As soon as her red ranch-style house with its front porch deck came into view, Cindy sighed.
Pulling up to the curb, she turned off the car and leaned her head back on the seat.
The tension in her shoulders from the last hour seeped away into the light of the setting sun coming through her side window. Normally practice was fun but with Mike on her mind—
and what they decided to do—she just wanted to get home and convince herself she’d made the right choice. Maybe she’d even take Mike’s advice and bring up the topic of dating again.
Maybe. She sat straight and rolled her head from side to side, wincing as the tense stress bubbles popped and cracked.
She got out and walked along the driveway on the side of the house to enter through the back door. Climbing the steps of the back deck, she went inside to the kitchen and tossed her keys into the bowl sitting on the white Formica countertop. Cindy laughed as a scrawny pair of arms encircled her knees.
“Cinny,” her youngest brother cried.
She lifted him onto her hip. “Hey, Benny. Did you miss me?” She blew a raspberry on his chubby cheek and rubbed his fuzzy cropped hair.
She set Benny on his feet and one-arm-hugged the other little boys sitting at the round oak table. Joshua, eight, and Gabe, six, both pushed her away but smiled. They stopped running to her when they turned four. Benny had a year left to worship his big sister.
Her dad appeared from around the corner of the living room. He grabbed the silver handles on his wheelchair and pushed himself closer to the table, his thin arms and legs shaking from the effort. “Hey, baby girl. Just in time for dinner.”
She gave him a smile and glanced at Mama as she set a steaming bowl of green beans on the table and took her seat across from Cindy’s dad. Cindy sat between them, frowning at the tired slump to her mom’s shoulders and the bags under her eyes.
She’d seen the old pictures. Mama was a “looker” as Daddy had told them. Even after five kids, she still had a slim figure and only a few gray hairs. But battling Daddy’s illness was sure to add a few more—that and dealing with her stupid brother.
“Where’s Elijah?” Cindy asked. Her mom answered.
“He’s at the library studying with his friend Jamal.”
Right. The only thing Elijah studies with Jamal is beer.
“I thought we had to Huxtable it for dinner every night.” Cindy snorted and grabbed the nearest bowl. “Why does he get to skip?”
“Your brother is trying to make better choices,” her mom said. “You should support him.”
Avoiding the eye roll that would earn her a grounding, Cindy replied, “Oh, I do. He knows it, too.”
He knows I’ll kick his butt for hanging out with that thug. Cindy spooned potatoes on her plate, gritting her teeth. Now she’d have to deal with that tonight, too. Why couldn’t her brother get it together?
“Mama, she ain’t taking green beans.” Gabe complained.
“Ain’t is not a word, Gabe. And I am, so quit tattling.” Cindy put a scoop of beans next to her ham. She took a bite and made a face at Gabe, green beans hanging out of her mouth. He grinned and threw a bean at her plate.
Her dad laughed. “Hey now, you’re supposed to eat your food.”
His hands shook as he lifted his fork toward his mouth. The green beans he’d scooped fell back to the plate.
Stomach swooping, Cindy put her fork on the table and held her dad’s hand, helping him spear the beans so they wouldn’t fall off.
“Thank you,” he mumbled.
“No problem, Daddy.” She choked down another bite herself. The shaking had gotten worse. She swallowed her beans and smiled at her dad. “Track officially starts tomorrow.”
“Any new talent this year?” Her dad lifted his cup with both hands. He still spilled water on his chin.
Cindy bounced her knee under the table, taking her dad’s timely question as her cue to pass the baton.
“Well, there’s a new guy joining the team. Mike. He’s the boys’ soccer goalie and Hayden’s friend. He’s strong.” And funny. And cute. And an excellent kisser. And… She grabbed her water glass.
“I think your daddy meant are there any new girls. The boys aren’t your concern.” Her mom cut into her ham and speared a piece with her fork. Chewing, she pointed the fork at Cindy.
“You focus on your goals.”
Cindy’s face burned. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“Wait until college is through, then you can find a good one,” her mom said.
“There’s plenty of good kids here, Shirley.” Her dad winked at her, and Cindy gave him a shaky grin.
Fight for him, you big chicken. Keep trying! “Well, Mike is really nice. What is your idea of a good one, Mama?”
“Someone who won’t knock you up like half the girls today.”
“Mama!” Cindy glanced at her little brothers, glad they seemed more interested in building mashed potato mountains than listening to talk about boys and girls.
“I hear about it every day at the factory. Seems like all the ladies know at least one pregnant teen. I don’t want that to happen to you.”
Her dad laughed. “Mama’s right, baby girl. That’s not the future for you.”
“I agree, but I think I’m smart enough to date without letting that happen.” She met her mom’s raised eyebrow with one of her own. “Why don’t you let me try it and I can show you how responsible I am?”
Her mom shook her head, glancing at her husband. “Absolutely not.”
“Why not? You let Elijah date last year.”
Clearing his throat her dad said, “That’s true. We did.”
“That’s different,” her mom said. “He’s a boy.”
Cindy gritted her teeth. “So? Just because he can’t get knocked up doesn’t mean he can’t do it to someone else.”
“Watch your mouth, young lady.” Her mom nodded to her little brothers. Their wide eyes focused on Cindy. “You need to set a better example.”
“Right, I should just accept the double standard.”
“Why this sudden interest in dating?” Her mom squinted. “Is there something you need to tell us?”
“Only that you’re being totally unfair and sexist.” She stabbed her ham with her fork.
“Why can’t I go out with someone? I’m the only senior girl not allowed to date. I’m not a baby.”
“No, but you’re acting like one,” her mom said. “And those other girls aren’t my daughters, you are. And you’ll do as I say.”
“I thought this was America, the land of the free. Not the land of Shirley’s dictatorship.”
Her mom’s hand connected with Cindy’s cheek, echoing through the silent room. Cindy rubbed away the sting, glaring at her mom. Gabe stared at Cindy. Benny sniffled and Josh grabbed his hand.
Throat tight with angry tears, she glanced at her dad. He frowned, looking from Cindy to her mom. His head bobbed like Stevie Wonder and his left eye had partially closed. The knuckles on the hand holding the fork turned white while his mouth opened and closed, a low moan the only sound.
Cindy dropped her fork to her plate with a clatter.
“Daddy? I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She hugged his shoulders. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
He continued to shake, but patted her hand, his left eye twitching as a tear rolled out.
Her mom pushed out of her chair and rushed to his side.
Cindy glanced at her little brothers. “Why don’t you guys go get ready for your baths. I’ll be in there in a minute to help you.”
They exchanged a look with each other and nodded, running toward the bathroom.
Cindy drew a shaky breath. “Mama, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be disrespectful.”
Her mom ignored her and reached for her dad. “It’s okay, Carl. Don’t worry. Cindy and I can handle this.” She patted his cheek and stroked his graying hair, staring into his watery eyes.
“Shhh. It’s fine. We’re fine.”
She continued to reassure him until his shaking lessened and he relaxed his death grip on his fork. Once his eyes were again equal sized, he took a deep breath, sinking back into his wheelchair.
“I’m okay,” he said. He patted Cindy’s knee. Only half of his mouth smiled. “Don’t you worry.”
Face on fire, Cindy stood and picked up her plate. “I’ll go help them with their baths.
Mama leave the dishes. I’ll do them for you.” She set her plate on the counter and stepped into the living room, suppressing a sob.
Her mother followed. Looking back at her husband, she whispered to Cindy, “I’ll ask you again. Is there something you need to tell me?”
Mike was wrong. Her family wasn’t ready. She swallowed. “No, Mama.”
“Shirley?” her dad called.
“I’m coming, babe.” Wrinkling her forehead, she patted Cindy’s cheek. “I’m sorry I hit you.”
Cindy lied again. “It’s okay. The boys are waiting. I’ll go take care of them. Then I think I’ll go… study with Elijah.”
Her mom returned to the kitchen and kissed Daddy on the cheek.
Sadness seeped through the anger as Cindy watched them. Sometimes her parents’ love made her sad. The disease was taking its toll on Daddy, and Mama suffered the effects, too.
Cindy could only do so much to keep him healthy and reduce his stress. Helping with her little brothers, keeping Elijah out of trouble—and hiding her relationship with Mike.
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