Chapter 1: The Unexpected
Frannie lies on her stomach on her bed drawing in her journal, the strains of an ancient Pink song playing in the background.
Momma please stop crying
I can’t stand the sound
Your pain is painful
And it’s tearing me down
Frankie hears what’s playing from the living room, clicks the remote to pause what he’s doing, and gets up to go to his sister’s room. He cracks open the door.
. . . fight about money
About me and my brother
And this I come home to
This is my shelter
It ain’t easy growing up in World War III
Never knowing what love could be
Frannie’s faint humming turns into full-blown singing along with the next two lines.
“I don’t want love to destroy me
Like it has done my family.”
She quiets back down to just humming as Frankie sits down beside her on the bed and watches her draw, putting a hand on her back, trying to be comforting.
Can we work it out?
Can we be a family?
I promise I’ll be better
Mommy I’ll do anything
Can we work it out?
Can we be a family?
I promise I’ll be better
Daddy please don’t leave
But when that last lyric plays he has to say something.
“Frannie, Daddy didn’t leave. He died.”
“I know,” Frannie says. “But do you really think he’d stick around for this?”
“Mom’s a mess. Do you really think Dad would put up with any of this? Huh?”
“She’s a mess because of Dad,” Frankie says lowly.
Frannie sighs. He’s right. Her twin brother’s always right. It pisses her off sometimes. “I just hope she doesn’t ruin tomorrow. It’s not every day that we turn twelve, you know.”
“She won’t,” Frankie says firmly, ever the stupid optimist.
Frannie gives him a look as the Pink song continues in the background.
In our family portrait we look pretty normal,
We look pretty happy,
Let’s go back to that
Frannie hopes he’s right. God, why can’t we just be normal kids with a normal Mom?
Their phone rings. They’re still sharing a phone at age eleven because Mom says can’t she afford two. Uncle Sonny and Aunty Am don’t like it – don’t think it’s safe for them not to each have their own. They’ve been trying to play that to their advantage . . .
It’s the police. Frannie sighs deeply and buries her face in the bedspread while Frankie calmly accepts the call.
Daddy please don’t leave . . .
Daddy please don’t leave . . .
Daddy please don’t leave . . .
She’d rather listen to Pink forever than her brother answering that call right now.
“The twins up yet?” Sonny asks his overly pregnant wife as she makes her way back to their bedroom.
“No, but Jesse is.” Amanda shakes her head. “That girl wakes up like it’s Christmas every time the twins are here. But how did she ever know? They came in so late.”
“Jesse’s got a sixth sense about them or something.” He shrugs. “So, who’s taking the runt to Jacqueline’s?”
“Uh, who can more easily fit behind a steering wheel? And I’ve asked you to stop calling her that. Your firstborn child is going to grow up with a complex.”
“Awww . . . . c’mon. She knows I say it lovingly.” He grins and kisses his wife on the cheek. “And with that, I’m off. Don’t let Jesse bug the twins though. I know she loves them but they’re big kids now and she’s not.”
Sonny and Amanda had gotten the call late last night. Carlotta was in the drunk tank again, and she wasn’t being arraigned until the next day. For what, Frankie hadn’t been able to discern even from listening carefully to his mother’s slurred words. Frannie had been crying when she called her Aunty Am.
Their twelfth birthday party had been quickly moved to Sonny and Amanda’s place.
Jesse’s at the breakfast table in her best party dress, pumping her legs under her chair.
“How did you know there was going to be a party, baby?” Amanda asks her daughter.
Jesse just smiles mysteriously without saying a word.
“Well, now we better get all the guests here,” Amanda muses, looking down at the list Frannie and Frankie had provided her. The list of all of the parents she needed to contact so she could let them know the party wouldn’t be at Carlotta’s today is quite long. She’s still ploughing through it when the birthday boy and girl show up, still in their PJ’s and rubbing at their eyes.
“Looks like someone’s already ready for the party,” Frankie says and smirks when he notices Jesse.
She stands up, spins round to show him her dress and then grabs both twins in for a hug.
Amanda gloms onto the little group carefully herself and kisses both of the twins’ heads. An easy feat now that they’re both just about one head shy of her. It won’t be long before they surpass her. Where have the years gone? “Happy birthday, you two.”
Sonny returns home. “Okay, the runt is squared away.”
“Uncle Sonny!” both twins exclaim.
“Hey there guys! What’s it like being twelve?”
“We don’t know yet. It’s only been a few minutes,” Frankie answers him.
“For YOU, maybe,” Frannie corrects.
“Ugh, don’t get my OLDER sister started,” Frankie says and looks around. “Where’s –?”
“Took her to a friend’s. It’s been planned for a while. Sorry she won’t be at your party today, guys. But you’ve still got Jesse.”
“Yay!” Jesse exclaims and holds up her hands for airplane.
Frankie quickly obliges, giving her one big swing around the room.
“And little Vince, right?” Frannie asks, pointing to Amanda’s stomach. “He’ll be with us.”
“We’re still not sure if it’s a boy, Frannie . . .”
“How can you not be sure? Everyone else knows by the time they’re as far along as you,” she argues.
“Yeah,” Frankie says. “Besides, you two need a boy. Too many girls around, am I right Uncle Sonny?”
“Well big guy, I’m not one to talk,” Sonny chuckles. “I was raised with sisters. Lots of sisters.”
After breakfast, Sonny and Amanda are watching Frankie toss the football with Jesse in the yard. Frannie is busy setting up the living room for her reading party. Frannie and Frankie have such different interests – and friends – yet they still insisted on celebrating together. They would not be separated on their special day. Frannie’s friends would each bring two books to share and they would all read and discuss – and try to keep the conversation on books, not boys. Frankie’s friends were coming over to play football. Heavily pregnant as she was, Amanda would be supervising that since Sonny would be ill-equipped to handle it. Besides, they needed a referee and although Sonny would no doubt be amusing should he attempt to referee, he’d be way out of his depth.
“Good, Jesse,” Frankie says to Amanda’s first-born daughter. “Now try it this way.”
He tosses her the ball again.
“He’s so patient with her,” Amanda muses, thinking about what a kind boy he is. Just like his Uncle Sonny.
“Yeah, it’s amazing,” her husband answers her. “Especially cause Emma usually just drives him up a wall.”
“Well, she ruins everything.”
“I see you’re taking his side.” He chuckles.
“Just calling it like I see it.”
“Yeah, I always assumed he was annoyed with her ‘cause she was littler. Couldn’t do what the big kids did. But he seems to be fine with Jesse, even though she’s much younger.” He crosses his arms and thinks about that. “Huh.”
“It’s not always about age. Some people just rub each other the wrong way. I think Frankie’s a good kid – nice and polite to everyone. But you can’t expect him to actually LIKE everyone. He’s not a saint – and his patience isn’t limitless. He’s a little kid.”
“Yeah, I guess. Hey, lemme check on Frannie. I haven’t heard a peep out of her in a while.”
“A silent child is a deadly child, as we’ve well learned,” Amanda says with a wry grin.
“Copy that.” He nods and starts searching the house.
He walks past the closed guest bathroom door in the hallway and hears Frannie yell out in fright, “Uncle Sonny don’t come in here!”
He stops, furrows his brow, and squints back at the door. Why would I enter an occupied bathroom? But her tone had given him pause. He walks back to the closed door. “Hey, are you alright?”
“Just don’t come in here!”
“Okay, I won’t.” Sonny hesitates. “Do you need anything, Frannie?”
After a bit of silence he hears. “Aunty Am. Please go get Aunty Am. I think I need Aunty Am.”
“Okay. Hold on.” He heads back to the porch and finds his wife. “There’s some kind of crisis in the bathroom.”
“Just . . . Just, come with me.”
She follows him back to the guest bathroom in the hall.
“Okay, I’ve got her,” he says to the closed door. “You can come out now.”
“No. Aunty Am, only you,” they hear Frannie say frantically. Then she continues, “Please go away, Uncle Sonny!”
“I’ve got this,” Amanda says and tries to shoo Sonny off, understanding what’s going on immediately.
“What?” he says, totally perplexed, still standing there.
“Just Frannie and me, okay. We’ll be fine. I’ve got this. Go watch Frankie and Jesse now. Shoo.”
Once he’s gone Amanda says to the closed door, “It’s just me now, honey. Can I come in?”
The door opens slowly and Frannie lets her in.
“I have to show you something,” Frannie says, sits down on the toilet and drops her underwear. She points at the crotch and asks matter-of-factly, “Is this my period?”
Amanda is a little startled at Frannie’s straightforwardness, remembering her own first period, which she tried desperately to hide from her own mother. “Yes honey, it is.”
“Good,” Frannie smiles a bit. “So what do I do?”
Amanda finds various menstrual products in the bathroom cabinet and guides Frannie through the use of each one. And they also discuss other sanitary options that she doesn’t happen to have on hand so that she’s educated on everything that’s available.
And then Frannie asks the question . . .
“So are we going to have the talk now?"
“The sex talk.”
Chapter 2: Boys, Girls, & Babies
Frankie tosses Uncle Sonny the ball and then laughs as his uncle makes a fool of himself trying to catch it.
“Hey, I’m not your father, okay?” Uncle Sonny says. “Some people swore he had sticky fingers. Called him The Gecko.”
That gives Frankie pause. “What was Daddy like, Uncle Sonny? What was he really like?”
Amanda stammers. “The sex talk? You mean you don’t know –“
“Oh, I know how babies are made, Aunty Am,” Frannie says disdainfully, feigning maturity. “I watch porn.”
“Uh . . .”
“Mommy said when I got my period we’d talk about sex and love and boys and marriage. All that.” She reaches out to touch Amanda’s belly. “Can I?”
Frannie can feel the baby moving. He’s been so restless. Amanda’s happy for the distraction. What the hell was she supposed to say to this girl? Her own beliefs on this stuff were different than her Catholic husband’s. And who knew what his cousin Carlotta’s were? Just how Catholic was she?
“I want to have a baby someday,” Frannie says forlornly. “But I don’t want to fall in love. And the love, marriage, sex, baby thing kinda all goes together, doesn’t it?”
“Why don’t you want to fall in love, Frannie?” Amanda asks, concerned.
“Because it destroys you,” Frannie answers with the most solemn look clouding her blue eyes.
“Well, Vinnie was –“
“Wait, ‘Vinnie’? I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone call my dad that before,” Frankie says.
“It’s what we called him when we were real young.” Sonny thinks back. “Until he was about your age. Then he started going by Vince.”
“Kinda like you guys all call me Frankie – ‘cause I’m still a little kid.” He thinks about that a bit, rotates the football in his hands, smiling. “’Vinnie.’ Huh. Cool.”
“Toss it,” Sonny says to Frankie.
Frankie pulls the football back, ready for a throw. “Sure, Uncle Sonny. But get ready. I don’t think your fingers are sticky enough for –“
Amanda envelopes Frannie in as tight a hug as she can manage, given her big belly. “Oh hon, it doesn’t have to destroy you.”
Frannie starts crying. “It destroyed Mom. She can’t function without Dad.”
Once again Amanda feels that familiar anger towards the twins’ mother.
“It doesn’t have to destroy, Frannie. It can. But it doesn’t have to.” She pulls Frannie away at bit. “Does it look like love has destroyed me or your uncle?”
“No,” Frannie says defiantly. “But you’re both still alive. What will happen when one of you dies? You love each other too much. Way too much. It’s dangerous.”
“I don’t want that for myself. No!” she says obstinately, pushing her hands out in protest.
She runs from the bathroom.
The doorbell rings before Frankie can throw the ball and complete his sentence.
“Hey! Hey! Hey!” Sonny exclaims as he opens the door for his cousin Leo. He gives him a careful hug because he’s got a tiny little newborn in his arms. “Can I?”
“Sure, Uncle Sonny,” Leo hands over his daughter. She’s just days old and he looks very tired, not at all like the teenager who first sized up Amanda that day he had used the surveillance van to pick up the kids from CCD all those years ago. King Leer indeed. This kid can barely keep his eyes open now that he’s a parent.
“Oh, can I see?” Frankie asks. Sonny tilts the baby down to his level and she starts crying.
Sonny and Leo laugh.
“Guess she doesn’t like me,” Frankie says with a pout.
“No, she likes you plenty,” Leo says reassuringly. He takes his daughter back from Sonny, soothes her a little bit, and hands her back to Frankie himself. “See?”
Sonny is beaming proudly. “See Leo, I told you that you’d make a good dad.”
“I don’t know, Uncle Sonny,” Leo says doubtfully, but he smiles. “It’s early yet.”
“It’s fine. You’ll be just fine.”
“I didn’t expect babies to come so soon . . .”
“Well that’s what happens when –“
They both look at Frankie.
“What? I know what you’re talking about. I watch porn.”
Sonny’s eyebrows rise and Leo scratches the back of his neck for a second. Then they all laugh.
“Alright, little man,” Leo says, and claps him on the back.
“Call me Frank.”
“Frank?” Sonny and Leo both ask.
“Yes, Frank. I’ve decided I want to go by Frank now. I’m a big boy.”
“You sure are,” Leo says and smiles warmly down at his ‘not so little’ cousin.
The doorbell rings again and now it’s cousin Emma and her family. From out of nowhere, Frannie grabs her little cousin and pulls her into the bathroom, telling her she’s gotta show her something.
Sonny turns towards his wife who’s waddling down the hallway towards him in such a sexy way – moving in a way only she can while pregnant. Just looking at her makes him sport the goofiest grin.
When she arrives he asks, “What is so fascinating in there?”
He jerks his hand back towards the bathroom and she covers it with her own. “Nothing for you to be concerned about.”
As the girls are assembling themselves for the reading party there’s a bit of a brouhaha over who’s sitting where. Sonny’s niece, Elizabeth, is being a royal pain as usual. God, his sister Theresa’s children are so spoiled! Thank goodness only Elizabeth is here today. There’s a lot of “Well, Frannie said this” and “Frannie said that.” He rolls his eyes and then looks around. Where did Frannie disappear to? She’s probably needed to get all this sorted out.
Amanda’s getting all the boys assembled and divided up for a scrimmage. There’s a lot of complaining. Are these boys or –? . . . they’re boys. Just boys. Boys that mostly don’t even play on a team. She sighs. Can’t exactly yell at little boys and tell them to man up – they aren’t even close to men yet. And Frankie’s best friend, Tyler, from school . . . what is he doing? Just . . . lingering?
He’s talking with Frannie at the screen door, his dark, glossy head bobbing as she talks with her hands.
Amanda impatiently motions him over and he says one last thing to her while his ears and the back of his neck turn red. “I’ll be . . . in the yard. Later . . . Yeah. In the yard. Should you want to . . .”
“Okay,” Frannie says cheerfully, nervously, and bounces inside, back to attend to her reading party.
Good. Now they can play.
“Elizabeth, don’t argue with me!” Frannie practically shouts and points. “I want Emma to sit on my left. Don’t push her out of her place.”
Elizabeth pouts and crosses her arms. “But isn’t Emmaline your best friend?”
“Yes!” Frannie says exasperated. She can’t believe she has to explain this stuff to her older cousin. “Best friends and best cousins are not the same thing. Emmaline’s my best friend – she will sit on my right and Emma’s now my best cousin – so she will sit on my left. Okay?”
“When did that happen? I thought you and Frankie hated Emma.” Elizabeth challenges.
Emma looks stricken, and even smaller if possible.
“We never hated Emma. We just . . .” Frannie trails off.
Elizabeth smiles with satisfaction for a second, but then looks down and away and mutters bitterly to herself, “I wish I had a best cousin.”
“You know what, Elizabeth?” Frannie says. She’s had it with her older cousin bossing her friends around and stuff. She can’t even remember why she invited her anyway.
“Maybe if you were nicer you would have one.”
“I don’t need all your sixth grade baby crap! I’m in middle school!” Elizabeth exclaims and stomps out of the room. She practically runs right into her Uncle Sonny who’s on his way back from the kitchen.
“Oof! Whoa, there Lizzie!”
She pushes past him, anger and unshed tears in her eyes.
He turns his gaze back to the girls in the room, sprawled out on pillows, books everywhere. “What did you guys say to Elizabeth? I’ve only been gone for twenty seconds.”
“We didn’t say anything.”
“Yeah. She was the one being mean.”
“Frannie?” Uncle Sonny turns to the birthday girl.
Frannie tries to explain what just went down to her uncle when he hears the front door open and shut. Elizabeth. Crap. He puts up a hand. “Hold that thought.”
But Elizabeth’s just talking on her phone out in front. Nothing crazy like running away. So Sonny just listens. He’s not hiding or anything, but she hasn’t noticed that he’s come out yet and her back is still to him.
“Thank you for listening to me. You always make me feel better,” she giggles softly.
There’s some silence as she sways a little back and forth. Then, “Don’t call me Betts.”
More giggles, then a louder laugh. “You can call me Liz, but never Betty, that's horribly old fashioned. So, don’t call me Betts . . ."
Back to giggles.
“That’s even worse! Stop!”
Sonny realizes his niece is likely talking to a boyfriend or at the very least some guy she’s interested in. Some guy who’s moving in . . .
“You gonna come back to the party?” Sonny interrupts, making his presence known.
“Oh!” Elizabeth startles a little and then laughs, nods at her uncle, and turns back to the phone. “That’s my uncle. You know, the strict one. Yeah, I’d better go.”
She laughs again. “Yeah, make sure you’re nice to me. My aunt’s a cop and he’s a prosecutor. They’ll tag-team your ass if you aren’t. Bye.”
“Who was that?” Sonny asks Elizabeth.
“Uh . . .”
“Does ‘Uh . . . ‘ have a name?”
“Mom’s okay with it.”
“Okay with what?”
“That I have a boyfriend.”
Sonny sighs. “You guys grow up too fast, you know. You, your sister, the twins . . . Soon Jesse . . . the runt . . . then . . .”
“And we all have our own love lives whether you like it or not,” Elizabeth says matter-of-factly.
“Does your boyfriend like your smart mouth?”
“Does Aunty Am like yours?”
Sonny thinks for a minute.
“You know who wouldn’t like this?”
She nods, knowingly.
“Nope, he wouldn't like it - not one bit." Sonny clucks his tongue and shakes his head. "And oh boy, your mother, Theresa? And your Aunt Gina? Wow. You think I’m strict? You should have seen my dad with those two.”
Elizabeth chuckles softly. She'd heard some stories.
"He was all like this." Sonny waves his hands in the air for a second and then pretends to pound an invisible staff into the ground with great force, in an imitation of the wizard Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings. He says in a booming voice, “No boy shall pass!”
“You’re such a dork, Uncle Sonny.”
Chapter 3: The Intractable Cousin
“Tyler!” Frankie completes another pass to his buddy Tyler who makes yet another touchdown. They are absolutely slaughtering the other team. The two boys high-five in the end zone and the rest of the team celebrates, too.
Leo just shakes his head and smiles. He’s been watching from the sidelines while his baby girl sleeps inside an old crib that Uncle Sonny and Aunty Am had never gotten rid of. It had been a present for Amanda from her mother when Jesse was born and would soon belong to their newest addition.
“Okay guys, break it up,” Amanda calls. “Time to mix up the teams again.”
“Awww! But Aunty Am, Tyler and I are killing it!” Frankie protests.
“Well, then, let’s see if you can kill it separately.”
“Game on,” Tyler says, a playfully wicked smile forming on his lips as he snags the ball from Frankie. “Let’s see what you’re made of, birthday boy!”
“Bring it!” Frankie challenges back.
“Let’s get you guys some teammates first, eh?” Amanda interjects. “Before you two rain down Armageddon on this poor lawn here all on your own.”
“Sure thing, Aunty Am.”
The phone rings and Sonny goes back inside to get it. Elizabeth follows him down the hallway for a bit, but then finds her way back to the reading party.
“Yeah?” He hangs his head when he hears her voice. “Yeah, yeah it’s good that you’re out of the tank, C, but –“
He listens carefully to the slurred words on the other line.
“No. You’re not coming here. You’re not ruining this for them.” How dare she call like this?
Well, at least she called. She could have just shown up.
Somehow the twins’ mother, Carlotta got released from jail, went through her arraignment on Lord knows what charges, and proceeded to get drunk immediately. He’s livid.
“I don’t care if they’re your kids –“
He sees the two little brown eyes of Emma peeping around the corner and makes a quick motion to shoo her away with his hand. She shouldn’t be hearing this. No one should.
And he’s trying so hard not to yell. “Look, C. Get yourself straightened out and maybe we’ll let you see the kids after dinner, but I swear to God if you’re still drunk by then, they’re staying with us tonight.”
The eyes peep around the corner again but he doesn’t notice.
“I don’t care if it’s their birthday!” His nostrils flare. “Yes, I do realize it’s a once in a lifetime thing. But YOU messed that up. YOU should have thought about that last night. About maybe trying to be sober for their special day so you don’t ruin it for them.”
He whimpers a little and slumps against the wall. “I just can’t anymore.”
He hangs up the phone and puts a hand over his face.
Emma steps into the kitchen.
“Emma, I said get out of here!”
“Hey, what’s wrong?” Amanda asks as soon as she comes into the kitchen and sees her husband slumped against the wall, just staring off into space.
“Uh, not quite,” Amanda says as Jesse pops out from behind her.
“Hey there, Jesse girl. Helping your mom with the football?”
“Yeah, and Frankie’s going to teach me more when the party’s over. So I’m waiting to play. Let the big kids play first, right Mommy?”
“That’s more your Dad’s rule. If the big kids want to let you play with them –“
“Hey, what are you teaching her now?”
“Not your childhood trauma. Obviously,” she gives him a wry look. “I played with the big kids no problem.”
“What, are you saying you were more mature than me?”
“Perhaps I was just less silly.”
“What’s wrong with silly?” He actually looks hurt for a second, but then plays silly-uber-goober with Jesse for a few seconds, just to prove his point.
“I love you, silly,” Amanda says, and kisses him. Kisses him silly. Then she grabs a huge bowl of quartered oranges for “half-time” out of the fridge.
“Jesse, can you take these out to the yard for the boys? I’m going to stay in here for a bit, okay?”
“Okay!” She looks elated at being given such a responsibility as she takes the bowl from her mother’s hands.
When she’s gone Amanda turns back to her husband. “Hey, what is it? What’s going on?”
“My cousin,” he says darkly.
“Oh no,” Amanda’s face gets that drawn look that seems to be reserved for when her sister, Kim messes up or when they have to deal with Carlotta.
“Yeah.” Sonny wrings his hands in agitation. “She just couldn’t be sober. Not even for today.”
“Yeah. Freshly released from jail and drunk as a skunk. I wonder what she did this time. She had an arraignment, remember?”
“And then she’s drinking again –?” His hands curl into fists.
“Hey,” Amanda says, placing a hand on his shoulder, looking him straight in the eye. “We got this. Okay?”
He nods and envelops her in a hug.
“We got those kids. We won’t let Carlotta hurt them.”
“I don’t think we can prevent that,” he says. “I think it’s too late. No matter how happy they look sometimes . . .”
“No, you’re right,” she acknowledges, remembering Frannie from earlier that day. Her fear. She strokes his head, trying to soothe him. “But we can minimize it. Provide them with a safe place they can always go to. And adults they can rely on.”
“But will it be enough?” He pulls away from her, a worried look in his eye.
“I hope so.”
Chapter 4: Betrayals, Alliances, & Bewilderment
Amanda goes back to the football party and Sonny goes back to the reading party. He finds all the girls facing Elizabeth, their books down, some of them with looks of total awe on their faces, just staring at the older girl.
“Finally!” Frannie says, perking up when she sees him. “Will you puh-lease get this party back on track, Uncle Sonny?”
“They’re not talking about books, they’re talking about BOYS!” Frannie dramatically flops onto some pillows.
“My boyfriend, sorry,” Elizabeth says sheepishly.
“And mine,” someone else pipes up.
“He’s just a potential,” Elizabeth corrects her. “Mine is an actual.”
“Okay, okay,” Sonny says, waving his fingers at all the books. “Are there any boys in those books that you girls might want to talk about?”
And that starts some excited, mumbling, and fangirling, and sharing of passages. Frannie mouths a silent “thanks” to her uncle, who smiles back at her. The party has been saved!
“Cake time!” Frannie hears Aunty Am announce from the other room as Leo’s baby starts to cry. As she’s finishing up stacking her books neatly, she overhears her brother asking to hold the baby to see if he can calm her down.
“Hey, can I talk to you?” her cousin Elizabeth asks. Everyone else has left the room.
“I don’t’ know. Are you going to dominate the entire conversation?”
“Frannie, I’m sorry I didn’t mean for that to happen. It just does sometimes.”
“Are you denying that you enjoy ‘holding court’ as your mom puts it?”
Elizabeth pouts and puts a hand on her hip. “Look, I’m trying to apologize. I didn’t mean to monopolize your birthday party with my boyfriend.”
“Well, you kinda did.”
“Only part of it.” Elizabeth grabs her arm. “Look, I’m worried about your sudden friendship with Emma. I know she’s family, but you can’t trust her.”
“I can and I will.”
Frannie leaves the room in a huff. Elizabeth puts her head down and follows her glumly.
In keeping with the two-party theme, Frannie and Frankie each have their own birthday cakes that Sonny and Amanda had carted over from Carlotta’s when they picked up the twins last night. Frankie’s of course is a football field, complete with plastic goal posts and enough little footballs for all of his guests. Frannie’s is an open book with the titles of a bunch of her favorite books listed upon it in frosting, laid out like a table of contents. In front of it are bookmarks for all of her guests, all fanned out.
Connecting the two cakes are ribbons leading to a balloon floating high above them all, touching the ceiling.
“What’s in that?” Frankie asks, pointing at it, noticing that there's what looks to be a card inside of it.
“Your birthday gift from your Aunty Am and me. You get to open that last,” Sonny answers. “But right now, cake!”
“Okay, but I need to make an announcement,” Frankie says.
“Okay,” Uncle Sonny says, putting down the lighter for the candles that had been in his hands.
“Seeing as how now I am twelve and no longer a boy. . . “
Sonny and Leo exchange looks.
“I want you all to start calling me Frank.”
This is greeted by silence.
“There you go. I said it.”
Which is greeted with a bit more silence . . . until Emma breaks it.
“Frannie’s no longer a little girl either!”
Frannie goes pale. Is this really happening?
“Emma, stop,” Elizabeth is tugging on her arm.
“But she –“
Elizabeth is yanking her away.
“Today, she –“
From deep in the hallway Elizabeth can be heard hissing, “You shut up right now, Emma, if you know what’s good for you.”
They don’t hear any more out of Emma.
Sonny sidles up to Amanda and says quietly, “That didn’t sound good. Want me to go check on Emma?”
“No. Elizabeth’s got it,” she answers.
“You two can finally join the land of the living,” Elizabeth says to the twins, clapping her hands as their present from Uncle Sonny and Aunty Am is revealed.
Inside the balloon conjoining their cakes is a card detailing that they will be receiving . . .
Two phones. TWO PHONES. Two separate phones after the party. Woo-hoo!
Turning twelve is sweet!
“How?” Frannie asks, knowing about their financial limitations.
“We worked it out with your mom,” Sonny says.
“Like in a lawyerly kinda way, huh?” Frank asks.
His uncle just chuckles at him. “Don’t worry about the fine print there, buddy. Just enjoy your phone.”
“Make sure to put my new number down as ‘Frank’ now, okay?”
“Will do, Frank.”
“Yo Frank, when did Frannie and Emma become best cousins?” Tyler asks as he tosses the football to his buddy out in the yard.
“Wait? What? Who told you that?” Frank is perplexed, almost missing the ball. “They’re not best cousins. Are they?”
“I don’t know. That’s what some of the girls said. There was some big showdown between Frannie and Elizabeth over it.”
“What?” Frank turns to Jesse and gently throws her the ball, turning this into a game of three-way catch.
“That’s what they’re saying,” Tyler says, holding out his hands for the ball next.
Frannie is standing near the window, looking outside. Watching Tyler play catch with Frankie and Jesse through the glass as the party winds down. Elizabeth comes up to her.
“Thanks for the save,” Frannie says.
“No problem,” Elizabeth responds. “I would have been humiliated. Didn’t want that to happen to you.”
“How did you know?”
“Know what? What happened today or that Emma is evil?”
Frannie wrinkles her nose, thinking. “Both. Either.”
“Well, I’ve been around the block,” Elizabeth says, puffing out her chest a little. “And I AM two years older than you. I’ve gotten it already myself.”
“Again, how . . . ?”
“It was just obvious to me, I don’t know.” Elizabeth shrugs. “Especially when Emma started to open her big mouth.”
In unison, the cousins both shake their heads with disgust at the memory.
“That girl is evil,” Elizabeth says quietly. “Silent but deadly. Like a fart. You gotta watch out for those quiet types. They’ll screw you.”
“I didn’t know. We’re cousins. She was the first girl here, you know. After it happened I wanted to share it with someone besides Aunty Am. And Emma is family. I thought sharing something like that would make us closer for some reason. I don’t know. . .” Frannie thinks in silence for a bit, chewing her inner lip, suddenly remembering why she had invited Elizabeth to the party after all. Even though she could be horribly obnoxious at times, Elizabeth always had her back. Always.
“Well, you’re close to people . . . and then you’re not.” Elizabeth shrugs, trying to appear nonchalant instead of sad. “Story of my life.”
“Were you close to your dad?”
“I mean, before he left?”
“I don’t want to talk about that,” Elizabeth answers. “My boyfriend is nicer.”
Chapter 5: In the Yard
Elizabeth is long gone, but Frannie’s still standing at the door to the yard watching her brother and Tyler toss the football with Jesse. She has her bare feet perched over the grate of the sliding glass door. Half in, half out. Wobbling and indecisive. Chewing on her lip.
Amanda comes up to her, remembering Frannie’s last interaction with Tyler. “He’s in the yard, huh?”
“Yep, he’s in the yard,” Frannie answers matter-of-factly.
“You going out there?”
“I don’t know.”
Frannie shoots her a knowing look, as if she should know why. And she does. Kind of. “Frannie, it’s okay to take this kind of chance. I wouldn’t want to see you holding yourself back your whole life because of the damage your moth –“
Amanda stops herself abruptly. She’s said too much. She’s said WAY too much.
Frannie’s eyes narrow.
Amanda decides to change tactics. And she knows Frannie all too well. “I mean, why let shyness stop you? If this boy unnerves you –“
Yup. That did it. Amanda tries not to smile too much.
“Did you just accuse me of being shy? ME? Francesca Maria Carisi? Shy?”
“Well, I mean, I know you want to go out there –“
Frannie huffs. “I’ll show you shy – I’ll show you shy right now!”
She sprints out into the yard yelling, smiling, and waving “Tyler! Hey, I’m here! I’m in the yard!” with only one passing glance back at Amanda. See. There . Not shy.
Amanda just smiles as she watches Frannie join Tyler. Perhaps Carlotta hasn’t ruined her daughter just yet.
“What happened?” Frank mumbles quietly to himself, staring at his sister. With Tyler. What’s gotten into them? And what’s all this Emma nonsense?
“She’s growing up,” Sonny says with a firm clap on his shoulder. “They all will. Won’t you, Jesse? You and your sister – and whatever monster’s growing inside your mom.”
“Well, this ‘monster’ is more than ready to come out,” Amanda grumbles, joining her husband outside on the porch as Frankie takes Jesse inside for some more cake.
“Well you’re the one who stubbornly pushed back the C-section to tomorrow.”
“I didn’t want the twins to have to share a birthday with yet another living being. And I was relieved to hear that Leo’s wife went into labor early – she was due today, did you know that?”
“Yeah, I heard. But it’s unusual for first time moms to pop early like that.”
“Yeah. Now on the other hand, when they are old, like you –”
Amanda puts up her hand. “You are NOT going there. I’m young enough that you were able to impregnate me with this baby in the first place. So do not call me old for a mom.”
“Oh come on, you know you’re on the old side to be carrying a baby in your forties like this.”
“Do you WANT another child? ‘Cause right now it’s not sounding like it.” Amanda says, exasperated.
“Listen, I’m just trying to prove a point. When my great-grandmother got pregnant for the second time in her forties, the doctor –”
“– told your great grandfather to stay off of her. I’ve heard.”
“Yeah, he said that ‘cause she was old.”
Amanda just rolls her eyes. This is a losing battle.
Now it’s just the two of them on the porch with Frannie and Tyler talking quietly in the distance. Well, not just talking. He’s picking dandelions for her and they’re making something out of them as they sit close together in the grass. But from here it’s hard to tell quite what they’re making.
“We decide on a name for the monster yet?” Sonny asks his wife. “‘Cause the school board might not like enrolling the youngest additions to our family under the names of ‘Runt’ and ‘Monster.’”
“You’re forgetting, your ‘Runt’ already has a name. You just refuse to call her by it.”
“So what do you think it is?” Sonny asks. “Our little monster? And why can’t the docs figure it out?”
“I don’t know, every time I go in they tell me a different sex for our child and that they’re sorry they were wrong the last time.” Amanda sighs. “Guess we’ll find out tomorrow. But my gut tells me it’s a boy.”
“And the twins really want us to call him Vince.”
They see Tyler bop Frannie on the nose with a dandelion while she shrieks in delight.
“I don’t know, should we?”
Sonny encircles her from behind, placing his hands softly on her belly. He leans down to put his chin on her shoulder. They sway in silence for a moment.
“It would break Carlotta’s heart to name our little boy after him.”