Stefan rubbed his sweating palms on his pant legs as a forced laugh passed his lips. He hadn’t even been paying attention to the story his stepfather was telling, but when he heard the chorus of laughter that filled the living room, Stefan decided to follow suit. In truth, he’d barely been paying attention to any of the conversations going on around him all evening. There was just too much on his mind…
Before long, Stefan realized as he looked around at his family’s smiling faces, this will all be over. Gone. A month or two from now, his family would likely be sitting in this very room once more, laughing and smiling together. But he wouldn’t be.
Where will I be instead? Stefan wondered. Maybe he’d be in Josh’s living room, surrounded by his half-siblings. Or at Hadley’s, chatting with Josh’s siblings or cousins. Or maybe alone at his apartment in Willow Creek, thousands of miles away from the people he loved most in the entire world.
For a moment, he felt like he was going to be sick. Or worse, begin to cry. Neither prospect seemed particularly appealing. You’re doing the right thing. He reminded himself firmly. Now you just need to get your shit together and TELL THEM already!
Before he even realized what he was doing, Stefan found himself on his feet. “There’s something I need to tell you.” The words burst from his lips, abruptly interrupting his twin as he shared a story with the others. “Sorry.” He added quickly, his eyes flicking toward Tobi for a moment.
His brother simply raised an eyebrow curiously at him. Stefan could feel the eyes of the entire family, watching him and waiting expectantly for him to continue. Even the kids peeked over their shoulders from their cartoon, though they could not understand a word of the English he spoke. They must have noticed how quiet everyone got…
Stefan tried as best he could to keep his voice calm as he spoke. “I got a really good job offer.” He said, forcing a smile. “And I think I’m gonna take it.”
The silence in the living room was soon replaced by excited cheers and congratulations. Mari practically leapt from the couch and pulled her son into a tight squeeze. “Finally!” She cried, laughing softly. “I’m so proud of you, honey.”
“Thanks.” He replied weakly as his mother pulled away from him and the rest of the family took turns sharing their well-wishes.
As soon as things had settled back down, the inevitable questions began… and that unpleasant twisting sensation in Stefan’s stomach quickly returned.
“So what kind of job is it, Stefan?” Jonas asked his stepson kindly.
“Uh, research…” He said, his voice flat. Stefan could already feel his heartrate begin to increase. “Genetic research, actually. For a biotechnology company.”
Tobi’s eyes widened in amazement. “That sounds pretty fancy.” He laughed. “So what’s the job actually gonna be? What will you be doing?”
“M-medical testing. Finding new drugs and treatments and stuff…”
“Oh honey, that sounds perfect for you!” His mother smiled brightly. “Do you know when you’ll be starting?”
Stefan’s stomach was doing somersaults. “Probably in a month or so? I… need to figure out an apartment and stuff first.”
Over on the couch, he saw Josh’s brow begin to furrow, but his biological father remained silent.
“So… it’s not in the city?” Alex leaned forward as he spoke. Stefan did not like the look on his grandfather’s face.
The young man just shook his head.
Stefan’s heart dropped as Josh cleared his throat and opened his mouth to speak. “Stefan… Where is this job, exactly?”
He knows. Stefan realized. Of course he did. He’d been the one to give him Luc’s number, after all.
Fuck. There’s no point in lying, is there? They need to know… Shit… Shit… Fuck. Okay.
“In Riverview.” He said at a last, his voice very small. “I’m moving to Willow Creek.”
“N-no you’re not.” Tobi’s voice finally broke the deafening silence. “You’re joking, right?”
Stefan shook his head. “It’s not a joke.”
“It has to be.” His brother insisted. “You’re not gonna leave.” Tobi’s voice shook slightly, though his smile did not fade.
“That’s right.” Mari agreed, her voice icy and cold as she rose to her feet. “He’s not.”
Stefan felt his heart sink. “Mama…”
“Did you know about this?!” In an instant, Mari rounded on Josh. “You did, didn’t you?”
Josh reeled back as if she’d physically struck him. “I swear, Mari, I had no idea!”
She ignored his words completely “You promised me you weren’t trying to take them away! And now look what you did!”
Stefan stepped forward as he spoke, his voice pleading. “Mama, Josh had nothing to do with this. I promise. This is about me, okay?”
“This joke’s getting really old, Stefan.” Tobi was on his feet as well. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“You don’t really want to leave… Do you?” Colette asked softly. “What about your home? Your family?”
“Apparently he doesn’t care about any of that anymore.” Mari glared daggers at her son. “I knew this would happen. I knew it.”
“What’s going on?” A little voice cried out before Stefan could reply. “Why’s everyone mad at Stefan?”
The children’s questions fell on deaf ears.
“I think it’s great.” Alex called loudly over the commotion. The entire family turned to face him, wide-eyed. “It’s wonderful, Stefan.” He said sincerely.
“You’re encouraging this?!” Mari snapped at her father.
“I’m happy too.” Jonas said with a small smile. “A little more notice would have been nice, but… I can tell this means a lot to you.”
Mari appeared dumbfounded. “Jonas what are you saying? You’re going to let him take our son?!” She pointed an accusing finger in Josh’s direction.
“I am not taking him! I’m just as shocked as you are.”
Stefan could feel himself reaching the breaking point. “Will everyone just listen?! I’m doing this, okay? For me. And will you stop blaming Josh for everything, Mama? Jesus!”
Mari opened her mouth to reply, but Tobi interrupted before she had a chance to speak.
“I just don’t understand why you think you have to go anywhere. This is happening way too fast.” His brother shook his head slowly. “You’re not leaving.”
“What’s happening?! What’s happening?!”
Colette turned toward the children sadly. “Onkel Stefan hat gesagt er zieht weg.” She said. “Er hat in Amerika einen Job bekommen.”
Aw, fuck. Stefan watched as Lucas, Jocelyne, and Clara’s eyes widened in surprise, then welled up almost instantly with tears.
“You can’t go Onkel Stefan! Don’t go!” Jocelyne wept and practically threw herself at him, squeezing him tightly around the waist.
“It’s not true.” Lucas sniffled, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. “Is it?”
“If you’re leaving, I’m coming too!” Clara shrieked as tears ran down her cheeks. “This isn’t fair!”
Stefan felt his neck grow warm as a white-hot burst of anger began bubbling up inside of him. He reached down and pulled Jocelyne away from him with a bit more force than necessary. The little girl simply cried harder.
“Do you see what this is doing to your family?” His mother cried as Colette began comforting Clara and the twins.
“Mari, stop.” Jonas said, placing a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “This isn’t helping.”
“Maybe you are being a little bit too hasty about this, Stefan.” Jade finally spoke.
Her husband shook his head. “This is what he wants. Trust me.” Alex assured her. “Leave him be.”
“You can’t just pack up and leave.” Tobi said firmly. “Stefan, this is crazy.”
Clara stomped her foot. “You can’t go away!”
“JESUS FUCKING CHRIST, SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” Stefan bellowed. His entire body was trembling. “What the FUCK is wrong with you people?! Can’t you just be HAPPY for me for ONCE?! Guess what? This isn’t about any of you, okay?! This is about ME!” He narrowed his eyes as he stared at the shocked faces of his family. “You can cry and beg all you want, but I’m leaving. And if you can’t be happy for me, then FUCK YOU.”
As soon as the cool night air hit his face, Stefan felt the dark fog of anger that had clouded his mind just moments before begin to melt away. He closed his eyes and took a few slow, deep breaths.
Fuck. Stefan felt like he was going to be sick. Did I seriously just say that? He held his face in one of his hands for a moment. They probably hate my guts right now.
The young man let out a soft sigh as he headed down the front steps. On the bright side, now they probably can’t wait to get rid of me. He thought bitterly. Why can’t they understand?
Stefan’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the opening front door behind him. Oh God. What now? He stopped walking and glanced uncertainly back toward the house.
“I’m fine, Josh.” Stefan called out over his shoulder. “Just leave me alone, okay?”
“I remember one time when I was a teenager, I royally blew up at my mom and step-father.” Stefan could hear Josh’s steps on the stairs as he drew closer to him. “I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I made a real ass out of myself before storming out of the house. I moved out after that to live with my father.” Josh stood beside him now. “It was months before my relationship with my mom was close to what it used to be – and I only moved across town. You need to go back inside, Stefan.”
He shook his head. “I can’t. What the Hell can I even say to them now? I don’t think I’ve ever lost it that bad before… and especially not in front of the kids…” Stefan felt his cheeks redden in embarrassment at the memory. “And even if I do go in and apologize, what difference is it gonna make?” His tone was suddenly bitter. “They’re just gonna keep giving me a hard time about moving until they set me off again. I’m sorry about what happened when you were younger. And I get what you’re trying to say… But this is different.”
“Except that it isn’t. Go back in, apologize. Talk to them. Explain why you’re doing this. Can’t you understand why they’re freaking out?” Josh sighed. “You’ve just dropped an enormous bombshell on them with no notice. It’s not like you’re moving a few hours away – you’re moving across the world in less than a month.”
“I know.” Stefan’s voice was pained. “And I know I should have told them sooner. But if I did, they would’ve tried to talk me out of it. I know they would.” He explained. “And honestly, it probably would have worked. So I decided not to give them that chance… But now I fucked it all up.” He hung his head, staring down at the pavement beneath his feet.
Josh walked over to him and squeezed his shoulder. “You haven’t fucked it all up.” He smiled kindly. “They’re your family. They love you. Families forgive. Just talk to them.”
Stefan said nothing for several long moments as he considered Josh’s words. I’m gonna have to go back in there eventually. He realized. Might as well get it over with. But what could he possibly say? Could they really forgive him that easily? And could he forgive them?
Only one way to find out…
Thank you to JoieWilder for writing all of Josh’s dialogue and actions in this chapter.