Authors: Karen Hattrup
To Kevin, who always believed
The summer sky was dark outside my window when the phone rang. Not a tinny version of a pop song from somebody's cellâthe hard jangle of the landline. Almost no one called that number. Mostly telemarketers, sometimes ladies from church looking for volunteers, donations to the bake sale. But they never called this late.
Opening my bedroom door a crack, I listened as Mom picked up the receiver in the kitchen and gave a little “Oh” of surprise. Seconds later she was rushing up the steps and into her room. She didn't look in my direction, just closed her door with a click. Before she did I heard two soft words. “Oh, Deb.”
Deborah. Her sister. The two of them were just a year apart, but hardly ever spoke. My room shared a wall with my parents' room, so I leaned against it and tried to hear, thinking about everything
on the other end of the line. Aunt Deborah with the perfect hair. Uncle Richard who worked at some sort of firm, the kind of place with three names. Somebody, somebody, and somebody else.
And then there was my cousin Truman. Tru for short.
Minutes passed, and Mom kept talking. Dad came up the stairs and disappeared into the room with her, staying silent as her voice murmured on. If it had been a year ago, I might have barely noticed, barely cared about some strange phone call from Aunt Deb, but right now I needed a distraction. Summer was here, but for me it promised to be a long and terrible slog. School had let out three weeks earlier, and I'd hardly left the house or spoken to anyone. Wrapped in gloom, I was practicing a kind of stillnessâlike a tightrope walker who looked straight ahead and thought only of keeping her balance.
But now . . . now something about this secret conversation stirred me. Leaning closer to the wall, I felt a twinge of excitement. I had a sense that
were happening. I made myself flat, pressed my ear to the fading purple paint. Most of my mother's words were indistinguishable, but one soft note sounded over and over, until finally I knew what it was.
I woke just after midnight, tangled up in sweaty sheets, a dream slipping away before I could catch it. Minutes ticked by, and I couldn't sleep. I couldn't stop wondering about the phone call. About Truman.
He was two years older than me, the same age as my brothers,
twins Jimmy and Kieran, which meant he was now seventeen. We almost never saw him, just a couple of Christmases or Easters here and there, and that was years and years ago. There in the dark, an old memory came to me. His family was with mine at our dinner table. Tru, hair nicely combed, fork and knife delicately in hand, was asking for something to be passed. Mom complimented his manners, but there was something off about it all, something in his practiced, smooth politeness. . . . Later I overheard Dad tell Mom, “That kid's got a shit-eating grin.”
His words had jolted through me. I was little, maybe eight, and swearing was a serious offense in our house. But then Dad chuckled, and I realized that he wasn't mad. Not exactly. I thought about what he'd said, and even though I'd never heard that phrase before, I was pretty sure I knew what he meant.
Tru was bad, but people liked him.
Years passed when I didn't see him at all. I knew practically nothing about him except that he lived in Connecticut and went to prep school, which I understood was fancier and more expensive than the Catholic schools we went to in Baltimore. He had slipped from my life so completely that I might barely have remembered him at allâbut then there'd been that one amazing day. When I was eleven and he was thirteen, Tru made it to the big spelling bee, the one they show on ESPN. We'd had a family party, my brothers, my parents, and me crowding in front of the television with Coke and microwave popcorn. The camera panned over the kids onstage, and there was Tru. I could hardly believe it. We all cheered and clapped, and Dad called him “the
great white hope, treading water in a sea of Indians and Asians.” Mom said that was inappropriate, while Jimmy and Kieran laughed so hard they fell off the couch.
My heart fluttered like a little bird every time he approached the microphone, his name appearing in bold letters on the screen: Truman Teller. Lots of kids used their fingers to trace the words out on their palms, but Tru never did. Instead, he put his hands in his pockets and stared at some point off in the distance. He seemed to spell without effort, like he was pulling letters down from the sky.
I was sure he was invincible, but in the end he fell. It was the end of round five. About half the kids were left.
“The word is
.” “Repeat it, please?” “Corpuscle.” “Language of origin?” “Latin.” “Definition?” “An unattached cell, especially the kind that floats freely, a blood or lymph cell.” “Use it in a sentence?” “Red corpuscles have a biconcave shape, allowing for the rapid absorption of oxygen.”
Tru missed the second
When the bell dinged to signal his mistake, my parents and brothers groaned and shouted in disappointment, while I sank off the couch, landing in a heap on the floor. A sympathetic burn of embarrassment and disappointment filled my chest. I was someone who felt all my failuresâbad grades, dropped ballsâas little scorches of shame, and I couldn't imagine what it was to fail so publicly, so enormously. As he came down from the stage, the camera caught his face for the briefest moment. His head was ducked, but I could see the hint of a hooked little smile.
We turned off the TV after that, but I kept picturing Tru, that
look on his face. I remembered my father's words, “a shit-eating grin,” and a strange tingle came over me. A flash of understanding.
Tru didn't care about the spelling bee. He didn't care at all.
Somehow I knew that I was right. I'd seen it in the flare of his right lip when he thought the cameras weren't looking. The idea amazed me, almost scared me. How could someone not care about something this grand, this important? I tried to imagine how that would feel, but it was impossible. I'd always been a good girl who followed rules and wanted to please. Still was today.
When I was eleven I couldn't have explained why that smirk mattered so much, why it affected me. But now, as I lay in in bed, staring out into the darkness, I found the words for what had struck me so.
Tru was a person not afraid of the world.
I woke up groggy, sunlight cracking through the crooked blinds. The morning was hot and sticky. Mom was banging around in the kitchen, so the boys had woken up, too, even though it was early for them. We settled around the dining room table for breakfast, because that's what my parents liked us to do. We ate meals together, at a table, as a family. It was one of their big rules, like no back talk and no cell phones after eight p.m. Most of our friends thought we were freaks, and we didn't blame them. But this morning something was wrong. I could tell right away. Our bowls were filled with dry cereal, and we were waiting for the milk, but Mom was holding it and wouldn't let go. Dad put a hand to his mouth and coughed awkwardly.
“Your cousin Truman is coming to stay with us. For the rest of the summer.”
At first, we all just stared at him. He might have said the president was coming for all the sense it made. But then Mom told Jimmy that he would have to move out of the basement bedroom and back in with Kieran upstairs, like when they were little. That snapped everyone awake. Kieran gave a heavy sigh and leaned back in his chair, while Jimmy went red in the face.
“Are you kidding me?” Jimmy asked. “Seriously. You're kidding me, right?”
Dad told him to deal with it. Jimmy opened his mouth again, but Dad gave him one of his looks that stop a person dead, then crossed his arms over his chest, swelling up like a gorilla. Jimmy shut up. I knew Dad was pissed, really pissed, because his cheeks were all mottled. He told us he was picking Tru up that night from the train station and would like for someone to come with him. To welcome our cousin. He glared at my brothers, who looked away and stayed silent.
Seconds went by. Tick.Tick.Tick. Then I opened my mouth. Shut it. Opened it again and took a breath.
“I'll go,” I told him. “I want to go.”