The house has fallen into complacent waiting. Only the sound of cards shuffling breaks the steady buzz of the television from the adjacent room and the hum of cicadas outside.
“Two outs, Olly, and a runner on third.”
Oliver is playing cards with his mother at the kitchen table. His posture twitches in the chair, knowing he should turn to face the television but unable to follow through.
“We’re only down by one.”
“It’s the bottom of the seventh, you know that? Are you watching?”
“Yeah, no Daddy, I am.” Oliver shifts around to peer into the other room, trying to suppress the blush that glows around his ears. Only the back of Daddy’s chair is visible, but he can almost see, through the wrinkles of the ancient leather recliner, a crease furrowing into his brow.
The awkward scene is interrupted, and Oliver is saved by the rhythm of footsteps on the porch, punctuated by the protesting screen door and the heightened sound of night.
He twists out of his chair and rushes around the corner, eager to get the first look at her.
The face is always brighter, the clothes fancier, the baggage larger. But for all her elegance, she throws her luggage aside and opens her arms to her little brother. “Olly!”
They come together like puzzle pieces and Oliver is suddenly acutely aware of how desperately he has missed her. Phone calls and letters, he knows, aren’t enough. She’s not there when his photograph is featured in the art show and he’s too embarrassed to tell his parents. She’s not there when he has to lie about losing his close childhood friends because they think he’s gotten weird. He feels her absence acutely after he’s been praised by his parents, while he’s awaiting the familiar rise of guilt.
Mama and Daddy’s greetings are lacking in every way. Mama offers Melinda a cool smile, which is reflected in her daughter’s face. Then they move to kiss each other, but their cheeks don’t meet. Daddy, meanwhile, welcomes Melinda home by pulling out his wallet.
“I’ll pay the cab.”
Melinda’s eyes narrow. “Really, Daddy? Every time I come home. I already paid, like I always do.”
She avoids hugging him and instead pushes past them both, grabbing two bags and giving two to Oliver. “Because women obviously shouldn’t work enough to ever afford paying for anything,” she mutters to her brother as they hurry to her bedroom, and his stomach sinks. The cheap linoleum sticks to her heels as she walks through the kitchen.
Her bedroom door has to be jerked open, since it’s rarely used. Melinda deposits her bags in the corner and gives the walls a disapproving look. It hasn’t been changed too much since she left, but they’ve used it for storage. Mama had tried to clear it out before Melinda got there, but there was too much. Most was pushed against the walls — an old vacuum, boxes of winter clothes, board games, and a floor lamp.
Melinda eyes the lamp. A majority of the base has been covered by a peeling ‘West Virginia Mountaineers’ sticker. “God, I can’t believe I’m back in West Virginia.”
Oliver eases the door shut and sits down on the bed. She collapses beside him and lets out a groan. “How’ve things been?” she asks, craning her neck to look up at him.
He shrugs, and she snorts. “Of course. How could things ever be good for you while you’re here?” She pushes herself forward, inspecting her reflection in the mirror on top of her dresser. Oliver examines it too: short, straight brown hair, a narrow nose, thin lips, and far-apart eyes. A spitting image of their mother, while Oliver boasts the flat, subtle features of their father. Her frame, now New-York thin, doesn’t fit in the bedroom as it had before she’d gone to college. She doesn’t fit in the house, either — her crisp, ironed jeans and black charmeuse blouse are a stark contrast against the thin walls and cluttered countertops.
With a sigh, she lets her hands fall into her lap, and looks around at Oliver. “Well, I’m ready to be called a snob if you’re ready to be called a strange boy.”
She leads the way back to the kitchen and he follows on wary legs.
Daddy is sitting at the head of the table, and Mama is standing at the stove. “I made you chicken and dumplings, Melinda,” she says as she carries plates to the table.
“Oh, great, your favorite,” Melinda mutters before sitting down. Daddy watches her, but doesn’t comment as his wife fills his glass with ice tea.
“You should have let me pay for your cab,” he says in a flat tone.
Melinda heaves an exaggerated sigh. “I wish you would stop thinking that just because I’m a woman, I can’t take care of myself. Right, Oliver? That’s what he thinks.”
Oliver looks toward Mama without responding, though he knows Daddy’s frowning at him. “That’s got nothing to do with it,” he hears him say.
“I’m very successful Daddy,” Melinda says as Mama sets the fried tomatoes on the table and sits down. “I’ve actually been promoted,” she straightens up, raises her chin, and looks around at the table, “to Beauty Editor.”
“Beauty Editor?” Mama questions, hesitating as she serves herself chicken and dumplings. “Why in the world would you need to edit beauty?”
Melinda’s face clouds. “Because, Mama, women in New York actually care about things like that.”
“I just don’t see why you’d need a beauty editor,” Mama sniffs as she passes Oliver the fried tomatoes. “Awfully pompous, if you ask me. Your whole magazine is, Melinda. It’s very... low.”
“What does that even mean?” Melinda demands, “and have you ever even looked at my magazine? Oliver has.”
“Yes, well,” Mama meanders to say, “Oliver is a strange boy.”
“Yuuup,” Bud almost hums in agreement, not looking at his family.
“Except when he gets an ‘A’ on big fancy papers,” Mama chirps, beaming at Oliver, who slouches in his chair.
“What ‘A’?” he hears his sister ask.
“He wrote a paper on — what was his name again, John?”
“Right, Truman Coppotee.”
Melinda snorts. “Oh, you would, Olly. And it’s ‘Capote,’ Mama.”
Like a reflex, Oliver shoots a glance at his father, who meets his gaze with a sudden, subtle suspicion. Daddy looks away and Oliver digs his fork into a fried tomato and grates the prongs against the plate beneath.
“Just promise me you won’t move away too, Olly,” Mama continues. “I couldn’t bear to see you a snob.”
Oliver can feel his sister’s eyes boring into him. “I don’t know, Mama,” he says, careful not to look at Melinda. “It’s a long way off.”
“Not too long!” Melinda reminds him. “But I think we all know what you’re going to do.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Oliver sees Daddy look between his children. He places a hand on Oliver’s shoulder. “Olly will do the right thing. He always does.”
Oliver grimaces. “I’ll try.”
“If I didn’t ever have to come back, I wouldn’t.”
Oliver and Melinda are walking over the decrepit bridge by their house. She sucks on her cigarette and the smoke catches in the light of the street lamp, becoming a veil around her head.
Her hand extends and she offers a cigarette to Oliver, who refuses.
Melinda’s gaze doesn’t fall from him. He can feel her scrutinizing him, and he pretends not to notice. “I only live like two blocks away from a really great gay bar, you know.”
He doesn’t respond.
“I’ve gone a few times with a few of the guys on the mag. It’s great. They play the best music and it’s super clean.”
Still, no response.
“You’d like my friends. I mean, you’re not as out as they are, but you’d like them.”
“I’ve never actually come out, Melinda.”
“But you are gay.”
Heat rises in his cheeks.
“Don’t worry, when you come to New York it will be so much easier.”
The imaginary solution pleases him and he smiles, “Yeah.”
They continue, their footsteps matching the rhythm of the cicadas.
* Above is an excerpt from a story awarded 2nd place in the Glenwood Clark Prize category for best short story as part of the 2012 English Literary Awards.