The downstairs lights were still on when Mari stumbled home.
The effects of the alcohol had still not quite worn off, and her mind was caught in a bit of a fog as she tentatively opened the front door.
“Mãe?” She called out uncertainly as she crossed the front entryway. “Dad?”
It was past 2am – surely her parents would have been asleep by now. And even if Stefan or Tobias had needed a changing or feeding, her parents would always take care of it in the nursery, or their own bedroom. But not downstairs.
“Guess again.” A familiar voice called from the living room, harsher and colder than she’d ever heard it before.
Her younger sister sat on the large white sofa, staring daggers at Mari as she entered. She said nothing.
Mari knew instantly that something was very wrong. She felt her stomach drop as she looked into her sister’s narrowed eyes. “Why aren’t you at home? W-what are you doing here?”
At last, Lina replied. “Mãe and dad called me a few hours ago.” Her voice was soft and calm as she spoke, but there was a slight edge to her tone that did nothing to help Mari’s unease. “They wanted me to come over and check on you… and the babies.”
Mari’s brow furrowed in confusion. “W-what?” But that doesn’t make any sense…
“They said you weren’t answering the house phone, so they tried your cell… Straight to voicemail.” She sighed. “So they got nervous and wanted me to head over and make sure everything was okay.”
Mari’s heart began to race. What is she saying?! Mãe and dad… Aren’t here…? “B-but I don’t –”
“Mari, where’s Gabriela tonight?”
The young woman’s still-foggy mind fumbled for a moment before finding the answer. “A sleepover.” She recalled at last. “With some friends from school.”
Lina nodded. “And where are mãe and dad?”
“Uncle Paolo’s birthday party…” Mari’s eyes slowly began to widen with each word she spoke. “That was tonight?!”
“And where are the babies, Mari?”
Mari felt as though her heart had stopped beating. “They’re… Oh my fucking God.”
“How many times did mãe and dad remind you, Mariana?!” Her sister suddenly snapped. “How many times did you ‘yes’ them to death about watching the boys tonight?!”
Oh my God…
OH MY GOD.
When Mari had finally emerged from her room earlier that evening, she’d assumed her parents had simply gone to bed early.
But they had left.
And then so had she.
More than four hours ago.
FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK
Mari raced out of the room and up the stairs as quickly as her legs could carry her. She felt tears already stinging the corners of her eyes as she choked back a wave of nausea that washed over her.
Please be okay. Please be okay. Please be okay.
With an echoing slam, Mari threw open the door to the twins’ nursery, terrified of what she would find on the other side.
But she found nothing.
Both cribs were empty.
Tobias and Stefan were gone.
This time, Mari’s attempts to fight back her nausea were not quite as successful. She swallowed hard against the bitter burning of bile rising up in the back of her throat, just barely managing to hold down the contents of her stomach.
FUCK. FUCK. FUCK. WHERE ARE THEY?!
Mari could no longer breathe. What had she done?! How had this happened?!
The sound of calm and even footsteps at the doorway gave her the answer instantly.
“You!” Mari rounded on her sister, her entire body trembling. “What the FUCK did you do?! WHERE ARE THEY?!”
Lina simply shrugged, completely unfazed by the outburst. “Somewhere a Hell of a lot safer than here with you.” She said softly.
“Don’t play this fucking game with me, Lina!” Mari balled her hands into fists, raising them threateningly toward her sister. “Is this some kind of sick joke?!”
The younger girl sighed. “They’re with Ryan.” She said at last. “Okay? They’re fine.”
“Ryan?!” Mari stared at her sister, dumbfounded. “Your fucking moron of a boyfriend has never so much as changed a diaper. Why the Hell are you trusting him with my kids?!”
“Oh, they’re your kids?” Lina shot back, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “Whoops, sorry. Guess it’s pretty easy to forget, since you don’t do shit for them.”
She shook her head in disgust before continuing. “And now this?! Jesus, Mari! Do you realize what could have happened if mãe and dad hadn’t called me?”
“I know!” Mari felt dangerously close to vomiting yet again. “I fucked up, okay?! I fuck everything up! And I’m sorry! But… that’s no excuse for kidnapping my fucking kids.” Mari narrowed her eyes threateningly. “We are driving to your house right now and bringing them back.”
Lina shook her head. “No one’s going anywhere.” She said simply. “And no one’s ‘kidnapping’ anyone.”
“Oh really?” Mari crossed her arms, her lips curling into a cruel smile. “Well, we’ll see what the police have to say about that.”
For just one moment, a flicker of panic seemed to flash in Lina’s eyes. But then it was gone as quickly as it had come. “Sure.” She said with a shrug. “Right after we talk to them about all the neglect and child endangerment going on around here. I’ve already got three witnesses.”
Mari’s face paled. “Y-you wouldn’t. Y-you wouldn’t fucking dare.”
Mari said nothing as she stared into her sister’s cold gaze. She’s not kidding. Fuck. It was a few moments before she finally found her voice.
“Look… I’ve learned my lesson, okay?” Behind her anger, Mari’s voice was almost pleading. “You made your point. It worked. You scared the shit out of me… And it won’t happen again, alright? I promise.” She made a show of crossing her heart as she spoke.
The younger girl just rolled her eyes. “Mari, do you seriously think this is just about what happened tonight? This has been a long time coming, trust me.”
“You heard me.”
For a moment, Mari wasn’t sure whether she wanted to cry or scream. She settled on the latter. “Why are you doing this?!” Her angry shrieks echoed through the empty house. “What do you want from me?!”
“I want you to GET HELP!” Lina threw her arms in the air as her face contorted in rage. “You are sick! You have been for a long time. And this has to stop, for Christ’s sake! Think of your kids!”
“Sick?! What the fuck is that supposed to mean?! Are you saying I’m fucking crazy?!”
Lina shook her head. “I don’t know what you are. But something’s wrong. This isn’t you!”
“Will you listen to yourself, Lina?! God, you sound just like mãe and dad…” And Humberto too…
“Exactly! And you never listen to a word they say! They’ve put up with your shit for way too long.” She shook her head slowly. “But I won’t. Not anymore. Maybe now you’ll finally listen.”
Mari’s head was spinning, and this time it was not because of the alcohol. “Why doesn’t anyone get it?” She muttered half to herself. “I can’t fix this. I’ve tried, and I can’t! This is who I am!”
“That is BULLSHIT, Mari. This isn’t you! Maybe this is who you think you are, or think you’re supposed to be… But it’s not!”
Lina took a deep, shuddering breath before continuing. “And I can’t stand to see you like this anymore… Treating mom and dad like shit all the time, ignoring poor Gabriela, neglecting your own kids… Hating yourself the way you do…” She paused. “It’s not right, Mari. You’re better than that. But you’re never going to see it for yourself unless you let someone help you.”
Mari had a dozen venomous replies ready on the tip of her tongue… But none of them would come. She said nothing for several long moments as she let the weight of her sister’s words wash over her.
“Lina…” Mari’s voice shook as she broke the silence. “I-I… I don’t… I don’t know what to do, okay? I’m fucked up. I’m… broken. I’m… I don’t even know anymore.” She felt tears beginning to trickle down her flushed cheeks. “But I don’t know how to make it better. Every time I try, I just… I can’t.”
The younger girl sighed, and held her face in her hand for a moment. “Maybe that’s because you can’t do this on your own. Maybe you need to realize that you have a family who loves you, Mari. Who wants to help you. But only if you’ll let us.”
Lina bowed her head for a moment, as though in apology. “And… until you get that help… I can’t leave my nephews here with you. This isn’t a healthy place for them. It’s not safe. It’s not right…”
“Exactly.” Mari replied, her voice barely above a whisper. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it really is better this way… I’m so afraid, Lina. I can’t be around them. I don’t want to fuck up their lives. I don’t want them to see how fucking worthless I am…” She paused to allow a soft sob to escape her trembling lips. “I can’t let them hate me. You can hate me. Gabriela can. Our parents can… But not them. Never them.” With the back of her hand, she reached up to wipe away a few of her tears. “So go ahead and take them. You’d be a Hell of a lot better for them than me anyway.”
Her sister simply sighed in exasperation. “Mari. Please. Listen to yourself. The way you’re talking… It’s not normal. It’s not healthy.” Lina shook her head. “But you can get better. I know you can. And I know you’ll do it.” It wasn’t a question, or a demand. Lina spoke as though it were absolute fact. “Because I know how much you love your kids.”
“But I — ”
“But nothing. This is just temporary, Mari. To give mãe and dad a break… And give you time to start figuring some things out. Just please, meet us halfway this time. You can’t put this off any longer.”
Mari said nothing. It was as though she’d forgotten how to speak. Or think. Or breathe. So she simply stared.
“Look, I need to get back home and help Ryan with the boys.” Lina sighed softly. “Mãe and dad will be back in the morning. I’m sorry it has to be like this, Mari. But please, just… Think about what I said.” She crossed into the hall, then turned to glance over her shoulder as she continued.
“If you won’t do it for yourself — Or for me, or Gabriela, or mãe, or dad — then do it for Tobias and Stefan. They need their mother. They need you — the real you… But you have to help us find her again.”
Without a second glance, Lina turned and walked away, disappearing from sight. The only trace of her presence that lingered was the soft echoing of her footsteps on the stairs.
Mari listened as they grew fainter and fainter, then finally vanished with the sound of the slamming front door.