It was a Friday after school when she first found out that they were getting divorced. It broke her heart into a million pieces.
Ewan had been the one to tell her. He was the older brother. He was sixteen; she was eleven. He'd picked her up in his black Pontiac Firebird, the one he'd worked all summer to earn. The seats were leather and hot from the beating Miami sun. He had the windows rolled down and there was just a tiny crackling breeze that didn't do much except circulate the warm air.
She'd known something was wrong from the second she saw the look on his face. She threw her pink ballerina backpack into the backseat - along with her Strawberry Shortcake lunch box - and hopped into the passenger seat. "What's wrong, Ewan?" she'd asked.
"It's about Dad," he said, glancing around the parking lot as the buses rumbled down to the palm-lined street like a line of bulging yellow ants migrating back to their anthill.
"He's not coming to Christmas this year, is he?" she said. "I knew that already. He said so in his last postcard. He said he'd be in Minn - " She paused, trying to get the word out. "In Minn..."
"Minnesota," Ewan finished.
"Yeah, that," Juliet nodded.
Ewan sighed and pulled out of the parking lot behind the last bus. He didn't say anything for a long stretch of road, but Juliet noticed that he wasn't taking their usual route home. "How about some ice cream?" he said finally.
Juliet shrugged. "Sounds rad to me."
Ewan got mint chocolate like he always did. Juliet usually picked strawberry. Today, Ewan also let her get sprinkles and caramel syrup, which she wasn't often allowed to have unless it was her birthday or she'd made the honor roll again or -
"Did somebody die?" she blurted after her second spoonful of sugary treat. "Is Dad dead?"
Shock and horror mingled on Ewan's tanned face. "What? No! What - why would you say that, Juliet?"
She shrugged. "Because I don't know why else you'd let me get sprinkles and caramel when Mom always says I can't have it unless it's something really special or unless it's like that time when Great-Grandma Rosine died."
Ewan shook his head. "No, nobody's died. It's just that..." He sighed. "Well, I guess I should come right out and say it. Mom and Dad are getting a divorce."
Juliet almost dropped her spoon. "They are?"
Ewan nodded. "Mom told me this morning. I wanted you to hear it from me first."
Juliet stared into the melty pink soup in her ice cream bowl. "What does this mean?"
Ewan reached across the little round table, taking Juliet's little hand in his. "Dad may not be around very much anymore..."
She jerked her hand away and folded both hands in her lap, out of reach. "But he already doesn't come hardly ever..."
"I know. I know it's hard."
She didn't want to cry. Not here, not now. Not ever. "But... Daddy... But... I..." Too late. The tears were coming. They were welling up right there at the table, right in front of Ewan. "I don't want him to go. He said he'd always be there. And he's never there, but - but I always thought - I thought - "
Her brother got up, crossed to her side of the cherry-red Formica table, and put his arms around his little sister. "I know, Jule. I know."
When she'd finished crying, Ewan let her go and she finished eating her ice cream in silence. Then she'd held her brother's hand on the way back to the car. She leaned her head against the warm leather headrest of the seat and closed her eyes, feeling the trickling rush of wind and listening to the sounds of the road.
She was fast asleep before Ewan had gotten a half-mile down the road. His chest physically ached at the sight of seeing his sister so upset. He'd always known the truth about their father, always known that Frank would never keep his promises. But no matter what happened, Juliet had never lost her faith in him, never stopped hoping that one day, he'd do the right thing and come home for good. She always believed deep down inside that someday, they'd be a happy family.
And now that would never be true. Frank would never again be home for Christmas. They would never have a happy family, just the four of them and their cat. He'd never come to Juliet's recitals and he'd never show up for her fifth grade graduation.
And not just that, Ewan realized with a jolt, but he probably would never make it to her high school graduation, or to her wedding, or to her baptism. Frank's involvement in their lives had always been tenuous at best, but now with the divorce, with their mother claiming full custody - Frank would have no reason to return ever again. To poor Juliet, their father would just - disappear.
Will she even really remember him? Ewan thought with horror.
Perhaps it would have been kinder if Ewan had told Juliet a lie, and said yes when she'd asked if their father had died. Then at least she wouldn't have to live knowing that their father was still present on the Earth and had simply moved on, moved along to the next con, without thinking of her twice.
Ewan pulled into their driveway and shook his head. How could their parents do this to them? To Juliet? He didn't care for himself, but couldn't they have waited to split their family until after she was older?
But as he scooped his sleeping sister out of his car and carried her into the house, he realized that he shouldn't be upset at their parents. After all, their marriage and their family was just a charade. The piece of paper holding them together didn't matter anymore. If his own flesh-and-blood children weren't enough to convince Frank to clean up his act, then nothing ever would. No; this divorce may be hard, especially for Juliet, but in the end, it would be for the best.
Ewan was sure of it.
And as he carefully tucked little Juliet into her bed, pulling the orange and pink blankets over her, he was sure of something else, and he whispered it into her ear: "No matter what happens, Jule, I'll always be here for you. Dad may leave, and Mom might lose her marbles, and our family might be broken. But I'll never leave you. I'll always protect you, and I'll never, ever leave you. I promise."
He paused, wishing that somehow, everything could be easier. Wishing that his sister, who deserved better, could have more than just one stable person in her life. Then he wiped his eyes and finished, "Because I'm your big brother, and I love you."
He switched on her nightlight and gently closed her bedroom door behind him.
Juliet sighed quietly and grabbed her teddy bear from the nightstand.
"I love you, too, Ewan."