After the funeral, the sisters struggled to cook a meal in their mother’s unfamiliar kitchen. Their small, stunned mother sat silent, staring ahead, eyes fixed on her own vision. The nearly identical-looking cousins kicked at one another beneath the kitchen table they crowded around like squawking birds in a nest. Unaccustomed to family gatherings of any kind, their husbands nervously lit each other's cigarette, talked of the blistering heat and all that might come next. The sisters were momentarily united in death and impatience with their mother who refused to talk, eat or weep.
Their kids wanted to take sides, as they were raised to do, but there were none to take until one of the sisters denied her nephew the soda he wanted with his meal. We don’t drink when we eat, she said with an upward flick of her chin, glad to be able to rattle off an old dinner table rule that her father had never bent. Her sister winced and restrained the familiar reflex to yell mind your own damned business. She gave her son a look she hoped was sympathetic. They ate like strangers do with one another: with agitation and nervous hunger.
As they sat in the kitchen, the wind and humidity made a mad swirl, threatening a storm. It levitated the detritus in the unkempt yard. A broken lawn chair slammed against the back door. One of the brothers-in-law jumped up from the table, overturning an ashtray, sputtering smoke. Well, now, he said, looking around the table with a smile, while wiping the sweat off the back of his neck. The cousins were wide-eyed and red-cheeked waiting for something to happen.
The aunt relented and begrudgingly offered the can of orange soda to the boy. It’s sweating, it’s already too hot to drink, the boy whined. The aunt slammed the soda can down on the table and no one said a word, but when a thick branch thwacked the kitchen window, they all jumped. Christ almighty, what next? One of the husbands yelled in a high-pitched voice.
The cousins swiveled their gaze to the hunched figure of their grandmother who sat still as a sentry, her skin dry and dusty. She placed her elbows on the table and laid her small gray head in her gnarled hands. Her grandson picked up the warm can of soda and slaked his thirst, his eyes at half mast, quivering, his left hand curled in a fist on his lap. To everyone’s surprise he offered the old woman a sip. It was the first gesture he’d made to a grandmother he rarely saw.
She lifted her head long enough to look at him. She gazed at the only people she had left in this world, all gathered in the small kitchen bathed in heat. They stared back at her, with some expectation. The room swelled and contracted. When she began to sob, they felt it was a good first step for all of them.
Michelle Reale's fiction has been published in Verbsap, elimae, Rumble,Word Riot, Pank, Eyeshot, Monkeybicycle, Dogmatika, and others.
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