The rain drip-dropped on the windshield, slow but relentless. Inside the Corolla, in the passenger seat, Alex slurped the last of her latte.
Behind the wheel, Caroline smiled. “Nice milk mustache you’ve got there.”
“Mm-hmm.” Caroline rummaged through the center console, found a napkin. She held it out to Alex.
Alex folded her own hand over Caroline’s. Looked at her. Gently, Caroline pulled her hand back. The napkin fluttered back onto the console, between them. Alex rubbed at the milk mustache she couldn’t see, but was there.
“Alex…I’m sorry, I can’t.”
“Fine.” Alex kept rubbing. The skin above her lip started to hurt.
Caroline folded her hands together on her seersucker skirt. “I’m sorry.”
“I said it’s fine.” Alex began tapping the empty Styrofoam cup against her leg.
“I’m still figuring things out…you said you are too…”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Tap, tap, tap. “Just forget it.”
Caroline took the cup. “Let’s talk, OK? We always have good conversations. Come on.”
Alex thrust open the door. She didn’t have an umbrella, or a hood. The spray of rain on her face was cold, but felt good.
“I have to go. My sister’s birthday party, I told you.”
“I know, I’ll drive you.” Caroline leaned over, and bumped the Lot A Student Parking Permit hanging from the rearview mirror. The plastic tag seesawed in rhythm with the rain.
In response, Alex slammed the door shut. She strode to the gazebo near the parking lot. Its weathered pine wood held years’ worth of lovers’ histories, pairs of initials carved into nearly every surface.
She fished out her phone, thumbed the Uber app. She kept her head bowed, but still saw when Caroline finally drove away.
She sniffled, wiped her nose on the back of her denim jacket. Drip-drop, drip-drip. The rain didn’t let up.
About half an hour later, Alex trudged toward the stoop of her parents’ house. Her mother had taped a neon-pink poster board announcing, “Happy Birthday, Maggie!” to the front door, as if her sister were celebrating her first birthday instead of thirty-first. There was glitter.
Alex hated glitter.
She walked inside, and tripped over a pile of wet shoes. Alex kicked off her own, adding the checkerboard-printed Vans to the pile.
“Hey, honey, we’ve been worried about you.”
Robert MacDonald joined her in the foyer. He wore a cone hat the same shade of neon pink as the front-door sign. It clashed with his striped sweater vest.
“For the record, I’m not putting one of those hats on.”
Robert shook his head. “I was by the campus, I could have picked you up. I called you, even texted you…”
“I was in a meeting. My writing tutor.” Alex cleared her throat. “I took an Uber over.”
“Your mother and I don’t think those are safe.”
“Well, if you would let me have my own car on campus…”
“Ah, this conversation again.” Maggie joined them, holding a glass of wine.
Alex hugged her. “Happy birthday. Why didn’t you and Mitchell make a reservation somewhere, just the two of you?“
Maggie smiled. “We thought about it, but…you know Mom.”
Yep. “Where’s the booze?”
Robert trailed after them toward the kitchen. “This isn’t some fraternity party, Alex.”
Alex looked at her sister, and they both laughed. “I know, Dad.”
In the kitchen, their mother peered up from behind her oversized tortoise-shell glasses. “Alex, I said six, sharp.” Susan stirred at the wok, hissing on the stovetop.
The sweet-sharp scent of madras curry wafted from the kitchen to the adjoining den. Alex gagged. “Maggie picked Indian?”
“Well, she wanted my chicken potpie…”
“My favorite,” Maggie interjected, handing Alex her own glass of wine.
“But,” Susan continued, spooning rice into a bowl, “I saw this recipe in the paper and had to try it.” Hiss. Susan snapped off the burner.
Alex glanced back at Robert, who had settled into his recliner in the den, returning to whatever he was watching on TV—a World War II documentary, it looked like. “You and Dad are the only people on earth who read the paper. Like, the actual paper.”
“Actually, not true, Alex.” Mitchell appeared, along with her brother, Bobby. “My stepfather’s subscribed to The Wall Street Journal for years.”
Alex just looked at him. Mitchell adjusted his cone hat (of course he had put one on), then retreated to the den. Bobby lightly punched her shoulder. “What’s going on?”
“School sucks. I forgot Maggie’s present in my dorm. What about you?”
Bobby drummed his fingers against the island. “Let’s see. Work sucks, and I forgot Mags’s present at my house.”
Maggie rolled her eyes. “You guys didn’t have to get me anything.”
Bobby smirked. “I didn’t. Juno did.”
“And you couldn’t even remember to bring it.” Maggie smirked back. “Impressive.”
Alex tried the wine. It was white, and tasted like water. “Where’s Juno?”
“Oh.” Bobby waved his hand. “Something with work.”
The sisters exchanged a glance. “Juno doesn’t like us,” Alex said. “Just admit it.”
“No, that’s not true…” Bobby cleared his throat, glanced at the documentary in the den. His body language said, Yes.
Susan approached their huddle at the island. She hugged her right arm around Maggie’s back. “I’m glad we’re all together.”
Alex set down her glass.
“Thirty-one years, gosh.” Susan pulled off her glasses and dabbed at her eyes.
“Oh, Mom.” Maggie patted her arm.
“I’m sorry to be sentimental, but…” Susan pushed her glasses back on. “You’ll understand, when you have children of your own.”
Maggie paused. “If dinner’s ready, why don’t we eat?”
“Yes, everything’s ready. Robert, turn off the TV!”
The MacDonalds had bought their home three decades ago, an old, classic Cape Cod with all the accompanying character and coziness (or confined spaces, depending on one’s perspective). The two of them, along with their three children and Mitchell, squeezed around the mahogany table in the dining room. Susan had adorned the circular surface with a mason jar of flowers, and splash of neon-pink confetti.
No plates, though.
“Bobby, grab some, will you?” Susan began pointing to the various serving bowls and platters. “Rice. The curried chicken, and you can garnish it with the cilantro and sliced almonds. I heated the naan with olive oil and sea salt…”
Mitchell rubbed his hands together. “Everything looks great, Susan. And this was your first time preparing this dish? Unbelievable.”
“Oh, stop.” But Susan glowed.
Alex picked at a piece of confetti. “Mom.”
“Any Hot Pockets in the freezer?”
Susan ignored her. Bobby returned with an armful of plates, and everyone began reaching for food. Alex filled her plate with rice and almonds.
Mitchell kissed Maggie. “Happy birthday, sweetheart.”
“Happy birthday, sis,” Bobby chimed in.
Maggie smiled around the table. She wore a sleeveless white lace top, and her long, dark brown hair lay in a loose side ponytail across her left chest. “Thank you, everyone. And thanks for being here.”
Robert smiled back, adjusted the cone hat on his head. “We love you, honey.”
Alex speared some rice.
After dinner, there was cake, and presents—the ones that had been remembered.
“Oh, honey, you shouldn’t have!” Maggie clutched a thick bracelet, its smattering of precious gemstones sparkling in the light. Again, Mitchell kissed her, his cone hat bopping against her forehead. Bobby checked the time on his watch, while Susan oohed and aahed over the bracelet.
Alex slipped to the kitchen. She squatted down and opened the wine refrigerator, in search of a red. Aha, an open Pinot Noir—her lucky night. She poured the rest of the bottle into a neon-pink plastic cup. Took a long sip. Breathed.
Her sister’s sudden appearance in the kitchen startled Alex. Maggie wiped a hand across her face. Her new bracelet kept sparkling.
Maggie gasped. “Alex.” Tears had gathered in her eyes, their shine matching that of the bracelet.
“Mags, what’s wrong?”
Maggie cleared her throat. “Nothing.”
Alex set down the cup. “You can tell me…”
“No, everything’s fine.” But Maggie was shaking her head. She grabbed the empty wine bottle. “I’ll recycle this; be right back.” She hurried outside, just as their brother entered the kitchen, holding a half-full serving bowl of curried chicken and some plates. Why hadn’t Mom just made the chicken potpie?
“What’s Mags doing?”
Alex paused. “Recycling.”
Bobby unburdened his full hands by the sink. He glanced back at Alex. “I have to take off. Want a ride back?”
Alex nodded. She finished her red wine in a few more gulps.
By the front door, Susan hugged them goodbye. “Tell Juno we missed her,” she told Bobby. “Dad and I will add more money to your debit card,” she added to Alex. Robert waved from the den; the documentary was back on.
Alex sighed, opened the door. “Thanks.” She wasn’t thinking about her debit card, hadn’t even brought it up.
But the rain had stopped.
Bobby started the car. The radio station was tuned in to a football game; Bobby turned the volume up. They careened through a puddle. Alex’s stomach did a cartwheel; she winced.
After Bobby drove through the campus entrance, he slowed down. “Do you want to go to your dorm, or…?”
“Dorm’s good.” Alex pointed. “That way.”
Bobby maneuvered slowly along a winding road, flanked on both sides by residence halls. Alex’s came into view. She started to gesture, but then gasped. On a pine bench in the front sat Caroline. Her stomach began cartwheeling again. “No, don’t—drive that way, drive away.”
“Bobby, please.” Caroline looked their way, and she and Alex made eye contact through the passenger window. “Drive away, that way.”
Bobby kept driving along the winding road, until they were away from her dorm, and away from Caroline. Alex clutched her stomach, exhaled…gagged. “I don’t feel good.”
“I have to throw up.” She opened her door. Bobby was still driving—he ground to a stop, and Alex lurched out, onto a patch of lawn. She leaned over, threw up. She saw pieces of almonds in the wet grass.
Her throat burned. Alex wiped her hand across her mouth. She glanced around. It was a Friday night, a little after nine o’clock, and hardly anyone was around now. Most people were getting ready to go out, and if anyone had seen her…well, she would just look like the typical dumb college kid who had pregamed too hard and gotten sick.
“Are you OK?”
Bobby was beside her now. Alex cleared her throat. “Yeah, I just didn’t feel good…”
“You drink too much, or too fast? Or was it the curry?”
She hadn’t had the curry
Bobby was looking at her. “What’s going on?”
“What’s wrong, Alex?”
She stuffed her hands into the pockets of her jacket. She gazed out into the night, then back at her brother. The way he was looking at her, waiting—she wondered if he already knew, or understood. She had read (online) that sometimes people did.
“Shouldn’t you go home, be with Juno?” she asked instead.
Bobby paused. “Juno and I—things probably aren’t going to work out with us.”
Alex blinked. “What are you talking about?”
“Yeah…” Bobby zipped up his gray fleece jacket. “She’s been staying at her mom’s for a couple months now.” He met her gaze, shrugged, then nodded.
“Well…I don’t really want to get into it, but…basically, it’s my fault.” Bobby paused, reconsidered. “Mostly my fault.”
“I’m sorry, Bobby.” Alex sidestepped the almond-specked vomit on the lawn to give him a light hug.
He hugged her back—tighter than she had hugged him. “It’s OK. It’s going to be OK.”
They let each other go, and Alex looked at him, still wondering but more certain. “Um…have you told anyone else yet? Mom and Dad?”
Bobby smiled slightly. “No, but I have to. Juno told me Mom’s been texting her about a girls’ night out…”
“Ugh, she’s been texting Mags and me about that too.” Alex did not do girls’ night out.
“I’ll tell them soon, and Maggie too.”
“Something’s going on with Maggie.” Alex’s hair blew in the wind. “I tried talking with her about it, but…”
Bobby toed his boot in the mud.
“You know what’s going on?”
Bobby paused. “I don’t know anything for sure.”
That made two of them.
From behind Bobby, a figure appeared near the road. Alex would have recognized the tall red rain boots anywhere. Caroline walked over to them.
Caroline stuck her hand out to Bobby. “You and Alex look related.”
“Brother,” Bobby confirmed, shaking her hand. “Bobby MacDonald.”
“Caroline Shelburne. We go to school together.”
Bobby looked at Alex. “Do you want me to stick around, or…?”
Alex glanced at Caroline. “No...it’s OK.”
Bobby glanced from her to Caroline. “OK, well…call me if you want. It’s just me at home.”
Caroline waved goodbye. “Nice to meet you.”
“You too.” Bobby lumbered back to his car, then drove away.
Part of Alex wished she was in the passenger seat again. Another part of her wanted a toothbrush.
“So.” Caroline nodded toward a nearby pine bench. They were everywhere. “Can we talk?”
A third part of Alex needed to talk. So she said yes.
Photo credit: Pixabay
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