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turning inside out

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The late-afternoon sun streams through the windows of a small apartment, waking Erhard from an unintentional nap on the couch. A faded, battered copy of Gray’s Anatomy slides off his chest as he sits up, hits the floor with a dull thunk, and lands facedown, sprawling across the faded carpet.

It’s been a little over a year since his emergency operation on Albert. A lot has happened since that day. Maria graduated high school and promptly left the orphanage last June, applied and was accepted to a medical program at Resurgam First Care. Rosalia completed sixth grade, spent a summer helping Erhard with research and burying herself in some of Erhard’s old medical books, and went into seventh-grade science knowing more than the teacher did. Erhard’s eighteenth birthday has come and gone, and with a tiny sum from the orphanage and the proceeds from the sale of the house in Mexico, he’s moved into a tiny apartment a few blocks down the street from Resurgam, where he’s interning and working a side job with the research department. Maria splits the rent with him, which has definitely cut down on their costs, but they still work hard to make ends meet.

The door slams shut, a loud bang echoing around the small apartment.

“Hey, I’m back,” a voice calls from the door. As Erhard rubs his eyes, Maria comes into focus, a fistful of letters in one hand and a Styrofoam cup of coffee in the other. “How’d work go?” she asks, dropping her things on the table, crossing the room, shoving Erhard’s legs to the side, and flopping onto the couch.

“All I had to do today was enter a lot of data,” Erhard shrugs. When he’s not interning or studying at Resurgam, he’s in the research wing of the building working as the professors’ grunt, recording data, running errands, and occasionally offering his own input on the experiments being run. It’s not the best work; he’d rather be a surgeon than a researcher, but his grunt work pays the bills.

“Mm,” Maria hums in sympathy, kicking her shoes off and propping her feet up on their tiny coffee table. “So, get this: a new girl transferred into my class today, and you’ll never believe what she is. She’s a fu—”

Rosalia enters the room and drops her schoolbag on the ground, and Maria hastily amends, “—a frickin’ ninja princess. From Japan. She even has a butler and everything, man, she’s rolling in money. Did you even know ninja were still a thing? I was gonna ask her about it, but class ran overtime and I had to get to work, stat.”

“How was work today?” Rosalia asks, fitting herself neatly into the space between Erhard and Maria.

“Ugh, this idiot came in and couldn’t make up his mind—” and Maria’s off, ranting about the people who come into the coffee shop where she works without knowing what they want to buy. Once Maria’s rant is over, Rosalia states that she’s hungry, and the three of them reluctantly leave the couch and walk the ten feet to the kitchen.

Dinner is a quick job between the three of them. While some Minute rice cooks in a pot over the stove, Maria fries some pork, Erhard opens a can of refried beans, and Rosalia chops some vegetables. Everything is pulled together into a dinner worthy of three teenagers. Erhard clears their tiny kitchen table (that is to say, he pushes all the papers on the table to the end), and the three of them arrange themselves around the remaining space.

“Let’s watch a movie!” Rosalia chirps, after dinner is over and the plates have been cleared away. Erhard sifts through the mail on the table; pulls out a strange and scuffed package with David’s name and a return address somewhere in New York; remembers that he and Teresa took a road trip up there, fell in love (with the city, that is), and haven’t returned to Maryland since. A couple of postcards from Jack spill onto the table as Erhard picks up the package, turns it over, and examines it. One postcard lands face-up, with a hastily scrawled message: Wish you guys were here. Santa Fe’s great. Come visit.

“Big brother, hurry up! We’re gonna start without you!” Rosalia calls.

“All right, all right, I’m coming,” Erhard calls back, and ten feet away, soft Hawaiian music starts to play as the DVD player boots up.

It’s been a long day at work, and so Erhard thinks he can’t be faulted for falling asleep during the movie; he falls asleep shortly after Lilo says, matter-of-factly, “I like you better as a sister than a mom”, and awakens to hear Gantu yell, “You're vile. You're foul. You're flawed!

Also cute and fluffy!!!” Stitch screeches in reply as he flies through the sky.

Erhard senses something’s off when Rosalia doesn’t chuckle as she normally does at this point; he turns his head to the side to see that she’s fallen fast asleep. Her head plummets to the side and lands on his shoulder.

Maria laughs quietly. “Cute,” she comments. “Looks like we’ve all had a long day, huh.”

Minutes later, as the crew arrives on land to find the Grand Councilwoman waiting to take Stitch away, she’s dozed off, too. Her head falls onto Erhard’s shoulder with a warm thud, leaving him on his own to finish the movie.

This is my family,” Stitch falters, but gains determination and tilts his head upward to stare the Grand Councilwoman in the eye. “I found it, all on my own. It’s little, and broken, but still good. Yeah. Still good.”

Erhard feels the warm weight of Rosalia and Maria on each of his shoulders, still using him as a bony and awkward human pillow; thinks of Albert, slowly regaining his memories and operating every day in order to return to his children as soon as possible; thinks of the postcards and letters and weird packages from Jack and Teresa and David lying on the kitchen table; thinks of the constant stream of e-mails on his phone from Dr. Foster, checking up on how he and Rosalia are doing; thinks that Stitch has a point.

“Yeah. Still good,” he agrees with Stitch.

The last year has been one of the strangest years he’s ever experienced. He and Rosalia have come a long way since that day when he collapsed on Professor Jacobsen’s couch, thinking This is only the first day. It’s been many, many days since then. Their entire lives were turned inside out, everything changed, and they’re miles and miles from their old home.

Still, he hasn’t felt this at home in a long, long time.

He falls asleep to the sounds of Wynonna crooning Burning Love.