Everything had seemed easy after his talk with Marsha - right up until he found himself by Michelle's side, hovering on the unfamiliar driveway of his parents' house. It felt odd, standing with Michelle as if they were old friends. Stranger still was the very idea that his parents were on the other side of the door, so close and yet so far away.
He pressed the doorbell and waited. Scurrying footsteps echoed from beyond the door, then the clink of a key in the lock, hushed whispers that sounded even more nervous than he felt.
The door swung open to reveal a wide hallway decked out in red Christmas lights. They even wound along the antique wooden coat rack in the corner. Ephraim's eyes drifted up - and then snapped to a pair of matching steel grey ones.
Marsha. She looked just as he had remembered; pale and freckled, square glasses perched on her nose. They made her look like a librarian, yet she was an accountant with no interest in fiction. Her eyes snapped wide as she caught sight of Ephraim, a soundless gasp escaping her lips - and suddenly he was enveloped in a bone crushing embrace.
"Eph! You came." She laughed, tension melting from her, but still refused to put him down. "I've missed you, you asshole."
Finally, he was released, back cracking as he rolled what he realised were stiff shoulders. It was nice to see Marsha was still as strong as ever, but his joints weren't thanking her. He risked a smile, gesturing from Marsha to Michelle. "This is my sister, Marsha. Marsha, this is Michelle-"
They cast each other a glance, Michelle's smile amused and Ephraim's nervous. "Just a friend," he assured.
"I'm moral support."
Marsha rolled her eyes, and his nerves eased just a little. Without another word she led them inside - where they discarded their coats on the coat rack - and into his familiar childhood kitchen. It was exactly the way he remembered, Eph thought with a sting.
A woman popped around from a door leading to the old utility room. His mother paled when she caught sight of him, but she smiled nervously. "Ephraim?"
He didn't expect a hug, not from his mother, so he wasn't disappointed when she refused to budge. Even so, there was a flash of hurt across his chest.
"At least say something to him, Mum."
She simply huffed and replied, "I haven't seen him in six years, Martha, it's a lot to take in."
A deep voice cleared their throat and his eyes snapped up, meeting a pair of clear blue ones. His father hadn't aged a day, and he still looked sixty despite being seventy-seven. He smiled, eager yet restrained, and pulled him in for a tense one-armed hug. "Son," he muttered, "I'm glad you're here."
They stood there, Ephraim's gaze flickering from one family member to the next. No one knew what to say, and no one wanted to be the first to break the silence.
He caught Michelle's reassuring smile, her bright eyes, and managed a weak smile of his own. "I'm sorry to drop in so suddenly," he admitted, "especially after so long."
"It's been a long time. Too long. You always did prioritise Liza over your own family." His mother's eyes were soft as she placed a gentle hand to his shoulder, and her harsh features softened. "But you weren't the only one in the wrong. I should apologise," she murmured, "for being so cruel about Liza and you. I wanted grandchildren, but it wasn't my choice to make. You were happy as you were."
"The two of you were brilliant together," his father added, "it wasn't that we hated her. We just... didn't agree with your choices."
"We thought Liza was forcing her ideals onto you, preventing you from having a child. Things were so tense after she died..." his mother trailed off, eyes downcast, "but it was no reason to say the things I said."
Ephraim simply shrugged, for it seemed like there were no adequate words for the way his chest lurched, for the queasiness settling heavily in his gut. He was surprised to realise he was blinking back tears, vision blurring. He swiped underneath his eyes, but no tears had fallen. Yet, he had the feeling there would be plenty of opportunities for that today.
"We should sit down," Marsha murmured, "catch up properly. There's six years to talk about."
His mother nodded, solemn yet gentle. "Certainly. Starting with who this young woman is."
"I'm hardly young," Michelle interjected, "and I'm just the moral support."
She laughed, and despite the nerves, it was a wonderful sound after so long without hearing it. "Then we have you to thank for bringing Eph back to us?" she answered.
"I don't know about that-"
"Don't be modest," Ephraim replied, a grin threatening to spread across his lips, "you're absolutely the one to thank. I know it was just a passing mention, but it got me thinking."
"And here we are," Marsha said with a smile.
"And here we are."
Ephraim doubted that it was going to be plain sailing. Six years was a very long time, and the argument that had caused it all wasn't at all forgotten. But maybe there was a chance it could be forgiven and kept as a reminder of their family's strength. After all, if they could go through this and make it out all right, anything was possible.
So they sat down with steaming mugs of tea, five of them crammed into one cosy living room. They chatted and laughed, told each other the stories they had missed out on - and even Michelle had some stories about Ephraim to tell. She fit right in, and although Ephraim would never love anyone except for Liza, he had to admit he enjoyed the way she looked beside his family.
He observed his family and listened to the stories, and it was staggering how easily they settled back into familiarity. It felt almost, but not quite as if he had never been away.