Community Stories. Get Inspired, Get Underlined

Flies in the Web

By @Merl1nMagnuss3n

Episode 1

In which Panacea meets her mom’s fiance, and a complication arises; a complication that prevents her from asking anyone what to do about it.


For the entire seventeen years that I had lived my life, it was

just me and my mom. My dad was just a guy in the old photos on the wall. A few

of him and mom on the beach when they were dating, one of their wedding, and

one more of him holding wrinkly, newborn me in the hospital. Then nothing.

I didn’t really feel anything when I asked about him and was

told that he died in a traffic accident the day I was born. Part of me wanted

to. Whenever people found out about it, they would say kind things to me and

tell me how hard it must be, and I would agree that it was, except that it

wasn’t. I never knew him. He was only my dad because I knew he was, and not

because we had a bond.

Mom never got over it though, not properly. It wasn’t until I

was ten years old that she started dating again, and until a year ago, she

never dated anyone for more than a month.

It would be a lie if I said that I wasn’t surprised or upset

when she told me she was engaged. I knew she had been dating someone for a

while, longer than anyone else she’s gone out with, but the news that she was

going to get married again was a shock.

Now it wouldn’t just be us.

Now there would be a man. Now I would have a new dad.

A dad who already had a child.

I didn’t know about it. Mom didn’t tell me until the last

moment, as we pulled into the parking lot of the fancy restaurant where we were

all supposed to meet.

“By the way, honey, John has a son. I’m sorry I forgot to

mention it, but I hope it will be alright. I’ve never met him, but if we’re all

about to be a family, this is the best time, isn’t it?”

I said, “Sure, mom.”

It was true, in a way. Better we all knew each other now, then

at the wedding, but the thought of another kid in the house. Another child to

take up the attention annoyed me. Mom had been mine alone for seventeen years,

I already was going to have to share her with John Arden, and now with his son

as well.

“Be polite, okay, honey?” she said as we rode the elevator. I

could tell she was nervous. Her hair was pulled over her ears, and she was

tapping a finger against the glass face of her watch.

She didn’t need to worry; I was always polite, always. Even when

I hated the people I was around, I was always polite.

When we reached the top floor, we exited the elevator and made

our way to the large glass doors that were the only wall between me and the

soon-to-be rest of my family.

She gave our names to the woman in the black and white suit

dress standing next to them, and we were told to follow her inside.

I felt like Alice from Alice in Wonderland, or maybe Lucy from

the Chronicles of Narnia.

We were on earth, the same earth that I walked on every day, and

yet it was as though the glass doors were a portal to another world.

Crystal, marble, gold. My face was reflected at me in the

thousands of tiny glass shards that hung suspended from the ceiling.

There were tables everywhere, covered in crisp white

tablecloths, and people sat around them, sipping wine as red as blood and

looking like mythical creatures in their beaded dresses, plumed hairpieces, and

tuxedoes that looked like the kind that models wore on the front of erotic book


We were led to a table near the back of the room, right next to

the giant windows that looked down over the town.

Two men were seated at the table, talking in soft voices. When

they saw us, they stood up, and one of them, the older of the two, made his way

over to us.

“Cheryl.” He kissed my mom on the cheek and they beamed at each

other. Then he shook my hand.

“You must be Panacea.”

“I am,” I affirmed.

“A solution for all problems,” he grinned. “What a wonderful


My mom slung her arm around my shoulder. “She likes to think of

problems without solutions, but she is the most precious thing in my life.”

I nodded my head, confirming that I was indeed.

“May I introduce my son?” John motioned to the younger man, who

walked in swift, long-legged strides to stand by his father’s side.

“This is Pisică.”

Pisică shook my mom’s hand first, and then mine, and when he

did, I found I couldn’t move. My heart thudded against my chest as though it

wanted to beat its way out, and the world tilted. His hand was warm.

“Hello,” he said. His eyes were the color of honey and his hair

was so light a brown that it was almost a blond-grey.

“Hello,” I whispered back.

He was beautiful.

“My goodness!” My mom laughed, and I could tell that she was

nearly as thrown off as I was.

“You’re a young man, Pisică! Here I was thinking I would be

stuck with TWO teenagers.”

John laughed good-naturedly. “He’s just twenty-two! Now, how

about we all have a seat, and we can get to know each other properly.”

Mom and John were seated opposite each other, with me

and Pisică the same. I kept my eyes firmly on the table so that I wouldn’t

have to look at him.

It’s only nerves. I told myself repeatedly. That’s all it

is. Nerves.

“Well, I can’t believe I haven’t met you until now, I feel so

terrible that I’ll be uprooting your life like this without first getting to

know you.”

My mom’s voice was higher pitched than it was normally, another

sign that she was freaking out.

“I was in France.”

His voice was deep and smooth, but still with the youthful lilt

of boyhood. “I went for my friend’s wedding and decided to stay for a while.”

“Pis-ic.” My mom pronounced his name slowly. “What an unusual

and beautiful name. What does it mean?”

“Cat, I think. In Romanian apparently.”

“Did you hear that, Pana?” My mom nudged me in the ribs. Then

she turned back to the men and laughed. “Panacea here is a cat fanatic.”

One. I counted. Two, three.

We both looked up, our eyes met, and then I had to look away


John slapped his son on the shoulder in a friendly way. A little

hard, I thought, but then I could tell that he was nervous too.

“They’re all shy. Come on you two, you’ll be brother and sister

in three months, better learn to get along.”

“Why,” I began after a moment, then took a breath and lifted my

head. I focused my eyes on his shoulder instead of his face. He was wearing a

long, creamy brown jacket.

“Why were you named cat?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “I think cats are great though, so

I don’t mind.”

“Stop playing cool.” John whacked him again, then patted him

apologetically, and turned to me. “His name was Roland for the first three

weeks after he was born, and then he developed the habit of napping for up to

six hours a day. Olivia nicknamed him Pisică. And then it just stuck. If

there’s one thing I can tell you about him for sure, it’s that he’s one heck of

a lazybones.”

The awkward silence that followed was broken by a waitress,

whose name tag read Dalia. She asked us if we were ready to order, and we all

said no at the same time. Then John cleared his throat and asked if we could

have five more minutes to decide.

She said of course and then placed a bottle of Champaign and a

pitcher of water on the table and walked away.

“Well, we’d better order.” Mom laughed and patted her hair. Then

she picked up one of the menus.

“Goodness!” she exclaimed. “Everything looks so delicious, I

don’t know what to choose! I think this word here means ‘Steak’, but I’m not

sure. Oh dear, it’s all in French. Or is it Greek?”

“It’s French,” John confirmed, then turned to his son to say,

“You’re the France expert, what would you suggest?”

Pisică scoured the pages of his own menu.

“I don’t know,” he said at last. “Everything will taste good,

most likely, so even if you just make a blind choice, you shouldn’t be


“Oh, that’s an excellent idea!” my mom trilled. She covered her

eyes with one hand, then with the other let her finger land on one of the food


“B-Boil-abass -ay?” She squinted at it.

“Bouillabaisse,” Pisică corrected her. “It’s a good choice.”

She seemed pleased to have his approval. “Alright then,” she

said cheerfully.

“I’ll have Daube Provençale,” said John.

“What do you want, honey?” Mom asked me, smiling. She

was enjoying herself, and I knew I couldn’t spoil this lunch for her.

“The French Union soup and—” I frowned at the word. “I don’t

know how to pronounce it,” I admitted, feeling embarrassed.

“Can I see?” Pisică held out a hand, and it took me a few

seconds to realize it was for my menu. I gave it to him quickly, making sure

not to knock over the water.

“Which one?” he asked.

“Twenty-seven,” I said, and when he didn’t hear me, I repeated


“Fougasse.” He read it aloud, then cocked his head to the side

with a slightly bemused expression:

“We had the same idea,” he told me, handing the menu back.

“I can change it then,” I told the table cloth.

“There’s no reason why you can’t both have the same thing!” John

assured me. “You don’t have a problem with it, do you Pisică?”

Pisică shook his head.

“Then it’s settled!” John looked relieved and clapped his hands

together. “Now we just have to wait for the waitress. In the meantime, let’s

have something to drink. This is a momentous time in all of our lives, we

should toast to it.”

He popped open the champagne bottle and poured a bit into three

glasses. One for him, one for his son, and one for my mom.

I suddenly felt very separate from them. A kid at the adult’s

table, with water in my glass. It wasn’t like I had thought it would be at all.

There were three adults and one child, instead of two and two, and I didn’t

want to be the child. Not to all of them. And I told myself that this was just

because I felt alone in my position and ignored the real reason.

“Can I have some?” I asked.

Everyone blinked at me for a moment, then John looked at my mom

for guidance.

“Is she old enough?” he asked, sounding unsure.

“I’m seventeen.” I straightened my back and lifted my chin,

forcing myself to meet the eyes that were fixed on me.

“Oh, let her have a bit.” My mom smiled. “It wouldn’t be the

first time.”

So I was given a small bit of champagne.

When Dalia came back, John gave her our orders, and she went

away promising us it wouldn’t take long, and I waited in silence while two of

the adults conversed in loud, cheerful voices. The third only put in the odd

comment, then stayed out of it, and I avoided any attempt he made to start a

conversation with me, politely as I could.

Generally, if I were waiting in a restaurant for the lunch that

had yet to arrive, I would be thinking of nothing but food. Now, however, I was

sick to my stomach.

I waited for the fluttering of my heart to fade. For the moment

when he would say something to me and I would feel nothing but sisterly


It will pass. I comforted myself. Give it some time. Eventually,

he’ll just be like my brother. I’m alright.

“Are you okay, honey?” My mom broke off her conversation to peer

at me with concerned eyes, and she brushed a hand over my shoulder. “Are you

feeling sick? You look pale.”

“It could be the view,” John offered helpfully, nodding at the

giant windows that made up the entirety of the wall.

“I pride myself on not being afraid of heights, but even I have

to admit that I get some serious vertigo when I look down.”

“I’m okay.” I did my best to smile. “I’m stressed. That’s all.”

“Why is that?” mom asked, and I felt a flash of hot annoyance.

Why did people always assume that whenever you said you had a problem, it was

about something different from before? Why did it never occur to them that some

difficulties didn’t just go away?

“Just school stuff,” I said, and took a sip of champagne. It

wasn’t a complete lie.

“What’s ‘school stuff’?” John asked, and I was tempted to say,

“Exactly what it sounds like,” but I didn’t. Instead, I said, “You know,

homework, teachers, the social ladder. That kind of thing. Or really just

school in general. It feels like a waste of time.”

“Oh, don’t think like that!” The conversation was momentarily

paused as our food was brought out and laid upon the table, and we all said

thank you to the two waitresses that did it.

“This looks amazing, thank you.” My mom smiled at them, and I

was struck suddenly by how in place she suddenly looked. At home, when her hair

was thrown up into a messy bun; when she was wearing sweatpants and a tee-shirt

and a knitted cardigan, she looked every inch the single mom struggling to keep

herself and her child off the streets.

Here, sitting at a white-clothed table, drinking champagne, with

her chocolate brown hair brushed smooth and straight; pearl earrings glittering

in her earlobes; an elegant green dress, and long, white, heeled boots, she

seemed so different.

Was this the life we would have now? Would this new side of my

mother be my mom?

“Back to the subject of school,” John said after we had all

picked up our forks or spoons and eaten a few bites. “Nobody hates school,

there are just some things in their life that make it hard to be enjoyed, like

a difficulty learning, or no friends, or bullying or the like.”

Why does it matter? I thought. All those things are a part

of school.

“I’m not being bullied.” My fingers snatched at a piece of bread

sitting in a basket in the middle of the table. I wouldn’t be eating it, but I

needed something to do with my hands. “I have my poor subjects and my good

subjects, and I have two friends.”

“Then, what is it that’s stressful?” John asked. “Tell me


I swallowed, feeling the familiar tightening feeling in my

throat I experienced when under pressure, and folded my hands tightly together

on my lap.

“I have social anxiety,” I said. “I find it hard to be around

large groups of people. And there are too many expectations and things that I

don’t know. When I’m in school, I feel like I’m being forced to face my future,

and I don’t know how. I feel like if I mess up in school, I’m messing up my

entire life.”

“That’s what teachers are for,” John told me importantly as if

he knew. “They’re there to guide and help you and make you feel safe.”

“Maybe.” I poured some water into my empty champagne glass and

drank it. “But mine don’t.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it.”

We all focused our attention on Pisică, who spoke for the first

time since the food had been brought out. He didn’t appear bothered by the

three pairs of eyes now fixed firmly on his person and spread his fingers out

on the white tablecloth.

“School isn’t as important as everyone makes you think it is.

Even some people who graduate with degrees in all areas still have a hard


John clapped a hand over his son’s mouth. “Pisică,” hissed

through his teeth. “You’re not helping.”

Pisică pried his father’s fingers away and continued, this time

looking directly at me. “What I meant to say was, success in life is down to

luck, at least sixty percent of the time. We live in a world now where usually,

even if you have a poor start, you can end up anywhere, as long as you take

advantage of the right opportunities.”

“Don’t listen to him,” John said firmly. “He doesn’t know what

he’s talking about.”

“Dad,” Pisică looked annoyed. “There are countless people out

there in the world who prove my point. People you follow on Instagram. You know

that Cardi B was a stri—”

“Yes, yes, alright, thank you, that’s enough.” John’s eyes

flitted to my mom quickly with an apologetic look.

“What I’m trying to say is,” he took a bite of his food and

wiped his fingers on the napkin that used to hold the cutlery, even though his

hands weren’t dirty.

He coughed and began again. “What I’m saying is that as a

privileged generation, we should take advantage of what so few of our ancestors

had in the past, and so few even have now. Education. The right and ability to


“Also,” he added quickly. “I don’t follow Cardi B on Instagram.

Or on any social media platform.”

He said this to his son, but his eyes were on my mother.

She looked amused and stole a bit of my bread.

“Well, I think you both make excellent points.” she smoothed

some butter over the crust and took a bite, winking at me when I glared at her.

“But perhaps we should turn this conversation in a different direction.”

“I agree.” John nodded. “There’s something far more important

that we all need to discuss.”

“Oh,” my mom giggled. “Now I’m curious.”

I was curious as well.

“I think it’s about time that we decided . . . ” he paused for

the dramatic effect, and I was disappointed to find that it worked. My blood

thrummed with anticipation that the situation should not have, in normal

situations, called for.

“—When you two are going to move in with us.”

“What?” I asked before I had the chance to think better of it,

and I turned to my mom for an explanation.

“Why do you seem so surprised, Pana?” she asked. “Isn’t it

normal for families to live together?”

“Yes.” I frowned. “It’s only that I didn’t suppose we’d all be

living together until after the wedding.”

“Why would we wait?” John asked, and I had to give him credit

for how excited he looked.

“I’ve been packing for a whole two weeks, haven’t you noticed?”

mom asked me.

“You’re always packing things up and moving them around,” I

shrugged. “Nothing seemed all that different to me.”

“Would the end of next week be too soon?” John asked.

“Everything’s ready for you.”

“I think that would be just fine,” mom smiled, but she looked

slightly worried, and directed her next question towards Pisică.

“But we haven’t consulted you in any of this. I want to hear what you have to say, honestly.

I won’t be offended.”

Pisică swirled the last of his champagne around in the bottom of

his glass, his fingers wrapped around the thin stem. They were nice fingers.

Long, white, and elegant.

“I’m fine with it,” he said, and if he was lying, I couldn’t

tell. “There’s an apartment a few blocks away from the house that I stay at

part-time, I split the rent with a friend. If I feel overrun with feminine

energy, I’ll just stay there for a few nights.”

I dropped my fork and had to dive under the table to retrieve

it. We would live together. Of course, we would. It was stupid of me for not

having realized it sooner.

It will be alright, I told myself again, when I was sitting

upright. Everything will sort itself out over time. There’s nothing wrong

with you.

“As long as you’re sure,” my mom said. “I know that it’s been a

while since you’ve had a woman in the house. I don’t want to make you feel like

I’m trying to push into your mother’s place.”

“Olivia–” Pisică said, and there was a note of disdain in his

voice, “–didn’t leave behind a space for anyone to push into if they wanted to.

She was never around long enough to make one.”

There was some awkwardness after he said this, but it seeped

away gradually, thanks to John, who seemed to have a million different things

to say about literally anything that was brought up. By the end of the meal,

everyone was smiling, at least a little. Mom and John were practically breaking

the world record for the largest set of matching grins.

He and Pisică accompanied us down to the parking lot, and there

it got awkward again when it was time to say goodbye.

Mom kissed John on the cheek, then pulled Pisică into a hug.

John hugged me, and then they both looked towards their children.

It started with one of us thinking we were going in for a

handshake, and the other thinking we were supposed to hug, then when we

realized what the other was thinking, we switched and it was the other way

around. Finally, it ended in a kind of one-armed embrace/head butt. My face was

aflame when I found myself pressed into his chest and pulled away as quickly as

I could without being obvious.

“We’ll see you next week!” John waved enthusiastically as we

drove away. Mom blew him a kiss out of the window.

“Well!” mom said, for the second time as we drove home. “I think

that went well. Do you think it went well? I think it went well.”

“As far as those types of meetings go,” I said, turning up the

radio. “I think it went alright.”

“What do you think of him?” Mom babbled.

“He’s gorgeous. He’s really gorgeous,” I answered absently,

trying to find a station that wasn’t playing country music.

“Isn’t he? That jawline; that nose; those lips; his green eyes.”

“Brown,” I corrected.

“They’re green,” she insisted.

I lifted my head and frowned at her. “Who are you talking


“John of course!” She narrowed her eyes at me. “Who were you

talking about?”

“John,” I assured her quickly. “And you’re right, now that I’m

thinking about it, I’m sure his eyes were green. Sorry. You know I never really

look at people in the face.”

She smiled and gazed at the sparkling ring on her left hand with

satisfaction. “I think we’ll all be extremely happy together.” She sighed


“I hope so.” I thought about it for a moment. “He has the looks,

he has the money, and he’s probably spent a lot of time around women who are

hotter than you. No offense, of course. So, I don’t see why there’s any reason

that he wouldn’t be marrying you for love.”

“Did you have any doubts?” She looked hurt.

“I always have doubts,” I said. “You know me.”

“I do that.” She pushed down on the breaks just in time to make

a red light.

“I have to say,” she added, drumming her hands along the

steering wheel, “I have to say that I had my own doubts when I heard he had a

son, but then, I have a daughter, and he accepted me with that, so it would be

unfair for me to make a problem out of it in his case. And besides,” the light

turned green, and we were off again.

“I think Pisică is a lovely young man. So mature, and handsome.

Won’t it be nice to have a brother Pana?”

“I guess so.”

That’s right. A brother.

I leaned my head against the cool glass of the car window and

tried to relax.

Once you get to know him better, he’ll just be annoying and loud

like other boys. This will pass, and all he’ll be is a brother.

You’re okay.

You’re okay.


The next week came around startlingly fast, time keeping up with

the ageless trend of speeding up when you want it to slow down, and slowing

down when you want it to speed up. Before I knew it, half my old life was in

storage, and the other half was packed in cardboard boxes and thrown into the

back of our car, and we were pulling into the driveway of

our new life.

John and Pisică were waiting for us, and I felt the unsettling

sensation of a colony of butterflies erupting in my stomach.

We didn’t bring a lot. The house was already furnished, but we

had the important stuff, like clothes, personal items, books, and photo albums.

John told Pisică to help me take my things to my room, and he did

so with no complaint. Four boxes out of the entirety were mine. He carried the

two big ones, and I carried the two small ones, while he led me inside.

The house was big. Not mansion big, but way bigger than ours had

been and respectably furnished. When I first stepped through the doorway, I

expected to be hit with wave after wave of masculinity but found to my relief

that everything from the leather couch, to the black, hardwood dining room

table, to the beige wallpaper, gave off a sense of neutrality.

Pisică led me up a flight of stairs, (carpeted) and down a

hallway until we stopped in front of a door, which he nudged open with his


“This is your room,” he told me. His tone gave little away of

what he thought of saying this, nearly as neutral as the house.

He was wearing a turmeric-colored V-neck sweater, and what

looked like a white Tee-shirt underneath.

I jerked my thoughts out of their current route and forced them

to scour the room instead. The wall was a kind of light grey. There was a closet,

a bed, a desk, and a window.

“The washroom is just down the hall,” he set down the boxes on

the desk. “What’s in those things?” he asked. “Bricks?”

“Close.” I set my own burden down on the bed and opened the ones

he’d carried. “Books.”

“Might have guessed.” He pulled one out, shoved it back in, then

asked, “Would you like help to unpack?”

“No thanks,” I answered firmly. “I can do it myself.”

He a bit confused with my reaction, but nodded and made his way

back downstairs.

I worked on unpacking my stuff. The books I lined up neatly on

the windowsill; I took out my clothes and hung them up in the closet, spending

a moment feeling grateful that there were hangers already supplied, and then

set up my laptop, lamp, and mini speaker on the desk.

“So, this is home.” I put my hands on my hips and surveyed my


I wondered how long it would take for it to sink in. 

Join the conversation

Like Love Haha Wow Sad Angry
Post a comment
1 Like 2 Comments
Like Love Haha Wow Sad Angry

Become a Book Nerd

When you’re not reading books, read our newsletter.

By clicking Sign Up, I acknowledge that I have read and agree to Penguin Random House's
Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.