Doubled over in laughter as she was, she almost missed the roll chucked at her head. Barely in time, she ducked and watched it fly past her shoulder and land in the waiting dog's mouth.
The dog had learned many meals ago that when the hairless pack began to laugh, there would be bounty at his feet. Tail wagging in anticipation of the next morsel to drop, he skidded away as Reina pushed off of the table, still shaking in mirth.
She looked across at Bobby, who was already aiming another piece of bread at her head. "I was kidding! You do not look like Mr. Clean." He paused in mid-strike with his blue eyes squinted in disbelief. "Mr. Clean is much cuter!" And with that, the roll flew across the table once again, right into Milo's waiting mouth.
"Reina, you are so mean! I would never insult Mr. Clean by comparing him to this dweeb!" Louisa joined into the banter, ready to deflect with her floral plate held before her face. Reina could only see the freckles framed around the young girl's face and just imagined those big brown eyes squinting in glee behind grandma's orchid pattern.
She glanced over at her parents, gauging their reaction to her siblings' shenanigans. Her dad held his head in his hands, and her mom causally kept sipping from her chablis, feigning ignorance that part of her hard work was ending up in the dog's stomach. They were used to dinners devolving in this household. More often than not, peals of laughter and fake headlocks rounded out their evenings though lately, they had been fewer and far between.
A quiet solemnity had fallen over her parents. Before, they had engaged with their trio of troublemakers, trading insults and bread rolls with the best of them. But ever since Bobby had signed up for the army and she had started college, the frivolity had been dying down. Tonight's dinner had been the first time in a long time they had all been able to sit together. Even Louisa's senior year of high school and her after-school clubs had her gone more often than not. Reina realized that for the first time, her parents didn't have their constant presence.
She refused to dwell on her parents' impending empty nest and instead concentrated on her next jab at her brother. His newly buzzed hair seemed to be the easiest target as he prepared for boot camp.
"Hey, time out. I need to get something." This stopped Bobby from running around the table to tackle her, and she took the opportunity to place her chair in his path as she continued. "I need to go find my sunglasses and keep the glint out of my eyes from your shiny head!"
As predicted, he tried to sweep around to grab her, but Louisa stretched out her leg just in time to have him stumble and flop. Milo jumped out of the way just before all 200 lbs of muscle landed on the tile floor. His thud had her wincing, and guilt found her extending her hand to help him off the ground.
Good-naturedly he accepted her token of peace and lithely stood up on his own two feet. Instead of letting go, though, he grabbed her into a bear hug and proceeded to poke her mercilessly. Reina squirmed in protest, tears beginning to form from the laughter that kept erupting from her throat. She rounded about and kicked up against Louisa, who was still holding grandma's plate in her hands.
In horror, all of them watched it fly and shatter against the floor and scatter across the dining room.
Dad's voice boomed over their collective gasps causing the three to meekly stare at the floor. Their mom, still silent, got up and grabbed the broom from the pantry behind her and began the painstaking job of sweeping up the shards. "You all act as if you're still little kids and don't think. Look at what you did! Now your mother has to clean up your mess." Disappointment made his words sting. They all could dismiss being yelled at, but when their parents showed genuine hurt at their actions, each of them could feel it in their core.
Reina watched his eyes, how they avoided looking at their mother even as she hung her head over the broom, sweeping under the table. Grey stragglers fell into her face, and she watched her mother's hand unconsciously tuck it behind her ears.
Reina couldn't remember the last time she had seen her mother's hair showing any sign of aging. All her life, she had religiously dyed it every four weeks and refused to let nature win. In this house, Reina had been taught to fight wrinkles and age spots from the moment she hit puberty.
She looked away, again refusing to acknowledge these changes in her parents. Louisa crouched under the table with the dustpan in hand as her dad grabbed a fresh beer from the fridge. Popping off the lid against the counter, he gestured for all of them to sit back down. "Look, guys, sorry I yelled. Myra, we can finish that later. I think we need to get this over with. The more we wait, the harder it gets. Come guys, sit. Your mom and I have something to tell you."
All Reina wanted to do was walk away. If she didn't hear the words, then they couldn't be real. If she ignored the signs, then they weren't happening. The last thing she wanted to do was be forced to pull her head out of the deep sand she had happily buried it in. Glancing at her siblings, she saw by the dour look on their faces they had the same thoughts of denial.
Even Milo, who had ran and hid during the good-natured brawl, returned to lay his head at her feet, his fuzzy snout tickling her toes as his shaggy tail quietly thumped against the ground. He looked up at her with his soulful brown eyes as if he knew she would need him.
"Bobby, your mom and I are so proud of you. Next month you leave us to begin your new life. We have every faith in you that you will be amazing at everything you do in the army. Reina, you are the first in our family to go to college. That alone is an accomplishment that makes us so proud of you, even more so of how dedicated you have been. We can't wait to watch you graduate. Louisa, our baby, you are almost all grown up! You are in the home stretch of high school and already have your sites set to follow in your sister's footsteps. You are amazing."
"Look, Pa, we all know how great we are and how much you love us, but you're scaring us. Mom is already on her second glass of wine. What is this really about?" Leave it to Louisa to get to the heart of the matter. Reina could feel Louisa's fingers seeking hers under the table. She gripped her baby sister's hand tightly and grabbed Bobby's on the other side. Together they were all ready to have the band-aid ripped off.
"What your dad is trying to say is, you guys are the light of our lives. But we have realized that we just aren't good together anymore. After Louisa's graduation, your father will be moving to a new apartment. We will keep this home as long as you guys need it. Once you are all moved out, we will sell it."
Reina's heart ached. The laughter that had started this evening seemed like centuries ago. She never imagined this would be their last family meal. Tears clouded her eyes, and she could feel Louisa sobbing next to her. Bobby's chair scraped the floor as he abruptly got up and left the room.
Her dad stared at the beer untouched in his hands, and her mom refilled her wine glass once again.
Never had a dinner gone so horribly wrong. She wished she could go back and bury herself once again in the sand, but with a sigh, Reina excused herself from the table.
Dinner was over.
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Very well written and poignant, your inclusion of the slow falling apart of routine in the story was one of my favourite parts! All the best with your next stories!