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By Alana Church
Artwork by Moira Nelligar
Copyright 2018 Alana Church
~~ All characters in this book are over 18. ~~
One good thing about South Dakota, Lucas Keenan thought blackly, as he drove down the highway at a speed which was just short of suicidal. There’s plenty of wide-open spaces when you feel like taking a drive to think.
On the passenger seat beside him, his phone buzzed with an incoming text message. He ignored it. He knew who was trying to reach him. And he didn’t want to talk. Not to her. Not to anyone.
How did this happen? How did we let it go so far? It was just a joke. And then, suddenly…it wasn’t.
The phone rang, the opening bars of the Walt Disney theme bouncing around the cramped cabin of his old Ford.
He ignored that, too.
The summer sun beat down on the blacktop of the highway, making heat waves ripple up into the air. In the distance, to the northwest, he could see the anvil-shaped heads of a line of distant thunderstorms. He scowled and pressed down a little harder on the accelerator.
The phone rang again, for the third time in the last ten minutes.
Suddenly infuriated, be picked it up and swiped the screen. “What?” he snapped.
“Luke!” His sister’s voice was tense with worry and shaky with relief. “Where are you?”
“Halfway to Pierre,” he snarled. “Look. Leave me alone, will you? I’ve got to think.”
“And what are you going to do when you get there?”
“I don’t know,” he said, frustrated beyond reason. “Maybe I’ll turn right and head to Canada. Or left and see what Nebraska’s like. Or maybe I’ll keep driving until I hit the damned Pacific Ocean. I don’t know and I don’t care. I just want you to give me some fucking space. Can you understand that?”
There was a long silence. “All right,” she replied grudgingly. “But something you might want to think about, genius, while you’re having your little snit. You left your wallet on the counter when you ran out of here like a gutless damned coward. So unless you plan to start robbing people to pay for gas, you’re not going nearly as far as you think.”
There a faint sound as the call disconnected, and Luke slapped the pocket of his shorts. True to his sister’s word, there was no wallet inside. And the gas gauge on the car hovered at just over a quarter full.
Three weeks earlier…
“Luke! Your sister just called! She’ll be home in half an hour! Come downstairs and help us set up!”
“I’m coming,” he replied, closing the lid of his laptop and walking down the stairs. “You’d think she was living on the moon,” he remarked, entering the kitchen and snagging a soda out of the fridge. “It’s just Vermilion. Not, I don’t know, Chicago.”
“Don’t be smart,” his mother said. She pointed at the counter. “Take all the plates and cups and things outside and set the tables. Start setting the food out, too. Your aunts and uncles and cousins will be showing up any second.”
“Too late,” his father said, wandering in from the back deck, where he had been keeping an eye on the grill. The odor of barbequed pork steak and bratwurst drifted in behind him, making Luke’s mouth water. “John’s already here.”
And the horde begins to arrive, he thought, carrying supplies from the kitchen out to the picnic tables set up under the big walnut tree in the backyard. His father had four brothers, who had supplied Naomi and himself with nearly a dozen cousins. And the entire family would use any excuse to get together, sit around, eat barbeque, drink beer, and tell each other stories they had all heard a hundred times before, while the younger cousins ran around and played.
All this for Naomi, he thought, then felt guilty. It wasn’t his sister’s fault that she was the first child in her generation to go to college, and that they hadn’t seen her since spring break. And the party was more for the traditional Memorial Day picnic than it was a welcome-home celebration from the University of South Dakota. His parents were just combining the two since they would be out of town over the three-day holiday weekend, which was only a couple of weeks away.
It especially isn’t her fault, he told himself firmly, that Mom and Dad never expected you, and that you came as a shock to them.
He had heard the story dozens of times, until he and Naomi could practically say it by heart. His parents had married when they were in their mid-twenties. But after nearly five years of trying, his mother had never conceived. Fertility tests had shown that the odds of a natural pregnancy were remote in the extreme.
With the costs of an in-vitro fertilization or other methods beyond their modest means, Andrew and Bethany Keenan had decided to adopt. Rather than go through the interminable red tape of an adoption in America, however, they had worked through the Catholic Church. Nearly a year after they began the process, they had booked a flight to the Philippines, where their prospective daughter was living in an orphanage, less than six months old.
It was then they had, to their utter astonishment, discovered that Bethany was pregnant, less than two months before they were scheduled to go overseas.
Uncle John still loved to tell the story about how his younger brother had called him up, completely panicked, asking him if he had a United States passport, with some hare-brained scheme in which the two of them would go to Manila to pick up Naomi, since if the church saw Bethany in a visible state of pregnancy they would probably turn them away. Because adoption was supposed to be for those who couldn’t have children on their own and…well, you know. Bethany was pregnant, after all. And by then she would probably be showing the signs.
John had gently pointed out to his brother that if he and Andy showed up, asking for Naomi, the officials at the orphanage would probably think they were homosexuals who were trying to pull a fast one and throw them out on their ears.
It had all worked out in the end, though. Somehow his mother, who was skinny as a rail, had worn shirts loose enough to hide the growing bulge of her son. Feeling like thieves who had pulled off a heist, they had emerged from the airport runway in Minneapolis with a baby in a stroller and a spare one on the way. Inside of a year, they had Naomi; black-haired, dark-eyed, with the mocha-colored skin of her Philippine heritage. And baby Lucas as well; blue-eyed with blond hair that changed to a dark brown as he got older.
As he finished setting the table, more cars pulled in, and his aunts and uncles and cousins poured out. Uncle John, the only bachelor in the group. Uncle Mike and Aunt Brandy, with their two daughters, Karen and Crystal. Uncle David and Aunt Laura, with Ben and Sam and Daisy. Even Uncle Matt, the black sheep, with his wife Rosa, and Dom and Donna and Erwin and Tyler. An old Jeep pulled up with Grandpa Gary, and a few minutes later, Grandpa Dave and Grandma Diana in their new pick-up.
“Swear to God,” he muttered to Karen, the closest in age to himself, as a screaming knot of younger children flew past, in pursuit of their dog Buster. “Sometimes I feel like I’m related to half the people in town.”
“Could be worse,” Karen said, setting out a huge bowl of potato salad. “We could live in some horrible little town like Wolsey or De Smet, with nothing to do but watch the wheat grow.”
“Or Wall,” he agreed. “The entire damn town revolves around the freaking drug store. How sad is that?”
“Hey, guys!” A heavy hand came down, one on each shoulder, and Luke flinched under the impact. “How’s it going?”
“Going good, Grandpa,” he said to his paternal grandfather. Gary Keenan had been a big man in his youth, but he was now stooped with age and hobbled by old injuries that would have crippled a lesser man. An independent electrician, he had been nearly killed in an accident when he was in his thirties. Nearly eighty now, he still worked part-time as an engineer and general trouble-shooter for the local radio stations.
“Before I leave, remind me to give you guys some honey. It’s in the jeep. I got a good load out of the hives earlier in the week. Clover honey. Sweet as can be. Give some to your grandmother, too. I can’t do it. You know how her husband gets all crazy whenever I’m around.”
“We will.” He rolled his eyes at the implicit drama in his grandfather’s voice. His grandparents had divorced over thirty years ago, but they still acted as if that fact should be uppermost in everyone’s minds.
“So where’s that sister of yours? I want to hear stories about college. She’s the first one in the family since your Uncle John went away to school.”
“Mom said she should be here soon,” he replied. The adults bustled in and out, bearing trays of food and pitchers of iced tea. “Can I get you a beer, Grandpa?”
“Well, since you’re twisting my arm, why not?” The older man sat down slowly. Luke shook his head as he went to a cooler and fetched a cold bottle of Miller Lite. His grandfather had busted his ass for over fifty years, and he could barely walk.
That’s why I’m going to find a job where I’m not halfway up a radio tower in the middle of a blizzard. Nope, I’m too lazy for that sort of crap. A nice warm office will suit me just-
The happy shriek from his cousin Daisy’s mouth rose above the hubbub, and every head whipped around to see the small, slim woman who stood at the side of the yard with a smile on her face.
As one, the family poured across the yard like a tidal wave, laughing and shouting and surrounding her in a joyful din. Naomi disappeared into the mob, only emerging minutes later, with two cousins on her right hand and a third on her left, trying to tug her in opposite directions.
“Come on, now,” he said at last, moving forward. “Let Naomi sit down, all right? There’ll be plenty of time for you guys to tell her everything after we eat. At least let the poor woman have some chicken or a hot dog or something.”
“All right,” Daisy said. Only six, she was used to getting what she wanted, and pouted at Luke as she moved away.
And suddenly, they were alone.
His sister’s lips twitched. “Hey, Shadow.”
“Hey, Sunshine,” he replied, and hugged her. She was tiny, barely five feet tall. He remembered how happy he had been when he had finally passed her in height. Thirteen, maybe. Or maybe fourteen. He had gloated as they stood side-by-side in the basement, and Dad had marked off their heights against the wall, as he had been doing since they were toddlers. A person could trace their entire growth history from one section of cinderblocks.
He was just shy of six foot now. Naomi was five-one. Maybe five-two. It seemed impossible. She had always been the all-powerful older sister. Older, smarter, wiser, funnier. The one everyone paid attention to.
Beautiful too, with the long, shimmering fall of her black hair, her dark skin, her slightly-slanted eyes, her heart-shaped face with full, pouting lips. Mom had forbidden anybody to even think about cutting her hair, and now it reached down to nearly the small of her back, even in a braid. She was dressed in a pair of shorts and a baggy t-shirt, comfortable clothes for a long ride.
“How was the trip?”
She shrugged. “You know South Dakota. It’s dull. But it’s also flat.”
“At least it’s not winter,” he said, walking with her back to the tables.
“Thank God,” she agreed fervently as they loaded up a pair of plates and sat down near their parents. “That campus! I swear it’s a dang wind tunnel. No matter where you go, it seems like you’ve got a hurricane blowing right in your face. Nothing like a little hypothermia to get the blood flowing in the morning.”
He grinned and took a bite of his bratwurst. “How’s the love slave you brought to visit back in March? What was his name again? Rick? Rod?”
“Ron,” she said shortly, stabbing a French fry viciously. The plastic fork bent under the force of her anger. “He’s gone. Apparently he just wanted to find out what sex with a foreign girl was like.” As if guided by radar, their mother turned to look at them, frowning. Naomi lowered her voice. “He dumped me right a couple of weeks ago. Once he found out I didn’t have any mysterious oriental tricks up my sleeve, he lost interest. He found himself a blond Norwegian cow from Bismarck. I hope he’s happy.”
“Up your sleeve?” he teased. He looked at their mother, but she was deep in conversation with her sisters-in-law. “That’s a strange way to have sex. From what I understood, things don’t exactly work that way.” He tried, and failed, to make a serious face. “You see, Naomi,” he intoned, using a newsreel announcer voice, “when a man and a woman love each other very much, the man puts his-’’
She threw an ice cube at him, laughing as it bounced off his temple.
“Well, Ron was an idiot anyway,” he said mildly, rubbing his head with a wince. “I never liked him.”
“You never like any of my boyfriends,” she said accusingly.
“That’s only because they’re all idiots. Find one who isn’t, and maybe I’ll like him.”
“Hah.” Naomi made a show of looking around. “So where’s Tina? I thought she’d be here.”
“Not coming, and good riddance,” he said shortly. “I found out she was boning Jason Speevil behind my back. We broke up last month.”
“Jason Speevil?” Naomi said incredulously. She had been only a year ahead of him at Huron High School, and knew all the kids in his class. In a town of only eleven thousand, it was hard not to. “Isn’t he the really dumb one? The one who ate paste when we were in grade school?”
“Yes. But you see, Naomi,” he said earnestly, mimicking Tina’s voice. “Jason is going to have a good job at the carbonics plant, working with dry ice, once he graduates high school. He isn’t going to waste the next four years going to college. And Tina isn’t interested in wasting four years waiting for me to graduate when she could be doing something else.”
“Morons,” his sister said darkly. “The entire planet is full of morons.”
“That’s my opinion,” he agreed. They caught each other’s eyes, and dissolved into laughter.
And suddenly everything was back to normal again.
“Is it just me,” her father said a few hours later, peering into the back of Naomi’s car. “Or did you bring a lot less back home than we took down to Vermilion back in August?”
“I can’t put anything past you, Dad,” she replied as she popped the trunk. Around them, the family was slowly drifting back to their cars, loaded with leftovers, though her uncles and the older cousins had been drafted to help unload her vehicle. “I left some of my things at the apartment me and Kimberly and Linda are sharing next year. There isn’t any point of hauling my winter clothes all the way back here and then driving them back again in August. All they’ll do is sit in boxes.”