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It is bewildering to me that a screech of tires and a thud that I didn’t even hear could have affected my life on the opposite side of the country—but it did. Uncle Dan. Aunt Cheryl. Gone. I had barely even known them. The last time I had seen them, I was seven. Now, I am fourteen. My life has been disturbed. No one ever really expects that kind of stuff to happen. Here’s reality for you: it does. And you know what else? The cousins I met half my life ago in LA are going to be living with us. Well, I should say, the cousin I met half my life ago. The twins were born a few years later.
“Mom,” I said as my mother signaled left, “why does she hate me so much?” There was a moment of silence as she pulled onto Lyle Five Points.
She kept her eyes on the road. “Hon’, your cousin is trying to avoid sorting out her emotions.” She turned and looked me in the eye, just like she always does when she’s about to share a few words of wisdom. “It’s easier to be angry at people rather than to deal with the loss of the people you love. Give her time.”
I slid back in my seat and laid my knees against the dashboard. “How long? They’ve been here a month now, and Jill always finds something to yammer at me about. The twins are okay, but her? Ay-yi-yi.” I rubbed my eyes.
We headed down I-75. “Love her anyway. I know it doesn’t sound easy, and it certainly doesn’t sound like very much fun. But you’ve got to think, Bethany,” she looked at me seriously, “what kind of shape would we be in if we were only loved when we were acting lovable?”
“Well I know, but she’s unlovable all the time. What am I supposed to do? She hates the weather, she hates the area, and she especially hates sharing a room with me. It’s like my existence is some kind of insult to her.”
“I guess for now we’re just gonna have to heap burning coals of kindness, now won’t we?” My mother is a woman of Proverbs. I pulled down the sun visor and took a quick peek in the mirror as we bumped our way through the potholes into the parking lot. Mom dropped me off and I walked in, thinking about she had said. I wondered how Jill would respond to my new course of action. Probably in a similar manner that my teeth would in a few short moments. I hate going to the orthodontist.
When I got home, Jill was acting really touchy. That’s okay. My family becomes a professional bomb squad in her presence. I think Mom is the expert of the team. It’s her specialty, deactivating explosives. She had just brought up a load of laundry from the basement, and set them on our kitchen table. I joined her in the task before us.
“ Aunt Bekah!” What is it now? “I think Beth took my shorts!” Really?
“Honey,” my mother called out to the living room, “Bethany wouldn’t steal your laundry. Don’t jump to conclusions.” I met Mom’s tired eyes with one of my VERY long-suffering expressions. She paired up a couple socks. “Burning coals of kindness, Bethany,” she whispered to me.
Jill stomped into the kitchen. “Yeah, well where are they?!”
I held up the shorts I was folding up in front of me. “Are these the ones?”
“Oh. Yeah.” She quickly dusted her pride and shook it off.
Mom picked up a pair of pants and handed them to her niece. “Actually, you should probably be doing this too, Jill.”
“Um, okay.” She did not sound happy about it. Reading her book had just been postponed.
Scenes like these happened over and over again. Nothing huge, just little things Jill stretched to seem a lot worse than they really were. I was always doing her secret favors. Like wiping her crusty toothpaste spills off the bathroom counter. I didn’t think she had noticed. That was frustrating. I had a few slip-ups, but I did my best to show my cousin that I was not her enemy. It was just Life, that nasty creature that preys on all the good things that happen to us.
Did I mention I had a few slip-ups...? Well, you know those days when nothing good seems to be happening…and you feel grouchy even though you aren’t usually...?
I was trying to be nice, I really was. Jill has found the world of literature to be an escape to her. And she leaves those books scattered all over our floor. So I shifted them over towards her bed. I stacked them, just for good measure. Then she came in.
“Beth! What are you doing?! I had that book open to a certain spot.” She didn’t. Jill let out one of those sounds of exasperation that she’s gotten so good at. “Look, you’re invading my space. You’ve gotten so weird about moving my stuff around. It’s like you think I’m three or something. I am a very capable individual, and I don’t need your help, no offense.” She abruptly sat down on her bed, picked up a book, and quickly thumbed through the pages to find her spot.
No offense? I had been working very hard to be nice. She should’ve been kissing the ground I walk on for how much I’ve been tolerating her. It was my space that she and her books were invading. Not hers. Mine. My room. Of course I took offense. “Don’t you get it?! I’ve just been trying to be nice for the past month, and you don’t care. What did you want me to do? What did you want me to say?” I turned on my Dopey voice, “ ‘So I heard that your mom and dad died in a car crash. That must really suck.’ I’d feel like an idiot. I know they’re dead. They were my aunt and uncle for Pete’s sake. Everything I ever did was to send you the memo that I’m here for you! What kind of person does extra chores for FUN? Were you seriously so cloudy-minded as to think that I was just being the happy little free labor fairy?”
For once in her entire stay, Jill was silent. She was probably really shocked. I’m usually a doormat. But I couldn’t take her dirty feet anymore.
“I’m sorry,” she began slowly. “It wasn’t my intention to give you grief.” Were those really her eyes that looked so apologetic?
I coughed. “Really C4?” Wasn’t my misery the whole purpose of her time with us?
“C4?” She asked. She actually appeared to be showing signs of remorse! I sat down beside her and turned to look her in the eye.
“You know, C4, the explosive?—you’ve been kind of combustible lately. But…you know, I could have tried to be a little more understanding.” It was my turn to show a little contrition.
Jill sighed. “Well, at least you meant well.” I couldn’t believe how laid back she sounded. “I knew I was being a jerk… I just didn’t really care.”
“Yeah. You know, we need some sort of system to keep us from being at odds all the time.”
“Yes. I need to stop acting like a fire-breathing dragon.” She cracked half a smile and let out a half-hearted laugh.
“Here’s a thought: I’ll call you C4 when you’re overreacting. And you can call me…oh, I don’t know what you would want to call me…dare I ask?”
Jill looked thoughtful. “Carly.”
“Carly?” I don’t know what I was expecting. But that wasn’t it.
“She was my old babysitter.” Jill shivered.
“Okay, okay, I get the point.” I laughed. “I’ll try to stop being so motherly.”
“Deal.” We shook hands. It was about to get a whole lot better.
The crowds on North Main St. were just a sea of baseball caps and pony tails and the shaved heads of policemen—and a looootttttt of booths on either side of the elongated road. This was the top of just one of many hills on this street. I was extremely hesitant from all the many Homo sapiens I saw spilling over on our portion of the planet. Like ants. Jill was ready to divide and conquer.
“Umm…Jill? I’m—lights, fading, I think I’m gonna—“ I began to perform a mock faint.
“No.” She grabbed my shoulders and forced me to a fully standing position.
I began to laugh out my begging pleas. “But why?! I hate crowds.”
She linked arms with me and dragged me towards the road. “Because I’m DEHYDRATED! Come on, I want pink lemonade. Seriously, this is the Americana Festival, and it only happens once a year.”
I resolved myself to my agoraphobic fate and allowed my legs to wade through all of the people to follow Jill, wherever it was that she had in mind to go. It’s kind of hard to dissuade her when she’s engraved a decision on her brain.
We stopped in front of a very patriotic-looking concessions trailer. A sweaty 20-something woman leaned out of the window. “What can I get you?” she asked in a bored voice.
“Pink lemonade, please.” Jill began to get her money out in exact change. She is good at math, unlike me. Wait a minute, what does that name tag say?
When my cousin got her beverage, she took a long sip and we strode away, back into the crowd. Jill coughed out a laugh after her last thirsty gulp. “Carly? You really need to stop creeping on me from other people’s name tags.”
I slugged her, but I couldn’t hide my impish grin. We relinked arms, but this time, I did the steering. “Let’s check out that Native Heritage stand.”
As a sparkling crackly stream cruised into the atmosphere and blossomed with a resonating boom, I realized what a surprisingly great day it had been. Jill stretched out on the blanket I had spread out the grass. The fireworks sounded like a base drum, larger than life—our drums of change.
“Hear that, C4?” I asked.
“Haha, you’re so clever,” she said dryly.
I smiled. “I don’t think you’re hearing what I’m hearing.”
“Maybe you have voices in your head,” she said. I couldn’t see her face, but I heard the grin in her verbalization.
“No.” I fixated my gaze on the brilliant neon spider webs, lacing my fingers behind my head. “This happens every year. It reminds me that even if it’s been a crappy year, good things still happen. You hear a gigantic thunder, but I know that something will come very soon and bring life to the sky.” I thought the zing she’d brought to my life, and for once, I actually appreciated it. I turned to look at Jill’s shadowed face. “I will do everything in my power to help you realize that joy is around the bend, and you can release some of your sadness and experience a special kind of freedom. Happy Independence Day, Jill.”