We barely have time to pull into the driveway before a figure comes rushing out of the house, followed by several others. I'm trying to get out of the car as quickly as I can, but my hands are shaking too much to get a proper hold on the handle. Banner chuckles quietly under his breath as he leans over and flings the door open for me. I give him a shy smile before jumping out of the car.
Everyone is yelling, "Naomi!" Over and over again, and I'm rammed into by a petite woman with wiry arms that are certainly doing their best to crush me.
"Mom," I mumble into my mother's hair, taking in the almost familiar scent of hay and bread. How many times have I tried to imagine what that scent was?
I look up, taking in the people around me. Even though I was given pictures of my family each year to see how they had progressed, nothing could have prepared me for this. My eyes expect to see my big sister still looking like a thirteen year old girl with her hair braided so tightly I used to tease her that it was going to run away because it was scared of being roped up again. Instead, I see a beautiful young woman, a spitting image of my mother, who is still holding me and shaking. My sister smiles at me, a few tears falling from her eyes and dropping off her chin. My mother lets go long enough to try to see my face, and in that time I reach out to my sister, who leaps forward.
"Mallory, how old are you?" Wow, that was tactful. Hello to you, too.
"Twenty-one! Aren't you supposed to be only eighteen?" I revel in hearing her soft, singsong voice. It's something I used to think of when I was scared and homesick my first year at Bluevale.
"I guess so," I reply, realizing she must be thinking the same thing I am. She pulls away and studies my face, my mother right behind her.
"Well then, you're the most beautiful eighteen year old I've ever seen." Mallory whispers, and I can hear the pride in her voice. My heart soars, and I realize that this is my family, and I never needed to go out of my way to impress them. I only needed to be with them.
I look over to my brothers, and I see that Anthony is grinning from ear to ear. I only recognize him because we share the same pattern of freckles splashed across our cheeks and noses, because other than that, he is the complete opposite of what I remember. His scrawny figure, blinding blond hair, and missing teeth have been replaced by muscles and height, dark brown hair, and a beautiful smile.
"Hey, Anthony," as I say it, he opens his arms and meets me halfway. My head goes to his shoulder, and I marvel at how tall he's gotten. He's definitely grown up and become a man, no longer a little nine year old boy. Although I suspect he's still fiercely protective.
Anthony leans down to whisper something in my hair, "Good to have you back, Naomi."
I nod, smiling at hearing my brother's now manly voice. Then, I peek over his shoulder at my youngest sibling, Greg. He should be...fifteen now? It's hard to wrap it all around my mind, how much everybody has changed. I make a move towards him, but Anthony pulls me back into his embrace.
"Hang on a second, I haven't seen you for eight years, where do you think you're going?"
"Greg-" I begin, but Anthony cuts me off.
"Greg! Come here, join in."
I stretch my arm out to Greg, and he cautiously joins the hug. I don't miss his look of hesitation in my direction. He needs some time, I tell myself. Time to what, though? Perform a DNA test to make sure I'm really his sister?
"My girl!" I snap out of it when I hear my father's voice. He comes out of nowhere, which means he was probably in the stables, and shoos the boys away from me. I try not to notice the fact that Greg seems more than happy to get away from me.
My father takes me in his arms and picks me up, laughing. He keeps repeating my name, over and over, and I can feel his arms shaking.
Finally, he sets me down, and takes a step back to study my face. I can't help but realize that he looks the exact same, only his hair is peppered with gray flecks everywhere. He notices my gaze and shrugs helplessly.
"I like it," I respond to his shrug. "It makes you look all the wiser."
He smiles at my response, and puts an arm around my shoulder. I turn around to see Banner getting out of the car and putting our luggage on the grass. Greg and Anthony eye his muscles suspiciously.
"Guys, this is Banner, my crew mate." I explain, although that doesn't seem to lighten their stares at all. In fact, it only makes their expressions all the more incredulous, as if they're saying, This guy is your crew mate? What was Bluevale thinking?
If Banner notices the stares, he doesn't show it. Instead, he goes about hefting up a couple of the suitcases and nods to the gathering on the lawn. "Well then, nice to make your acquaintance. Let's get down to business."