Stephanie parked the old red wagon on the porch and took a momentary pause from her chores, staring at the empty wood stack frame. The wagon held a full load of fresh cut firewood, piled two feet higher than its rusted metal edges. She knelt in the space between the wagon and the wood stack, ignoring the cold roughness of the concrete against her bare knees. Her hands went about the business of transferring wood while her thoughts drifted through the raging waters of her guilty conscience.
It’d be easier to tell them now, she thought. I’m already in trouble. How much worse can it get?
She sat back on her heels, wiped sweat from her forehead with the back of her arm, sighed, and resumed her work.
The voice of a man interrupted her chore-inspired meditation. “Do you think I might be able to steal a couple of those from you?”
She blinked away the images plaguing her consciousness and focused on the reality before her. His black shoes were polished to a dull shine that reflected a meticulousness she rarely encountered. Her eyes moved upward from his shoes drinking in entirety of the man standing over her. He wore tan slacks, pleated and neatly ironed, a black leather dress belt with a shiny silver buckle, and a light blue long sleeve oxford with a buttoned down collar. The shirt pocket even held a pen, black with a silver clip, and a small spiral notepad.
Her gaze settled on his face, pleasant with round cheeks, sparkling green eyes and neatly groomed light brown hair cut to a business length. His lips remained flat, uncommitted to a smile or a frown and his eyes darted nervously from her face to the firewood on both sides of her.
She leaned back, sitting on her heels and brushed her hands together, clearing them of dust and splinters. “Who are you?”
“Jason,” he said and extended his hand down toward her.
Stephanie stared blankly at him.
He said, “I’m Amanda’s boyfriend.”
She inhaled sharply. “Oh.” She shook his hand briefly and then rested her hands on the front of her apron. It occurred to her that he might or might not realize she wasn’t wearing anything beneath the apron. The way his eyes kept avoiding her suggested he was uncomfortable with the situation. She knew the feeling well. “I’m Stephanie, the middle sister.”
“Right.” He nodded. His arms swayed at his sides, fingertips keeping time tapping against his slacks. “I guess you drew the short straw.”
Her eyebrow raised.
His head tilted to the side in a subtle gesture toward the yard beyond the porch. “Working out her instead of helping out in the kitchen.”
Stephanie scoffed shaking her head and looking down at his shoes for a moment before staring back up into his eyes. “Maybe I’m the lucky one.”
“If you truly think so,” his round cheeks grew rosy, “then you’ve got a very odd definition of lucky.”
Her gaze dropped lower and a hot blush graced her own cheeks. Any doubt regarding what he knew of her situation evaporated in the wake of his words. She hoped his observation did not include a view of her posterior, but the hope felt fragile and unrealistic. Her hands found two pieces of firewood on the wagon and she lifted them up in his direction. “I think this is what you were looking for.”
He took the wood and turned back toward the door into the house. A half step later he stopped and looked back. “You know, I could come back and give you a hand,” he said. “If you’d like.”
Stephanie’s hands, already atop more wood in the wagon, paused in their movement as she turned her head back toward Jason. The sympathetic expression on his face transformed into a silly grin in her imagination. She could see him watching her from behind as she loaded the wagon with a fresh batch of firewood. His eyes danced as she bent down, pushing her reddened buttocks out in his direction and his hands clapped together in thunderous applause while she blushed hot as a fire in a hearth.
“Thanks,” she said, blinking away the nightmarish image in her mind’s eye, “but I think I can manage without the applause.”
A short while later, Stephanie stood, push broom in hand, with a pile of dust, dirt and wood splinters gathered at the edge of the porch. The wood stack had been filled, the yard had been cleared of fallen leaves, and her chores were all but finished. She could smell the sweet aroma of butter rolls baking in the oven inside mixed with the rustic scent of wood burning in the fireplace. The cool afternoon air turned cold as the sun dropped below the treetops. A wistful image of standing before the fireplace, warming her hands to the crackle of yellow and orange flame dancing behind the guard, filled her thoughts. She felt warmer just from the imagining.
The back door slid open causing Stephanie to spin around, hiding her exposed back from the sight of her visitor. She realized the glass door made it highly unlikely her visitor hadn’t already gotten an eyeful, but still she felt less embarrassed facing someone. The reflecting glare of the setting sun caused her to squint as she stared toward the door.
Her father stepped out onto the porch and closed the door. He stepped closer until she could see him clearly and there remained only a few feet separating them. “Dinner’s almost ready,” he said.
Stephanie glanced at the pile behind her. “So am I.”
He hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and looked around the porch, eyes pausing on the wood stack first and then on the swept pile sitting on the edge of the porch. “Almost isn’t done,” he said.
Her lips fell flat and her eyes failed to meet her father’s gaze. “You said I had until dinner.”
He nodded. “And as usual you’re pushing my limits.”
She stared at his boots. There wasn’t enough time, she thought. Failure was inevitable and we both knew it from the start.
He pointed at the pile. “Finish sweeping that off the edge.”
Stephanie’s eyes followed the invisible line from his finger and turned around. Six quick swipes of the broom later, the porch was cleared and the pile was gone. She turned back to her father and held the broom upright next to her. The silence under the watchful eyes of her father called for some lip biting and she didn’t fight the urge.
He unhooked his thumbs and looked at his wristwatch. “Looks like you’ve got about ten minutes to get yourself out to the shed, take care of that broom, get out of that apron, and put your dress back on for dinner. You think you can handle that or do I need to come along and motivate you?”
Her eyes brightened and she looked up into his face. She smiled as if she had just been given the best gift of the entire year. “Yes, sir,” she said. “I can handle that fine.”
He smiled and chuckled. “Glad to hear it. Now, get going and don’t dally cause your mother won’t be holding dinner for even a second waiting on you.”
Stephanie nodded. She lifted the broom for carrying and scurried off toward the shed as fast as she could manage without her knees ripping the strings off the apron.
Dressed and feeling almost normal, Stephanie sat at the dinner table. The cushion felt hard pressed against her still tender buttocks, but the majority of her morning spanking’s discomfort had long since faded. She ignored the knowing eyes watching her from around the table and instead focused on the food. It smelled incredibly good and, coupled with the fact she had not eaten a bite the entire day, it was all she could do to keep her stomach from roaring with impatience while her father carved the turkey.
Her mother took each plate and in turn filled them with stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, cranberry sauce, and two butter rolls. The plates then moved to Mr. Pickett and he layered them with cuts of turkey, light or dark meat as the plate’s owner desired. Though the process took only a matter of minutes before the plates were filled and sitting in front of everyone, for Stephanie it seemed a virtual eternity as her mouth salivated for the welcome taste of sustenance.
Mr. Pickett took his seat at the table and smile in the direction of his wife. She cleared her throat, drawing the assembled group’s attention to herself. “I’m thankful for 27 years of marriage to the man of my dreams,” she smiled at her husband, “and of course to have all three of my beautiful daughters home for the holiday.”
Across the table, Nicole said, “I’m thankful to have a wonderful family and husband who are always there to support me no matter what.”
Todd chuckled. “That’s just because you don’t like to work.”
Everyone laughed except Nicole. She stared at Todd in a way that made Stephanie wonder if the flatware was about to take flight.
Todd said, “I’m only kidding, but seriously, I’m thankful to have such a beautiful, intelligent, loving, and most importantly, forgiving wife.”
Mr. Pickett said, “I’m always thankful to have my wife and children, but today I’m especially thankful we can all sit and enjoy this meal together.”
Stephanie rolled her eyes. The emphasis her father put of the word sit, intentionally she imagined, made it clear his comment was at least indirectly directed at her and the manner in which she’d spent the morning and afternoon. A glance around the table assured her everyone knew the “hidden” meaning behind his words.
“Well,” Amanda said, “I’m just really thankful it wasn’t my bath towel mom found on the floor this morning.”
Stephanie glared at her younger sister across the table, but Nicole’s tongue was faster. “No, that was yesterday morning,” said Nicole, “by this morning your butt had learned how to hang it up on the rack.”
Amanda blushed and elbowed Jason beside her as if he was supposed to defend her. Instead, he did a poor job of hiding the smirk on his face and said, “I’m thankful just to be here with all of you. It’s really nice to be with a family that actually wants to be together.”
Todd nodded from the other end of the table. “Ain’t that the truth,” he said. “Some years I’m not sure if my dad is going to carve the turkey or my mother.”
Nicole said, “That’s because it gets harder to tell which is which each year.”
“Nicole!” Mrs. Pickett said. “We don’t talk about other people like that, especially not at the dinner table.”
Todd laid a reassuring hand on Mrs. Pickett’s arm. “It’s okay, my dad would say the same thing.”
Mr. Pickett said, “It’s not okay. My daughters were all raised with better manners than that and Nicole knows very well that if she was still living under my roof, she’d be fetching a bar of soap right now for talking like that.”
“I’m sorry,” Nicole said. “I was only joking and didn’t intend to offend anyone.”
Mr. Pickett said, “I doubt Todd’s mother would find it very funny or inoffensive. Shall we call and ask her?”
“Really,” Todd said, “it’s not a big deal.”
Mr. Pickett’s focus shifted to his son in law. “You’re right, it’s not a big deal now, but a lot of little deals have a way of piling up to be bigger than the big deals. I can tell you straight out, if my wife had the audacity to insult my mother at the dinner table, guests or no, she’d at minimum be taking a bare bottomed trip over my knee.”
Todd looked from Nicole to Mr. Pickett. “I understand and respect your way of doing things in your home, but if and when I have issues with Nicole, I prefer to handle them in private.”
“Public or private is your business,” Mr. Pickett said, “but the fact is you aren’t handling things. She steals money out of your wallet, insults your mother, and God knows what else, and you do nothing at all.”
Mrs. Pickett’s eyes opened wide as she stared at Nicole. “You’re stealing again?”
Nicole turned scarlet and shook her head. “No, it was just a misunderstanding. I told him I needed the money and he forgot.”
Mr. Pickett said, “Donuts and coffee aren’t a need.”
Nicole rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. “Tell that to Todd. He’s the one who has to get a cup of Celia’s brew every morning. That was the first time I’d gone out for breakfast since the middle of July.”
Todd’s head snapped back to his wife. “Excuse me? I get a $3 cup of coffee every morning, yes, but you go out to lunch five days a week and spend a hell of a lot more than three bucks.”
Nicole met her husband’s gaze. “If you’d go grocery shopping more than once a month maybe I wouldn’t have to go out to lunch all the time.”
“Why should I go grocery shopping?” Todd said. “Your the professional homemaker or should I say wrecker considering the messes you leave all over the apartment.”
Mr. Pickett said, “It sounds to me like those little things are already piling up. Maybe you two would like some private time in the shed with my strap.”
Nicole glanced nervously in her father’s direction, but quickly returned her focus to Todd. “I think it would be best if we resumed this discussion at home later.”
Todd looked less than convinced.
Nicole said, “After all dinner is getting cold and Stephanie hasn’t even told us what she’s thankful for this year.”
Stephanie’s stomach voted in favor of being nice to her older sister despite not having in real sympathy for her. She said, “I’m thankful we’re finally going to eat.”
Mr. Pickett glared down the length table at her. Nobody said a word. In fact, no one seemed to be breathing at all.
Stephanie shook her head, rolling her eyes at the ceiling. “And of course I’m very thankful to be home with my loving parents and wonderful sisters and their significant others. It’s truly a wonderful life I’m living.”