Sam Hawkins was horrible on the phone.
At least, that's what his sister thought to herself as she stood at the counter, chopping the vegetables. Though she was privy to all of her little brother's thoughts about the world when they talked in person, walking on the outskirts of town or sitting in the living room, on the phone he said almost nothing. Much as she'd share from her own life and the things that were happening in town, he left his life a mystery. He'd answer questions, with the same enthusiasm as someone having their teeth drilled, and she'd hang up eventually in frustration, wondering about all the things he hadn't said.
Forcefully hacking at an especially hard carrot, she heard the sounds of her frustrations echo on the cutting board. From the other side of the kitchen, her mother caught her eye briefly. There was a sympathy in her expression. When Sam had announced on speakerphone last month that he wasn't coming home for Thanksgiving this year, the mother and daughter had shared a similar glance. Allison wasn't sure if her mother had been reminded of those Thanksgivings, so many years ago, when another family member had neglected to show up for dinner. She certainly had been.
Now, there was a bit of a reprimand in Darcy Hawkins' glance too. Her eyes flicked briefly towards the living room, and Allison understood immediately. She could hear her father's voice, a gentle tone he reserved for special occasions, coming through the doorway. As usual, Allison was being reminded to be strong, to be careful about upsetting another family member.
It wasn't as though she needed reminding. After all, she was the one who could see, who had always seen, that fragile side of her father, despite the fact the rest of the world didn't know it existed. She doubted anyone else, except maybe her mother, perceived the shaky vulnerability in his smile as he'd talked about Thanksgiving earlier in the week, present in the encouraging voice he now used talking to his absent son. Sam, of course, was oblivious. How could he pick it up, on a phone line, hundreds of miles away?
She turned back to her cutting board, letting the carrots feel her wrath instead of speaking out loud. Sam didn't understand the work it took, playing her part in the family. He had an easier role, being the one who could just walk away. Most days, she was happy for her little brother, happy he'd escaped from the duty and obligations she'd been tied to since she was twelve. Happy he'd been able to leave, hadn't been tied to this place. Happy he'd been able to make his own happiness out in the world, and do something different than anyone else. And most days she was happy she had stayed. Happy with the part she played, the people who needed her, the job she knew she'd been born to do.
She reached into the basket and pulled out another carrot, chopping the end with a clean cut. She could hear her father's voice getting louder now, and he was in the kitchen, holding the phone to his ear and grinning. It was a fragile grin, she thought to herself, one he'd only let himself smile inside this house.
“You be careful with those potatoes, now son. You know, they can burn the second you have your back turned. Ask your mother about the first time I tried to cook them on my own, first year we had Allie.”
He leaned a hand on the kitchen counter, gripping the edge gently, still smiling into the phone. Darcy quickly stood, coming to his side and looking expectantly. Allison turned back to her vegetables.
“Well, seems your mother wants to get a turn in, I'd better pass you over. Take care, son. I love you.”
It was remarkable how easily he said it. Allison thought of the long time it had taken him to be able to say it with such ease. Of course, it had always been easier with Sam. He had that way with all of them.
She didn't look up from her work as she heard her mother exclaiming, “Happy Thanksgiving, Sam!” She barely noticed her mother's footsteps as she took the phone into another room. She could feel her father's gaze, however, before he spoke.
“Looks like, uh, looks like you've been working hard, baby,” he said.
She smirked. Thirty-three years old and still baby. It was something she could count on in him.
Wordlessly, he reached for the peeler and set to work beside her. For a few minutes, they worked quietly side by side, and as she sometimes did, Allison began to feel the things they weren't saying.
“So Sam's trying to cook, huh?” she asked.
Her father chuckled. “Seems so. Trying pretty hard to impress that girl.”
“I hope she's adventurous,” said Allison.
At this, he laughed again. She breathed a sigh. It was her job, making them both laugh, and while she didn't regret it, sometimes she noticed it especially.
“Lot of carrots,” he said. “Just how much do you think those Greens eat?”
“Well, I figured with the couple of teenagers they've got now, we'd better play it safe,” she said.
They peeled and chopped in silence for a few more minutes.
“I know you probably didn't think this year you'd be stuck playing football with your old man and his friends,” he said.
She began to protest, but he continued. “And you know, we would've been happy, no matter what you were doing, as long as you were happy.”
She nodded, catching his eye for a moment. The rules were, when he could be fragile, so could she.
“I'm glad we've got you,” he said. “No matter what, know I'm glad.”
“I know, Dad,” she said. He put an arm around her, kissing her on the forehead. She leaned her head against his shoulder briefly, as she had when she was ten years old, before going back to her chopping. He went back to his peeling.
Darcy's laugh sounded through the door, and she was coming back into the room. Still talking to her son, she was motioning to Allison.
“Your turn, Allie,” he said. “Go on, I'll finish this.”
At her questioning look, he chuckled. “I have improved since that year you were a baby and I burnt the potatoes, you know.”
“Okay, Dad,” she said. She reached for the phone her mother was now holding out, quickly going into the living room herself.
“Hey Sam,” she said quickly, flinging herself onto the couch.
“Allison! Happy Thanksgiving!” came the voice on the other end.
“So, how's Thanksgiving in Maine?”
“Same as anywhere, I guess.”
She frowned. Same as usual, no details about life in the city.
“How's the weather?”
Nothing to give her an idea of what his life was now.
“I hear you're cooking for Lara. That's impressive.”
Nothing about the mysterious girl either. She'd been thinking earlier that she'd tell him Julie said to say hi, but there didn't seem a point, unless she wanted to create an awkward silence.
“Well, what are you doing, since you're not at home, having a fantastic time at the Green football game?”
She heard laughing on the other end. “Dad told me about that. Said something about getting drafted to a team or something.”
She smiled to herself. If he'd been here, they would have shared a few laughs over their father's supposed football prowess, unbeknownst to Jake Green. “Yeah, kind of weird, but nice I guess for Mom and Dad. They get to have kids around for the holidays.”
“I hope it's fun for you too,” he said. “I mean, this year-”
“It's not any worse than any other,” she said. She paused. That hadn't sounded the way she'd intended. “I mean, I'm sure it'll be fine. The Greens are good. Fiona will be heartbroken that you didn't come home, though.”
The painful silence on the other end didn't surprise her. He was horrible on the phone.
“I wish I could have,” he said. She bit back her surprise and listened for what he would say next. “I had to, the art show being so soon, I just couldn't get away right now, but they all know I wanted to, right?”
“Yeah, they know, Sam,” she said.
“I was in the gallery the other day, setting them up, and you know what one everyone seems to love the most? That one of Mrs. Green. Go figure.”
Allison smiled knowingly. “I told you. I have no idea why everyone around here seemed to think that one of Dad would be the most popular. I mean, it's good, but it's not really the one I think is the best.”
She didn't know how she could explain it, but both of them understood why the charcoal portrait of their father, so well received among members of their own town, wasn't as dear to them. Sam had captured an interesting expression on Robert Hawkins' face, but it was the face he showed the world. The rest of the town knew that face, but they both knew a different one that was more real.
“But Mrs. Green, that look you got on her face. I'm not surprised people get it.”
“Yeah. It's got a good spot in the display. So does the one of you.”
She grinned. She'd never let her baby brother see just how tickled she was to think of her own likeness hanging in an exhibit. She'd never let anyone see.
“So you're coming out to see it, right?”
“What?” She was caught off guard.
“The exhibit, you're coming to see it when it opens?”
“I didn't- Sam, I didn't plan...” She trailed off. He had been talking weeks ago about the exhibit, and even with his phone skills, they'd understood how excited he was. Still, there had been no talk about them coming out to see it.
“Mom and Dad aren't going to be able to come out right away, but you'll come soon, right Allison?”
She hadn't been invited. But of course he had expected her to come. Her scatter-brained baby brother, always leaving his markers on the floor, his laundry in the kitchen, charcoal smears on the basement door, had always trusted their other-worldly connection over the phone lines they'd finally seen installed.
“You'll love the city, Allison. I want you to come see my place.”
Of course she would love the city. She'd never doubted she would love to return to a place that reminded her of the city she grew up in. But she'd grown up here, in so many ways that really counted. It was the place life and death decisions could save you or cost you everything, a place you took a stand and staked a claim. Sam didn't feel it like she did. He could wander, staking claims for himself in other places. This past year, she'd wished that she could wander herself, find another town where no one knew her, lay down new foundations. She'd tried before, but she had come back. So had many of the others. Unlike the days of old when she'd once dreamed of studying in California, working abroad, or exploring the rainforest, today most young people stayed within reach. Usually close enough that they didn't have to talk to their family on the phone once a month.
Even among Sam's friends, he was outnumbered. Woody marched around town, eagerly attempting to fill his father's shoes. Julie had gone away for a year or two, but she'd been back soon enough. She still came around the house, and Allison knew her mother spent afternoons talking with Julie, commiserating over that guy from New Bern Julie couldn't seem to get rid of. She herself saw Woody at work, Julie around town, and Sam's other friends, and she often checked in with them, but they couldn't quite help her fill that role she had played for so long. It was just so hard over the phone.
“Allison?” There was his baby-brother voice again. He couldn't use that one on people in the city, she was sure. “You're coming, right?”
She smiled, even as her felt her eyebrows raise in exasperation. He would convince her to visit him, pull herslf out of the the strict structures of her life, make her laugh and imagine life was as simple as he made it seem. That had always been his job.
“Okay, I'll come,” she said.
She imagined herself making the most of whatever apartment he'd set up, bringing news about everyone back home, being the steady part of the family that he depended on to ground him. That had always been her job.
There was a clattering sound on the other side of the phone. “Still there, Sam?” she asked.
“Yeah, hang on a second,” came his voice.
After a few more sounds that reverberated in her ear, he said, “That's great, Allison. I know you'll love it here.”
“Yeah, Sam,” she said, aware of more clattering noises in the background. “But don't burn down the kitchen before I get there.”
He laughed, but the slightly nervous edge in his voice made her think he was considering it as a real possibility.
“Crap, I don't know if cranberries are supposed to look like this,” he said next.
She chuckled to herself.
“Allie, do you-”
“I don't know,” she said.
“Do you mind putting Mom on?” he asked.
Laughing again at the frantic tone he used, she stood up from the couch and walked into the kitchen. Her parents were seated at the table, chuckling over something themselves. “Okay, Sam. See what she says.”
“Thanks! I'll call you again in a few days and we can plan when you're coming.”
“Okay. Bye Sam,” she said quietly.
“Bye Allison,” came his reply.
She wordlessly held out the phone and Darcy accepted it, with raised eyebrows.
Allison sat on the other chair beside her father as they listened to Darcy explain how to troubleshoot cranberry sauce.
Robert Hawkins put a hand on his daughter's arm. She looked over at him, her eyebrows raised.
“Good talk?” he asked.
She nodded slowly. “I'm going to see the opening. Of his art show.”
He looked surprised for a fraction of a second, and then smiled. “Sounds good, baby.”
Darcy finally pushed the button to hang up the phone. “That boy,” she sighed. “What are we going to do with him?”
The three Hawkins' sitting around the table were silent for a moment. Finally, Allison asked, “Did you check on the carrots, Dad?”
He jumped up then, going over to the stove, finally pronouncing them safe as he took the pot off the burner. Allison and Darcy exchanged a grin.
“All set for the big dinner. And enough to feed all those Greens, I think,” he said.
“Here's to hoping!” said Darcy. She glanced at the clock on the wall. “And still more than an hour 'til kickoff.”
“Poker?” asked Allison, pulling out the deck of cards that had gotten them through ten years of war and the years that followed. “Or blackjack?”
“Anything but war,” said Darcy with a grin.
Robert took a seat at the table again, and Allison began dealing the cards to her parents. She pulled her own hand close to her chest so neither of them could see, and laughed as her father tried to hide the jack of spades with the torn corner. No one had ever thought to throw it away. She smiled as she eyed the cards she'd dealt herself. The football game at the Greens' house wouldn't be nearly as exciting as watching her parents' poker faces rise and fall over the next hour, and she was just a little thrilled that no one else would ever get to be privy to a Hawkins family poker game.