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Things Are Okay Here

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Carol liked to go for walks in the evening, in the brief window between the sun going down and the night turning cold. It was a good way to clear her head, she found, and get away from the pressures of school life and maintaining her image online. With nobody on the streets she didn’t have to worry about anyone watching, or what anyone thought of her; it was refreshing.

What was less refreshing was the growing rain from above, where a blanket of thin, grey clouds hid the moon. The evening forecast was clear; a drizzle had rolled in halfway through her evening walk, seemingly out of nowhere, growing worse until she decided to turn back before her clothes got soaked and her makeup ruined. It seemed luck just wasn’t on her side this evening.

As she briskly headed home, something gave her pause. Ahead she could see she wasn’t quite alone out here; in the front garden of a house just ahead, under the shadow of a large oak tree, she could make out the diminutive form of a child. He was sitting down, seemingly trying to shelter from the rain under the branches overhead, and Carol couldn’t help feeling a twinge of concern at the sight.

That concern only got worse as she got closer, close enough to make out a mop of white hair. She didn’t know him personally, but it wasn’t hard to recognise Lori’s brother sitting on his own front lawn. He was curled up, knees under his chin and arms around his shins, with bare feet and wearing what looked like pajamas that were getting damp despite his best efforts.

Had he gotten locked out? A glance up at the house showed light creeping around the blinds and the family’s massive station wagon on the drive, but no actual signs of life from the building. Then again, with ten siblings, the idea that they would all be out seemed far fetched. And looking at the boy Carol got the sense, somehow, that he wasn’t just waiting for someone to let him in.

She stepped off the sidewalk as she passed the house, turning onto the damp grass of the Louds’ lawn. Quickly she closed the distance, determined to get to the bottom of why he was out here. He didn’t seem to notice her approach, his gaze still on the grass in front of him, until she was standing over him.

“Hey there?” she said, trying not to sound awkward. He stiffened, looking up at her in confusion. She was struck by just how tired he looked, with bags under his eyes and weariness in his gaze. 

“Uhh, hi?” he replied nervously.

“You’re Lori’s little brother,” she asked, “Lincoln, right?” He nodded, still obviously uncertain; internally, she wondered if he even knew who she was. “Did you get locked out or something?” There was a moment of silence, before he spoke dryly.

“More like kicked out.” He looked away, shaking his head. She blinked, not quite able to believe what she was hearing; if she was concerned before, she was downright worried now.

“Why?” she couldn’t stop herself asking.

“Everyone thinks I’m ba…” he trailed off, suddenly freezing up, stumbling over the elongated word. Carol could see panic flash across his face before he stammered out the rest. “…anned. Banned, from the house, y’know?” There was no way that was what he had meant to say, but Carol didn’t press; she barely knew him, and it was clearly something he didn’t want to share.

“You’re banned from your own house?” she asked instead. He uncurled just a little, relieved.

“Yeah,” he said quietly. “Mom and dad haven’t let me inside for the last two days. They boarded up my room and everything.” His expression remained neutral, but there was a resigned sadness in his voice, like he somehow believed he deserved it.

Carol blinked, not sure what to say. She didn’t want to believe it; this had to be a joke, a trick, a lie made up to explain an embarrassing situation or something else. Lincoln’s parents couldn’t have forced him to sleep outside, could they? But looking down, she could see there was something heartbreakingly earnest in his expression, and she found she couldn’t doubt his words. She took a deep breath, before speaking again.

“That’s just wrong,” she said carefully, watching his expression. He just shrugged. “You do know your parents could go to jail for that, right?” That got a reaction.

“I don’t want that!” His eyes went wide with panic. He scrambled to his feet. “Please, don’t call the police! It’s all my fault, really.”

“Your fault?”

“I mean, yeah,” he stammered, “I made everyone mad, so they kicked me out; you can't really blame them.” It was a half-truth at best and Carol knew it. There was something else going on here, she was sure, but getting Lincoln to tell her wasn’t going to be easy.

“You’re really blaming yourself for that?” she asked bluntly. “I’ll admit, I don’t know the details, but I do know your family should never force you to sleep outside, and that there’s no way you deserve it.” He shook his head, but didn’t say anything.

She sighed. The rational part of her wanted to call the police or social services or someone, but seeing his reaction held her back. Maybe there was some underlying reason he didn’t want them involved, maybe he just couldn’t recognise abuse; maybe that was why he hadn’t asked anyone else for help. Either way she couldn’t just leave him out here in the worsening rain.

“If you really don’t want me to get the authorities involved,” she began, reluctantly, “then I won’t, but I can’t just leave you out here. How would you feel about coming back to stay with me? At least for tonight.”

As soon as the words left her mouth, she half-regretted them. Her apartment was small as it was, she only had one bed, and she had no idea how to take care of a kid. Not to mention if the authorities did end up getting involved, she would probably be on the hook for kidnapping or something. But looking down at him again, and seeing him try to hide the sudden hope in his eyes, she knew there was nothing that could make her take back the offer.

“You’re sure?” he asked quietly, one eyebrow raised. She nodded. “Isn’t there anyone at your home who would mind?”

“Nope,” she replied, trying to hide the pang of sadness the thought brought her. “It’s just me; I don’t have any siblings, and I moved out of my dad’s last year. You’ll have to sleep on the couch, but that’s gotta be better than the ground, right?”

“Yeah, thanks.” A small, uncertain smile crossed his face. “Uhhh…”

“Carol,” she offered. “It’s not far to my place; come on.” She started walking, back across the grass to the roadside. He followed, only to hesitate when he reached the rough asphalt of the sidewalk. Gingerly he took one step, trying to hide the wince when his bare foot scraped the hard ground.

She mentally kicked herself; the poor kid didn’t have any shoes. She couldn’t just ask him to walk over wet pavement all the way to her place, especially now. She frowned, stopping mid-stride and turning back to face him.

“I could carry you, if it helps,” she offered, extending her arms. He shook his head awkwardly, taking another reluctant step.

“It’s fine,” he replied, “I can still walk.”

“I can see that.” She frowned. “But you don’t have any shoes. You’re going to ruin your soles doing that.”

“Okay, fine.” He rolled his eyes, before muttering to himself. “You sound just like Lori.” She pretended not to hear, not sure whether it was a compliment or an insult after what his family had done.

She crouched down, inviting him to climb onto her back. He did so in silence, awkwardly scrambling up. She silently cringed at the thought this was probably getting dirt all over her top. Finally he wrapped his arms loosely around her neck; she looped her arms under his legs and stood up, grunting quietly under the extra weight.

“There,” she said, satisfied. She started walking, heading for home as quickly as she could. By now the rain was falling pretty heavily, and the weight of an entire child on her back didn’t make avoiding the growing puddles any easier.

“How come you knew my name?” Lincoln asked suddenly, breaking the silence that had fallen between them.

“I follow Lori online,” she explained, trying to ease the tension. “She posts about her siblings a lot, so I know most of you guys’ names. It’s kind-of hard not to.” She suppressed a nervous laugh. Lincoln was quiet for a moment, before speaking again.

“She, uh, didn’t post anything about me today,” he asked awkwardly, “did she?” There was definite apprehension in his voice. Though Carol couldn’t see his face with him on her back, she could easily picture a nervous expression.

“I haven’t looked.” She shrugged, hoping he couldn’t tell how worried she still was. He didn’t say anything more, so they went on in silence. She walked quickly, not wanting to be out in the rain any longer than necessary.

Finally Carol reached home; a squat apartment block, right on the boundary where the houses of Royal Woods’ suburbs gave way to the taller buildings of the city’s centre. It wasn’t what you would call upmarket, with rain-streaked brown walls and a door buzzer system that didn’t often work right, but it was home: lonely, sure, but still home.

She reached for her key with one hand, only to realise just how awkward it was going to be to get at her skirt’s pocket while she was still supporting Lincoln by the legs.

“Hey, kid,” she said, jostling him gently to get his attention, “we’re here.” There was no reply. “Lincoln?” She got a quiet snort for her trouble, followed by what sounded like quiet snoring coming from right behind her. It seemed her charge had passed out in transit.

With a quiet sigh she resigned herself to awkwardly reaching down, trying to keep his weight supported. It took a frustrating moment, but finally she managed to get her keys out and the door open. She quickly stepped inside, glad to be out of the wet and cold, and nudged the door shut again with her foot.

She carried Lincoln up the building’s small staircase, past the closed doors of her neighbours, until eventually she reached her own apartment door. Beyond a familiar living room greeted her, with an old leather couch, a moving-out gift from her dad, sitting square in the centre of the room. It was easy to make the place look nice and fancy for her selfies, but the reality was it was small and lonely, with a cramped bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom all jumbled in the back.

Normally Carol would have taken the time to undo her laces, but between the uncomfortable weight on her back and the worry in her chest she didn’t feel like she had the time. Instead she kicked her shoes straight off and headed for the couch, kneeling down in front of it. Carefully she shifted Lincoln off her back, and he slumped onto the cushions, still fast out.

She stood up again, glad the weight was finally off her, and turned just in time to see him stir. He murmured something incoherent, curling up against the end of the couch and pulling his legs in until he was nearly in the fetal position. He was definitely fast asleep; if it wasn’t for the circumstances, she would almost have found it cute.

The reality of the situation set in as she looked on. The younger brother of a girl she didn’t even consider a friend, that she didn’t even really know, was currently asleep on her sofa because he didn’t have anywhere else to go. He was terrified of getting the authorities involved, and she wasn’t even sure she could anymore, but she didn’t see any other way to resolve things.

Unless, she realised, she confronted his family herself. There was definitely something going on here that Lincoln didn’t want to admit, and they were the only ones who could give her some answers. Feeling an idea beginning to form, Carol pulled out her phone.

Dozens of unread notifications greeted her, a mix of likes, praise, and gross comments on her latest selfies. She ignored them all, opening the camera, and snapped a picture of Lincoln sleeping. She switched to her social media app, flicking through the profiles she was following until a selfie of Lori Loud greeted her, and tapped on the girl’s profile.

Carol reached for the ‘direct message’ button as the page loaded, a half-formed message demanding answers already composed in her mind, only to stop dead. Because Lori’s most recent upload wasn’t a selfie; it wasn’t even a picture of her. Instead, from behind her tiny screen, the face of Lincoln Loud stared back at her.

It wasn’t a flattering photo; Lincoln was wearing a squirrel mascot costume, with only his head poking out. His expression was somewhere between embarrassed and afraid, his gaze nervously on a sister that Carol recognised as Lynn. She was brandishing a baseball bat, anger creasing her face. Behind the boy, at a distance, stood a man and a woman who could only have been the Loud parents. Their faces, though distant on the phone screen, both held clear disappointment.

Below, the image was captioned: Ugh, just found out why the @RoyalWoodsSquirrels lost the big game! Turns out, my brother was there in disguise, and spread his #BadLuck to the team!! So if you’re looking for the culprit #RoyalWoods, he’s right here!

Carol had to reread it twice before the words really set in. Lori was blaming her younger brother for her sister’s team losing, not for distracting her or sabotaging them or anything even remotely reasonable, but for being bad luck. Suddenly Carol found herself remembering their first meeting, how Lincoln had stammered and evaded when she asked why he’d been kicked out.

“Everyone thinks I’m bad luck.” Her mind supplied, finishing the sentence he had been too afraid to. Because he had been scared she would turn on him too, she realised; if Lincoln’s family had already kicked him to the curb, then of course he wouldn’t expect some random girl from his sister’s school to be different.

She shut down her phone screen, setting it down beside the apartment’s TV and letting out a sigh, all thoughts of confronting Lori abandoned. She could feel whatever admiration she had held for Lori, whatever jealously she had felt for the Loud family’s sibling bond, shrivelling up and dying inside her. In its place settled a new feeling, a strange mix of unfamiliar care and determination.

If Lincoln’s family didn’t want him, if they were going to turn him out over something as trivial as bad luck, then she would give him the care he deserved. Even as the more rational part of her brain scrambled to figure out the consequences, she found herself wondering if this was what having a sibling was meant to feel like.

A sound of quiet distress snapped her from her thoughts. She looked over to see Lincoln stirring, his brow creased and his limbs hugged tightly around himself. He was muttering incoherently; he was having a nightmare, she realised.

“Lincoln?” she asked, reaching out a hand to shake him awake. His eyes snapped open at her touch, wet with tears, and he scooted back. 

“Lori?” he choked out. “Lori I’m not bad luck I swear!” He pressed up against the back of the couch, unable to get away. “I broke your clubs on purpose, I wanted to convince you, it’s not a jinx! Please don’t kick me out again!”

His hands were raised defensively, trying to hide his face from an imagined sister. Carol felt her heart break at the sight. Without even thinking she reached out, pulling the boy tightly into a hug against her chest.

“I’m not Lori, kid,” she said firmly, trying to hide the quaver in her voice. “It’s me, Carol.”

“Carol,” he sniffed, struggling to hold in more sobs. “I’m sorry,”

“It’s okay,” she reassured, not even sure what he was apologising for. Carefully she turned, keeping him firmly in her embrace, until she was sitting on the couch with him awkwardly held on her lap. For a moment they just stayed like that, Lincoln quietly crying and Carol hugging him close, until she could keep her silence no longer.

“Your family kicked you out because they think you’re bad luck?” she asked softly. She felt him tense in her embrace, before he slowly started talking.

“Yeah,” he admitted, sniffling. “It’s my fault. Lynn started it; she lost a game while I was watching, so she blamed me for being bad luck, and said I wasn’t allowed to come anymore. So I thought I could use that to get some free time for myself, and not have to go to all my sisters’ events; I broke Lori’s golf clubs to convince her and Lisa.

“It was okay at first, but then my parents found out. They believed it too; they boarded up my room and made me stay out of the house in case my bad luck caused an accident. After the first night I decided enough was enough, so I told them all the truth.”

“And they didn’t let you back in?”

“They didn’t believe me!” he sobbed. “Lynn won another game I wasn’t at, so they all still think I’m bad luck. I thought I could get them to realise today; I went to the softball game in that stupid squirrel suit, so they wouldn’t know it was me, and then when Lynn won they’d have to take me back."

“But then she lost, and they didn’t,” Carol finished, involuntarily tightening her embrace. She could hardly believe what he was hearing. “You thought I’d do the same if I found out?”

“I don’t know,” Lincoln said quietly, voice cracking. “Mr. Grouse already did. Why would this time be any different?”

“Because…” For a moment she struggled to find the words, before finally letting the growing concern and care inside spill out. “Because I’m not like your family,” she said bluntly. “I don’t have siblings, I’ll admit, and I know we don’t really know anything about each other. But I know this isn’t right. I’m not going to kick you onto the streets, Lincoln, because things are okay here.”

Suddenly his arms were around her, tightly returning the hug. He broke down again into incoherent sobs, pent-up sadness mixed with bare relief, and she felt her heart breaking all over again.

“It’s not your fault,” she whispered softly. “It’s okay.”

Slowly he grew quiet, until the only sound in the tiny apartment was quiet sniffling. She felt his grip loosen, and she released hers in turn. He shifted awkwardly off her lap, plopping onto the couch beside her.

“So,” she broke the silence, “What you want to do is up to you, but you can stay here as long as you need.”

“Thanks,” he replied quietly, wiping his eyes with the back of his sleeve and yawning. He sounded exhausted.

He was quiet again for a moment, before his smile faded. “What are we going to do about my stuff? It’s all still at home, and you probably don’t have much food or boys’ bathroom stuff, right?” He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly, clearly ashamed at the thought of being a burden. But he was right, she realised; taking him in wasn’t going to be cheap or easy.

But as quickly as the problem had arisen, she found herself thinking of a way to solve it. An idea settled in her mind: a long shot, but definitely workable. She got up, stepping over to where she had left her phone.

“I’ve got an idea,” she explained, looking back to see confusion on Lincoln’s face. She picked up the phone. “You know your parents’ number, right?”

“Uh, yeah?” The confusion didn’t leave his face, but a flash of nervousness joined it. He rattled off the house’s landline, and she typed it into her phone. “You’re not going to call them now, right?”

“Why not?”

“It’s super late,” he said quickly. She shook her head, putting on what she hoped was a reassuring smile.

“Nope; you were asleep for like fifteen minutes, tops,” she explained. “You must’ve been wiped. But don’t worry, I’m not doing this to try and get them to take you back or anything. Just trust me.” He nodded slowly, and, satisfied, she hit the call button and raised the phone to her ear. It rang for a moment, before there was a crackle and the sound cut off abruptly.

“Hello, this is the Loud House, Lynn Loud Senior speaking.”

“Hi.” Carol grimaced internally, putting on the same saccharine voice she used in her social media videos. “My name’s Carol Pingrey; I’m in Lori’s year at school.”

“Oh,” Lynn Sr. replied, “I’m sorry, but Lori’s talking to her boyfriend at the moment. Is it urgent?”

“Actually, I wanted to talk to you,” Carol said sweetly, “about your son, Lincoln? He’s with me right now.” There was a moment of uneasy silence; she got the distinct sense he was checking his own front lawn.

“You should probably be careful,” he said finally. “I wouldn’t stay too close to him.” His voice became hushed, almost conspiratorial, like what he was saying was a family secret. “He’s bad luck; it might spread to you.” Carol bit back a retort, unable to stop herself from frowning. This was Lincoln’s own father, hearing that his son was staying with a girl he didn’t know the first thing about, and he didn’t sound the slightest bit concerned.

“I haven’t noticed any bad luck, actually,” she said cautiously, giving Lincoln a wink; the last thing she wanted was for him to think she believed in all this luck stuff. “It’s definitely still affecting him, but I think I might be immune to the jinx, if that’s, like, possible.”

“You’re immune?” Lynn Sr. asked slowly. “Are you absolutely sure?”

“Yup!” she said firmly. The line went quiet; if she listened closely, she was sure she could just about make out distant conversation from somewhere on the other side. She waited with baited breath, knowing their reaction could sink her hastily-conceived plan.

“That’s brilliant!” Lynn Sr. said suddenly. “I just had to talk with my wife. If you’re immune to Lincoln’s bad luck, would you be able to look after him for us? I know it’s a lot to ask, but we really can’t have him in the house. We’d pay you, of course; it would be just like babysitting.”

Carol blinked; part of her wanted to be furious, to yell at this man for blatant neglect. But the rest of her was just relieved. Somehow, in what had to be the most ironic stroke of luck in history, Lincoln’s family had jumped the gun. Her plan to convince them had worked without her even trying.

“I was going to offer the same thing!” She forced the peppy voice back into her throat. “I’d be happy to. The only thing is Lincoln’s stuff; if I swing by tomorrow, could I pick up clothes and stuff for him?”

“Clothes, yes,” Lynn Sr. said awkwardly, “We already sold all his furniture, but I’m pretty sure everything else is still there.” For what felt like the millionth time that evening, Carol was speechless. That was the final nail in the coffin; the Louds clearly wanted Lincoln out of their lives for good. No wonder they were being so eager to pawn him off on her. “You can come by whenever tomorrow, just don’t bring Lincoln.”

“Okay,” she said weakly, lowering the phone and thumbing the button to hang up. Looking over she could see Lincoln was perched on the end of the sofa, trying to stop himself from tearing up again. She walked over, sitting down beside him.

“Was that your plan?” he asked, voice cracking.

“Yeah.” She reached over his small shoulders with one arm. “It’s okay; it’ll just be like permanent babysitting, I guess?” Her words rang hollow, and she knew it. Lincoln shuddered, leaning into her side, and sniffed loudly.

“They really don’t care, do they?” he said quietly, staring blankly ahead at the deactivated TV.

“I don’t know,” she half-lied, tightening her grip, “but I’m sorry you even had to ask that question. None of this is your fault and none of this is okay and I can’t even imagine what it must feel like, but I’m going to do my best to make it better. I care, whether your family does or not, and I mean that.”

“Really? You barely even know me.”

“But I know you deserve better than this,” she said firmly. He was quiet for a moment, rubbing at his eyes, before finally speaking again.

“Thanks,” he sniffed, “for all of this.”

“It’s okay.”