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The drive out to Hope Valley is long. I leave at 7 am, saying bye to Mom who’s due to work a double shift that day. I know she wishes she could come with me, but in a way I’m glad to be going alone. Mom has history with this side of my family that I don’t really want to get entangled in right now. I pack sweet tea and dry snacks, which is about all I can stomach, and Mom shoves a sandwich wrapped in brown paper into my bag just in case I get hungry. Crossing state lines makes my destination feel even further. I call Uncle Walter when I’m an hour away, and we schedule to meet at a diner in town at 5 pm.

Nothing looks familiar as I drive down Main Street. Either I don’t remember this place, or everything’s changed since I was last here. It’s busier than I imagined, and it takes me a while to find a place to park. I can’t see the diner that Walter mentioned, but I stagger out of the car, taking time to stretch my cramped body, figuring I’ll find it on foot. I’m desperate to pee and covered in crumbs, which I swipe off my t-shirt and jeans.

I wonder what Uncle Walter will think of me after all this time. Do I look like he imagines I will? Will he even recognize me? I’m pretty sure I’ll still recognize him. I wonder if he still dresses the same in black t-shirts with skulls or rock band motifs and jeans that slot right under his round belly.

I slam my car door shut and lock it securely. I’ve got my bag in the trunk and I don’t want anyone running off with so many of my worldly possessions.

As I’m making my way to the sidewalk, a truck passes and honks the horn. A loud whistle followed by a whole lot of whooping makes me jump. Another truck follows, and it beeps its horn. I catch sight of a gorgeous man in the front, leaning half out the window. ‘Hey, pretty girl,’ he shouts, which is followed by more whoops. Before I have a chance to scowl, they’re gone, but I’m sure I see a few heads in the back seat turn to look at me.

An older woman gives me a wry smile. ‘Men are all the same,’ she says. ‘Don’t take any notice of them. They don’t mean anything by it. They’re good boys, really.’

‘You know them?’

She nods. ‘They live just outside of town. Been through a lot.’

I smile politely, but inside I’m thinking that going through a lot shouldn’t excuse catcalling strangers on the street. ‘I’m heading to Nolan’s Diner. Is it close?’

‘Sure, it’s just a little further along there.’ She points in the direction the trucks went.

‘Okay, thanks.’

I’m around fifteen minutes late by the time I arrive and use the diner’s restroom, and Uncle Walter is already here waiting patiently. I notice him right away in a corner booth, even though he has aged since I last saw him. He is wearing a black band t-shirt, and although I can’t see his lower half, I’d put good money on a bet that he’s wearing low-slung jeans. His eyes are on the menu, but as I get closer, he glances up. I see the moment of recognition. ‘Maggie?’ he says with awe in his voice. ‘Oh my God, you look just like your mom.’ He stands and slides out of the booth, grabbing me by the shoulders so he can look me over. ‘I just… where the hell does the time go?’ When he tugs me into a fierce hug, I hug him back, reliving a memory of the day we left Hope Valley all those years ago.

Uncle Walter has aged, but not too badly. He’s still the same shape, but his hair is a little thinner on top, and his laughter lines are more pronounced. When he lets me go, I take a small step back. He’s familiar, but after so much time, this all feels strange. ‘Here, take a seat. You must be famished.’

We slide into the booth opposite one another, and I rest my purse on the seat next to me. ‘What do you want to drink?’ Uncle Walter has an empty bottle of beer in front of him.

‘Just an iced tea,’ I say.

He waves at the waitress, who comes quickly to take our order. It isn’t busy in the diner at this time; it’s late for lunch but early for dinner.

‘Was the drive okay? I was worried about you.’

‘It was fine. Tiring but okay.’

‘And how are you feeling… about, you know… the news?’

I shake my head and shrug. ‘It’s… I just don’t know. I mean…’ Trailing off, I gaze out of the window, watching the steady stream of traffic pass us by. How many times did my dad drive down this very street? How many times did he sit in this diner? So much time has gone by, and I’ll never know enough about his life.

‘It’s complicated,’ Walter says. ‘I get that, and you’ll need time… to process… to deal with it all.’ I reach out to grab the menu, needing something to distract me. ‘You’re going to have plenty to do.’

‘With the house.’

Walter nods. ‘A lot changed for your father over the past nine or so years… after you guys fell out.’

‘We didn’t fall out as far as I was concerned,’ I snap. ‘I got mad with him, and he… he just never called me again.’

‘He didn’t think you wanted to have anything to do with him anymore,’ Walter says. ‘It was hard for him, you being so far away.’

‘I just did that journey in a day,’ I say. ‘And I’m only nineteen. A fully grown man should have found it easy.’

Walter shakes his head, sliding back against the cold vinyl of the booth seat. ‘I can’t tell you what happened or why it happened. I’m not here to try to explain the actions of a dead man. All I can do is tell you about the will and give you the note your father left for you. You’re gonna have to come to your own conclusions about it all.’

The waitress returns with our drinks and asks for our food order. I’m still not feeling like I can stomach anything too flavorsome, so I opt to order a bowl of fries. ‘Order something more than fries,’ Walter says. ‘That’s not going to fill you up.’

I shake my head. ‘That’s all I want right now.’

Walter orders a steak, and the waitress retreats, leaving me to face this awkward conversation. ‘I didn’t expect him to leave me anything.’

‘You’re his only blood-related child,’ Walter says. ‘Of course, he was going to leave you something.’ I frown, wondering why Walter specified blood-related in that sentence. ‘He may have made some stupid mistakes in his life, but he wasn’t a bad man. There wasn’t a day that went by without him carrying a picture of you in his wallet. He had this too.’ Walter fishes around in the pocket of his jeans and pulls out a bunch of keys. There’s a cheap plastic photo keyring with a picture of me, complete with gap-teeth and uneven bangs. The sight of it hits me in the chest like a boulder. ‘These are the keys to the house. This is the address.’ He forages around in the other pocket, bringing out a piece of paper. ‘It’s just outside of town, a huge old place. I’ll take you there after we’re done here.’

‘Huge? How come? Wasn’t he living by himself?’

Walter shakes his head. ‘That’s what I need to talk to you about. After you guys lost touch, your dad was lost. He needed to find a purpose… he started fostering kids. They kept coming, and for whatever reason, they never left.’

‘Fostering?’ Now there are lots of things that Walter could have said to me about my dad that I would have believed, but learning he was a foster dad, well, that just doesn’t fit with what I thought I knew about him at all.

‘He was great at it. All boys. I think it filled a gap.’

‘So, what’s happened to them now? Did they have to find them someone else to care for them?’

Walter shakes his head and smiles. ‘That’s the thing. They’re all old enough to look after themselves, and your dad would never have put them out on the street.’

I frown, trying to make sense of what my Uncle is saying. ‘So, they’re still at the house?’

‘Yeah. Your dad left it to all of you.’

‘To all of us? How many of them are there?’ I ask.

‘That’s where this gets interesting,’ Walter says. ‘You have eleven foster brothers.’

‘ELEVEN!’ I must say that number loudly because the few other customers in the diner turn around to look at me with interest. ‘Eleven?’ I say more quietly.

‘Yep. Eleven.’

‘And they’re living at the house?’

‘Yep. All of them.’

I swallow, feeling my throat make a gulping sound. I shake my head, wondering at the news I’ve had to face in just a matter of days. ‘And they’re going to stay there? They aren’t staying in college accommodation.’

‘No. They’re finishing up college staying at home. Your dad was heavily involved with their training and, to be honest, the cost of eleven rooms when they have space here was just too much. They all play for the football team. I suppose once they’re done, they might decide to move on. If they can, go pro and sell the place, you know.’

‘But what if I want to sell the place now?’

‘Do you?’ Walter asks, his eyebrows rising.

Is it not the right thing for me to be thinking? In my mind, I was imagining that my share from the house sale could finance me setting up a home near my mom. Now it seems that isn’t an option.

‘I… I don’t really know what I want to do. It’s all… well it’s all so sudden.’

Walter nods. ‘Although I’ve had a few weeks to process it… it’s not getting any easier.’ He swallows and blinks slowly, a sure sign he’s holding down his emotions just like me.

‘Did you have a service, you know, a funeral?’

Walter arranges the cutlery in front of him. ‘He’s buried in the town cemetery. It will be a while before we can put a headstone, but there’s a wooden cross to mark it. I can take you there if you’d like.’

I nod, but I don’t mean it. My feelings about everything are way too complicated for me to deal with immediately. It’s going to take time. Maybe I’ll never be able to face that reality. ‘And you said something about Dad requesting that I clear out his things? Why did he say that?’

‘I don’t know,’ Walter says. ‘Maybe it’s his way of being close to you again. Maybe it felt right because you’re his only blood-related child. Maybe because you’re a woman now. We’ll never know. Actually…’ Walter reaches onto the seat next to him and places an envelope onto the table in front of me. ‘…this might explain everything. I haven’t opened it. Its contents are for you.’ He gazes at me expectantly, as though I’m going to open this letter in front of him and tell him everything that it says when in reality, I don’t even want to pick it up.

At that moment, the waitress appears with our food, and I slide the envelope off the table and into my open purse. Like the grave, the letter is going to remain unseen, for now at least.

We tuck in, and I ask Walter about the family. Jolene has blossomed from a scrappy toddler to a straight-A student who’s talking about studying medicine. ‘So, what do you want to do, Maggie?’ Walter asks.

I could tell him about my hopes of becoming a writer. I could tell him how I’ve been acing creative writing since I was a little girl. I could tell him a whole host of things, but none of it is going to happen now. ‘I don’t know yet. Still undecided.’

‘Do you know about Danna?’

‘What about her?’

‘She’s… well, she’s moved to Broadsville and shacked up with ten men.’

‘Shacked up? You mean, she’s house sharing?’

Walter shakes his head, his eyes bulging. ‘I mean, she’s in a relationship with ten men. They’re all brothers… well, adopted brothers. They have a ranch, and Danna’s become a proper country girl.’

‘TEN!’ The people at the table next to us turn their heads.

‘That’s exactly what we said. But she’s really happy. She invited us all up there for lunch… I don’t think I’ve ever seen her looking more radiant.’

‘Radiant? Ten men… how does that even work?’

Walter’s grinning, and I can tell he’s enjoying gossiping like an old maid. ‘Who knows? That’s not the kind of thing I want to get into with my niece. What goes on behind closed doors is none of my business. I was worried at first, you know. It sounded like she was being sucked into some kind of weird and deviant cult, but I get why they want it. All the boys live and work on the family ranch. They want to keep it all together as one family unit.’

‘So, she’s going to have kids with all of them?’ The idea fascinates me more than I would have expected. I haven’t had one man who was a reliable presence in my life. What would it be like to have ten lovers who are all looking out for me? Ten brothers who are focused on making one happy family.

‘I don’t know if that’ll be possible, but who knows. If you’d asked me if this would have been something Danna would have done, I’d have laughed in your face and bet my life savings against it. But there she is anyway.’

‘I guess people can be full of surprises. Like Dad, taking on eleven foster kids.’

Walter nods.

We eat and chat more about general things like the changes to the town and who I might remember and bump into while I’m here. I’ve been anticipating only staying for as long as it takes to fill a few boxes and clean the house ready for sale. Now, I have no idea what I’m going to do.

When Walter is done and wiping his bearded face with a napkin, he tells me he’ll take me over to the house. ‘You can stay there tonight,’ he says. ‘If you want to, that is. Or you can stay with me. You’re welcome. You know that.’

‘I think I’ll stay at the house,’ I say. My morning nausea might be easier to conceal if I’m not under Walter’s roof, and I don’t want to be here for longer than I have to be.

‘Okay then. I guess it’s time to introduce you to your new housemates.’


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