the side so it wouldn’t get crushed – those nine-dollar organic potato chips were too precious to waste – and leaned in for a hug. My mother’s familiar gardenia perfume washed over me and I breathed in deep as she kissed my cheek.

“Where’s Steven?” I asked.

My dad laughed. “Working late, again,” he said as he shook his head. “He’ll be here for dinner.”

“I have a cheese plate in the fridge,” Mom added. “With all of your favorites, honey, doesn’t that sound nice?”

I nodded. “I brought snacks, too,” I said as I handed her the bag. Mom peered inside.

“Thank you, honey,” she said. “This all looks wonderful.”

I had the sinking feeling that my forty bucks worth of groceries would not only not make it to the table, but would languish at the back of my parents’ walk-in pantry for months. I should have known better than to grab everything from the clearance aisles. Chips – no matter how expensive and ethically-sourced – clearly weren’t what my mother would deem an appropriate snack to put on a fancy tray.

There it was again – that feeling of being a kid, like I’d somehow messed up and made a mistake without even realizing what I’d done.

“What’s the matter?” Mom asked.

My face must have shown my feelings – something that I had never been very good at concealing, and I shook my head.

“Nothing,” I said as brightly as I could. “If you don’t want to put the chips out, just hang on to them.”

Mom went into the kitchen, leaving me alone with Dad. I sat down on the leather sectional couch and crossed my legs at the ankle.

“How’s the big city, honey?” Dad asked.

I flushed slightly. “I’ve been living there for years,” I said. “It hasn’t changed much. But it’s good,” I added quickly.

Dad nodded. “But you haven’t been out on your own for long,” he pointed out.

“Living by myself feels good,” I said. “I’m just glad I was able to make it happen.”

“Your roommates were nice girls,” Dad said. My flush darkened. Emily and Liese had been nice girls – key word being girls. They had been at least ten years younger than me, and although I’d never actually confirmed the age difference, their lives had been about as foreign from mine as the moon from the sun. They had partied and drank and laughed and had so much fun together, whereas I’d spent most of my free time in my room, reading, or going to cheap diners with my best friend Anna. When I had finally been able to move out of the shared apartment in Queens into my own space in Brooklyn, Liese and Emily had surprised me by crying and giving me a present – a new Crock Pot that could do all kinds of things, even make yogurt.

I felt a pang of guilt – we’d made a promise to keep in touch, but I didn’t do much now beyond looking at their Instagram stories or liking their Facebook posts. If anything, seeing their stuff online just highlighted the age difference between us.

And how glad I was to be finally out on my own. Living with them had been a necessity after leaving Curt. I’d needed a safe place of my own, and a cheap place at that while I finished my bachelor’s degree and went to paralegal school. I wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone, especially not my parents, but even though Liese and Emily had been in their twenties, living with them had given me a kind of security. Back when I had first moved in, I had been so afraid of being on my own.

Now, though, I was finally hoping to move past that and embrace my inner strength.

When I turned to Dad, I saw that he was giving me a strange look and I coughed slightly.

“They were,” I agreed.

Thankfully, before things could get any more awkward, the front door swung open and my younger brother, Steven, walked inside.

“Lyss!” Steven practically yelled. Despite being thirty-two, he was still as ebullient as a kid and his grin was as infectious as it always had been. I got to my feet and he bounded across the room and pulled me into a bear-hug.

“I haven’t seen you in weeks,” Steven complained as we pulled apart. “You too busy for your family now, huh?” He rubbed the top of my head and I giggled and groaned.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Things have been so crazy at work, and I just finished unpacking.”

“When are you gonna have all of us come over for dinner?” Steven teased.

I flushed, immediately thinking back to my new dining room table – and how it was buried under piles of things.

“Soon,” I promised.

That was another reason why I loved my younger brother so much. Like me, he’d of course grown up with money and privilege. But unlike our parents, Steven didn’t have a pretentious bone in his body. He was eager for everything, even to see my crappy new Brooklyn apartment and eat whatever cheap meal I would no doubt cobble together. He’d even compliment it and mean every word. Whereas my parents would likely smile and praise my cooking, then take a bite and quietly push the rest of the food around on their plates.

They meant well – of course, they did. But it was like the generational divide had never been as wide as it was when we were in the same room, or when I had to worry about impressing them with something like spaghetti Alfredo, even if the sauce was homemade from scratch.

I hadn’t always felt this awkward around my parents. Things had been different when I had been growing up, before I’d met my ex-husband.

I must be getting my period, I thought as I blinked. I don’t know why I’m dwelling on all of this crap today.

Mom came out of the kitchen and gave Steven a peck on the cheek.

“Dinner’s ready,” she said. “Everyone feel like sitting down?”

Steven nodded. “I’m starving,” he groaned.

My father raised an eyebrow. “You know,” he said. “If you hadn’t started your own firm, I bet you’d be having catered lunches on the regular.”

Steven laughed. “Yeah, but having my own office means I get to set the dress code,” he replied. “Unless a client comes in, I’m in jeans every single day. Lyss works in a firm – you’d give up free lunch for that, right?”

I didn’t tell him the truth – that in the past, I’d often snuck home leftovers from catered lunches because I hadn’t been able to afford meals of my own.

Thankfully, that was another thing that I hoped was long in the past for me.

We went into the dining room and sat down. Mom had set the table beautifully, with candles lit and everything plated.

“This is from Bressio’s,” she explained. “That’s the new place, over in New Canaan. Steven, I think it’s right across from your house – have you been there yet?”

“Not yet,” Steven said. “Meredith’s been bugging me to go, though,” he added.

I narrowed my eyes. Even on Steven’s accountant salary, I knew that starting his own firm had taken a tremendous amount of money ... he definitely didn’t have the scratch to be taking his fiancée out to a four-star restaurant.

“She’s got good taste,” Mom said comfortably.

She’s got expensive taste, I thought, but I quickly pushed the thought aside. I loved my little brother, more than anyone else in the world, and if blonde Meredith was who he had chosen, I was more than happy to become a sister to her, too.

“So, Lyss,” Steven said, turning to me and holding his fork mid-air. “How’s the new digs?”

“Good,” I said. “I’m mostly unpacked – I still have a ton of stuff to buy, though.”

“Need some help?” Dad asked.

I shook my head quickly. This wasn’t the first – or the only – time that my parents had offered to help. And I couldn’t lie, sometimes I was tempted to accept what they offered.

But I was thirty-seven, after all, alarmingly close to forty. And taking money from my comfortable parents at this stage of my life would have felt like such a huge, colossal step backwards that I didn’t think I could handle it.

Maybe I was strong, after all.

Or maybe I was just prideful.

“No, thank you,” I said. “I appreciate the offer, though.”

Mom frowned. “Honey, we don’t want you living in squalor,” she said. “We want you to be comfortable.”

“I’m not living in squalor,” I protested. “I’m living in Brooklyn – it’s actually pretty nice. There are a lot of families in my building. It’s safe,” I added, though I knew my words would do little to convince my parents of that fact. To them, anything outside of the rich bubble of Connecticut was like living in the projects.

“And she’s on her own,” Steven chimed in. “That’s so cool, Lyss. That has to feel so good.”

I smiled. That was just one of the many reasons why I loved my brother so darned much – he was never patronizing. He was my biggest cheerleader, aside from my best friend Anna, and I always felt like he was on my side, one hundred percent.

“It does,” I said. “It feels really, really good.”

“Oh,” Steven said, leaning back in his chair. “I forgot to mention it, but Dan might swing by later. That cool?”

“Oh my goodness, yes,” Mom chirped. “How is Danny, anyway? We haven’t seen him in ages! Did you know his mother wants to put their house up for sale? She’s talking about moving to Arizona!”

Steven chuckled. “Yeah, yeah, he told me about that,” he said. He eyed me. “Think he still has the hots for you, sis?”

I blushed hotly. “Of course not,” I said. “That was ages ago.”

Danny – Dan, now – was my younger brother’s best friend. He had been since we were all kids, and Dan’s family had moved into the house across the street from my parents. He had been a nice kid, albeit a little awkward. Smart and shy and bookish.

I’d always liked him – and he’d always nursed a crush on me that had made me feel like an older sister to him, too. I hadn’t seen him in years, and I wondered if he was still lanky and tow-headed. For what felt like the millionth time that night, I realized that I’d lost over ten years of my life to a stupid, horrific mistake.

We chatted and talked all through dinner – Steven telling stories about his new firm, and Mom talking about her garden club and the disastrous symphony fundraiser that she was chairing. Hours slipped by and I gorged myself on the expensive Italian catering until I was so full that I could hardly move.

“Damn,” Steven said, interrupting one of Mom’s stories and looking down at his phone.

“What, honey?” Mom asked.

“Dan’s not coming,” he said. “He said he ran into some problem at work and he has to stay late.”

“Oh, that’s a shame,” Mom replied. She frowned. “I ordered so much food – I was going to send him home with the leftovers!”

I knew it was silly – I hadn’t seen Dan in years, after all – but I felt an irrational swell of disappointment that he wasn’t coming.

Oh, well, I told myself, although I wasn’t sure where the feeling came from. Was it that I had been hoping Dan’s visit would take some of the attention and parental pity off me?

Or had I really been hoping to see him, to catch up with my younger brother’s best friend? Over the years, I had gotten so good – or bad, depending on the perspective – at compartmentalizing my feelings and actions and beliefs that feeling any kind of disappointment was a surprise, like feeling an old wound open up and start to bleed once again. And it was strange – while I’d always had a lot of affectionate feelings for Dan, it wasn’t like I’d made the effort to get back in touch after I’d started getting my life back on track.

At any rate, the message was clear.

Today was clearly not my day, and I was just going to have to move past that on my own.