I’m a little late posting my response to Belle’s flash fiction challenge. What can I say? I’ve been picking up tape from all over the house, the leftover pieces trailing from a child’s fort.
My challenge was the opening sentences, “Ecstatic. That was the word.” If you like the product of wild-eyed, late night writing, help yourself below.
Ecstatic. That was the word.
Our teacher handed around the pink and orange print outs. Like every Tuesday, they had Words Are Fun! printed along the top and in italics below, the vocabulary word of the week.
“Remember, we don’t want boring words in our writing, or our speech,” my teacher said. “I want you to define this word in the blanks below and then spend some time thinking about how it applies in your life.”
I slide my chin onto the palm of my hand and let some breath hiss out between my front teeth.
“Your favourite day of the week, Jenny,” someone snickers behind me. I read the word in the page.
Ecstatic. I’m not sure what this means, but the syllables bounce around in my mouth unpleasantly. “I’m in no mood for hyperactivity,” my mother says often. This is her cross to bear, because there are far too many of us to allow for single moments of complete calm.
The bell rang and I shoulder the blue backpack that is really my brother’s. Brian, the boy that is two up from me, third from the top, no – not the ginger. Explaining family members is a reflex that Brennan’s develop over time.
Brian nods from the back as I board the bus and a few seats up, Evan, fourteen and ‘too cool for school’, ignored me. A year beneath him, Colin giggles with a classmate and finally there is me, ‘Jenny Jane the Plain’ as my siblings rudely call me. I settle in the empty seat beside Evan and wind each of my braids into a knot on top of my head.
“What’s ecstatic?” I ask, breaking the silence which we both usually enjoy.
Evan acts as if I’ve been talking his ear off, sighs and edges toward the window. “It’s what I’ll be when school is out for the year.”
“A month and a half left,” I offer.
I stop Brian as we jostle off the bus, “What’s ecstatic?”
He grins, leaping down the last step. “It’s a homerun.” He takes off towards the house with Colin only two strides behind.
Our house sits on a hill. I study the peeling white paint coming off a windowsill as I walk up the driveway. There is a porch around three sides and near the front stoop the floor takes a slight dip. Granddad says it’s like the waves of the ocean. This particular wave squishes slightly beneath my foot as I move into the shade of the porch.
Like every fine day, Granddad is there himself, the wicker rocker creaking beneath his movement. I hesitate, staring at his half closed eyes, but then he winks one and lifts his head. It is tufted with white hair above the ears and when I go over to kiss him, his chin scratches against my cheek.
“School?” He whispers. Too many pipes, my mother says, and not enough doctoring, my dad agrees. The long and short, of course, is that Granddad’s throat equipment has mostly given up the ghost. I listen carefully to his next words over the burst of laughter from inside.
“I always do,” I shrug my bag and it sags from my arm to the top of my scuffed shoe.
He raises his eyebrows, thinks, and then grins. “When your mother was born, you know, I cried.”
The Granddad closes his eyes and rests his head again, against the rocking chair.
“Goodnight,” I tease, but I’m not sure if he hears me.
My brothers have all disappeared by the time I come into the kitchen. If I wanted, I could follow their trail of books, clothes and shoes up the flights of stairs and into their attic bedroom. I could, if I had any desire to get swallowed up in the thumping that I hear overhead.
Mom stands at the counter with her back towards me. In one hand, she has a pair of kitchen scissors and she’s trying to hack into a cardboard box of fish sticks.
“Hi,” I say out of habit.
She jumps, “My word, Jane, I didn’t hear you come in. Is Granddad staying put?” She rips open the plastic bag of frozen food and rattles them onto a cookie sheet. “Set the table please,” she finishes up without pausing for breath.
The big table is pushed askew, and I trace the carved initials on one end, that appeared over night last year. C. B. B. Colin’s middle name is Jefferson, so unless he forgot what he was called, there is no one who can be easily blamed for this graffiti in our kitchen.
I set out the plates and then sit aimlessly on a kitchen chair, watching Mom in the light of the window. She’s paused and pushes her hair back into a clear alligator clip over and over again. Her hands try to smooth the bubbles, but after all, that comes with the territory in the Brennan household.
“What’s ecstatic?” I don’t expect an answer, but she turns around and looks at me for a moment.
“It’s what I’d be if someone walked through that door and said, ‘Come on, woman. I’m going to give you a pedicure and here’s a bottle of red wine.’ Or,” Mom points at the table, “it’s what I’d be if you actually finished setting the table without being reminded half a dozen times.”
Point taken. Dad’s truck pulls into the driveway, and then the boys come down, so I don’t bother drawing breath until Mom makes them go outside and Dad saunters into the living room to smoke. He sits by the open window, and hangs his cigarette out under the gap in the screen.
“She knows you do it in here, Dad.” I say, grinning.
He waves his hand, “Hush now.”
“What’s ecstatic?” I say after a moment goes by, with nothing but the sound of hollering outside.
“Ecstatic?” My father ponders and in his thoughts, he yawns. “You mean the dictionary definition, or what it means to me?”
“Well, I guess it means my first pay check I ever brought home, then. That was a darn good feeling, I tell you.”
“I’m glad you liked it.”
He laughs and shakes his head at me. “It seems I never got over the thrill. I just can’t help myself. Can’t stop bringing home the bacon, right Janey?”
Mom yells from the next room and so I pull myself from the couch and make my way out the back door. It drops a foot down to bare yard, the result of too much carpentry experimentation by somebody. The grass stretches across until it gets lost in a scraggly raspberry patch, the old coop and cedars and tamaracks that manage to survive the scars of saws and nails.
Under the largest cedar, half hidden under the swooping, low branches, I know I’ll find him, my littlest brother. Jemmy must be called for supper and mother always says I’m the only one who can coax him from his little nest. I duck down and see him as usual, cross-legged in the fragrant, moist dirt. He looks up with his open-mouthed grin and says my name as clearly as he can.
“Hi,” I say, squatting beside him. He reaches out with small stubby hands and pats both of my knees in a careful pattern of quick beats.
“We have this stupid word thing for school today,” I continue. “You know how we are always supposed to be improving our vocabulary? It’s a doozy this week.”
Jemmy speaks a garbled word, but he does not expect me to understand, so I nod and continue.
“It’s one of those words where the spelling doesn’t make sense with how you pronounce it, you know the kind?”
I glance at Jemmy and he’s watching me with his pale eyes and still that smile.
“Oh, come on out, Jemmy.” I take one of his pattering hands. “I almost forgot, it’s time for supper.” Jemmy waves the other fingers in my face. “Yeah, I know, I’m talking a lot.” I sighed, “But you listen.”
In the sun we stand a moment, blinking. There is Colin, tearing around the house’s corner with a paintball gun and Evan’s annoyed voice carries across to us as he tries to escape into the shelter of the porch. Granddad totters up from behind and grips his shoulder so he can’t escape.
“Jemmy, come on.” I give a little tug on the hand in mine, but he hesitates and I look around.
No, he’s not hesitating, he’s listening to the boys. He’s tipping his head back goofily to the sky, feeling Spring go all crazy on us. He is smelling Dad’s cigarette sticking out from the window by the corner. He’s squeezing my hand in the same pattern that he always does, and he’s smiling.
He’s looking ecstatic, in fact, and the thought rolls through my head and off the tongue before I realize the truth of it. “That’s what ecstatic looks like,” I say, looking at silly little Jemmy with the round middle, doddling on his way to fish sticks and french fries.
So I stand beside him for a while and make myself small, looking at the world for a second, ecstatic.