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Hearts Flying Freely: a short story

Hearts Flying Freely Cover

1. 

I was watching a DVD one Sunday afternoon when Annabelle broke the news.

“Hey, Lyle,” she said, walking into the room. “My mom just e-mailed me. We’re invited to dinner next Saturday.”

“Oh, great,” I said, groaning.

She frowned. “That was real nice. What did my parents ever do to you?”

“Nothing,” I said. “I’m sorry. It’s just … well, why Saturday? That’s half the weekend right there.”

“I know, but c’mon. We never see my parents. Well, at least you don’t. And besides, they like you.”

“Yeah, right.”

“They do, too.”

“Your parents think I’m a loser,” I said.

Annabelle shook her head. “Why would you say that?”

“Because the last time I saw your folks, your dad leaned over and whispered to your mother, ‘What a loser. I can’t believe Annabelle’s dating that guy.’”

“He never said that.”

“Yes, he did. I was sitting in the same room with them. He obviously didn’t care if I heard or not.”

“I’m sure he cared,” Annabelle said. “That’s probably why he whispered.”

“So you admit that your father called me a loser?”

Annabelle sighed. “Yeah, actually. It sounds like something he’d say.”

“Told you so.”

“So don’t go,” Annabelle said. “No one’s making you. I have to go because my sister’s coming. That’s what the dinner’s for. I could make up an excuse for you, if you want. I could say you’re constipated and can’t leave the house.”

“No, forget it — that only works once,” I said. “Never mind. I’ll come. It’s just a long ways, is all.”

“It’s only Fremont. It’s an hourlong drive, not a cross-country excursion. And I know they’d like to see you. It’s been awhile since we’ve done anything with them.”

“Didn’t we see them on the Fourth of July?”

Annabelle crossed her arms. “We did. It’s almost November.”

“Oh,” I said. “All right, then — I’ll go. But you got to drive.”

Annabelle sighed. “I don’t want you getting drunk in front of my folks.”

“I won’t get drunk. I’ll just get inebriated.”

“I’ve seen you when you’re inebriated. You lose all your willpower, and then you keep drinking till you become a staggering, cross-eyed drunk.”

“True,” I said. “Once I start something, I usually go all the way.”

“Please don’t drink too much. My parents think you’re respectable.”

“Why would they think that?”

“I have no idea. You must have done something to impress them.”

“I was probably drunk. I’m a lot more charming when I’m drunk.”

Annabelle closed her eyes. “Dinner’s at three, so we’d need to leave at two. Would that work?”

“Dinner’s at three?” I asked, my nose wrinkling. “Holy crap. Who eats that early? I can’t eat at three.”

“Why not? You eat every other hour of the day.”

“I don’t eat — I graze. It’s good for your metabolism.”

“You don’t graze — you snack. You eat potato chips and jerky and leftover Tuna Helper and whatever else is in that hellhole you call a kitchen.”

“What’s the difference? I eat when I’m hungry. And if I eat at three in the frickin’ afternoon, I guarantee I’ll be hungry by six.”

“Then we’ll get you a burger afterwards,” Annabelle said. “All right? I’ll even pay for it.”

“Mmm,” I said, licking my lips. “I love it when you talk dirty.”

“Fast food turns you on? You need help.”

“Actually, I need sex. And you’re just the person who can help me.”

“You can help yourself. So, is it settled? Will you go?”

“Yeah, I’ll go.” I yawned and switched off the TV. “What’s the occasion, anyway?”

“I told you: My sister’s coming to town.”

“Stop the presses. The one from Chicago?”

A frown. “She’s the only sister I’ve got.”

“Oh, yeah. Why’s she coming here?”

“Mom said she broke up with that Mark guy and is going through a rough spell. She’s going to stay with them for the week.”

“I don’t remember any Mark.”

“You met him on the Fourth, remember? You didn’t like him.”

I shrugged. “I don’t like anybody.”

“You said you tried talking to him and that he acted snobby. He wouldn’t condescend to speak to you.”

“Few people condescend to speak to me.”

“You’d know him if you saw him,” Annabelle said. “I didn’t like him either, to be honest. I thought he was stuck-up and conceited. I don’t know why my sister’s all distraught over it. Like I told my mom, she ought to be celebrating.”

“Why’d your sister date him in the first place?” I asked.

Annabelle shrugged. “I don’t know. My parents say I’m just like her. We don’t have the best taste in men.”

“Huh,” I said. I paused, looking at the floor.

Suddenly, I got it. I shot Annabelle a nasty look.

She smiled. “It took you awhile, didn’t it?”

“Just for that, I’m going to bring my rubber vomit. I can entertain your family after dinner.”

“C’mon, Lyle. My parents think you’re a cool guy. Don’t do anything to ruin it.”

“You mean by being myself?”

“Exactly. Be that charming, sophisticated guy who tells funny jokes — not the crude, crass imbecile who farts in close spaces.”

“OK,” I said, shrugging. “But like I said, I’ll require a hearty dose of alcohol. I hope you don’t mind toting my ass to Fremont.”

Annabelle grinned. “As long as it minds its manners, I’ll tote your ass anywhere.”

2. 

The ringing phone jolted me awake. I sat up in bed; a mess of beer cans clanked to the floor. The room was dark, but a hint of dawn glistened outside.

I moaned, holding my head. The room swam. I squinted my eyes and looked at the clock. Seven a.m., Saturday.

The phone kept ringing. I reached over to my nightstand and picked up the receiver.

“This better be good.”

“Lyle?”

“Yeah?”

“Lyle, it’s Annabelle. You awake?”

“What?” I closed my eyes and massaged the tender spot between my eyeballs.

“You sound asleep. Did I wake you?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, sorry. You sound hungover. Did you drink last night?”

“Why would you assume I’m hungover?” I asked. “I just woke up. I’m groggy.”

“You have that hungover voice.”

I frowned, leaning my head against the receiver. “And what’s my hungover voice?”

“The voice you’re talking with now. It’s all hoarse and throaty, like you’re going cough up a wad of green goop.”

“I might have had a few beers last night. Why — am I in trouble?”

“No,” Annabelle said. “I need a favor.”

“At seven in the morning?”

“I need you to come over to my place early, if possible. I’m bringing some stuff to dinner, and I need help carrying it to the car.”

“Oh, no,” I said.

“What?”

“What are you bringing to dinner, exactly?”

“Just a couple of pies,” Annabelle said. “I promised my mother.”

“And that’s it? Two pies?”

“Three pies.”

“Three?”

“Yeah. My sister’s going to be there, as well as my brother and maybe a couple of his friends.”

“But you said a ‘couple’ of pies. ‘Three’ isn’t a couple; ‘three’ is a few. How many pies do we need to bring to this thing?”

“I just told you — three. A pumpkin, an apple and a cherry. My mom hates the consistency of pumpkin, my dad hates cherry because he always gets a pit in his mouth and my sister hates apple because cinnamon nauseates her. This way, there’s something for everyone.”

“Your sister nauseates me, and you don’t see me complaining,” I said. “And besides, can’t I have a preference? I like berry pie.”

“I don’t … well …” Annabelle said.

“No,” I said. “No. I was just kidding.”

“I can make you a berry pie.”

“No, forget it. I told you, I was joking.”

“No seriously. You like berry pie, and maybe my family will, too. I’ll make one.”

“C’mon, Annabelle,” I said. “Please. You don’t need to bring four pies to dinner. That’s idiotic.”

“No, it’s not. I haven’t made you a berry pie for a long time.”

“So make it some other time. I don’t care.”

“I’ve made up my mind,” Annabelle said. “I’ll put frozen berries on the list. I’m running to the store in a few minutes. We also should bring some drinks, don’t you think?”

I sighed. “How much are we bringing to this thing?”

“Don’t worry about that: I’m doing the shopping. I just need you to help me wrap up the food and carry it to the car. Can you think of anything else we should bring?”

“My appetite. That’s about it.”

“No, seriously, Lyle. I got to get going.”

I let out a breath. My temples pulsated. “I don’t know.”

“Maybe I’ll get some flowers.” Annabelle’s voice was distant and distracted; I could tell she was writing a list.

I closed my eyes. “Flowers?”

“For my mom. You can give them to her, and we’ll say they’re from you. She’d love it.”

“But they’re not from me; they’re from you.”

“So? She won’t know.”

“But I’m not the one getting the flowers.”

“It doesn’t matter — it’s the thought that counts.”

I gripped the receiver tightly in my hand. “But I’m not the one who had the thought! You did!”

“Lyle, relax,” Annabelle said. “I’ll get some roses. She loves roses, and she’ll love you for giving them to her.”

“All right,” I said, closing my eyes. “Get some roses.”

“And you need some coffee,” Annabelle said. “You’re grouchy when you’re hungover.”

I was already poking the floor with my foot, prodding the pile of beer cans, looking for a full one. I didn’t need coffee — I needed a Saturday-morning pick-me-up.

“Lyle?”

“Yeah?”

“When you said a ‘berry’ pie, did you mean blueberry or mixed berry?”

“Surprise me.”

“But which one? I’ve made you both — I’m not sure which is your favorite.”

“Go with the blueberry.”

“Do you like the blueberry filling, or would you prefer actual blueberries? Like I said, I can get them frozen.”

“Annabelle,” I said, “it’s way too early for this.”

“OK — I’m sorry,” she said. “See you at noon? And get some coffee — you need it.”

“All right,” I said, grumbling. “See you at noon.” I hung up.

As I replaced the receiver, my hand brushed against a full can of beer. I smiled. Already, my mood had improved.

3. 

I finally took a shower around 10 a.m. I was dripping wet and drying off when the phone rang … again.

I rushed to my bedroom, clutching a towel around my waist. Beads of water ran down my back.

“Hello?”

“Lyle!” Annabelle sounded frantic.

I grinned, shaking my head. I could already picture Annabelle in her kitchen, pots and pans lying askew, flour dust coating everything. Whenever she baked, her kitchen became the Disaster Zone: a monumental mess worthy of federal aid. I had come up with the name, and I thought it was funny. However,  Annabelle did not share my sentiments.

“Lyle, you there?”

“Yeah, I’m here.” I was starting to shiver. My apartment suddenly seemed frigid as I stood there dripping.

“I need your help. My brother’s friend, Harold, is coming to dinner, and he’s diabetic. He can’t have anything with sugar. Could you stop by the store and buy me some Splenda?”

I frowned. “Splenda? Isn’t that the stuff you put in coffee?”

“It’s a sugar substitute. It’s supposed to be good for diabetics, I think.”

“What are you putting the Splenda in? Not my berry pie, I hope.”

“No, I’m not putting it in your berry pie. I’m putting it in the brownies.”

“Brownies?” I sighed.

“Mom said Harold prefers brownies over pie. I thought I’d make a quick batch.”

“How come this zit-faced Harold kid gets to dictate our entire dessert menu?”

“I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice kid.”

“Not if he’s anything like your brother, he’s not.”

“Please, Lyle. Would you mind getting the Splenda? I’m in the midst of hell, and I can’t leave the apartment. I’m working on getting the pies ready right now.”

“It’ll take a ton of those little packets to make a pan of brownies, won’t it?”

“Lyle, Splenda comes in a box, like sugar. In fact, they should both be on the same aisle.”

“OK,” I said. “I’ll get it. Anything else?”

“No, I think” — a loud crash — “oh, damn! Damn!”

“What?” I asked, still shivering in my towel. “Annabelle! You OK?”

A sigh. “Could you also pick up a dozen eggs?”

***

I walked out of the supermarket, carrying a plastic bag. I was climbing into my car when my cell phone rang.

I looked at the screen and saw Annabelle’s number. I shook my head, grinned, and put the phone to my ear. “Hello?”

“Lyle!” Annabelle practically screamed my name. In the background I could hear the whirring of an electric motor — probably Annabelle’s mixer.

I smiled. “To whom am I speaking?”

“Lyle, have you gone to the store yet?”

I sighed, looking at the plastic bag in the seat beside me. “No. I’m driving there now.” I knew Annabelle: she’d feel guilty if I told her the truth. And apparently, she had a lot on her mind already.

“Oh, good. Awesome. Could you do me the world’s biggest favor and get a couple packages of walnuts when you’re there?”

“Walnuts?”

“Yeah — for the brownies. I forgot to get some.”

“Won’t that be a pain: shelling a bunch of walnuts?” I asked.

“Please tell me you’re joking,” Annabelle said.

“What?”

“Lyle, you can buy walnuts already shelled, in a bag. They’re on the same aisle as the sugar.”

“Oh … OK. I knew that.”

“And could you get chopped walnuts, please? I don’t want them whole.”

“Yeah, you got it. Chopped walnuts.”

“Not diced walnuts, either. Chopped. You’ll have to be careful. The bags look the same, so you’ll have to read them to see what you’re getting.”

“Right. Diced walnuts, not whole or chopped.”

“Lyle! No! Chopped walnuts.”

“OK. Chopped walnuts. No problem.”

“Thank you,” Annabelle said. “I really, really, really appreciate it.”

“Do you really?” I asked.

“You have no idea.”

“No problem,” I said. “There is one thing, though.”

A hesitation. “Yeah?”

“What if this zit-faced Harold kid is allergic to nuts?”

“Oh, crap.” A long, windy sigh.

“Just kidding,” I said. “Don’t worry about it. He’s probably fine.”

“No, that’s a good point,” Annabelle said. “We got to be sure. I don’t want to put him in the hospital; I’d feel terrible. I better call my mom.”

“Holy crap, hon,” I said. “I was trying to be funny. Please.”

“I’ll call her now. Can you get the walnuts anyway? That way we’ll have them, I guess.”

I sighed, rolling my eyes. “Sure.”

***

I used my key to let myself into Annabelle’s apartment. The place was sweltering. Immediately, the pungent, mouthwatering scents of baking goodies wafted to my nose.

“Is that you, Lyle?” Annabelle called from the kitchen.

“Yeah!” I said, taking off my shoes. Annabelle liked to keep her carpet clean — though I often argued the soles of my shoes were cleaner than my feet. “I finally made it.”

I walked across the living room, carrying my plastic shopping bags.

“Sorry it’s so hot in here,” Annabelle said. “I opened a couple of windows to get some air, but the oven’s like a furnace. I’m dying.”

I stopped short, my eyes widening. My jaw dropped.

“Oh god,” I said.

Annabelle’s kitchen, which she usually kept sparkling clean, had transformed to the most horrific version of the Disaster Zone I’d ever seen. Just as I’d imagined, flour dust covered everything. Pots and pans, many charred with black grease, lay stacked in the sink and on the counters. Jars and bags and boxes lay everywhere. A tattered cookbook sat beside the stove, its pages black and crisp from when it’d once caught fire.

And there was Annabelle, in the midst of the mess, her sleeves rolled up to the elbows and her hair pulled back in a painfully tight ponytail.

“Don’t make fun of me,” she said, narrowing her eyes. She was ransacking her cupboards, searching for something. She grabbed a measuring cup and slammed the door. “I’ve had a miserable morning, and I’m already exhausted. I’ve been up since dawn.”

I set my bags on the counter. “This is insane. No one’s going to eat all this.”

“Why?” Annabelle asked. “Does my cooking suck?”

“No, your cooking doesn’t suck. It’s just that there’s so much of it. You’re not feeding a band of refugees.”

“Give me a break. It’s just a few baked items.”

“A few baked items? It looks like a goddamn bakery!”

“Don’t yell at me, Lyle. I’m stressed to the max as it is.”

“Yeah, and I can’t begin to imagine why,” I said.

4. 

I stared at Annabelle’s kitchen with my mouth hanging open.

She glared. “What?”

“What the hell is that?” I asked, pointing to a casserole dish.

“Huh?” Annabelle turned. “Oh. Cheesy potatoes. They’re not baked yet; I’ll do that at Mom’s.”

“And why are you making cheesy potatoes?”

“My mom asked me to. When I called about Harold, she mentioned a side dish might go good with the dinner. I thought I’d make a casserole.”

“She’s aware you’re making pies, right?” I asked. “Four pies, to be exact? Plus brownies?”

“My mom likes my cooking,” Annabelle said. “I’m flattered she asks.”

“How could you be flattered — she’s making you miserable. Look at you. You’re in the depths of hell.”

“My mom needs me,” Annabelle said. “What can I say?”

“You can say, ‘Mom, I appreciate your inviting us over, but I’m not a short-order cook. Can we cut down on the menu, please?’”

“It’s not that much, really.”

“Are you kidding? Even The Cheesecake Factory doesn’t offer this much dessert.”

Annabelle tore open the walnuts and sprinkled them into the brownie mixture. “What do you care, anyway?” she asked, using her sleeve to wipe some sweat from her brow. “It doesn’t affect you. Go watch the game, or something.”

I rolled my eyes. Annabelle knew I detested sports.

“It does affect me because I hate to see you stressed,” I said. “You always try too hard to make everyone happy.”

“Lyle, I don’t need this. Seriously. You’re stressing me out.”

“That’s what I just said: I hate seeing you stressed.”

She closed her eyes. “Then stop stressing me out. Please.”

“I’m not the one stressing you out.”

“Lyle! Enough!”

I held up my hands. “All right. Just tell me what I can do to help.”

She sucked in a deep breath. “Can you take the pies out of the oven? You can set them on the counter to cool.”

“You got it.” I headed to the oven and pried it open. Waves of heat poured out.

“Use oven mitts,” Annabelle said.

I frowned. “I know. I’m not an idiot.”

“Yes, you are. You were about to grab that pie with your bare hands. I was watching you.”

“I was not,” I said, snatching a pair of oven mitts off the counter and wrenching them on. I looked like O.J. trying to pull on the bloody glove.

Annabelle moved to the sink. “Don’t argue with me, OK? I don’t need you burning your hands — that’s all.”

“Are you sure? I had my heart set on reducing my fingers to ten bloody stumps.”

“Keep up the sarcasm and you’ll have eleven bloody stumps before the day’s through.”

“Remind me to hide the cleaver, then, Lorena.”

“The cleaver would be overkill. All I need is a pairing knife.”

“Nice. And here I am trying to help.” I slid the apple pie off the rack and placed it gently on the counter behind me. The aroma was heavenly.

I then took out the pumpkin and placed it beside the apple. “These look great, hon. Seriously.”

“Thank you.” She pointed to the uncooked blueberry pie sitting by the fridge. “This one’s next. I made it for you.”

“Mmm,” I said, smiling. “It looks absolutely awesome.”

And it did. Annabelle had cut serrated strips of dough and laid them over the pie in a crisscrossed, lattice pattern. I put it and the cherry pie in the oven and closed the door.

“Will we have time to cook everything?” I asked.

“I think so,” Annabelle said. “I might refrigerate the casserole and cook it at Mom’s. The brownies we can cook next.”

I nodded. “Sounds good.”

Annabelle put her arms around my waist and hugged me. “See, it’s not so bad. The worst part’s over. All I have to do now is clean up.”

“Yeah, I guess,” I said, hugging her back.

“I’m sorry if I sounded harsh,” she said. “I guess I am a little stressed.”

“I don’t want you to be stressed,” I said. “You don’t deserve it.”

“It’s just that my mom needs my help. I can’t let her down.”

“I suppose.”

She looked at me and smiled. “It’s sweet of you to care, though. I appreciate it.”

“You make everything perfect for everyone,” I said.

“C’mon.”

“You do. Seriously. I just hope people appreciate it.”

“You appreciate it.”

“No, I don’t,” I said. “I expect it. That’s what happens when you spoil people. Now I demand that you cook me pies and bring me beer and fix my dinner.”

She laughed. “You do, actually.”

“Here’s my impression of us bringing food to your parents’ house,” I said, letting Annabelle go. “The kitchen will be the house, and the living room will be the car.”

She rolled her eyes. “All right.”

I walked to the living room and returned, dropping an armload of pretend goodies on the counter.

“Hi there!” I said. “Good to see you again! There’s more in the car; I’ll be right back.”

I walked to the living room and returned to the kitchen.

“Only a few more loads,” I said, returning to the living room.

“OK — I think I get it,” Annabelle said, laughing.

I walked back in and dropped another armful of pretend goodies. “Be right back. This should be the last one.”

“All right, Lyle. I get it!”

I walked to the living room and back to the kitchen, then again to the living room and back to the kitchen.

Annabelle grabbed me around the chest and tried to wrestle me against the wall. I let her win for a moment, then writhed from her grasp and grabbed her arm.

She shrieked and picked up a handful of flour with her free hand, chucking it at me. I laughed when it hit my face, blinding my eyes.

“Got you!” Annabelle jumped on my back. I staggered into the dining room, trying to get away … but not with much effort.

Annabelle bit my ear. I hollered, teetering into the living room. My knees buckled, and I collapsed onto the couch, Annabelle on top of me.

She ran her hands under my shirt, breathing hard.

“The pies have an hour to bake,” she said, whispering in my ear, her hot breath tickling my neck.

I lay panting, my face covered with flour.

“Don’t worry,” I said, smiling. “I’ll make sure we’re done well before then.”

“You’re such a sweetheart.” Annabelle bit my ear again. I yelped, and laughed.

***

We showered, together, then got dressed. I put on some clean slacks and a new shirt — clothes I kept at Annabelle’s. My other clothes had flour all over them.

We carried everything to Annabelle’s car, including the pies, the brownies and the uncooked casserole, as well as some beer and sodas Annabelle had bought. I was surprised the back end of the car wasn’t sagging.

“You want me to drive?” I asked.

“Sure. You can take us there, and I’ll drive back.”

“Sounds good.” I held out my hand for the keys.

The day had turned gray and windy. It looked like rain. I turned on the headlights and merged onto the interstate. From there we’d catch the road to Fremont.

“I feel like Ben Stiller,” I said, watching the road.

Annabelle turned. She’d been gazing out the window at the passing scenery. “What’s that?”

“From Meet the Parents. I’m always nervous around your folks.”

“For as long as we’ve been dating, you haven’t spent that much time with them.”

“I know,” I said. “It’s kind of weird. Why don’t we, actually?”

“Because I don’t spend that much time with them. We’re not that close.”

“I kind of sensed that. You don’t talk about them much.”

“I don’t hate them or anything,” Annabelle said. “They’re good people. It’s just … well, they wanted to control my life, and I didn’t want it. They’re very … demanding.”

“Hmm.” I pursed my lips.

Annabelle took a deep breath, staring at the road. “You know my sister, Andrea?”

“The one who’s coming in from Chicago?”

Her eyes narrowed. “My only sister, yeah. Seriously, Lyle.”

“Sorry. I know you told me.”

“Well, my parents rode her her whole life to go to law school. ‘Lawyers make the most money,’ they said. ‘You won’t have to worry about the future.’ So she went to school, which they paid for, and now she works in the public defenders’ office, making nothing, which infuriates my parents. They invested all that time and money into her, and that’s what became of it.”

“Does she like her job?”

“Yeah, I think she does. It’s high-stress, but she gets to help people who can’t afford it otherwise. But it doesn’t matter if she likes it or not: it’s not what my parents wanted.”

“Huh.”

Annabelle shook her head. “I never wanted any part of that scenario.”

I looked at her, grinning. “This coming from a business major looking to take on the banking industry.”

Annabelle didn’t say anything.

5. 

I changed the subject: “So, your sister’s name is Andrea? I’d forgotten that.”

“Have you ever met her?”

I nodded. “I think so. I think it was close to when we started dating.”

“Oh, that’s right. I remember. You said you didn’t like her.”

“I didn’t say that. I said I didn’t think she liked me.”

“You don’t think anybody likes you.”

“Well, nobody does.”

Annabelle sighed, and smiled. “I like you.”

“No. You just pretend to.”

“Then I must do a good job.”

“You must.”

She flicked me on the side of the head, gently. “You’re weird.”

“You’re weirder.”

She rolled her eyes and laughed. “You met my brother, I guess?”

“Yeah, I did. He didn’t like me, either.”

“He’s a moody teenager. He doesn’t like anybody.”

“Why’s he so moody?”

Annabelle shrugged. “I don’t know. Probably because he’s still living with my parents. I was moody back then, too.”

“Like you’re not now?”

“Watch it, mister.”

I frowned. “What was your brother’s name, again? I can’t remember anything.”

“Try drinking a little less. His name’s Aaron.”

“Aaron?”

“Yeah. My sister’s Andrea, my brother’s Aaron and I’m Annabelle.”

“Your names all begin with ‘A’?”

“Exactly. My parents didn’t get very far in the baby-name book.”

“So you’re all a bunch of A-holes.”

Annabelle clenched her fist and shook it at me.

“What about your parents?” I asked. “What should I call them?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I don’t have to call them Mr. and Mrs. Rodgers, do I? That’s like Happy Days, or some shit.”

“Call them Mr. and Mrs. R.”

“Seriously?”

“No, not seriously. You can call them by their first names. They won’t mind.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, why not? You certainly don’t have to call them ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad.’”

“It’s probably a good idea if I don’t. I might ask them for money.”

“So it’s settled. Use their first names.”

“You sure it’s not disrespectful?”

“You’re defiling their daughter without being married to her. Calling them by their first names is the least of your transgressions.”

“What are their first names, since we’re on the subject?”

“Caleb and Maude.”

“You’re joking.”

“I’m not.”

“Your parents’ names are Caleb and Maude?”

“Yeah. So?”

“Do they run a dairy farm and wield pitchforks, like that American Gothic painting?”

“Call them Mr. and Mrs. R., then.”

I shook my head, staring at the road. “I can’t believe they got such goofy-ass names. Thank goodness they didn’t name you ‘Matilda’ or something like that.”

“They didn’t do me any favors with ‘Annabelle.’ My whole childhood, people were calling me ‘dingbell.’”

“I like it. It has a nice ring to it.”

Annabelle grinned. “I swear, I’m going to sock you.”

“I meant it.”

“Of course you did.”

“I really do love your name,” I said. “It sort of rolls off the tongue.”

“Now you’re being nasty.”

“No I’m not. Can I ring your bell?”

Annabelle flicked my skull. “You’re a dingbell.”

“Takes one to know one, dingus.”

Annabelle laughed, leaning her head against my shoulder. “Why do I put up with you?”

“Because I’m awesome.”

“Is that why?”

“Obviously.”

She play-socked me in the stomach. “Where do you see us in a year or two, buddy?”

“Where did that come from?”

“I’m just wondering.”

“If you’re lucky, you’ll finally find yourself a decent man. One with a prosperous future.”

“There you go, complaining about your job again. I’m trying to bring up serious relationship stuff, and you just want to talk about a job that you hate.”

“It’s preferable to serious relationship stuff.”

“I mean it, Lyle. You can’t go through your whole life being miserable.”

“Well,” I said, shrugging, “I suppose I could kill myself and avoid all the misery.”

“Oh, nice. So I bring you no happiness whatsoever?”

“The only times I’m happy are when I’m with you.”

“Do you mean that?”

“Of course I mean it. If I could, I’d work for you. Then all my problems would be solved.”

“You’d work for me? Really? Because I’d like to see that. You don’t even listen to me now.”

“Well,” I said, shrugging, “I never claimed to be an exemplary employee.”

***

The skies had turned stormy as we approached Fremont. Large raindrops splattered on the road and windshield. I turned on the wipers, which swung back and forth, rhythmically swishing.

The rain didn’t last long: It faded once we reached town. The clouds, however, remained.

We passed a tractor dealership, driving deeper into town. The humid stench of cow shit hung in the air. I shifted in my seat, wrinkling my nose.

Annabelle looked over. “You OK?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Just a little nervous.”

She smiled. “What’s to be nervous about?”

“We’re getting closer to your folks’ place.”

“C’mon,” she said, touching my arm. “They’re not so bad.”

“You know how nervous I get in social situations.”

She rolled her eyes. “It’s not like it’s your first time meeting them.”

“Yeah, I know. That was worse. Remember how nervous I was then?”

“I remember. You were terrified. I think that’s why you drank half a bottle of my father’s Jim Beam.”

“No, I did that on principle. I’m an alcoholic.”

“My parents asked me why you drank so much that day.”

“I would have told them myself, but I was slurring.”

“I told them the truth: that you were nervous. They didn’t mind. Everyone knows what it’s like to meet your spouse’s family for the first time. It isn’t easy.”

“Never mind the first time,” I said. “Feel my heart.”

Annabelle shook her head and rested her hand on my chest. Her eyes widened.

“See what I mean?” I said.

“Lyle, it’s really pounding.”

“You’re telling me. Besides that, my throat’s dry and my palms are sweating. I’m quaking in my boots.”

“You’re wearing sneakers.”

“Well, this is cowboy country.”

“That’s not good,” Annabelle said. “Seriously, your heart shouldn’t be beating that fast. Take some deep breaths. Inhale four seconds through your nose and exhale eight seconds through your mouth.”

“I can’t do lamaze when I’m driving.”

“You need to relax. All we’re doing is having dinner with my family. You’re not facing a firing squad.”

“There’s a difference?”

Annabelle turned, looking out the window. “We’re getting close. Take the next left; their house is the third on the left — the blue one.”

“Oh, man.” I shifted in my seat.

“You’ll be OK,” Annabelle said.

“When we get there, don’t carry anything in,” I said. “Let me take care of everything.”

“That’s sweet, Lyle, but you don’t have to do that. I’ll help.”

“No, don’t. Seriously, I’ll do it myself. That way, I can delay the visit longer.”

She rolled her eyes. “Shut up and turn.”

I put on my signal and turned.

The blue house was easily visible down the street. A couple of cars were parked in the driveway, so I made a U-turn and parked in front of the house. There wasn’t a sidewalk; the asphalt road tapered to dirt. Most of the houses on this block, in fact, had dirt yards with small patches of grass. Annabelle’s folks had a line of small junipers, as well as a couple of scraggly trees.

“Ready?” Annabelle asked, as I killed the engine.

“No,” I said, “but I’ll go in anyway.”

She smiled and pecked me on the cheek. “I love you. C’mon.” She opened her door and stepped out.

I stared ahead, frowning.

I love you?

6. 

Annabelle rapped on the window. “Lyle! C’mon!”

“Coming.” I unfastened my seatbelt and stepped outside. Annabelle was waiting for me by the trunk.

“Let’s get this stuff in before it starts raining again,” she said. “That sky is really gray, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” I popped the trunk and grabbed a couple of pies.

“Careful with those,” Annabelle said, as she took the pan of brownies. She looked at me and grinned. “Your palms are so sweaty, they might slip.”

“Not in the mood, sweetheart. I’m on the verge of a crippling panic attack here. I don’t have them very often, but when I do, they’re awful.”

“I can tell. You get like this when we’re about to have sex.”

“That might explain why I don’t have them very often.”

“I see your sense of sarcasm is still intact. Relax, and you’ll be fine.”

“I don’t want to end up hyperventilating in front of your folks.”

“What’s the difference? That’s how you end up whenever we have sex.”

“In front of your folks?”

“No, you idiot — hyperventilating. But thank you so much for the image.”

“You’re not exactly helping me, honey. I feel like I’m on my own, here.”

“What a coincidence. That’’s how I feel when we’re having sex.” Annabelle smiled and nudged me. “C’mon. You’ll be fine.”

She smiled and started walking up the driveway. I followed.

“By the way, what was that you said back there?” I asked, trying to keep up.

“What’s that?” Annabelle didn’t turn.

“Back in the car. You —”

“Oh, shoot. I left my purse in the backseat. Don’t let me forget it. I don’t want anyone to see it.”

“I’ll grab it on my second trip. But hon —”

Annabelle was on the porch and knocking on the door. I stepped up beside her.

“What were you saying?” she asked.

“Back in the car,” I said. “You —”

The door swung open. We were greeted by a tall, skinny young man with tight, black jeans; a long, black shirt; short, greasy black hair; and a metal stud protruding from his nose.

“Hi, Aaron!” Annabelle said, her voice cheerful. She stepped inside and tried to kiss him.

He frowned and turned away; her lips brushed his ear.

“Hi,” he mumbled.

“Aaron, you remember my boyfriend, Lyle?”

“Hey there,” I said, smiling. “What’s up?”

Aaron made a face. “Yeah, man. S’up?” He shook his head and walked away.

I turned to Annabelle. “Something I said?”

“Annabelle? Is that you?” The voice came from the kitchen.

“Hi Mom!” Annabelle started walking through the entryway. I followed. We passed a den, in which Annabelle’s father and some other teenager were watching a football game. I wasn’t sure if I should stop and say hi or follow Annabelle. Because my hands were full, I decided to follow Annabelle. Also, I didn’t want to be left alone.

I bowed my head and walked past the room, hot on Annabelle’s heels, pretending I didn’t see anyone.

We walked into a brightly lit kitchen. Annabelle’s mother, Maude, was standing over a large, wooden mixing bowl, tossing a salad. The place smelled like a stuffy movie theater, with a mixture of butter, popcorn and breath.

I could see a little of Annabelle in Maude, but not much. Maude’s eyes were gray, not green, and they lacked Annabelle’s intensity. She also was overweight, had long, gray hair, and wore thick glasses. She glanced up at us as we walked in, and even though she was smiling, she still looked stern.

Annabelle’s sister, Andrea, was slumped at the counter, her head in her hand. She turned to look at us as we paraded in. She smiled faintly when her eyes landed on Annabelle.

“Hey!” Annabelle said, dropping the brownies on the counter. Andrea stood, and the two sisters hugged, squealing.

“It’s been so long!” Annabelle said. “I’m glad you could make it.”

“I know,” Andrea said. “It’s sooo good to see you.”

They let each other go, and Annabelle turned to Maude. “Hi, Mom.”

“Hi hon. Good to see you.” They embraced each other, but their hug was quick, and — I thought — a little cold.

Maude looked at the pan. “You made the brownies, I see.”

“And pies, too, it looks like,” Andrea said, as I walked forward. I set the pies on the counter, gently. My wrists ached from the weight.

“She went all out,” I said, looking up and trying to smile.

“Mom, you remember Lyle?” Annabelle asked.

“I do.” Maude stepped forward, scrutinizing me. “Hello.”

I started to spread my arms to hug her, but she held out her hand. When we shook, she barely gripped.

“Nice to see you, Mrs. … um, Rodgers.”

“Nice to see you.” Maude nodded, staring at me.

Annabelle swallowed. “And Lyle, I think you remember my sister, Andrea?”

“I think so, yeah.” I stepped forward to shake hands.

“What did you say your name was?” Andrea said, leaning forward.

“Lyle,” I said, taking her hand.

“What’s that?”

“Lyle.” I tried to speak louder. My throat felt tight.

Andrea pursed her lips and shook her head. “No, I don’t remember you.”

“Sure you do,” Annabelle said. “You met him about a year ago, remember?”

“Maybe,” Andrea said. She turned to me. “You’re kind of familiar, but not really. No offense.”

“No — none taken,” I said. “I’m quite dull and insignificant, so my presence tends not to leave an impression.”

“Lyle.” Annabelle grinned at me through gritted teeth.

“Who’s that I hear?” Annabelle’s father sauntered into the room. He was extraordinarily tall and broomstick-thin. He had a thin mustache and glasses that slipped down his nose. He walked with a stoop, and he held his neck at an awkward angle.

“Hi Dad!” Annabelle said. She approached him and gave him a hug. He squeezed her tightly.

“Hi, sweetheart,” he said. “It’s good to see you.”

Annabelle stepped back and motioned to me. “Dad, you remember Lyle?”

Caleb looked at me, and right away I could see where Annabelle had gotten her eyes. Caleb’s eyes, like his daughter’s, were green and fierce and penetrating. He stared at me through his slipping glasses.

I offered my hand. “Hi there. It’s good to see you again.”

He gave me a weak handshake; much like his wife, he barely gripped.

“Hello there,” he said.

I nodded. “Hello.”

Awkward silence ensued.

“Well,” Annabelle said, speaking up, “we still got more to carry in.”

“You need any help?” Caleb asked.

“No,” I said, quickly. “We got it. Actually, I got it. Annabelle, if you want to stay inside and catch up, I can get the rest. It’s not much, really.”

“I’ll give you a hand,” she said.

“No, no,” I said. I looked at the crowd, trying to smile. “I got it. You rest. Seriously. I’ll be right back.”

“OK,” Annabelle said, smiling. “You talked me into it.” From her look, I could tell she had remembered my request.

She and her family started talking as I scampered outside. I made as many trips as possible, carrying one item at a time. Finally, there was nothing left except for the soda and the beer, which I decided to carry together. I didn’t want to be too conspicuous, after all.

7. 

I reluctantly closed the trunk and walked up the driveway, slowly. It’d be awhile before I’d be free of this terrible place.

The outside of the home, I noticed, was falling apart. Its lawn was dead and patchy; its walkway, cracked and crumbling; its paint job, faded and flaking. Dead leaves lay piled in the flowerbeds; thick, Halloween-like cobwebs clung to the corners. I shivered and walked into the house.

“Hey!” someone called, as I slunk past the den. “Hey, you!”

I turned. Annabelle’s brother, Aaron, and the other teenage boy I’d seen earlier were sitting on a couch, watching an old-fashioned big-screen TV — the big, boxy kind that looked like a small treehouse. The pulled blinds doused the room in the darkness, and the only light came from the flickering images on the huge TV. The chatter of a football game thundered from shoddy surround-sound speakers.

I paused in my tracks. “Huh?”

Aaron motioned to me. “You. What’s your name, again, dude?”

I stepped into the room. “Lyle.”

“What?” He held up his hands, squinting his eyes.

“Lyle!” I said.

Aaron and the other teen — who I assumed was Harold, the brownie-aficionado — looked at each other and laughed.

“Yeah, Lyle,” Aaron said. “Lyle-crocodile. Hey, dude: Do me a favor and bring that beer in here.”

I was standing in the doorway, holding the beer in one hand and the soda in the other.

“What’s that?” I said, tilting my head.

“C’mon, man. Bring that beer in here. I’m allowed to drink. My parents don’t care.”

“Yeah,” Harold said. Like I’d imagined, he was a zit-faced pipsqueak, thin as a cornstalk, wearing the same black, gothic clothes as Aaron. “His parents don’t care, dude. Mine don’t neither.”

I smiled. “Yeah, right, guys. Whatever.”

“I’m serious, bro! Gimme one!” Aaron beckoned me into the room. “There’s no problem. I told you: My parents don’t care. I’m serious.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “Right. If I feed you alcohol, your parents are going to throw me out of the house. Literally. That’ll leave a good taste in everyone’s mouth.”

Harold snorted, then started giggling.

“‘Taste in your mouth?’” he repeated. He looked at Aaron, holding his stomach and laughing. Aaron grinned and shook his head. “That ain’t right, man.”

“All right, guys. I’ll see you later.” I turned to leave.

“Dude, that’s messed up,” Aaron said. “Help me out, bro. Gimme a beer.”

I smiled and walked away. I could hear them chortling behind my back. Memories of high school flickered in my consciousness, and all of a sudden I felt resentful and angry, almost as if the two teenagers had branded me a nerd and soiled my reputation forever. Somehow, they’d made me feel like the stiff, square-shouldered grownup I despised when I was their age — even though I was in the right.

Everyone was standing in the kitchen, much as they had been since we’d arrived. Annabelle was putting the pies in the refrigerator, pushing aside food to make room. Caleb stood beside Andrea, who was still sitting at the counter. Maude was peeking in the oven.

“There he is,” Annabelle said, smiling as I approached. “Is that everything?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Finally.”

“There’s some drinks if anybody wants them,” Annabelle said.

“I’ll take a beer.” Andrea grinned at me. “Those look good.”

I wrenched a beer from the box and handed it to her. I also grabbed one for myself.

“Caleb?” I asked, pointing to the box.

His eyebrows rose. He didn’t answer.

I swallowed. “Would you like a beer?”

“Lyle’s talking to you, Dad,” Annabelle said.

“I don’t drink,” he said, his voice curt.

“Oh.” I retracted the box, frowning. I specifically remembered him drinking Jim Beam on the Fourth of July.

“Since when don’t you drink?” Annabelle asked, her eyebrows raised. (Ah, so my memory wasn’t wrong, after all.)

“Since three months ago, when his doctor told him he had high blood pressure,” Andrea said.

Annabelle pursed her lips. “I didn’t know you had high blood pressure, Dad.”

“I don’t,” he said. “Not really. The doctor just said it’d be a good idea if I quit alcohol for a while.”

“Oh,” Annabelle said. “Well, good for you for sticking to it.”

“You don’t mind if we drink?” I asked, motioning to my unopened bottle.

His green eyes glowered. “No.”

“The world would be a better place without alcohol,” Maude said, standing by the sink, her back to us. “It causes nothing but problems.”

Annabelle laughed. She sounded nervous. “This coming from the woman who singlehandedly kept the vodka industry in business.”

Maude turned, frowning. “I don’t drink anymore, either. I’m supporting your father.”

“Oh.” Annabelle swallowed. “Well, I’m glad you’re both living healthy.”

“No way I’m giving up drinking,” Andrea said, swigging her beer like a sailor. “Like sucks too much to face it all sober.”

Nobody said anything.

“Annabelle?” I said, my voice soft. “Should we put these drinks in the fridge?”

“Yeah,” she said. She took the beer and soda and walked toward the refrigerator.

“What’s this?” Maude asked.

“Huh?” Annabelle turned.

Maude was removing the foil that covered Annabelle’s cheesy-potato casserole. “What’s this you brought?”

“Oh.” Annabelle put the drinks in the fridge and closed the door. “That’s the casserole, Mom. It needs to go in the oven; it isn’t cooked yet.”

“I can see it’s a casserole. Why’d you bring it?”

Annabelle frowned. “I brought it for dinner.”

“But I’m already cooking a potato casserole. It’s in the oven right now, with the chicken. I had told you that on the phone.”

“No you didn’t,” Annabelle said. “You told me a nice potato casserole would go good with the chicken.”

“Exactly. Which is why I made one. It’ll go good with the chicken.”

“Uh-oh.” Andrea grinned and sucked down her beer. “World War III.”

“Well, whatever,” Annabelle said. “Now we’ll have two casseroles, I guess.”

“I’m not cooking two casseroles,” Maude said, huffing as she rewrapped Annabelle’s potatoes in foil. “That’s a waste of food. One casserole will be plenty for everyone.”

“OK, then — so don’t cook it. It doesn’t matter. Freeze it, or something. You guys can eat it later.”

Maude shook her head, grimacing as she rewrapped the casserole. “I just don’t understand.”

Annabelle shook her head. Her green eyes looked fierce, and irritated. “What don’t you understand?”

“Why you never listen to me. I specifically told you I was cooking a casserole, and you go ahead and make one anyway.”

“Oh my god,” Andrea said, rolling her eyes. “Are we going to talk about this the rest of the afternoon? You guys are embarrassing; we have guests.”

“No, I’m done,” Maude said. She carried the casserole to the freezer and shoved it in. “There’s nothing more to talk about.”

I looked at Annabelle, who looked back at me with wide eyes, shaking her head.

What the hell? I mouthed, nodding toward Maude.

Annabelle looked at the floor, seeming defeated.

Andrea turned to me. “You’ll have to excuse our family, Lyle. We don’t know how to behave in front of normal, everyday people.”

I wanted to laugh, to lighten the mood, but I couldn’t. I tried, but it came out high-pitched and shaky, kind of like a hiccup.

“You don’t need to say things like that,” Caleb said.

“Why not?” Andrea drained her bottle. “They’re embarrassing, arguing in front of guests.”

“We weren’t arguing,” Annabelle said, her voice soft.

“I just want people to listen to me,” Maude said, as she fumbled around in the sink, clanking dishes. “Nobody listens to me. It’s like I’m talking to the wall all the time.”

“Lyle, would you be a sweetheart and get me another beer?” Andrea said, batting her eyes.

“You’re having another beer?” Caleb asked, his voice gruff. “You just finished that one.”

“Exactly, Dad. Which is why I’d like another. I don’t want the first one to get lonely.”

I had stepped toward the fridge, uncertainly. Andrea looked at me and nodded.

“There’s no reason to drink one beer after the other,” Caleb said. He looked at me, as if I were the one being admonished. “You should space them apart so you have time to metabolize the alcohol.”

I swallowed. I’d almost finished my own beer and was craving another, but wasn’t sure I should claim one, under the circumstances.

Andrea rolled her eyes. “Right, Dad. When you metabolize the alcohol, you become sober, which defeats the whole point of drinking in the first place.”

Caleb opened his mouth to respond, but instead shook his head.

I nervously approached the refrigerator, feeling every eye in the room watching me. I grabbed a beer — just one — and twisted off the cap.

“That you so much,” Andrea said, accepting the drink. She took a long, long gulp, then let out a dainty belch.

“Andrea!” Maude raised her hands. “And here you are lecturing me on how to act in front of guests.”

“Lyle doesn’t care,” Andrea said. “Right, Lyle?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “No, I don’t care. I do it all the time.”

Maude glared at me. “You drink beer and belch in front of other people?”

I smiled at her, thinking she was joking. Her narrowed eyes told me I was mistaken.

“Well, no,” I said. “I was just, ah … joking. That’s all.”

“I would hope so.” Maude grabbed a towel and started scrubbing the counter. “There’s nothing much ruder than belching.”

“Though fighting in front of guests comes in a close second,” Andrea said, grinning and sipping her beer.

I stared at the counter, wishing desperately I could be drinking my second beer.

I really needed it.

8. 

Maude peeked in the oven. The mouthwatering scent of baked chicken wafted out.

“It looks like the chicken’s got a little while, yet,” she said, closing the door. “I’ll put on some green beans and finish the salad. Annabelle, you want to help me?”

“Sure.” Annabelle immediately went to a cupboard and pulled out a metal pan, which she filled with water from the sink.

“I’ll watch,” Andrea said, slumping on the counter. She looked at me. “I don’t cook.”

“I’m going to get back to the game,” Caleb said. He turned and sauntered away.

“Lyle,” Annabelle said, looking at me. She motioned me closer. “Why don’t you watch the game with Dad?”

“Huh?” My heart started thumping.

“Yeah,” she said, her voice soft. “It’d be better than hanging out with us, wouldn’t it?”

No, it wouldn’t, I wanted to scream. I didn’t watch sports; Annabelle knew that. And besides, I didn’t want to hang out with her father and brother and her brother’s freaky friend. Why was she doing this to me? Was she mad at me? Was she punishing me for some unknown infraction?

Go ahead, Annabelle mouthed.

“You don’t have to sit in that stinking room watching that stupid game if you don’t want to,” Maude said. “Sit at the counter, if you want.”

That’s exactly what I wanted: anything besides hanging out in the den. Besides, I liked hanging out with women more than I did with men. There were fewer pissing contests involved.

Caleb, who’d left the room, walked back in, staring at me.

“Well?” he said, narrowing his fierce green eyes.

I swallowed, my face and neck sweating. “Huh?”

“Come on in and watch the game. You don’t want to hang out with the women, do you? It’s like a coop of clucking hens in here.”

“Thanks, Dad,” Andrea said. “Real nice.”

“Um.” I looked at him, my mouth hanging open.

“Come on,” he said. “I want to show you something.”

Oh, crap. Why, why, why? I turned to Annabelle, looking for backup, but she was ransacking the freezer, searching for something.

I bowed my head and slowly left the room, shuffling my feet as I sauntered down the hallway, as if I was heading toward my own execution. Caleb was ahead of me, leading the way to the den. Monotonous sports chatter filtered from the room. Glows flickered from the big-screen TV.

One thing you should know: I may have a penis, but I’m not much of a man. For one thing, I don’t like sports. I don’t like playing them and I don’t like watching them. I don’t know why. I’m not a snob about it: I don’t care if others like sports or not. I don’t look down on sports nuts as long as they don’t look down on me … or threaten to beat me up.

I’m not sure why I dislike sports. I guess watching athletes reminds me of my own physical inferiority: I’m not very strong, fast or able. I have six-pack abs, but they’re masked by a layer of fat — they’re six-pack-of-beer abs.

And, yes, I know you don’t have to be a paragon of fitness to enjoy sports. Plenty of sports fans are overweight, beer-slinging slobs. So it’s something beyond that, I guess. Perhaps it’s the barbarity of physical contact, or the memories of being picked last in gym.

Or maybe it’s the tyranny of the strong over the weak, with the largest and the fastest dominating the game … like the best-looking guys getting all the girls, and the losers going home alone.

Like I have, most of my life.

I caught up with Caleb as he entered the den. Aaron and Harold were slouched on the sofa, immersed in the game.

“What’s the score?” Caleb asked.

“Ten to seven,” Aaron said, without turning from the screen.

“Steelers?”

“Yeah.”

“They’re in good form.” Caleb turned to me. “Who are you rooting for, Lyle?”

“Huh?” I asked. I looked at the screen, and saw the game was football. But who was playing?

“You a Steelers fan?” Harold asked, glaring at me.

“Um.” I frowned, thinking. “Yeah, they’re OK, I guess.”

“Oh, dude.” Aaron shook his head at me and looked at his father. “You want to kick his ass, or should I?”

“Don’t cuss.” Caleb turned to me, his eyes narrowed. “So you’re in the Steeler Nation, huh? Seems like everyone is, anymore.”

Dammit, I thought. I wanted to beat myself with a bat. Now what?

“They’re all right,” I said.

“Dude.” Aaron shook his head and glowered. “Get out of my sight, man, before you piss me off. Seriously.”

“Hey!” Caleb raised his finger. “What did I just say? Huh?”

“Whatever.” Aaron slunk in his seat. Harold stared at the TV, pretending not to notice.

“Don’t take that tone with me. Apologize — now.”

“Apologize to who?” Aaron asked, his lower teeth barred. I wanted to disappear.

“To Lyle and to me. Apologize.”

“I’m sorry,” Aaron said, mumbling.

Caleb stared. “What was that? Louder.”

“I’m sorry,” Aaron said, raising his voice.

“Good. Don’t be a smart ass. And go take out the trash in the kitchen. It’s full.”

“Dude!” Aaron said, motioning to the TV. A play was under way.

Caleb held up his hand. “I don’t want to hear it. Do it now.”

Aaron jumped up and stomped out of the room, brushing me as he passed. I stared at the ’70s shag carpet, wishing I was anywhere but here. From the look on his face, I was sure Harold felt the same.

Caleb watched his son leave, then closed his eyes and sighed. All of a sudden, he looked crumpled and old.

He looked down at me, his back stooped, his neck protruding. “Follow me.”

We walked to a door on the other side of the room. Caleb opened it, and I saw it led to the garage.

The place was cold, and it smelled like dust and oil. Caleb flicked a switch, and a set of florescent lights flickered on, buzzing to life.

The place was a mess. A beat-up old car sat inside, and random stuff lay everywhere. A green refrigerator hummed along one wall. Rickety shelves held yellow cardboard boxes, and a mess of tools stood clumped in a corner.

Caleb led me toward a workbench, which was covered with newspapers, glue and little pieces of wood.

“Goddamn kid’s going to give me a heart attack,” he said. “I hate it when they’re that age. They think they’re so damn smart, and they want to argue with you about everything. Andrea and Annabelle weren’t bad: they never talked back or threw fits — at least not around me. I guess they drove their mother nuts, though — especially Annabelle.”

He shook his head. “It was bad, some days. Maude would be crying because Annabelle said something, or Annabelle would be crying because Maude yelled at her. I drank a lot of Jim Beam in those days; they used to drive me nuts, always arguing, always yelling. I guess daughters clash with their moms, and sons clash with their dads. Now it’s my turn to take the crap, I guess. One day Aaron’s this sweet little kid; the next he’s some punk-goth creature from hell who thinks he can say whatever he wants and get away with it.”

He glared at me. “Did you ever go through that phase with your folks?”

I shrugged. “Some say I’m still in the midst of it.”

He continued to glare at me. “Hmm.”

9. 

Caleb reached into a drawer under the workbench, which was filled with old papers. He brushed them aside and took out a bottle of Jim Beam, which was half-full. He glanced at the door, then untwisted the cap and took a long swallow.

“Here,” he said, wiping his mouth and handing the bottle to me. “Be quick. That door could fly open any second.”

I accepted the bottle and took a long, long swallow. The alcohol scalded my throat, and I coughed.

Caleb screwed on the cap and replaced the bottle. “I still don’t drink that much, actually. I’ve cut way down. But every so often, when someone pisses me off, I’ll come out here for a swallow. And what’s the harm, huh? No one knows.”

“When I was a teenager, I used to sneak out to the garage to smoke,” I said.

Caleb glowered.

“Cigarettes,” I said. “I smoked cigarettes. Not … not pot.”

My god! Shut up! I screamed to myself.

“I don’t care much for cigarettes,” Caleb said. “And if I ever caught Aaron smoking one — or anything else, for that matter — I’d beat him within an inch of his life.”

“Huh,” I said, my discomfort growing. I eyed the drawer, wishing for another splash of Jim Beam.

“I can’t wait until Aaron’s out of this damn phase,” Caleb said. “I guess they all have to go through it, but it pisses me off. He don’t want nothing to do with me, and to be honest, I don’t want nothing to do with him. We used to go fishing together, and we’d off-road a lot, but all he wants to do now is hang out with his punk friends. He’s a completely different person, now. I don’t even know him.”

He sighed. “Oh, well. Enough of that crap. I wanted to show you these.” He turned on an overhead bulb; light poured down on the workbench. He motioned to a couple of wooden bird cages, which were stacked against the wall. One was obviously still in progress: thin, wooden columns rose from a round, birch-colored base.

Caleb picked it up and handed it to me. “Careful — it’s still delicate.”

I examined the cage, not sure what I was looking for. “It’s nice.”

Caleb took it back. “I started building these years ago, before I was married. I used to sell them on the roadside — sometimes even in craft shows. I don’t get much time to work on them, now. An hour or two after dinner, maybe. Maude hates the damn things — says they’re a waste of time.”

I pointed to the completed cages. “They’re nice. You can tell they’re very well-done.”

Which was true. The wooden columns gleamed, with wire pulled tightly around them to create an impenetrable structure. A small door swung open at the bottom, complete with tiny, golden hinges and a golden latch.

Caleb nodded. “I’ve always liked to work with wood. It’s relaxing.”

I smiled. “You obviously like birds.”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “No, I hate the damn things, actually. They’re so noisy and dirty. They crap everywhere, and you got to keep cleaning the cage. I’ve never wanted pet birds.”

“Oh,” I said.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know why I build them. They’re the only thing I know how to make, I guess. I mean, the only thing that turns out well. They make good crafts, and believe it or not, they sell. Some people want them for decorations. Others actually use them for birds.”

“How many have you made?” I asked.

“Over the years? Hundreds. Easily hundreds. I should have taken pictures of them, so I could remember what they looked like, but I didn’t. I always tried to make each one a little bit different — to make it special. Somewhere along the line, though, I found a design I liked and stuck to it. Why make it hard on myself, right? All these cages here are from the same design I’ve been using for 10 years.”

“Hmm.” I nodded.

“Like I said, though, Maude don’t like them. She thinks they’re a waste of time — especially because we don’t like birds. There’s none of these in the house, you’ll notice.”

“Now that I think about it, yeah,” I said.

Caleb exhaled slowly, staring at his creations.

“When my kids were young, I made them each a cage,” he said. “I told them the cages were magical, and if they were feeling lonely, or angry, or frightened, that they should picture whatever problem they were having — try to frame it precisely in their mind — and then wish it away inside the birdcage, and to latch the door so it couldn’t escape.”

He smiled, his eyes distant. “And it worked, too — at least when they were younger. One of the kids would be angry or crying, and I’d remind them of their birdcage and its magical powers. They’d come back later, smiling, and say they’d locked their problem away and that they felt much better.”

Caleb looked at me, his eyes bright and sharp. “I’m no child psychologist, but I always thought my method was pretty clever.”

“It sounds clever,” I said, nodding.

“Yeah.” Caleb sighed, the corners of his mouth drooping. “It was simpler then, when the kids were younger. What I’d like to do now, though, is to build a giant birdcage — a huge floor-to-ceiling one. And I’d like to throw Aaron into it and lock him up until he’s old enough to move out.”

I laughed. “Kids can be a handful, I guess.”

Caleb narrowed his eyes. “Have you thought about having kids?”

“Huh?” My eyes widened; I wasn’t sure what I’d just heard.

“Kids. You’re getting to that age. You’re almost 30, right? It must have crossed your mind.”

Was he joking? I studied his face, trying to tell, but Caleb was unreadable, impenetrable. He didn’t seem to have a sense of humor.

I tried to laugh, but as it had earlier, it sounded more like a high-pitched hiccup.

“I’m not even married,” I said.

“Yeah, I know that. And how long have you been dating my daughter? Over a year now, right? When I proposed to Maude, we’d been dating a month … if that.”

I swallowed. I wanted no part of this conversation. How had we gotten here?

“I like Annabelle very much,” I said.

His eyes took on a sudden fierce, blazing intensity. “But not enough to marry her?”

I didn’t like this. Not at all.

Caleb stepped forward, leaning against the workbench. I unconsciously crossed my arms. He looked at me for a moment, pursing his lips. Silence ensued. I could feel sweat beading on my brow; it felt cold and uncomfortable.

He let out a sigh. “I guess it’s different with your generation. You don’t get married right away, like we did. I don’t know — maybe that’s a good thing. You have more time to get acquainted; to figure each other out.”

I exhaled, slowly.

10.

Caleb continued, “I don’t know if you met Andrea’s boyfriend, Mark. They’d been dating for two years, I think. They seemed happy. He was a good kid, too. Smart, eager, ambitious. They went well together — a good match. Then, just like that, they’re broken up. No explanation, no nothing. It’s just over. And now she’s alone and confused and not sure where to go. After two years, she has to start over.

“You know what I think?” he asked, raising an arm and making me flinch. “I think, What’s the point? Why string someone along if you’re not serious? Look how it ends: You hurt the very person you claim you loved. You wasted your own time, and theirs as well.

“Call me old-fashioned,” he continued, “and don’t take offense, but your generation has the wrong idea about marriage. You see it as an end when it’s really a beginning. You’re so damn scared you’re going to miss something that you — what would you say? — postpone destiny, I guess. You refuse to jump in, to take the risk. And then what happens? You’re together, but you’re bound by nothing — no rings, no promises; only your love. But then the love begins to fade, because as time passes, you start to pick each other apart. You start to notice the pesky, grating nuances that get under your skin. And you start thinking that maybe the love is gone, that maybe it evaporated over time, and you start thinking that maybe you’re missing out; that other opportunities exist. So you call it quits, and just like that, all you had is lost.”

He shook his head. “What you kids don’t get is that marriage isn’t a prison — it’s a promise. It’s a promise that you’ll stick by each other no matter what. And if you’d only stop being so scared and simply jump in, you’d realize that your passion only grows when you’re married. After all, your emotional investment is greater. You try harder because you have more to lose. And knowing that makes you look at your partner in a whole new light. Instead of seeing annoying imperfections, you see lovable quirks. Instead of dreaming of missed opportunities, you focus on what you’ve got. That’s what marriage does: it helps you focus; it keeps you grounded. If we didn’t have a way to sanctify our relationships — to make special, unending vows to each other — we’d always be drifting, searching out other opportunities.”

His eyes fell on me. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t.

“I’m not being personal,” he said. “I’m just talking from experience. If I had to, I could write of a list of reasons why I should leave Maude. She doesn’t truly understand me; we’ve grown apart. But we made a promise to each other, and that promise keeps us together. It makes us work harder to maintain the magic. Because the magic is temporary — it’ll fade. It always does. That’s the nature of newness. As soon as you get comfortable with each other, the magic’s gone. And once it vanishes, your first instinct is to leave: to find someone else with whom you can rediscover the magic. But it’ll never last, and you’ll be drifting aimlessly forever. They invented marriage to help us stay grounded, so we’d have a reason to reclaim the magic.”

I looked at him, feeling blank. All I could do was shrug.

He shrugged back. “I don’t know. That’s just my opinion. That’s what I’ve been telling myself all these years. But maybe you guys are right. My generation was too quick about marriage. When I was young, you found a girl and that was it. You got married at 19 and had kids at 20. You didn’t have time to grow up. And look how many people get divorced anymore. It’s sad.”

He sighed and crossed his arms. “I don’t know. Like I said, before we got married, I knew Maude for a month … though I really didn’t know her. We’ve always tried to work through our differences, to reclaim the magic, but it hasn’t been easy. I wonder … well, it makes you wonder, is all.”

I waited a moment before speaking. “I really do like Annabelle. I do. I’m not stringing her along. It’s —”

Caleb held up his hand. “It doesn’t matter. It’s none of my business. You’re a grownup, and so is Annabelle. All I’m telling you is my personal opinions. And as you can see, I’m firmly undecided.”

He sighed. “Anyway, I don’t want to be the meddling type. My folks meddled in my life, and I always promised I’d never meddle in my kids’. And look at me now.”

He snickered, shaking his head.

“Tell you what,” he said, opening the drawer and removing the Jim Beam. “We’ll have another drink. I can tell you want one. You’ve been eyeing that drawer the whole conversation.”

I hadn’t noticed he’d noticed, but honestly, I didn’t care. Can you blame me? I wanted to ask him. But I just smiled.

Caleb took a sip, then handed the bottle to me. I took a long, long pull. The alcohol scalded my throat, but I didn’t mind.

I handed the bottle back. Caleb stashed it inside the drawer.

“So,” he said, motioning to the workbench, “what’s the verdict: Do you like my birdcages?”

“Yeah,” I said, nodding. Already, the alcohol was working its magic. “They’re very nice.”

“Thanks.” His eyes were cast on the floor, not on me. “To be honest, I wanted to show them to you because no one else cares. I don’t know why. They think they’re lame, I guess.”

“Oh, c’mon,” I said. “I’m sure no one thinks that.”

He shrugged. “Maude doesn’t like them. She never has. It hurts me, too, because I build them myself. They’re my creations. They’re a part of me and who I am.

“I asked her why, once. I remember clearly: she looked at me kind of funny, and she said, ‘Birds aren’t meant to be caged. They’re meant to fly.’ And that was all.”

Caleb shook his head. “It was a funny thing to say, because she doesn’t like birds. But I understand her point. I do. But to own a bird, you have to cage it, right? If you don’t, it’ll escape — simple as that. It’ll lift from its perch and fly away.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s true birds aren’t meant to be caged. But my thinking is, birds are skittish, and fleeting. They’re here one instant and gone the next. How can you admire their singsong chirps, or the color of their feathers, when they’re 100 feet above you, soaring through the sky?”

11.

I followed Caleb into the house. Aaron scowled as we trudged inside.

“Steelers still winning?” Caleb asked.

Aaron slunk in his seat, staring at the TV. “Yeah.”

“Hmm.” Caleb looked at me, smiling slightly. “You ought to be happy, Lyle.”

I was tempted to tell him the truth — that I didn’t even know who the Steelers were playing, let alone care about their team — but I only nodded.

Caleb stretched his arms behind his head and yawned. “I’ll be right back. I got to take a leak.”

He left the room. I turned, looking for a place to sit. My eyes landed on a plush leather recliner.

“That’s dad’s chair,” Aaron said, as I started to sit.

“Oh.” I quickly rose. The only other seat was a metal folding chair tucked under a desk. I pulled it out and sat down. The metal felt hard and cold.

Cheers erupted from the television, followed by the hyped-up chatter from the announcers. I gazed at the screen, pretending to know what was happening.

“Was my dad showing you his birdcages?” Aaron asked.

I looked up, startled. “What’s that?”

“My dad. Was he showing you his birdcages?”

“Oh. Yeah, he was. They’re really cool.”

Aaron frowned. “No, they’re not. They’re pieces of shit.”

Harold laughed, then shot a look at me, as if daring me to admonish him.

I shrugged. “I thought they were all right. He puts a lot of work into them.”

“I got one in my room,” Aaron said. “He made it for me when I was young. As soon as I move out, I’m going to break the thing into a million pieces.”

Harold laughed again.

I stared at them both, not knowing how to respond. “OK.”

Aaron turned back to the TV. “He shows everyone those stupid cages, as if anyone cares. It’s embarrassing. I feel sorry you had to go through that.”

I forced a laugh. “You don’t like your father much, do you?”

“Why should I? He’s a prick.” Aaron’s eyes remained glued to the TV.

I didn’t answer.

Caleb wandered back into the room. “Did I miss anything?”

Neither Aaron nor Harold answered.

“Nah, you didn’t,” I volunteered, but only after an awkward moment.

Caleb eased himself into his chair and stared at the screen. From the corner of my eye, I caught a movement. I turned to see Aaron wagging his middle finger at his father.

He and Harold looked at me and laughed.

Caleb stared at the TV, expressionless. At that moment, he looked very tired, and very old … like the way you’d expect someone to look when their team was losing.

Or … like someone with a handful of problems who couldn’t solve any of them … or like someone who’d been married too long and couldn’t remember that feeling of falling in love.

Or, like someone — perhaps anyone — who’d once chosen a path in life, and followed it for way too long.

***

It seemed like hours passed before Annabelle called us to dinner. It was actually only twenty minutes, but time had slowed to an absolute standstill in that wretched den. The room had grown uncomfortably silent, with everyone staring at the TV, gazing at the game with insipid eyes.

We all filed into the dark, oak-paneled dining room, complete with popcorn ceiling and deep, red-colored carpeting. A long table with eight seats filled the room, and a tall, dust-covered hutch stood along the wall opposite the entrance, holding a clumsy assortment of glasses and plates behind its rose-colored glass doors.

Annabelle and her mother had laid all the food across the table — a veritable feast. Caleb and Maude sat on either end of the table, with Annabelle and I occupying one side, and Andrea, Aaron and Harold occupying the other.

“This looks awesome,” I said, lunging for the cheese-potato casserole.

Maude glared, her hands steepled. “In this house, we give thanks to God before greedily reaching for food.”

“Don’t worry, Lyle; that rule doesn’t apply to alcohol,” Andrea said, grabbing a wine bottle and filling the goblet before her.

Caleb raised an eyebrow, but he didn’t say anything.

We all bowed our heads and closed our eyes while Maude mumbled a prayer — which seemed more like an everyday, obligatory ritual as opposed to a genuine demonstration of gratitude.

“Amen,” she concluded.

“Amen,” Caleb murmured.

Nobody else’s “Amen” was audible. Either that, or they didn’t say it all — like me. It didn’t feel appropriate, somehow.

We dished up in silence. The only sounds were our clinking plates. I looked at Annabelle and smiled, giving her a secret, under-the-table squeeze of the knee.

She gave me a small smile back, leaning her shoulder into me.

“Quit smacking your lips when you eat,” Andrea said, glaring at Aaron, who was sitting beside her. “You’re chewing with your mouth open. It’s disgusting.”

“I’m a mouth-breather. You know I can’t breathe through my nose.”

“You don’t need to breathe while you’re chewing. That’s how people choke, you moron.”

“I can’t live if I don’t breathe.”

“Good — then stop breathing. You’ll be doing all of us a favor.”

“Mom!” Aaron said, pointing at Andrea as if he were a 7-year-old.

“Is that kind of talk necessary?” Maude asked.

Aaron stuck his tongue out at Andrea. It had a glob of chewed-up food stuck to it.

“Knock it off!” Andrea said, punching him in the arm. Aaron tried to maintain his nonchalant expression, but I could tell by the way he’d winced that she’d hit him hard.

“You kids behave,” Caleb said.

Andrea gave him a cold, hard look, her eyes narrowed. She reached for the wine bottle and refilled her glass.

I swallowed. “This is all really good. Seriously.”

“Seriously,” Aaron echoed, in a spot-on impression of Keanu Reeves.

I looked at him. “Yeah — seriously.”

Aaron looked back at me, defiantly. After a moment, he said, “Why’s your nose so shiny, Lyle?”

“Huh?” I instinctively touched my fingers to my nose.

“Aaron!” Annabelle barked. The rage in her voice startled even me. “Where do you get off talking to people like that?”

“Well, it is,” Aaron said, motioning to me.

Harold covered his mouth to hide his laughter.

“Aaron,” Caleb said, his voice eerily quiet. “Get out. Now.”

“But Dad—”

“Get out!”

Aaron shoved his plate away and pushed his chair back. Food fell from the plate and onto the table. He stomped down the hall. A moment later, a door slammed.

“May I be excused?” Harold asked, his voice meek. The sidekick seemed to lose his nerve without the presence of his hero.

“You may,” Caleb said. “But you are not to visit with Caleb in his room. If you want, you can take your dinner and eat in the den.”

Harold grabbed his plate and rushed out, looking relieved.

“Awesome,” Andrea said, gulping her wine. “We got rid of both of them.”

12.

“You’ve got to do something about Aaron,” Annabelle said. “That kid is out of control.”

Maude waved dismissively. “He’s just a typical teenager. You and Andrea behaved the same way when you were his age.”

“That’s not true at all. Andrea and I were never rude like that.”

“You used to say plenty of rude things to me. Or have you forgotten?”

“Aaron tries to hurt people deliberately. There was no reason for him to speak to Lyle like that.”

“He must have gotten to you, Lyle,” Andrea said, grinning. “You keep touching your nose.”

“Huh?” I looked and noticed that I indeed was rubbing my fingers along my nose, as if it were tickling.

Andrea laughed. “You shouldn’t touch your face, you know. That’s how you get zits.”

Annabelle glared at her sister. “You’re not helping.”

“I guess I’m a little sensitive about my skin,” I said. “I’m not sure, but I might have food allergies. If I eat the wrong combination of stuff, my stomach gets all churning and bloated, and my face becomes blotchy. Sometimes, I even get a row of pimples along my hairline. It’s really weird.”

“Wow — way too much information, Lyle,” Andrea said, rolling her eyes. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re trying to eat dinner, here.”

Annabelle was glaring at Maude. “Exactly what rude things did I say to you when I was a teenager?”

“Let’s just drop it and enjoy our dinner,” Maude said.

“No, I don’t want to drop it. You can’t accuse me of something and then say the discussion’s over. Tell me what I said!”

“Annabelle,” Caleb said, his voice quiet, “you’re the one who’s being rude right now.”

“I don’t care, Dad! You think it’s OK for her to compare me to Aaron, as if we’re somehow the same? I was a good student and a hardworking kid, and I never got any credit. I still don’t get any credit. No matter what I do, I’m always the bad guy.”

“You tell ’em, sister,” Andrea said, slurping her wine.

“You had a definite problem talking back,” Maude said. “And you didn’t listen to me. Clearly, some things don’t change.”

“Hon,” Caleb said. “Stop. Please.”

“Why do you have all these terrible memories of me growing up?” Annabelle asked. “Was I a monster? Was I evil? What is it I did exactly that you can’t seem to forgive me for? Because I’ve been trying for years to get back into your good graces, but nothing I do seems to work. Are you sorry you had me? Was I a mistake? What?”

“Both of you — drop it,” Caleb said.

Maude picked at her food. She didn’t reply.

Andrea clanged an imaginary bell. “Ding, ding! And that concludes round two, ladies and gentlemen! What a bloody spectacle that was. The ref almost had to stop the fight back there.”

Caleb’s eyes narrowed.

Andrea looked at me. “So, Lyle, how’s Christmas with your family? Is it quite this exciting?”

“Well, we have a gift exchange,” I said. “Everyone buys something under $5, and we put it in a grab bag.”

“Oh, wow. How nice. Afterwards, do you all drink warm cocoa and sing carols next to a roaring fire?”

“Knock it off, Andrea,” Annabelle said. “I don’t need it coming from you, too.”

“Do you know what this family does for Christmas, Lyle?” Andrea asked. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. No yuletide cheer, no gift exchange. Mom and Dad hole themselves up in their room to watch movies, Aaron goes off to smoke weed with his friends, and Annabelle and I stay as far away as possible, seeking contentment in our own pathetic lives. I’m sure you can’t begin to imagine why.”

“I don’t need this — not from both my daughters,” Maude said. She got up and left the room.

“What did I do, Mom?” Annabelle asked. “What did I ever do?”

Caleb dropped his spoon with a loud “clink.” He stood up, his eyes fierce.

“Thank you both for ruining another family evening together,” he said, looking from Andrea to Annabelle. He turned and left.

Andrea raised her wine glass. “Awesome! Now we got rid of all of them. Cheers!” She drained her drink in one gulp.

“Come on, Lyle,” Annabelle said, pushing her chair back. “We’re leaving. I’m sorry you had to see this.”

“But I’m not finished with my cheesy potatoes.”

“Forget the cheesy potatoes.”

“Can I wrap them up, at least? I’m hungry.”

“Lyle!”

“Sorry. I’m coming.” I stood up. “Nice to see you again, Andrea.”

Hey eyes rolled up at me, tipsy and clouded. “I highly doubt that, but I appreciate the gesture.”

“See you when I see you,” Annabelle said, not even looking at her sister as she charged for the door. She paused in the doorway and turned. “Lyle?”

“Yeah. Coming.” I gave Andrea one last look, but she was gazing at the table, staring at her wine glass. She didn’t say anything.

Annabelle grabbed her purse out of the hallway closet and stormed outside. I followed her down the walkway to her car.

“Want me to drive?” I asked.

“I’ll drive. That was the deal. You’d drive us here, and I’d drive us back.”

“Yeah, but I won’t hold you to it. I’ve let go of wagers even when people owed me money.”

“I said I’ll drive. Get in.”

“OK.” I took shotgun while Annabelle slid behind the wheel. We roared off down the neighborhood street at 110.

“Going kind of fast,” I remarked.

“Don’t care,” Annabelle said, gazing forward.

“You know, not to sound repetitive, but maybe I should drive?”

“It’s my car, Lyle. I’m driving. Besides, you had a beer back at the house.”

“Oh yeah, that’s true. We wouldn’t want to live dangerously.” I turned in my seat. “You’re aware you just blew through a stop sign?”

“There was nobody at the intersection.”

“Still, it’s the principle. Stopping at a stop sign when there’s no one there is sort of an honor-system thing.” I turned again. “OK. There went a red light.”

“Please don’t lecture me on the rules of the road. As you can plainly see, I’m not in the mood.”

“I’m not trying to lecture. I’m just trying to coax you back to sanity, since you seem to have temporarily misplaced your faculties.”

Annabelle slammed her fist into the steering wheel, unintentionally tweeting the horn. “This is why I don’t like to visit my family. They always end up ruining everything. Everything!”

“There went another red light.” I looked at her, holding up my hands. “I’m not trying to lecture; I’m just keeping count. We’ll have a story to tell if we survive this ride, and I want to remember all the details.”

13.

We raced through the outskirts of Fremont, flying past fields and a scattering of shops, barreling down the highway toward the freeway. The sky had turned a dark, stormy gray, and a smattering of raindrops pelted the windshield.

Annabelle zigzagged through traffic, screeching around a tractor-trailer and cutting off a Chevy pickup tootling along in the fast lane. At this rate, we’d probably reach home in less than ten minutes.

“My mother always does this to me!” Annabelle said, slamming her hand against the wheel. “No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, it’s never good enough. It’s as if she resents the fact I’m even alive.”

“If your goal is to remedy that transgression, then kindly let me out of the car,” I said.

Without warning, Annabelle swerved to the shoulder, coming to a screeching stop. The tractor-trailer we’d flown around a moment before blasted by, blaring its horn and rattling the car with its wind.

“You’re not really letting me out, are you?” I asked. “Because if it’s a choice between death and walking, I’m going to have to go with death. Less walking involved.”

“I can’t do this anymore,” Annabelle said, her voice breaking. “I can’t keep trying to make her love me. I don’t know what I did. Maybe I was a brat growing up. Maybe I did talk back too much. But don’t all children do that, to some degree? And aren’t parents supposed to forgive their children, no matter what they do?”

“This has been going on for a while now, hasn’t it?”

“Only my whole goddamn life. It’s like she’s repulsed by me. Nothing I do measures up. You saw how many pies I made, plus the brownies and the casserole. But none of it matters. I’m still just a mistake in her eyes — a failure to be ashamed of.”

“Does she treat Andrea the same way?”

“I don’t know. She kind of does, now. But Andrea was always the golden child. She was the one going on to big dreams and better places. I was just sloppy seconds.”

“Oh. One of those situations where the firstborn gets all the attention?”

“I never envied her; they laid a lot of pressure on Andrea to succeed, while I was more or less ignored. She got straight As; she was on the student council and a star volleyball player. Then they put her through law school, hoping she’d become a high-powered attorney. She really disappointed them when she moved to Chicago and took the public-defender job. They think she threw it all away, to spite them.”

“It sounds like she wanted to get the heck out of town, and as far away as possible.”

Annabelle nodded. “Yeah — I think that was the idea.”

“But you stayed. Relatively close, I mean.”

“Because I feel obligated.”

“Why?”

“Because they need me. They’re getting older. Who’s going to be around to help them when they can’t take care of themselves? Who’s going to visit them if they get lonely?”

“Are you serious? You’ve got a brother and a sister; why’s the responsibility all on you?”

“Because I’m consistent, and I’m there. Andrea’s got her own independent life, and Aaron’s just a kid. I’m the rock that holds it all together. That’s how it is now.”

Annabelle turned, staring out the window at the passing traffic. Steam rose from the roadway as the rain drizzled down.

I licked my lips. “Your parents weren’t exactly happy, were they?”

Annabelle let out a breath. “They were miserable. They still are. Honestly, they probably never should have gotten married. I hate to say it, because I’m sure they stayed together to raise us kids, but it’s the truth.”

“Yeah. Your dad alluded to that today.”

“Huh?” Annabelle swung around to face me. “What are you talking about? What did my dad say?”

“He took me into the garage to show me the birdcages he makes. While we were out there, he said something about your mom not really understanding him, but they held it together, for your and Andrea and Aaron’s sakes.”

“Those stupid birdcages,” Annabelle said. “Just miniature prisons. I think that’s how he sees the world, and his life. It’s all just a big prison, keeping him confined.”

“He said he made one for you, but I’ve never seen it in your apartment.”

“Of course not — I hate the damn thing. I keep it in storage where I don’t have to see it. I probably should have just thrown it away, but I’m afraid the moment I do, he’ll ask me about it. That’d be my luck.”

“Aaron doesn’t like his birdcage, either. He let me know in no uncertain terms.”

“Well, why would we? They’re unnatural. My father always fed us this psychological babble about locking our problems away — as if bottling up your emotions in the key to happiness. It’s no wonder we all have so much pent-up frustration and anger. In my family, we never talked about our problems. We all just tried to pretend they didn’t exist.”

“They say ignorance is bliss.”

Annabelle shook her head. “Not in my family. So much went unsaid throughout my life: my parents’ obvious unhappiness, the pressure they put on Andrea, the way they treated me as an afterthought. It’s ironic, when you think about it. My parents gave up everything to keep the family together, but in doing so, they drove us all apart. I don’t know when I’ll see Andrea again. She’ll probably flee back to Chicago as soon as she can book a flight. Who knows if she’ll even come back this time.”

“She always has.”

“Yeah, but I think she only came back this time because her boyfriend left her, and she truly felt alone for the first time in years. As soon as she hooks up again, she won’t need any of us.”

“Well … maybe she’s got the right idea.”

Annabelle blinked. “What do you mean?”

“You don’t need any of those people if they’re going to be a drain on your life. Plus, you don’t really need them — you got me.”

The corners on Annabelle’s lips twitched. “Talk about a drain on my life.”

I frowned. “Cute.”

“C’mon, Lyle. They’re my family. I can’t just abandon them.”

“Why not? It doesn’t seem to be a problem for Andrea.”

“They don’t depend on Andrea the way they used to. Now the onus is all on me.”

“That’s what I’m saying. The onus doesn’t have to be on you. You’ve got the power to sever the cord.”

“It’s easy for you to say, Lyle. You’re an only child, and you get along with your family. You’d never have to make that kind of choice.”

“I don’t understand why it’s even a choice. Your family treats you like garbage. It ought to be a no-brainer.”

“All I can say is this: We probably won’t be speaking for a while.” Annabelle signaled and pulled back onto the road, keeping a normal speed.

“So what’s going to happen?”

“What always happens: We won’t speak for a month or two, then my mom will call me and act like nothing happened. She’ll ask me about my life, we’ll talk for a while, and that will be that.”

“So maybe she does care about you after all.”

Annabelle shrugged. “I don’t know. I really don’t know. Something about me brings out the worst in her — especially when we visit in person.”

“Maybe you remind her of what could have been?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’re young, single — relatively happy. Plus, you’re dating a ruggedly handsome young man who cherishes the ground you walk on. Maybe you’re living the life she would have wanted and is jealous of you for it. It makes sense.”

“Eh, maybe. But that bit about the ‘ruggedly handsome young man’ is a little over the top, don’t you think?”

“Your dad pretty much admitted that your mom and him never should have gotten married. It’s a sad realization, especially at his age.”

“I’m surprised he even told you that. His whole philosophy is about keeping everything bottled inside.”

I shrugged. “I got the impression he needed someone to talk to.”

Annabelle looked at me. “How do you think people know when they’re truly in love? Like those couples who stay married for sixty years. How did they know in their twenties that it was all meant to be?”

“Maybe they didn’t. Maybe they’re like your parents: married, but miserable.”

Annabelle bit her lower lip. “You know … I meant what I said earlier.”

“What’s that?”

“Back at my mom and dad’s house, when we first got there?”

“Oh.” I remembered … and my heart skipped.

Annabelle smiled. “It sort of slipped out, and I could tell you were startled. I was surprised that I said it out loud. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I really meant it.”

“Yeah?”

She nodded. “I love you, Lyle. I mean it. I really love you.”

I draped my hand over hers, which was resting on the gearshift. Annabelle’s eyes flicked away from the road, glanced down at our hands … then drifted up to my eyes.

“I love you too, Annabelle,” I said, feeling a pure surge of truth giving strength to every word. “I love you, too.”

And I did. I knew that now, truly. With every fiber of my being, I did. 

3 comments on “Hearts Flying Freely: a short story

  1. […] “Like how we met, what her family was like – stuff like that. I even have a title picked out: Hearts Flying Freely.” […]

    Liked by 1 person

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