The kettle gets warmer on the stove, and Flora has to stop herself from touching the circle of heat. Anything to break the dullness of the never-ending predictability of her day. Tea time is her favorite. Every evening at 4 PM, Flora walks into her tiny kitchen, with outdated forest green and mustard yellow tiles with even more outdated neon green wallpaper shaped in squares. It’s incredible how so much color can be so plain, Flora thinks. She walks to the oven and opens the door, where she grabs her silver kettle. Flora keeps all of her pots and pans in there; there’s no point in using the oven when all food tastes the same. Why go through all that work just to be disappointed?
Flora fills the kettle with tap water and places it on the stove. Flora always fills up the kettle to the top, even if she hardly uses any of it. She slowly turns the knob to low heat and waits. Flora never turns the heat too high. Not because she’s afraid of burning herself, but because she’s worried the water will heat up too quickly.
Flora stands over the stove and waits. And waits. And waits. She wants to do this forever.
But she hears that sound she despises. God, how awful that sound is. The whistle of the kettle slowly starting to scream at Flora. “I’m done. I’m done!” Flora’s face reddens. Every day she sets the heat lower and lower, but the kettle always screams eventually.
Reluctantly, Flora takes the kettle off the stove and begins pouring the boiling water into two orange mugs. She fills the cups, knowing they will never be fully consumed. Flora opens the tea jar near her toaster and removes two bags of English breakfast. She takes her time as she unwraps each bag and slowly drops it into the orange cups. Flora used to steep her tea, not anymore.
Flora washes the kettle in the sink despite it only having boiled water in it. Why she does this, she does not know. Or maybe she does.
Flora takes the two cups and heads for the stairs. She descends the three steps and into the living room, where she hands Edmund his drink. Flora sits on the rocking chair adjacent to Edmund, and they wait. For what? They’re not sure. All they know is there has to be something.
There was a time where Edmund and Flora felt meaning. Their jobs fulfilled them; they had people to look after and tasks to stay on top of. Meetings and deadlines and mistakes and corrections. Workplace fights and relationships and deaths and divorces. The two enjoyed work because they loved having a front-row seat to life’s cycle. It also allowed them to avoid thinking about the life that was taken from them.
“Jenny, just take it, it’ll make me feel better.”
“Mom, I don’t need money, I do just fine on my own.”
“Oh, so that tear at the back of your sweatpants is just a fashion statement?”
“There’s not a tea-” Jenny turns her head and looks at the rip in the back of her sweatpants. She stares at Flora and is not ready to admit defeat. She clears her through confidently and says, “yes, this is a statement. ‘Free the ass’ is a growing movement, Mom.”
Flora looks at Jenny, waiting for her to concede. It’ll happen. It always does. No one can lie to those intense eyes for long.
Jenny lets out a breath. “Fine!” she admits. “But note I am not above having a hole in my pants.”
“Where did you go this morning with those pants on, Jenny” Flora asks.
“Just to the police station to pay my speeding ticket,” Jenny answers as she bites into the oatmeal raisin cookie Flora made yesterday.
“My god, Jenny,” Flora lets out as she gently rubs her temples.
“You are so critical!” Jenny yells. “I am doing great on my own, I have an apartment with a view of the water,” she says confidently.
“Jenny that is a puddle, and it’s dried up,” Flora snaps back.
“It’s low tide!” Jenny rebuts.
“Please, it’s okay to move back in with us, a lot of kids are doing it.” Flora knows it’s a long shot, but she also wouldn’t forgive herself for not asking. God, what she would give to have Jenny back at home.
“Why don’t you trust me?” Jenny says sadly. “I have a job, a home. It’s not great, but it’s something”.
“Sweetie, I trust you, I do. I just worry about you so much, my love. I don’t want you to struggle in life”. Flora feels tears developing in her eyes.
“That’s part of life, mom.”
“I know sweetheart, I know.” Flora grabs her daughter’s hand, and they look into each other’s eyes. A mother and daughter in love, in peace, for just a moment.
Edmund opens the garage door and walks into the kitchen, where he sees his wife and daughter holding hands and teary-eyed.
“I, uh, should I give you two a moment,” Edmund utters.
Flora breaks her stare, looks at Edmund, and laughs. Jenny starts laughing too.
“No Ed, come on in,” Flora tells him while giggling.
Ed begins to walk over to kiss his daughter, and as he looks at his twenty-five-year-old, grown, beautiful daughter, he notices a rip in her pants. He looks up at Flora with a mix of confusion and embarrassment on his face. Flora laughs. Jenny looks at her father and realizes his discovery. She starts laughing with Flora.
“What is this a statement?” Ed asks genuinely.
“Yes Ed,” Flora tries to act serious, amidst the laughs, “It’s time to free the ass, didn’t you hear?”
Jenny laughs harder, and Ed heads to the refrigerator and pulls out a Budweiser.
“I need a few more boxes of these,” Ed tells Flora.
Flora and Jenny keep laughing, and Ed joins in too. As it dies down, their smiles never do. Their love for one another has never died down, so why should their smiles?
After dinner, Jenny gathers herself to leave. Flora doesn’t want her to go, but she knows she has no choice.
“Please come back soon,” Flora says with tears, “I love you so much.”
Jenny hugs her hard and tells her mom, “I’ll be back real soon mom. Real soon”.
As she hugs her father goodbye, her mom attempts to place a $100 bill in Jenny’s pocket subtly.
“Mom, what are you doing?” Jenny asks.
Ed sees Flora’s operation, and he squeezes Jenny harder and slowly turns her body to the left, out of sight from Flora. She places the bill in Jenny’s pocket without Jenny noticing. She knows, of course. She won’t tell them because she knows it makes them feel safer.
The small family heads to the door. They form one big final hug, and they watch Jenny get into her car. They watch her turn it on and back out of the driveway. They watch her wave dramatically to her parents with a giant smile. They watch her drive off. They remember this day perfectly twenty years later. Who would forget the last time they saw their child?
Edmund and Flora sit on their chairs, listening to the occasional creek from the rocking. They hold their teacups, and the boiling water slowly starts to cool. There are so many things they will never do. The two spend their days doing as much as possible while doing nothing at all. Edmund will read his newspaper, and Flora will sort the bookshelf. She hasn’t read a book in years. It gets her hopes up too high. It makes her feel like there is another way, though she knows there is not.
When your only child dies, your only role in life is to grieve. But when you’re only child dies at twenty-five, your only function is to stay alive. Flora and Edmund barely managed that. The initial shock and dread and despair almost got them. Sometimes they wish it had. But the two went back to work and canceled their retirement plans. They worked and worked for eighteen more years. It distracted them just enough to stay afloat. They skipped parties and weddings. They spent their time off organizing and gardening and dusting, and mowing.
Now they are retired, and they must sit with themselves all day. They’ve long since given up the show they put on. Flora buys the groceries once a week, just the necessities, no sweets or snacks. Edmund mows the lawn every two weeks or just before the neighbors get concerned.
When 7 PM hits, it’s time for bed. They don’t sleep, of course, but they like to pretend. To lie there and imagine their life if that driver had drunk one less bottle. The TV is on just in case their tears make noise. The couple looks out for each other that way.
Junior didn’t wait for his father to kick him out. He saved him the embarrassment and fled on his own. There were 200 dollars in his pocket; he’d been saving for three years. Birthday money and bottle collections; the small things add up.
The plan was to leave on his 16th birthday, just over fifteen months away. He’d take the bus from Greensburg to Indianapolis, then get a train ticket to Chicago. There he can start his life; there, he can be himself, unapologetically.
But Junior’s desire got the best of him. Perhaps he should have known the boy on Instagram was too good to be true. Jessie was his name. Wavy blonde hair, bright green eyes. There were only a few pictures on his account, but Junior was already in love. Jessie was kind and understanding. Forward, too. Jessie wanted to meet somewhere and practice kissing. He’d never done it before! Just like Junior. Somewhere discreet, maybe behind the church. Junior’s gut told him something was off; this fast? Is it really this easy? The thought of being with a boy felt impossible; now, it was within his reach. He agreed to meet Jessie and start his life.
The first thing Junior saw behind the church was the camera flash. It was Jessie’s flashlight on his phone, Junior thought. When the snickering started, he understood what it meant. The end is what it was. His childhood was now complete. The boys came out of the dark, teeth showing. Their laughter was drowning Junior; he tried to take a breath.
Maybe he could have begged, pleaded with them not to post it. Junior did not have the energy to present his argument. Five minutes ago, he thought he was meeting his soon-to-be boyfriend. Five minutes ago, he felt his lips would be on another boy’s lips. Now the only things on his lips are his tears.
“Can you wait to post that until tomorrow?” Junior asked the boys. The same way someone would ask another to cash that check on Friday.
The boys were going to wait anyway; they’d get more reactions during the daytime.
Junior went home and began to pack. Subconsciously, he must have suspected this was a risk because before he left to meet Jessie, he had restocked his getaway bag. He did his laundry. He threw away the water bottles and spritzed the room with Frebreeze. He dusted his dresser and organized his desk. He put on his backpack and picked up his bag of clothes. And he stepped outside and walked into the darkness.
Two years ago, Junior’s father said a dead son was better than a gay one.
One night in Chicago was all it took for Junior to realize he can’t stay there. A 14-year-old can only do so much for money, and 2oo dollars can only last so long. It was three in the morning, and Junior made his way back to the train station. He wasn’t going back home, but he was going back to what he knew.
The train ride to Lafeyette was quiet, and so was Junior’s mind. “Defeat” was the only word he could hear. He already spent 120 dollars on the train and bus tickets. He’s furious at himself for being so foolish, but he’s foolish for thinking he should have to make these decisions. “No child should be put in this position,” Flora will have said.
Junior walks the street of Lafeyette in the early morning and heads into a diner. He sits near an older couple and orders a cup of coffee.
“Whadya like to eat, sweetie?” The waitress asks Junior.
“Just coffee for now, please,” Junior responds, trying to convince himself he’s not hungry.
The waitress smiles and pours Junior a hot cup of coffee. He thinks about his father. Every Sunday, he’d take the kids to a diner after church. He’d let Junior sip his coffee sometimes. Junior takes a sip of his coffee as he relives this memory. He swallows the bitter drink. He smiles lightly. Then he cries. He makes little noise, but he sees a woman look up. She can recognize that sound anywhere.
How Flora convinced Edmund to go out to breakfast remains a mystery. But first, she had to convince herself. Maggie’s Diner was a Sunday afternoon tradition for the family. They’d wake up at 10 PM, conveniently right at the time mass would start. Flora and Edmund would pretend to be angry at themselves before closing their eyes and falling back to sleep.
“We’re attending Saint Mattress today,” Edmund would tell her. Flora would always laugh, close her eyes, and dream.
Did Jenny turn off their alarms at night while her parents were sleeping? Yes. Did Jenny’s parents secretly know she did this? Also yes.
Flora smiles in the mirror, thinking about those Sundays. She wants to be close to Jenny; she wants to go back to the Diner.
“I don’t know, Flora, I’m not really in the mood to get all done up,” Edmund tells his wife.
“It’s a diner, Ed, not church,” Flora tries to convince her husband. “we need to do something, love, I can’t spend the rest of my life like this,” she adds.
Edmund considers this. He gets out of his chair and heads to their room.
“Let me just shower first,” he tells her. Flora smiles.
Flora and Edmund stopped drinking coffee years ago. It kept them up far too long, and lord knows how much they did not want to be awake. Since then, decaffeinated tea has been their drink. Neither of them ever really liked tea.
Flora and Edmund order water when they sit down at Maggie’s. Edmund orders eggs and sausage, and Flora orders oatmeal and a grapefruit.
“This is nice,” Flora comments as she mixes her oatmeal with a spoon.
“It is,” Edmund responds as he chops his sausage with a fork.
That’s when she hears it, crying. Her instincts make her look up and over to the noise. She sees a boy; he must be 13, she thinks. He’s wearing a beaten-down sweatshirt and ripped jeans. He has two hands on his coffee cup, and she sees the tears falling into it.
She gets up immediately, and she walks to him.
“Hi, my dear,” she tells him as she puts her arm around his neck.
“Hi,” the boy says.
“I’m Flora,” she introduces herself.
“Junior,” the boy responds.
Flora smiles lightly and gently says, “Junior, I want to make sure you’re okay. I can see you’re upset, what can I do?”
Junior tries to answer, but the tears forming in his eyes are ready to burst.
“I, uh, I-” he stops, one more word, and the tears will come out.
“Now sweetheart, it’s going to be okay, I promise you that” Flora rubs his back.
Junior lets himself go; he cries. He sobs like he hasn’t ever sobbed before. He leans into Flora. She doesn’t react. She holds Junior tighter.
“I know,” Flora whispers, “I know.”
Edmund rushes over. His face was concerned, ready to help. He sits on the other side of Junior.
Junior lifts his head from Flora’s shoulder; his crying begins to slow. Flora’s sweater is soaked with Junior’s tears. Flora could not care less. The only thing she cares about is protecting this boy she’s known for one minute.
Edmund pats Junior on his back. “Hey there, buddy,” he says, “I’m Ed.”
“Junior,” he answers.
“Junior, I just ordered a big plate of bacon, but I can’t finish it all, would you help me out and come eat with us?” Ed asks.
Junior nods his head reluctantly. He knows they’re just being nice, but he’s never felt more comfortable with anyone before.
“Uh, yeah, sure,” Junior responds.
“Great!” Ed smiles.
“Let’s go sit at the table, honey,” Flora instructs Junior and walks him over to her table. Her arm still yet to leave his neck.
Edmund and Flora attempt to hide their tears when Junior tells them his story. All of it, his family, his classmates, his bullies. He tells them his self-hatred and his plans and his tragedies.
“Honey, I am so, so sorry” Flora let out a small tear. “No child should be put in this position,” she adds.
Junior gets a text. It’s his dad. Three words-
Don’t come back.
He shows it to Ed and Flora. They gasp.
Flora and Ed look at each other. They nod.
“Junior, we’d be honored to have you over, for as long as you’d like,” Flora says.
Junior’s eyes light up, but he knows he can’t. “Oh, I couldn’t do tha-” he responds before Ed interrupts him.
“Junior, we need you more than you need us.” And it’s true.
Junior smiles, “okay,” he says.
The waitress comes back, “aw, your grandparents finally arrived!” she smiles. Junior doesn’t correct her.
“Can I get you anything else?” the waitress asks the table.
Flora looks up, “I’ll have a coffee!” she says excitedly.
She’ll need the energy, she thinks.
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THIS IS A BEAUTIFUL STORY. THANK YOU FOR SHARING!
Thank you so much!!