The farmhouse was ivory with scarlet shutters and roof shingles. An apple tree and a cherry tree stood beside it. May stared out the window as the car reached the end of the dirt and gravel road. There was a wooden sign with peeled pale yellow paint and black lettering that said "Romanelli." Scraggly grass surrounded the house along with some thorny blackberry vines. Chickens clucked in a coop behind the house, somewhere close to the guest cottage.
The sun dropped behind the horizon when the car doors open and five men climbed out. May opened the door and started to yank the suitcase that was stuck between the seats. Most of her male relatives were over six feet tall, so the seats were pushed back.
"Sorry," Levi rolled his seat up and the suitcase released, sending her staggering back with the massive pack. She set it down and pulled up the handle to roll it to the door.
There was a path to the brick porch, upon which sat a distressed rocking chair beside the door. May was the last in the stream of people that climbed onto the porch.
She could hear scratching at the door. She watched with curiosity until Uncle Carlos unlocked and opened the door and out bound a massive creature, who leapt and pinned her to the ground. She lay on her back in the dirt without a chance to react. An enormous black and amber brindle dog with droopy ears and a sloppy pink tongue touched her cheek with a wet nose and kissed her.
"Monster," Grandpa snarled.
"Monster, come!" Levi snapped. The creature spun away from the girl and bounded back to her masters, tale slapping their legs as she greeted each one. Uncle Carlos crouched over her and heaved her up under the arms to set her back down on her shoes.
"Sorry about that," he said with a sheepish smile. "She is huge, but she's harmless."
May managed a smile. "That's all right."
"Make sure that dog doesn't break your sister," Grandpa pointed sharply at the dog.
"She got excited," Levi assured him. To May, he added, "Great Dane mixed with German Shepherd. Carlos is right about her being harmless, but I'm sorry she startled you."
Monster returned to May and smiled apologetically up at her. She was above her stomach in height. May smiled and scratched her under the chin.
"She seems nice."
The dog ran back into the house and Uncle Carlos gestured grandly to the door. "Welcome to the bachelor pad!"
May retook the handle of her suitcase and rolled it up the steps to peer into the house. She entered into a living area, but the open kitchen was clearly seen on the left. After the living area was a hall, where she suspected the stairs were. The walls were covered with broad pale yellow and white vertical stripes. There was a cherry couch in the living area ahead of a large television propped on a desk. There was another worn ruby red recliner close by with a plaid shirt draped over it.
She creaked her shoes onto the honeytone wood floors. There were mud scuff marks where the men came in with their dirty boots and shoes. There was a distant scent of musty dog. She looked to the kitchen table and counters. Mail was piled on the table with a bowl of keys, a shoe that was patched with glue and appeared to be drying, and a metal pipe that someone had removed from somewhere.
"We cleaned this place in a mad dash before you got here," Uncle Carlos smiled down at her. He was a handsome man in his mid-thirties with dark hair and a warm smile. "Might not always be this clean, but it's home."
"Would you like anything?" Uncle Jake asked softly. He had short wavy chestnut hair and amber eyes that constantly averted hers. She estimated he was a couple years younger than his brother.
"May I get something to eat?" May asked as she casually rubbed the goosebumps out of one arm.
"Sure," he sauntered into the kitchen with her behind him and opened the fridge. The two examined the contents: a bowl of cherries, two bottles of beer, a steak, a partial gallon of milk, a stick of butter, and a package of ground beef. "Carlos? Do we have taco shells?"
"Let me see," Carlos started opening the cabinets. "We have peanut butter, we have oatmeal, we have cereal, and we have two taco shells."
"Oh, for goodness sake!"
May started with surprise at the sharp bark out of her grandfather.
"Monday is pizza night, anyway," he continued. "You like pizza, girl?"
She shrugged. "Pepperoni, vegetarian, Hawaiian, garlic –"
"Good. We get pepperoni, sausage, and meat supreme. Jake, call in the order."
Twenty-five minutes later, May and the men piled pizza on the plates on the counter and crowded themselves around the square kitchen table after Levi removed the debris. Seth continued to stare at her across the table, so she looked away.
"So," Levi chewed around his pepperoni pizza, "have you always lived in Sacramento?"
She nodded. "In an old house with a lot of trees around it. It was pretty."
He was handsome as well. Short dark hair and dark eyes with the sort of muscular build she imagined in football players. She wondered if he had a girlfriend, but she didn't want to ask right now. She started with a less personal question.
"So do you go to school?"
"Yeah. Administration of Justice major at the community college. That is, when I'm not working at the movie theater of Minelli's Italian Restaurant."
"What about you?" she asked Seth. Might as well ask, since he was still staring. He gulped down his pizza with surprise.
"I have one class. Mostly work with cars."
He was less tall than the other men. His red hair was in a ponytail past his shoulders, and the prominent feature in his freckled face were his enormous hazel eyes that almost seem to protrude out of his skull.
"Seth does street racing," Levi smiled at his friend with pride.
He shrugged. "It's a rush."
"Waste of time," Grandpa muttered. "That's why your parents kicked you out last year. You are gonna waste your life and they didn't want to see it."
"Doing what you love isn't a waste," Levi countered.
"What about you guys?" May asked Carlos and Jake.
"I teach high school biology and U.S. history at the college," Carlos answered, then pointed at her with a smile. "You are going to be one of my students when school starts."
"And I shoe horses," Jake answered softly.
"And your grandpa here," Carlos squeezed the shoulder of the scowling man, "minds the chickens and the fruit trees and the grass."
"What do you do?" Seth asked her suddenly. "Besides school."
She shrugged. "I'm fourteen, so no job. Sometimes I baby-sit."
"What do you want to do?" Levi asked as he chewed his pizza.
"Not sure," she answered. "I like to sing."
Seth swallowed the rest of his Coke and belched. Carlos also burped after his Pepsi, but he smothered it as much as he could.
"So," he said, "we had two days to prepare for your arrival, so I must admit, there is not a room cleared for you right now. The couch can be made into a bed, so that is what we will have to do the first night. After that, we plan to kick one of us guys up to the attic and you can have the room."
May smiled. "That's all right. Really, I don't want to kick anyone out of his room."
"I would say to come to the guest house, but there is one bed," Grandpa said.
"What is the attic like?" May asked.
"Dark," Levi answered. "Creepy. Dusty. Spiders. Boxes of crap."
"Hey!" Grandpa snapped. "The crap belongs to the family, including your grandmother."
"Sorry, Grandpa. We do have some heritage stuff up there. Mostly Italian, with some Mexican and German. That's what we are."
"I can get the couch ready," Seth rose and smeared his greasy hands on his jeans to prepare the bed. He set the cushions against one arm and unfolded the part that can be slept on. "Remote is in here."
"Good!" Carlos exclaimed.
"I can get the sheets," Jake scrubbed a napkin across his mouth and rose to do so.
After the pizza was eaten and the bed was made, and Monster had eaten some pepperoni sneaked to her by Seth, the men declared one after another that they were about ready for bed. May leaned across the table to squint at the microwave clock. It was after ten.
"Do you guys always go to sleep so early?"
"Not usually," Levi answered, "but it's been a long day."
"Jake and Dad do because they get up early," Uncle Carlos said.
Seth was already down the hall. Grandpa had disappeared ahead of him. Jake and Levi were about to go in that direction, and Carlos was almost done in the kitchen.
"There might be something good on TV," she said.
"You can stay up as long as you like," Carlos said as he shoved the box of leftover pizza in the fridge.
May wasn't sure what to say. She knew they would have to go to sleep, but not that she was about to be alone, she did not want it to happen. All the sadness of death and the excitement and fear of change and uncertainty about the future welled up inside her and she started to sob.
The men all stared, stunned.
Seth rushed back and leapt over the arm of the couch. Carlos slammed the fridge door and ran out of the kitchen to her. Levi was beside her in a moment as Jake loomed close by with worried eyes. Even Grandpa hobbled back down the hall in a hurry.
"I'm sorry," she wailed.
Levi wrapped his arms around her. She could feel his frantic gesturing a moment before five pairs of arms almost smothered her in a ginger, awkward embrace.
"Do you want me to stay up with you?" Levi asked in a near panic. "Would that help?"
"Maybe," she admitted.
"Okay, okay," he rubbed her back in a hurry. "I can stay up a while. Carlos? Seth? Anyone else?"
He sounded so desperate that she almost laughed in spite of herself. Even Monster shoved her muzzle between people to lick her hand.
In the end, May was curled up beneath the knitted blankets on the sofa bed, watching The Voice. Levi sat up beside her, and Seth was in the recliner. She could hear people come to the end of the hall and whisper something to Levi, who would whisper back and wave them on their way. Monster slept beside the couch, but sometimes she would stand up and stare at the girl.
And that, Mom, is how I accidentally exhausted the entire family the very first night, she concluded as she drifted into sleep.