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"INCOMING!" Thea shouted as she ran to my side when we saw Mom's Mustang pull up outside of Dad's shop. I was surprised she hadn't sold it before we left for South America but it still looked in good condition. She revved the engine loud enough for everyone within a half mile radius to hear it and I smirked as Zander and Uncle Mike joined us. We'd been working on cars all day and it helped time to pass by quickly until Mom and Dad's flight arrived to Houston. Had they told anyone they were getting in early, we would've picked them up at the airport.
Uncle Mike whistled in appreciation as we approached her car and she walked around to greet us, showing off a little more leg in her black dress than Dad might've wanted, but seeing as he wasn't in the car with her, I don't think she cared. She grinned towards Uncle Mike as we crowded around her and sandwiched her with careful hugs since we were still wearing our mechanic's uniform. She kissed my temple, then moved on to Zander, then squeezed the life out of Thea, who seemed elated Mom was back.
"I hope they haven’t been too much trouble," was the first statement she made while Zander and I shared a look after she grilled him. Thea, our designated peacekeeper, interrupted and stole the spotlight away from my brother.
"I learned how to drive a stick!" Thea's enthusiastic answer made Uncle Mike choke on his own saliva while Mom raised an eyebrow at him and waited for his explanation.
"Hey, we all learned how to drive stick. Right?" Uncle Mike tried to save face but Mom simply shook her head as she pulled away from us to hug him, while Zander and I tried not to laugh when his eyes widened at us.
"Packing a few extra pounds, huh?" Mami teased him and he made a face as he pulled away from her, then took her hand and twirled her around.
"Beauty at its finest. Does Daniel know you're out here looking like this?" he inquired after openly flirting with our mother, making us cringe and shudder. Uncle Mike was a notorious flirt according to Dad, who always made sure to point out he meant no harm with his unabashed comments.
"Of course he does," she replied with a bright smile, which gave her away immediately. Uncle Mike laughed and made way for Jesse when she joined us. To our surprise, Jesse reached to hug my mother and Mom actually hugged her back, no blood was shed, no knives were thrown. Dad hyped this up to be more than what it was which meant Zander owed me five bucks. He sucked his teeth and reached into his wallet to pay up and I quickly shoved it into my pocket before anyone could notice.
"Still got the hots for my husband?" Mami blurted out her question and we all stilled when Aunt Jesse stared at her like a deer caught in the headlights. Mom's laughter followed her expression and we all took a deep breath as she stepped away and brought me and Zander at her sides. "I'm just kidding."
"Funny, very funny. Now where's Daniel? I got a big bone to pick with him," Uncle Mike chimed in and Mom sighed, letting us know this was going to get ugly if Dad and Uncle Mike didn't let this grudge go. Dad had always been short with him over the phone, no joking around, no banter. I wondered if he was ready to forgive him now that our parents decided to stay for a while until Zander and I finished high school.
"Let the man have a day, Michael," Jesse smoothed over as she winked towards us, trying to ease the tension. Zander blushed of course, something he rarely did until he was near her, and Thea stood beside me, observing as usual.
"If you guys are done here, we have a birthday party to get ready for," Mami reminded us, letting us know it was Giselle's birthday today. Good thing we all bought her presents a few days ago and kept them tucked away in Thea’s closet.
"Ya'll are relieved of your duties. We'll finish up here and head on down to Freddy's," Uncle Mike claimed as he reached to hug Mom again, "I'm glad you're home, crazy girl. Marley hasn't been the same without you," he tried to whisper, but we all heard him. Not that it had been a secret. We've seen how sad Aunt Marley got when we mentioned Mom before. Mom was better at hiding it, but we knew she missed her as well.
The reason why we loved being in the car while Mom drove was because we got a chance to hear Thea sing her favorite songs on the radio, and that was something we actually enjoyed hearing her do, instead of listening to her rant about the environment and how we were killing sea life when we used anything plastic and making us feel like complete assholes for still using them. Our baby sister could sing any musical note in the book and she hit every single one of them perfectly. Dad on the other hand purposely ruined all the songs when he drove and made us cringe during every car ride we've ever been in together. He meant well, but the man couldn't carry a single tune.
"Remember us little people when you make it big, Thea," Zander commented when Mom took a break and turned down the radio.
"Oh, please. I'm heading straight to Texas A and M! Marine biology, baby!" Thea answered with a grin as she high-fived Mami when she paused at a red light.
"That's my baby," Mami replied with a proud smile and reached to cover Thea's face with kisses. Thea laughed and pulled away when the lights turned green again and Mom hit the gas.
"How do you even know what college is? You're like five years old," Zander began his teasing and Thea turned to stick her tongue out at him.
"Don't hate, big brother. It's not a good look on you," Thea sassed him and it only pissed my brother off more. He'd been in a mood all day and I wondered if it had anything to do with whatever happened at the bonfire with him and Leah. Everyone saw them arguing according to Rhiannon. But he brushed it off when I asked him about it. He merely told me to stay away from her. I trusted my brother, and when he warned me about certain things, he usually turned out to be right. But he didn't even know Leah. I had no idea why he hated her already.
I picked my phone out of my pocket when I felt it vibrate and looked at the screen to see Rhiannon had sent me a picture of her lounging by the pool at her parent's place. She was purposely pouting in the photo, while baking in the sun with a bright neon green bikini made to capture attention rather than to cover what it needed to, and had sent me a kissing face emoji right under it. I tried to keep my smirk at bay and it erased the moment Zander took my phone out of my hand and chuckled as he passed it along to Thea.
"Give it back!" I hollered at them as Mami pulled up into our old farmhouse, where we'd spent all of five minutes in when we were younger.
"Have you seen Zach's girlfriend, Ma? She's so pretty." Thea handed my phone over to Mom as she killed the engine right behind what I assumed to be was Dad's rental truck. Mom took one look at the picture and narrowed her black framed eyes at me.
"Are you being safe?" she asked and I groaned in embarrassment, getting out of the car once she handed me back my phone. It took Thea five seconds before she ran to Dad and he squeezed her against his chest.
"Mi bebe preciosa," he greeted her using her favorite nickname and she grinned at him as he took her face in his hands and leaned in to kiss her forehead. He took one look at Mom and his bright smile widened. He greeted her with a kiss and quickly pulled away with a smirk as he pulled her closer to him and wiggled his eyebrows. Zander and I cleared our throats, forcing them apart, not being able to take much more of their PDA.
"Damn, I got some good looking kids." Dad and his cheesy smile moved on to us as he reached to hug us both. He ruffled our heads, messing up each hairstyle individually but we didn't mind. We were just glad he was here, and alive. It'd been a hard couple of weeks after he had his minor heart attack. Mom had been even more worried than usual, which only made her crankier and she'd also been having a hard time getting him to change his diet and exercise routine. But we all pestered him until he gave in and now he looked even better than he did before.
"Papi, have you seen Zach's girlfriend?" Thea and her usually quiet mouth opened again and I glared at her when she snatched the phone out of my hand and showed him Rhiannon's picture. Dad nodded in approval and smiled when he handed me back the phone.
"She's not my girlfriend," I corrected firmly to everyone in the vicinity and they all began to clap for me, as if they'd been waiting their entire lives for this moment. I was surrounded by assholes but I had no choice but to love them regardless of their playful teasing.
"She's something if she's sending you that kind of picture," Dad countered and Zander nodded as they clapped their hands together, both of them obviously on the same page.
"Exactly. Just be safe, like Mami said," Zander added with a smug smirk as I punched his shoulder and he punched mine back.
"Be safe about what?" Thea asked, the only one in the group who had no idea what sex was and how much it mattered at our age. Zander and I left that subject to our parents as she continued to press them to answer her while we all entered inside the house, and Mom and Dad yelled for us to stop behaving like animals when Zander and I kept punching each other's arms. I was glad the Carter family was back together again. Now we could finally put an end to all of these uncomfortable feuds they kept putting us in the middle of for the last sixteen years.