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"What?"

"Just for a little while, while his Ma sorts herself out,"

"But he's a dickhead!"

"He is not a dickhead, Michelle,"

"Yes, he is! He stole my Polly Pocket!"

"You lost your Polly Pocket, when James just happened to be here,"

"Coincidence? I think fucking not,"

"And that was eight years ago,"

"I want Auntie Kathy and Cousin James to live with us!" piped up Domhnall from over by the television.

"Well, you would," Michelle spat back. Her baby brother was only nine, and knew fuck-all about anything.

"Michelle, I don't have time to argue about this," snapped Ma.

"Oh, but apparently you've got time to adopt Auntie Kathy's wee fucked-up abortion spawn,"

"She's my sister,"

"You don't even like her!"

"That's because she's my sister! Family isn't for liking,"

"Too fucking right, Ma,"

"They'll be arriving here on Monday,"

"This Monday? The Monday that's the day before school starts?"

"Yes, and about James' school-"

"- but me and the girls were gonna go shopping on Monday,"

"Is this this individualism nonsense again?"

"No," Michelle lied.

"Well you'll have to stay home instead and make your Auntie Kathy and James feel welcome,"

"Can't the boys do that?"

If Domhnall was excited for James to be here, then Ryan probably would be too. 

"The boys are too wee,"

"But they actually want him here! I don't!"

"That's family for you,"

"Oh, like you can talk," Michelle blurted. This was a standard weapon in her arsenal of comebacks. Michelle prided herself on her backlog of creative and withering taunts when arguing with Erin or Claire, but her put-downs always fell flat with Ma. Ma, infuriatingly, had a sharper tongue and more skill at arguing. The comeback spilled from Michelle's mouth automatically, but as it did, she realised that it was perfect. As if Ma was one to talk about the importance of family. This had everything to do with family.

"That's what this is about, isn't it?" Michelle hissed, "Niall?"

Ma winced.

"You want to replace him!"

"Michelle-"

"You want Auntie Kathy's wean here instead of Niall. Christ, and he's English, Ma, d'you realise how fucked up that is?"

"It's nothing to do with- with-"

"You want to replace my big brother. Well, no. I won't let you. You're not doing it. This is Niall's house. Where Niall lives, and where Niall's coming back to when he gets out of prison,"

"And when's that Michelle? He isn't coming home for years. So forgive me for getting on with my life, forgive me for wanting to give my sister and her boy somewhere to stay while my boy's locked up!"

"You boy who you never visit! You don't let us visit him, Domhnall barely even remembers him anymore! You never even speak about him! Ryan's the spit of Niall but there's no photos around. You want to pretend it never happened and try for some fucking..." she was breathless now, gasping for air and trying to find the words to finish the sentence, "Fucking penitence with some English goon,"

Michelle repented for Niall every week. Every dull-as-fuck church service when she spent most of the time painting her nails, pulling faces with Orla, or plotting her next big scheme, she spared a couple of seconds to say sorry to God for Niall. It was the least she could do. Literally. 

Ma gritted her teeth and swallowed, literally holding back the rage. Michelle hated it when she did that. Everything with Ma was pushed down, kept inside, avoided. They argued all the time, but when it came to anything real Ma shoved it all away. Clare reckoned that that's what nurses had to do, apparently it was called compartmentalising. But Michelle knew that it was more than that. Ma couldn't cope with real shit. Da was always working so never had time to talk, and Ryan and Dom were irritating little bastards. Michelle was the only one in this family who ever wanted to actually talk. But you needed two people to talk. 

Niall had understood. Niall, when he'd been around, hadn't had a broom stuck up his hole like Ma and Da. When they were little, she'd copied Niall's swagger and his balls and the way he chucked himself into everything in life. But now Niall was banged up in Magilligan and Ma was trying to supplant him with James.

"Well, I'm not being a part of it," Michelle declared, "Have Auntie Kathy and her jizz-stain here if you want, but I'm not playing along. I'll make his life a living hell the whole time. I'm not being his friend, I'm not rushing to help him when he gets his nose stapled to his balls at Christian Brother Boys'. He's not coming anywhere near me or the girls. You can't replace Niall. You can't replace my big brother. So fucking have fun trying,"

Michelle would have liked to have dramatically booted open the front door, but that only worked in movies. Besides, second-hand Converses weren't the right kind of shoes to go kicking doors down with. She settled with whipping her jacket on as extravagantly as she could and storming out of the house, ignoring Ma's squawked admonitions and threats. 

Michelle marched down the street, huffing furiously. Being a twat to James would be easy. Firstly, because he was English. Second, because he was a twat himself. Third, because she was going to do exactly what she'd told Ma: make his life a misery while he was here. James was not a Mallon. He was not a friend. He was not a Derry girl. And four, because Niall, Michelle's first brother and her real big brother, had gone away. He'd let her down and left her alone. Ma and Da were Parents, Dom and Ryan were Babies. Erin and Orla had each other, and Clare was an only child so had developed a kind of Stockholm syndrome where she actually liked her parents. Besides, Erin and Claire were more similar to each other than Michell was to either of them. She definitely didn't want to be like they were, because their stress and self-righteousness and stupid world-saving endeavours were booooring. But it meant that sometime she felt like an outsider on their best-friendship. Orla was fantastic craic, you could just put her on in front of you instead of the telly. She didn't bitch and nobody ever got into an argument with her. But Orla was too off in her own world to need a best friend. It all meant that sometimes...not often, she wasn't Little fucking Orphan Annie...but sometimes Michelle felt alone. Or at least she felt scared of being alone. How did she know that everybody else wouldn't go away like Niall had done?

So she couldn't be Cousin James' friend, in case he went away too. Or, more likely, he got his head flushed down a toilet at Christian Brother Boys'. Michelle knew that it'd be easy to keep him at a distance. She could already think of four good abortion-related insults to use on him. 

Michelle wondered if she should go over to Erin and Orla's, but things were always mental round there before the start of term. Plus, with Mary and Sarah there were two mammies around, and Michelle had had enough mammies for one day. Perhaps she could just wander around by the Foyle. Or call at Paul Walsh's place. His Ma was never home, and he was usually up for a snog and roll around on the sofa. Michelle always felt better after stuff like that, especially since Paul told her she was pretty cracker at blowjobs. School sometimes nagged them to write a CV, which was where you boasted about yourself to make someone give you a job, and Michelle had considered putting, "Pretty cracker at blowjobs" as the top line on hers.

Paul was lasting a bit longer the more they did it too, so with any luck by the time they were done, Ma would have left for her night shift. Da might try to give Michelle a talking-to, but Michelle didn't care what Da said. Plus, she could buy some sherbets to feed Ryan and Domhnall to hype them up before bedtime. That'd mean that Da was too busy wrangling the boys to bother telling Michelle off. He was meant to be writing an order to Pirate Pauline, too, so with any luck that would distract him. 

Having a plan always made Michelle feel in control, and she felt herself cooling down after the argument. This thing with Cousin James would be a ballache and a half, but she could handle it. Maybe, if she was smart, she could fire a few taunts at him in the mornings, then avoid him for the rest of the day.

Perhaps she wouldn't even have to see the wee English prick much at all.