“Is that it?”
Garrett craned his neck forward to get a better view and I suppressed a giggle. “Yes, babe, that’s my parents’ house. What did you expect?”
“When you said you lived in a wooded area, I dunno, pictured creepy cabin, bloody axe on the doorstep…”
I kissed his cheek before gently elbowing his side. “Come on, park the car, I can’t wait to see my mom!”
There was already over a dozen cars parked on the lawn, it was a wonder Garrett could find a spot. I could hear the nieces and nephews already playing in the backyard, probably climbing up and down from my old treehouse or chasing the cats in the pole barn. “Probably Uncle Reese and his family arrived yesterday,” I said as I climbed out of the car.
Garrett was already attempting to lift both our bags, making a big show of grunting and heaving. “Man, you weren’t kidding when you said your family goes all out for reunions. Did you pack the whole bathroom?” He groaned.
“Oh, stop it!”
I suppose his shock was justified, I hadn’t really told him much other than that I have a big family and my house isn’t exactly small either.
The ruckus only grew louder as we hurried up to the front door, I was practically dancing in place. “We’re home!” I announced as I walked in the front door, Garret poking his head in nervously behind me.
My mom ran in from the kitchen, her eyes lighting up as she wiped her flour covered hands on her apron. “Emma! Oh my baby girl, you’re home! I missed you so much!” I swear she was crying a little as she wrapped me in an uncomfortably tight hug. I could smell cinnamon in her hair.
“Mom, you’re crushing me. And you saw me just last month!” I managed to untangle myself from her before gesturing to the guy trying to hide behind me. “Mom. This is Garrett.”
Mom wiped her eyes, getting a swathe of flour on her face. “Oh, I’m sorry, Garrett. Emma’s told me all about you, I hope she’s not forgotten to tell you about me?”
Garrett laughed in an attempt to hide his nerves. “Of course, Mrs. Silver! It’s a pleasure to finally meet you!” He held out his hand all formal like. Mom took this as an invitation to yank him into a hug. My mom’s short but she is a strong little lady.
“None of that Mrs. Silver stuff, call me Diane! My, you’re a tall fellow, aren’t you?” She pulled apart to look him up and down. “Nice muscles! You have great taste, Emma!”
“Mom! Please!” I hid my face in embarrassment.
I heard the wood creak as a familiar set of boots walked up. I lowered my hands to see a tall man with graying hair and a thick beard.
I smiled. “Hi, dad… this is Garrett. He’ll be having dinner with us tomorrow.”
My dad eyed Garrett up and down, Garrett looked more tense than a stretched rubber band as he smiled nervously. “Mr. Silver, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” He held out his hand again, I swear I saw it shake. Dad’s an intimidating man to people who know him, I can’t imagine how he looks to the person dating his little girl.
Dad stared solemnly for a few seconds, his face cold, before his eyes finally twinkled and he pulled Garrett in for a half handshake, half hug. Another thing to know about my dad- he’s a teddy bear.
“Garrett, finally, we meet! Emma’s said nothing but good things about you!” He boomed.
“Oh, really?” Garrett almost immediately relaxed. “I hope I meet your expectations!”
“Enough of that formal talk, boy!” My dad slapped Garrett on the back, nearly knocking him over. “You’re a part of the family now! I’ll take up your bags to your room, Garrett can sleep with the boys…” He trailed off as he saw me make a sour expression. “Only joking! He’s sleeping in your room too! It’s already all made up, your mom’s had it ready for a few days now.” He hoisted up both bags and headed up for the second floor.
I giggled and looped my arm in with Garrett’s. “Come on! Let’s go see my cousins! I’m sure they’re going crazy waiting to meet you!”
We found them where I expected, in the downstairs game room, the younger ones playing video games while the older ones were busy chatting it up. Roger looked up and beamed. “Hey, Emma, you made it!” He jumped up and quickly wrapped me in a hug.
“I see you’re a hugging family,” Garrett noted as he looked around.
Roger snickered and looked around the room. “Kay, the kiddos playing Super Mario are Jane, Chris, and Leon, they’re like twelve,” Chris turned around and stuck out his tongue, “Okay, Chris is thirteen, sorry, geez, the idiot who isn’t nearly as good looking as me is my twin brother Ryan, the girl wearing the red t-shirt is my little sister Bonnie, the really, really pregnant one is Mia, and the dude who totally isn’t high out of his mind is Jason.”
Jason tried to glare before he caved. “Okay, I’m a little high. But I’m not as high as I was at Christmas!” He complained. Ryan raised an eyebrow but didn’t comment.
Garrett nodded as he looked around the room. “Great, I, uh… yeah, I’m probably going to need to be reminded of your names a few more times while I’m here,” He said.
Roger gently punched his shoulder. “No worries, we’ll just beat the shit out of you if you get it wrong. Scooch over, Jason, make room for Emma and her boyfriend.” The way he said that almost made me want to punch him. Almost. I’m used to idiot cousins.
I stole one of the beanbags and made myself comfortable. “Where’s Greg, he’s usually here by now,” I said.
Ryan shrugged. “I think he’s with Uncle Keith? Rose went too.”
“Awww, I was looking forward to seeing her,” I complained.
“You’ll see her tomorrow at dinner,” Bonnie said, looking up from her phone, “But she’s trying to avoid her mom right now. She ah, brought her fiancee.”
Ooooh. I looked to Garrett. “Rose is gay, she met a girl while at college. I didn’t know they got engaged though!”
“Oh yeah!” Bonnie snickered. “You really need to get on Facebook more often. Auntie Octavia had a freaking meltdown when she saw she had changed her Facebook status to ‘Engaged to Marie Schultz.’ First it was about how she wasn’t going to have any ‘real’ grandchildren, whatever that means, and then it was about that how she didn’t tell her before announcing it to Facebook, gee, wonder why, and then it was about how it was sinful, and oh my god, it was just a dramatic shitshow!”
Jason giggled. “It was hilarious! She was crying about it with my dad on the phone, my dad was just ‘uh huh’ and ‘of course’ until he hung up, and then he went to the fridge and got like, three beers.”
Garrett nodded slowly. “Ah, the gay cousin drama. Think everyone’s been through that. Where’s the fiancee then?”
“Marie is currently in the kitchen, driving Octavia nuts.” Bonnie’s smile was downright sinister. “She was raised in a family of cooks and is wooing the crap out of the rest of the aunts. They all love her. Even Great Aunt Denise!”
My jaw dropped. “Aunt Denise? She’s the biggest Bible thumper in the family! She got shifty when my mom and dad moved in together two months before they were married!
“I know!” Bonnie threw up her arms. “Octavia is practically about to explode! Didn’t help that the stress had her screw up her stupid fruit cake, ended up adding a tablespoon of baking soda instead of like an eighth of a teaspoon. Completely ruined it, she had a meltdown and sobbed but no one really cared, frikken drama queen. I think she’s just drinking wine in the corner and pouting while Marie has everyone else eating out of her hand.”
I looked over at Mia, who seemed content as always to be quiet. “How you feeling, Mia? Aren’t you supposed to have had that baby yet?”
Mia blinked owlishly a few times. “Oh, no, not for another month… I feel ready though. I’m huge.” She groaned and squirmed a bit. “I still can’t believe there’s only one in there too.”
I giggled and reached forward, taking her hand. “I can’t wait to meet this lil guy! Or girl, you’re still keeping the gender quiet?”
“It’s gonna be a surprise! A really great surprise. I think I’ve settled on William for a boy… or maybe Leroy…” Mia sighed and threw her arms up in the air. “Nevermind, I still don’t know!”
“You should name him after meeee…” Jason teasingly flopped himself onto her shoulder, which got him shoved to the floor for his trouble. “Owwww!”
Mia smiled bashfully. “Oops?”
The rest of us laughed before Roger jumped to his feet. “Come on, let’s go raid the wine cabinet!”
Chris perked up. “Can I-”
“Absolutely not!” The cousins chimed together while Chris’ shoulders sagged.
“Come on! Jason said you guys snuck wine all the time when you were my age!”
“Yeah, and we got our butts beat so bad we couldn’t sit down for Easter lunch,” I said, ruffling his hair. “Few more years bud, we’ll turn a blind eye when you’re eighteen.”
That night I laid in my old bed, staring up at the ceiling where there used to be some sort of fanart of a TV show I used to watch. I’d long taken it down, but I could still see bits of the blue tacky stuck to the plaster.
“Your family is fucking amazing.”
Ah, wondered when that was coming. I looked up, Garrett was getting dressed for bed but had sat down at the foot of the bed to ponder the day’s events. I laughed and sat up. “I mean, they’re family, I guess they’re okay…”
“I mean it though.” Garrett turned to me, I think I saw a tear in his eye. “I’ve been hugged by people who think I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread. Your cousins, your aunts and uncles, even your dad…” His voice choked up a bit and he turned away.
I sat up and crawled to him, wrapping my arms around him in a hug. “Hey, hey, it’s okay. I know your family… well, they weren’t as… good as some.” That was an understatement. He’d opened up about what hell he’d been through. “But my family? We stick together. We never, ever hurt each other. The bad apples, well, Grandpa Oliver disowns you. And if the patriarch of the family disowns you, you’re no longer family. That’s how we do things here. And… and I love you, Garrett. That means they love you too.”
Garrett blinked a few times, probably to clear out the tears. “… I love you too, Emma.” He kissed me and I giggled, running my hands through his hair. We parted and that roguish grin of his that I’d gotten attached to returned.
“So, have you ever screwed anyone in your childhood bed?”
Answer is no, I hadn’t, and although I was paranoid about the creaking, it was a pretty great screw.
Next morning I woke up, rolled over to get some great cuddling in, and found that Garrett’s side of the bed was empty. Confused, I sat up and glanced around the room. His phone was still here, although he’d changed out of his pajamas.
Where the hell was my boyfriend?
I rolled out of bed, managing to get dressed quickly enough before heading down to the kitchen. I’d slept in, no idea why I’d not been woken up, but I headed for the kitchen first.
My mom was just sliding something into the oven when I tapped her shoulder. She spun around, setting her hand on her chest. “Christ Almighty, Emma! You could scare a person half to death!” She said.
“Mom, have you seen Garrett?” I felt my stomach growl as I smelled the soup cooking on the stove. God, I couldn’t wait for dinner. “I woke up and he was gone. Left his phone behind so I don’t think he left.”
“I don’t know, dear.” Mom frowned. “He might’ve and just forgotten, Roger and the boys had to make an emergency run into town, your grandfather was worried there wasn’t going to be enough food to go around.”
I snorted. “Mom, there’s always enough to go around… but I guess it wouldn’t be a reunion without leftovers. I’ll check the pole barn, maybe dad needed some help carving up dinner.”
The late morning sun was already warming to the typical summer heat, the littlest of the kids were playing hide and go seek, I dodged toy balls and dollies before reaching the pole barn door. I knocked a few times and reached for the handle before the door opened.
Dad stepped out, his leather apron flecked with blood. “It’s a mess, Em, it’s probably best you stay outside,” He said.
Fair enough. “Dad, have you seen Garrett? I’ve been looking for him all morning.”
“He’s with me, helping out.”
Oh thank god. I smiled. “Well, tell the idiot he left his phone inside, all right? I was worried about him.”
Dad grunted before closing the door. Men. I rolled my eyes and headed back indoors. Dad never liked to be interrupted while carving up whatever he and the guys caught. Oh, well, and Rose this time. So not just the guys.
I went to make myself busy in the kitchen. Aunt Octavia was already there being dramatic as can be while peeling potatoes, apparently that’s all my mom and the other girls trusted her with. I settled with making the bread, kneading it and letting the loaves rise while getting another ready. Never enough food, according to mom, never enough. Marie was super great though, she had a soft voice that was never loud and she had a way with chopping vegetables.
I never caught sight of Garrett, although I knew he was probably just busy with Dad. Wrapped up meat would get shifted into the kitchen thanks to Ryan and Roger, although that wasn’t my job to deal with, that was always mom’s. This year she had Marie to help, much to Aunt Octavia’s horror, although I doubt not even Marie knew the secrets to all the spices mom would throw in.
I was about five minutes from losing my mind and just grabbing a handful of the steamed broccoli and going nuts at it when my mom said it was time to bring it all to the table.
We had to always set up tables in the basement, there just wasn’t enough room anywhere else. I sat with my dad. And since he was the oldest, he got to sit near the head of the table with Grandpa Oliver.
I really am lucky to have a grandpa still around when I’m twenty three, let alone a grandpa who’s in truly great health. The man is wiry but strong, with a full head of silver hair and a cold, steely stare. But he was my grandpa, and he loved all of us grandchildren.
There were so many this year, I scanned the table for any sight of Garrett but was disappointed to see he hadn’t made it down. Where the hell was he?
Marie and Rose were holding hands across the table and giggling, I was mildly jealous of how cute they were. Aunt Octavia had quite the tongue lashing from my mother and Aunt Denise earlier, so she was holding her peace for the moment. The table was lined with bowls of mashed potatoes, fresh vegetables, various soups and stews, breads, and covered silver plated trays. My stomach was almost hurting by all good it looked, but I wasn’t a kid anymore, I couldn’t get away with snitching a bite. Especially with Grandpa watching me like a hawk. It was like he knew. I settled with chewing on my lip and staring longingly at the covered tray in front of me.
Grandpa stood and cleared his throat. “Everyone, quiet, quiet…” It didn’t take much to make everyone shut up, even the little kids knew to be quiet when Grandpa talked. “Shall I speak a prayer over the food now, before one of us snaps and starts filling their plate before the blessing?”
I almost asked about Garrett but I kept my mouth shut. The quiet murmurs of agreement circled the table and bowed their heads. I held onto my father’s and grandfather’s hand, bowing my head as well. Grandpa cleared his throat and began his prayer.
“Our creator, who gifted us with the bounty of nature, we thank you for this food, but also we thank the men who slaughtered it, the women who prepared it, and now we shall partake in what we’ve been given. In the name of the Wild’s God, amen.”
Everyone murmured amen as well and reached for the tray lids. They were lifted off and I was greeted with a cloud of steam to the face. I had to take off my glasses and wipe them off before putting them back on.
In front of me was a man’s head, steaming hot and surrounded by a garnish of greens. Its eyes had been carefully scooped out, the top of its head removable so that one could enjoy the brains. The mouth was stuffed with minced up pork by the looks of it, and the smell, oh the smell was divine. Cuts of the best parts of man and woman were scattered up and down the table.
If only Garrett could have seen it.
Garrett walked in right at this moment, wiping off his still bloody hands. He looked up and down at the array. Grandpa turned around, his face stern.
“Boy, you’re off to a bad impression. You missed the blessing!” He scolded.
Garrett’s face went light pink as he rubbed the back of his neck. “Sorry, Roger and Ryan went on ahead, I told them I could handle cleaning the workshop.”
Grandpa blinked owlishly. “… You did it on your own?”
“Well, yeah! I mean, Emma’s dad said it had to be done before we sat down to eat and… wow.” Garrett slowly approached the table, I could hear his stomach growl. “I honestly thought Emma was screwing with me, but you guys really go all out when you get together.”
Grandpa nodded. “Well then.” He looked down at where Ryan and Roger were grinning sheepishly. “Boys, you left the newcomer to do it on his own?”
“He volunteered!” Ryan complained while Roger facepalmed.
Grandpa scowled. “Just for that, you’re cleaning up after dinner,” He said. The twins groaned while I laughed and motioned for Garrett to sit the hell down.
“I was worried about you, idiot.” I lightly elbowed him.
Garrett laughed, spooning a mound of the pork from the head onto his plate. “What, did you think your dad got pissed at me and decided I was going to be dinner too?” He shook his head. “Nah, Roger and Ryan needed help, and well, I delivered. It was really nerve wracking to go hunting, but once it was done, it was… wow.”
“I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time that happened to my boyfriends.” I let Garrett stew in his horror for a few seconds before I laughed. “Kidding! The only time dad made my significant other prey was when he was caught peeping through other girl’s windows. Oh, and he cheated on me. Jack ass.”
“Oh, totally a jack ass.” Garrett gasped as a cut of the thigh was passed down. “Oh my god, that looks amazing.”
“Take a bite.” I leaned in, my breath coming to a stop. What was he going to think? Would it live up to his high expectations, the fantasies he revealed to me when he knew he could trust me?
The meat was so tender it practically fell apart with his fork. Garrett swallowed, clearly nervous before sticking it in his mouth. He chewed, swallowed… and grinned.
“Wow! It’s amazing!”
I did a little dance in my chair. “All right! Now pass me the mashed potatoes, babe, oh, and a slice of the breast meat! Love me some breasts- don’t you take that the wrong way!”
Garrett laughed, and it was then I knew he was a keeper.