Mama balks. “Six applications?”
“That’s what Hetty said,” Granny tells her.
“Sounds like he still hasn’t heard from one school, but the others…yeah. Rejections.”
From where I lurk in the dining room, I catch a whiff of the red onion Granny is slicing for her black bean casserole. I strain my ears, dying to hear the gossip on my oldest cousin (and knowing I’d never be invited to participate in said gossip legitimately).
“Psh,” Mama says. “Hetty and Walt should’ve made him to apply to one or two state schools. All this pie-in-the-sky ‘elite’ stuff is hurting the boy’s self-esteem.”
Granny presumably shrugs in her take-life-as-it-comes way. “I think Josh puts the pressure on himself, too. I just wish they wouldn’t all go at it tonight, for heaven’s sake. This dinner’s supposed to be about George.”
“Yeah!” I think, feeling righteously indignant on Gramps’ behalf.
And suddenly I jump back, finding myself lampooned by Mama’s green stare. She’s poked her head around the corner and found me out. “Lil, don’t slink around eavesdropping. Go on outside. Get some fresh air. Your sister’s playing down by the creek.”
Oh, great. Go down to the creek and watch Ava throw twigs at minnows. Fun.
There is nothing to do but obey, and I march away — which is how I come to find Josh and Aunt Hetty screaming at each other on the back porch.
“You don’t know anything!” Josh shouts. His eyes are like maraschino cherries fizzing at the bottom of a soda. “Piss off, Mom.”
As he storms down the steps and into the yard, Aunt Hetty’s lips are pinched into a hard line.
“What’s wrong with him?” I ask.
When she turns and sees me, her fogged gaze quickly clears. “Huh? Oh, nothing, Lil. A grown-up matter. Go on back in the house.”
She brushes past me into the living room while I hover uncertainly in the doorway. What do I do now? Go outside or in? The marching orders aren’t exactly consistent around here.
I wish Gramps would hurry back from the store. He’d smooth things over in no time. He’s good at that.
He’s often warned me to be careful. That I’m too clever for my own good. And “perceptive” — he likes that word. “Don’t go telling the others this,” he’d say, “but you’re smarter than the rest of ’em. Sometimes that means you’ll learn things ya shouldn’t…”
I love Gramps.
Well, for crying out loud, why’s everything so quiet? I get home from the liquor store, ready for a birthday dinner with my family, and even as I open the front door, it’s clear something’s happened. I set the bottles of wine at the end of a console table and step slowly into the belly of the house. The dining table is set but empty. No one’s in the living room or den.
Whispered voices and the sound of clinking of porcelain come from the kitchen. Diane and Lorna must still be in there, starting dinner. But what about the others? Shouldn’t they be lounging by the den windows? Couldn’t someone turn on a little music to liven things up? It’s a relaxed Sunday afternoon — not a rehearsal for life at a monastery.
On the porch, a pacing figure catches my eye. Josh. His hands are deep in his pockets, his chin is down, and he’s grumbling to himself. I slide back the glass door.
“What’s going on?”
The boy is startled. “Wha-? Oh, it’s you, Gramps.”
“Where’d everyone go?”
Looking down, he kicks at a small anthill. “Mom and I had a fight about school again. She and Dad won’t quit hassling me. Can I ask… were you and Granny this hard on her and Lorna when they applied to college?”
I chuckle knowingly and step across the porch. “Lemme tell you something, Josh. It’s something you can’t tell anyone. Your parents know you’re smart — frankly, a lot smarter than anyone else in the family — and they expect more ’cause they know you can deliver.”
This speck of praise does the trick, and Josh’s shoulders loosen slightly. “I gotta say, Gramps… you’re my favorite one to talk to in this lot.”
I wink at him. “Likewise, young man. Likewise.” The words may be an overstatement, but at least he’s more like himself again. “Come on. Let’s go back inside.”
My face is hot with embarrassment, and I back quietly out of the den — before Josh or Gramps can see me, before Gramps can guess what I’ve heard. Suddenly I wish I’d gone down to the creek with Ava.
It’d probably be easier not knowing the truth.
Chelsea Resnick is a Texas-born, Kansas-bred writer. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, she has worked as a greeting card editor, a children’s book editor, and a short story writer for an educational publisher. Her pieces have been published by Hallmark Gift Books, StressFree Living Magazine, and XZR English, among others. Chelsea currently lives with her family in North Carolina where she works as a freelance writer. She also maintains a blog focused on writing and creative inspiration.