Vacant (Chapter 7 Tradition)

For the second time since she came into my life, Emily and I walk away from the Gale Street Shelter. After making the trip with her last year, which was her first Christmas without her mom, I know how important "giving back" really is especially where Emily is concerned. I can't help but glance over at her as we make the journey home. This girl – woman – has been part of my life for 487 days, give or take a few hours. As I look back now, I realize I'm keeping track because the day I met Emily was the day I began to live, a rebirth in the form of a brunette angel who's never asked for anything, yet I can't help giving her everything I can.

The past year has been filled with much patience and restraint on my part. As I realize Emily is still a child in the eyes of the law, I struggle to keep my mind on a virtuous path. Sometimes I swear she's torturing me. This morning she decided to get a drink of orange juice after taking a shower but before getting dressed. She says she likes the taste of orange juice while the mint of the toothpaste lingers. I walked out of the bedroom, and there's Emily… bending over… reaching for juice…in a towel. And because I'm frugal, our towels are cheap and on the small side.

I think she knows she's torturing me when she stands there, flexing her leg. I leave the house without my lunch or coat in haste to escape. I don't want to continue down this path with my thoughts. I've made a vow to myself that my relationship with Emily will remain chaste, but it doesn't mean I don't have to redirect my thoughts on a consistent basis.

I'm only human.

On my way to work I make a mental note to save some money so I can buy her a robe… with full coverage.

The temperature has dropped since our arrival at the shelter this morning, so we walk quickly. This is our Christmas tradition now. Emily asked that we visit last year as a way to remember her mother. Now, I see how lucky we truly are with what we have. There are so many who have nothing. Our home may lack many of the modern conveniences and technological advances of most, but we are healthy, bellies full, and we have a roof over our heads. Helping to serve dinner and visit with the shelter patrons is a way for Emily and me to pay it forward.

We don't exchange expensive gifts. Instead, I always get her a new kitchen gadget from the Dollar Store, and she always bakes me butterscotch cookies. It's not much, but it's meaningful and the only thing that counts to us.

As my arm swings with the rhythm of my feet, I brush Emily's fingers with my own. It's an innocent accident, though the sudden warmth in my chest is anything but. I'm not sure how much longer I'll be able to keep up this ruse, playing her brotherly protector. While Emily has never spoken about boys in her class or voiced interests of the romantic sort, I know it's inevitable. She has blossomed into a beautiful creature who has no idea of the devastation her beauty wreaks upon me and, surely, the boys around her. Her smile is infectious, and it's only a matter of time before a suitor comes knocking at our door. I kind of feel sorry for the poor boy, as my first time meeting him will most likely be ugly. I'm a fierce guardian where Emily is concerned, not just because it's my duty to protect her but because seeing Emily with another guy will end me.

I want to reach out and take her hand in mine as we walk, but I don't. I have calculated the difference in our ages. Five years doesn't seem all that much when she is twenty and I'm twenty-five. However, she is seventeen and still a minor, which is the only important difference, no matter how hard my libido begs to differ. I have to prepare for her to have romantic feelings for someone her own age, not a twenty-two year-old guy who has to act like her older brother.

Sisters rarely hold hands with their brothers.

"Why don't you go out on dates?" Emily suddenly asks in the middle of New Year's Day dinner. She insists on serving black-eyed peas because they are lucky if you eat them on the first day of the year. They taste like shit, but as usual, I humor her by eating them.

"Huh?" I stall. She's familiar with my deliberate stall tactic and narrows her eyes at me.

"I've never seen you with a woman." She pauses, like she's unsure how to broach the next part. "I mean, you're a good looking guy. There have to be opportunities for you to go out…" She stops and takes a deep breath as if preparing herself for my answer.



"Never mind, Ethan. I can tell it's not a topic you want to talk about."

With that, she leaves the table and her half-eaten plate and heads for the bedroom, one of her only options for privacy . The door closes and I'm left feeling more confused than ever. I'm learning that girls are confusing, especially where Emily is concerned.