I kick the leg of the table further out. The next, and then turn it upright, the metal and plastic creaking with the flip. I give it a little force on the tabletop until it clicks securely into place.
“Where do you want these?” I yell up to Grace. She is hanging a large banner that reads: ‘Congratulations Graduate’ over the railing of the raised deck and the stairs down. She doesn’t hear me.
I’m below in the yard assembling the tables. I drag the one I just completed a little closer, so it sits in the middle with the rest. The ground is not very even at all and mostly just soil, root and rock. It’s only broken by these like these little sparse patches of grass where the sun shines down through the trees. I find the most even spot I can and set it down. It still wobbles.
I look back up to the banner and Grace’s efforts. “It’s hanging a little low on the Graduate side!” I yell over.
She turns her attention to me and then looks down off the deck at the banner. But at her angle, I doubt she can see the full picture. She unpins the end of the banner and pulls it a little farther out. “Good?” she calls, looking back to me.
A give a thumbs up. It’s better.
“Thanks!” she says and tacks it down.
She comes down to the yard after with a stack of plastic tablecloths. I help and take them each out of their shrink wrap packaging first before we do anything else.
We cover the tables which we decide to sit along the perimeter of the yard. Some on the side and next to the deck, two next to the grill and more off on the other side for seating. We drag a few plastic chairs out from the garage and place as many as we have at the seating tables.
A few of the plastic cloths blow off the table when we return with the chairs, so we decide to tape them down. We share the tape dispenser and tape down each side, so they don’t slide or blow off. The insects and birds hum in the forest around us.
And then, out of nowhere: “I read your piece.” She says, point blank.
I look up and watch as she applies a piece of tape haphazardly to the other side of the table we are working on. The tablecloth is strained from the pull and I imagine the slightest touch would rip it.
“Did you.” I say. It isn’t a question. I just, didn’t know that. I didn’t know she had read it. Had mom passed a copy along?
“I liked it. Do you like poetry?”
“No, not really.” I say, and as if defense for it I add “I wrote it for an elective class and submitted it for extra credit. I didn’t know it would be published.” Partly true. And I want to ask how she ended up with a copy of the circulation, but I’m interrupted.
My father and Bryan come down out of the house through the sliding glass doors on the deck. He tramples down the stairs and heads right for Grace, jumping into her arms. She hugs him back and just laughs.
“Best. Day. Ever.” He says into her shoulder. When he pulls back, I see a different person than the one I’ve witnessed moping around the last week. He’s bright eyed and beaming. Smiling. Brilliantly like Grace does and without artifice. The honesty of it is refreshing yet scary at once.
“What’s up sweetie? Good news?” she asks.
He holds up a letter. It’s ripped open, the back flap completely off like it was torn open by some animal.
“I’m in.” he says, ecstatic. “I start the week after next. I just got to drive in to drop the paperwork off.”
“I’m so proud of you honey!”
Frank puts an arm over Bryan’s shoulder and pulls him into a sideways hug. “Proud of you son.”
Bryan rests his head into Frank’s shoulder briefly all while staring at the letter.
I feel awkward, like an interloper. But I shouldn’t. The thoughts spin around again. How Frank calls everyone ‘son’. About how this meant Bryan would be leaving, and for what? And for how long? And I didn’t know Bryan could be so excited about something. I want to say ‘congratulations’ or ask about it… but I just can’t. The words don’t form.
“This is fucking ace,” Bryan says, still looking at the letter like its gold. He punches Frank on the arm and then runs off without explanation.
“Where you going?” Frank calls to him but doesn’t turn his head to follow. He’s looking at Grace with this lazy pleased look.
Bryan throws open the yard gate and exits. “Out,” he says. He slams it shut.
“Your party starts in an hour,” Grace calls out after.
“They’ll wait!” That’s Bryan. Already gone and off somewhere else beyond the driveway.
Bryan being late for his own graduation party made sense because it wasn’t unexpected.
The party started at five and by now it’s probably closer to six and without any sign of him. His absence is excused by most of the guests who arrive and talk and eat among their peers. It’s a mix of adults and the other half are some of Bryan’s own classmates. The adults are friends of Frank and Grace and some parents of the other graduates. The other graduates don’t seem overly close to Bryan, they seem to not even notice his absence at all, and I wonder if they’re even really his friends.
I overhear their conversations. Where they are planning on going to college, their hopes, their dreams… packaged neatly and expressed so easily in casual talk like it’s nothing. A to B conversations, as if life can be drawn in all straight lines.
The parents are no different. Talking about their children’s goals like they’ll actually achieve them. Everyone is speaking in absolutes about things that can’t possibly be.
My gaze drifts to my father. He’s wearing an apron with a ridiculous pun about grilling on the front of it. He’s flipping burgers as if in show and he’s chatting with some of the other guests being all charismatic. Grace is off to the side speaking to other parents and laughing. Everyone with their own group of peers.
I’m off to the side of the yard keeping the refreshment table clean and mess free. We set up the refreshment table in a spot that gets full shade under and beside the raised deck, so it stays cool. On the other side off to my left is the gate that connects to the gravel driveway and garage entrance. That was where Bryan passed through a couple hours ago and has yet to return. People go through every so often and I watch Wrinkles look every time someone opens it like he’s measuring if he can make a run for it. He doesn’t. He pants heavily and sits happily in a rare spot of sun that shines through between the trees above.
I’m cleaning off soda from a table leg. Earlier someone had spilt soda everywhere and a trail of ants had started their march towards the spill and up the table in a neat line. I wipe clean the leg furiously to discourage their way up. But some still make their way upwards, their little antennae dotting in the air. I swipe them off with the back of my hand, trying my best not to crush them but they are so many.
I hear the patio door above me slide open and then footsteps on the deck. Everyone starts clapping.
I look up. Bryan is standing on the top of the stairs. The blue haired girl from the superstore and another guy I don’t know flank his sides.
Bryan flings his graduation cap down and gives a bow. The crowd claps. He tramples down the stairs. His friends follow.
I look away, focusing back on the refreshments. Trying not to let myself get upset. Trying to understand why I’m even upset at all but this whole day has just been…
I hear the stairs creek again and someone else is coming down. I look up.
The runner—again, of course—and he is already halfway down the stairs. His hair isn’t pulled back today and it sits free almost to his shoulder. He’s medium height, with a lean build. He’s wearing those dark wash jeans again and I don’t miss how good they fit on him. I glance back up to his face. He’s smirking, lashes set low and I see appraisal in his dark eyes.
He has this sureness, this easy-going confidence that is both insanely attractive and terrifying.
I look away and ignore him.
~ * ~
It’s quiet up here. I settle on the deck, raised above the party. The night came in dark and the light from the party below casts long and dancing shadows on the trees around. The string lights hanging around the backyard fence shine bright and twinkling. Earlier, Frank had brought out some tiki torches and pounded them into the ground and lit them. Even from up here, it smells strongly of citronella.
Frank comes up the stairs passing by me in the dark to go inside. I hear fridge open and it’s so quiet up here I can even here the buzzing from the light inside the fridge. The slight clicks of glass bottles.
“Do you want anything to drink?” he says from the doorway.
There’s no one else up here but us.
“I’m good.” I say.
There is shuffling back inside the house. I look back over the deck chair cushion. He didn’t shut the door all the way and Wrinkles is there standing in the entrance way with his tongue is hanging out between his jaws. The dog ambles over and jumps up on the chair. I lift up my arms and he just fits himself there heavily on my lap. I put my arms down and stroke his fur. He gives a great sigh and relaxes.
I cannot though.
My father comes back out, shuts the screen door and sits on the deck too in the other chair beside me. We are sort of in the dark, the porch light off, only a faint glow cast in by a lamp in the corner of the living fades out through the screen. The party below still far brighter.
Bryan and a few of his friends are loudly playing a game of cards. Bryan is sitting on top of one of the tables, wearing his graduation hat tilted on one side of his curly red mop. He’s sitting with the blue haired girl he came in with, the other guy their age and a few others. The runner too is a surprising member of their group, sitting comfortably back on one of the tables like Bryan is. He doesn’t seem to be playing the game, but he sits there with them nevertheless.
“So, what university did Bryan get into? He doesn’t seem the type for summer courses.”
Frank cracks off the bottle cap of the beer. It fizzes over and pours a little onto his jeans. He doesn’t seem to notice and takes a swing. “It’s not college. It’s a summer thing. He’s going to be a counselor at his camp.”
I don’t say anything, but my silence must have prompted him to follow up.
He continues, “It’s important to Brye. Camp. It’s a resident one, where you sleep over and stuff. Nature, hiking, swimming. That sorta thing. He attends every summer.”
“What’s his plan for after that?”
Frank laughs. “Don’t worry about Bryan.” He pauses after that. It’s quiet between us. The insects buzzing by the screen the loudest sound up here. He leans forward in the chair, the wicker groaning. He has his beer clasped in both hands. Like in thought, like he wants to say something but it’s hard to. It isn’t like Frank to deliberate. “Can we talk about you?”
“We’re not doing that.” I say. The silence is tangible. It’s like a brick wall, not even the levity of the party below can pass it. Conversations, the music, Bryan and his friends in a shouting match in some stupid never-ending game of cards.
We sit like that for a bit. I go to stand, Wrinkles whimpering with my sudden movement.
“I meant to tell you—” that’s Frank.
I wait, my hand on the patio door.
He clears his throat and starts again. “I meant to answer you yesterday.”
“You asked me. You asked if I’m happy. Well, I’m happy.”
“Oh.” I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do with this answer. “Good for you.” I turn back around but pin my focus to the dark stand of trees beyond the deck.
“And I know I wasn’t always... I hope you know… I’m sorry I was never there for you then.”
What am I supposed to say to that?
“I just want you to understand... That me leaving... that had nothing to do with you, Evan.”
I want yell at him. Tell him to save it. Tell him it doesn’t matter. That it doesn’t matter..
“I’m happy for you.” I say, and I focus everything in me to keep my voice even. “I guess I just never realized a new family and living out in the middle of nowhere was what you wanted.”
“I won’t be used as some step in your program, so save it—”
“Evan… that’s not what I’m trying to do here. I just want you to understand. I needed to find out what I really wanted in life. And I found it when I moved here, and I started being honest with myself.”
“Working some dead-end job in the middle of nowhere makes you happy? I guess Mom and I didn’t?”
He’s looking down at the party too and I can see the glow of the light reflected in his eyes. “No, that’s not…” He trails off and takes another drink. “It’s just, every day now I get up. Go to work. Feel accomplished after. Makes me happy. Because I feel like I know what I’m doing. I’m not talking about competence here. I’m saying I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. And Grace and Bryan... They make me happy too. They’re blessings.” And he turns to me. Quieter, but it’s only us here. “You know you can talk to me. Whatever has been happening lately.”
A pause. It’s too long. “There’s nothing to talk about.” I say.
“Well, if you ever want to... I’m here.”
“We did talk. Happy?” I say and pull the screen door open and step through.
~ * ~
It’s late, I should be asleep. But I think about everything at once and it all rushes in to bury me.
It’s stupid because there’s nothing to be unsettled about. And yet, sometimes…
Sometimes for no reason at all I feel like I’m going to have a panic attack.
And then, somewhere, a light blinks on. It’s my phone.
I reach for it on the nightstand.
My eyes burn, thrown off by the light. The notification pops up again.
how are you
I blink once. Then open the message and just stare at it.
I stare at PJ’s text a long time before typing in:
With a period. Because I think that, maybe, I could be? I was trying to. I left thinking I could just past time and re-solidify. Didn’t I? Is it working?
The message blinks to read and he begins to type.
what u doing
I start typing… but then erase it, letter by letter. So stupid. Right, what am I doing?
I type in:
Going back to sleep. Goodnight.
And before I can think myself out of it, I press send. I wait until it blinks to ‘delivered’. Hold, and swipe to power down. I throw my phone to the wall besides the bed, it hits, the impact louder and harder than I intended.
My thoughts drift. And I dream of turning stones over. Round and smooth ones, like stones on a riverbed. Earlier in the week, on the drive here we passed by a few rivers and streams, maybe that’s why I think of them.
But in this dream the riverbed is dry. I turn the stones over, and over. Repeatedly. Things looking slightly different at every turn but also all the same somehow. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I still turn them.
Just wanted to thank everyone for following this story so far. Any feedback is greatly appreciated too. -Ratio