The security guard unceremoniously flings them out of the building and bangs the doors shut behind them.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen an old woman’s face grow as white as her hair before,” Eldin says.
Murphy folds her arms across her chest and glares. “She had her facts wrong.”
“She was eighty.”
“Oh, like that’s an excuse! The ’82 hostage thing went for ten hours, not eight, and I should know because we covered it!”
“And a difference of two hours is enough to incite a riot inside the Washington Monument?”
They bicker for a few minutes before realizing that Avery hasn’t said a word. They both turn to look at him and see him with his head down, silently fiddling with his little disposable camera. Murphy kneels down and gently puts a hand on his shoulder.
“Listen, uh… we’ll wait it out for a few weeks and then come back; I’m sure it’ll have blown over by then. You’re not too disappointed, are you?”
When he looks up at her, he’s grinning from ear to ear.
“No way!” he gleefully exclaims. “Everybody’s gonna be so jealous when they hear about this!”
“Hey, Mom, can I dye my hair again?”
“Really? You still want to go around looking like a walking carrot?”
“Actually, I was wondering if we could make it green this time!”
“Oh, please. Green is so last Thursday. How about blue with a streak of red in the shape of a lightning bolt?”
Stern eyes peer out from behind square black glasses as the woman skims over the Post-It in her hand.
“Mrs. Schroeder,” she flatly reads. “Please excuse Avery for being tardy. He had nothing to do with it. I forgot my notes for the story I’m working on and when we finally got back on the road… well, I’m sure I don’t need to go into it, but there was definitely a cop involved.”
Mrs. Schroeder glances up at Avery. His cheeks grow slightly pink.
“Again?” she asks him.
“Again,” he replies with a sigh.
Mrs. Schroeder rolls her eyes and rips off a pink note from her stack. As she scribbles on it, she says, “All right, you’re excused.” She watches him exhale with relief as she hands over the slip. “You go on to class,” she continues, “but when you get home today, tell your mother to come and see me during the next parent-teacher conference.”
She scowls and shakes her head as Avery scampers down the hall.
Avery peers into the bubbling cauldron that is the pot containing tonight’s dinner. Corky swiftly sprinkles the tiniest bit of salt on the gumbo and stirs it with a quick and graceful dexterity that’s usually unbeknownst to this kitchen.
She stares at it intently for a few moments before putting her hand out again. “Pepper,” she says.
“Pepper!” Avery replies as he places the pepper shaker into her hand. Once again it goes in like it’s some kind of magic powder, with Corky as its sorceress. Avery continues to watch it steam and bubble with wide eyes. This kind of food, the edible kind, is only made in this house once in a blue moon. He knows it’s only appropriate to savor the moment.
Corky moves the spoon handle toward him. “Go ahead, give it a taste,” she says with a smile. “But be careful, it’s hot.”
Avery’s only too happy to oblige, and when he gets the spoon to his lips and the taste hits his tongue he sees stars has to remember to stay standing. Corky grins as his eyes light up. Clearly, her work here is once again done.
“And with that,” she says, giving her creation one last stir, “we wait.”
Avery jumps off of his stepstool and asks, “How’d you know to put all that stuff in there?”
“Well, that’s easy,” Corky tells him. “Intuition!”
Avery ponders that for a moment. “Hmm… intuition, huh? For food? Mom definitely doesn’t have that.”
“Noooo, she most certainly does not.”
Their giggling is quickly overshadowed by the voices outside. They mosey toward the sink and peek out the window. The first thing they see through the leaves is Murphy waving a Redskins helmet around.
“C’mon, put it on,” she teases. “You can be the quarterback and the rest of us’ll just tackle you!”
“N-no.” The voice is unmistakable. Corky sighs as she watches Miles darts away from Murphy. “You can keep the helmet; I don’t want to play,” he says nervously.
“Oh, don’t be such a killjoy, Miles!” This time it’s Kay who sprints after him. “It’ll be fun; I don’t tackle very hard, I promise!”
“She promises, Miles!” Murphy gleefully declares.
“Oh, great! Promises from the hellhounds! I’m going back inside.”
As the chatter outside peters off into discouraged murmuring, Corky chuckles and shakes her head. “He hasn’t been able to fly in for five months; you think she’d let up just a little bit.”
Before Avery can reply, he’s interrupted by a rush of pounding footsteps. Frank, holding the football helmet, skids into the kitchen.
“AVERY, MY MAN!” he shouts. Corky winces and glares at him, but he doesn’t notice. His face is lit up with childlike excitement. “How’d you like to be our new quarterback?!” Excitedly, he plops the helmet on Avery’s head. It’s so large on him that it swallows him right down to his chin.
“Wow!” he exclaims, his voice muffled by the helmet. He seems ready and raring to go, but suddenly stops short of flailing excitedly. “Aww, but I can’t,” he says dejectedly. “I’m helping Corky!”
Corky smiles proudly while Frank crinkles his nose. “What?” Frank approaches the pot and peers inside. “It looks fine; you’ve got it under control, right?” As he starts to poke a finger inside, Corky immediately smacks his wrist hard with the spoon handle. He backs off immediately, cradling his arm like a wounded animal.
“Look at you, trying to take my assistant away!” Corky frowns and wields the spoon like a sword.
“Oh, come on,” Frank whines. “We need another player! Miles wussed out, we got Eldin to man the video camera, and Jim and Doris are too busy feeding each other your hors d'oeuvres. …Although,” he says, staring off into the distance, “I didn’t see them on the couch when I came in. I guess they’re… doing other things now.”
Avery turns from Frank to Corky and back again while the helmet teeters around on his head. He doesn’t bother to take it off or move it so he can see.
“FRANK!” Avery can hear more and more of Corky’s accent slipping out. “Avery’s right here; why are you talking about that?!”
“Just let him come play!”
Corky rolls her eyes and sighs loudly. She glances over at the pot, which is steaming and bubbling appropriately. She sighs again. “Fine,” she says, throwing up her arms. “Go! But,” she turns to Avery and taps the spoon on the helmet, “I’m sure I can count on you to come back for your taste-testing duties when it’s ready.”
“YEAH!” Avery practically jumps with excitement. “Don’t worry, Corky, I won’t let you down!”
“All riiight!” Frank claps his hands together and begins guiding the still-blinded-by-helmet Avery out of the kitchen.
“What?!” Miles exclaims as they near the door. “What is this?!”
“I’m gonna be the quarterback!” Avery triumphantly declares.
“WHAT?! No! No, no, no! Murphy, you can’t put your child in that kind of danger!”
“Relax, Miles!” Murphy hollers. “We have Madden ‘99; Avery kicks my tail every time!”
“YOU’RE COMPARING A VIDEO GAME TO ACTUAL FOOTBALL?!”
“Better than earlier when she tried to claim it was art,” Eldin flatly offers.
It’s all noise to Avery as he takes his first steps onto the grass. With the helmet still swaying proudly on his head, he lifts both arms into the air and lets out a cheer.
He may not have any blood-related aunts and uncles to call his own, but there’s nothing better than the days when he and his family can all be together.
The dream is dark. Cold. Vivid. Everything looks and feels so real, from the chill that runs through his body when he enters the room to the voices of the doctors who tell him that they’re sorry.
“She fought with everything she had,” they say to him. And all he can do is stare at the still form lying in the bed and listen to the long beep that won’t end.
He wakes up with tears in his eyes and immediately throws off the covers so he can make a beeline for her room. He’s shaking when he gets there and approaches the bed as quietly as possible. He just wants to make sure- no, he has to make sure that it was really just a dream.
“Mom,” he whispers. “Mom?”
She begins to stir and turns over towards him.
“Mom?” he asks again.
“Hmm?” Murphy answers, tiredly running a hand over her face. “What is it, what’s wrong?”
“I had a bad dream,” Avery says. He swallows the lump in his throat and hesitates. “It was about the cancer. It came back and… and you didn’t…”
He doesn’t need to say anything more. Murphy makes room for him and pats the space next to her, a space that he wastes no time filling. She gently puts her arms around him and he clings tightly to her shirt.