The sky was shifting from blue to shades of gold as the sun descended toward the horizon line. The Firr’s three had gathered everything together in the car and were finally setting out down their dirt drive. Rydell held a large pot of her mother’s pasta salad between her feet on the floorboard.
She was nervous, something she would never have told her parents. Rydell wanted her mother and father to believe that she was fearless in the face of change. Though they always told her the moves were for her benefit, she knew better. Really she was a convenient reason for them to start over, reevaluate, to take one more chance at finding their niche. Rydell never wanted them to feel bad about that. Everyone deserves to be allowed to find their place in the world.
And so, when she’d come home to find the cardboard boxes un packed, dishes out of the cupboards and tape and markers scattered on the floor, Rydell put on her best carefree face. She’d hide away any sadness or fear that arose as she happily packed up yet again.
Driving down the road now, dust curled up in billowing clouds behind them. She felt fear grip the base of her stomach. What if she liked them, this community? She silently made a wish that they would be awful people.
After meeting Elam she knew this would never be true. It was much more likely they’d be wonderful. What was she going to do if they were just as amazing as their son and Hawkeye? What if they were just as sweet and instantly lovable? What if she fell in love with them just like she had this place only to arrive home to the dependable landscape of cardboard, tape and markers yet again?
It was too terrible a thought to contemplate further. Through the Voltzwagon’s dusty window Rydell stared into the setting sun and willed her heart to live in the moment. She wanted to enjoy this land of infinite green fields and sweet honeysuckle air as much as was possible. She willed her mind to forget about her almost certain future and the ominous cloud it brought over her present dreamland.
“So! Are you excited to meet your new friend’s family?” Mr. Fir called from behind the wheel.
Rydell cringed as she made out a coy expression in her fathers face as he stared at her in the rearview mirror. Subtlety was not his strong suit. The emphasis he laid on the word “friend” anyone could have picked up on.
“Dad! Please. Please don’t do that tonight.” She groaned.
“What ever do you mean?” his coy expression morphed into sarcastic shock.
“You know! That thing you do. That thing where you imply that if my friends are boys then they must be or will be boyfriends. Don’t do that. It makes them go all awkward and then they start treating me weird!” Rydell evaded her father’s eyes and looked down at the pot clanking between her feet.
“Sweetie, they start treating you ‘weird’ because they like you. I’ve only given voice to their deep seeded feelings.” He laughed heartily at himself. “Plus, it is my chance to establish myself as the awkward father who is overly involved in his pre-teen daughters social life and thus am an obstacle to their pursuit of you. Really, it’s a win-win for me. I entertain myself, watching them squirm, and at the same time stomp out any hope they have.” He lifted his chin to the mirror and became an exaggerated toothy smile.
“That’s not true. It couldn’t be. They couldn’t all have liked me. That’s ridiculous!”
“Hun, here is a lesson every girl should have. There are and will only be two motivations for a boy to be close friends with a girl. One, to get close to said girl. Or two, to get close to said girls friend.”
At this Mrs. Firr, who had been sitting silently for some time, burst into peals of laughter.
“What may I ask is so funny?” asked Mr. Firr
Managing to suppress her giggling just long enough to respond, “Oh nothing much. I just didn’t realize I had married such an authority on affection and wooing. But you know, I shouldn’t be surprised. You have always been, in my mind, Mr. smooth operator!” Laugher burst free again. If the car door had been unlocked Rydell thought her mom might fall out and go rolling down the road.
Pretending to be wounded by his wife’s jest at his expense he replied, “That’s right you shouldn’t be surprised! I did manage to woo you after all! And lets face it, your way out of my league!”
“Oh darling don’t you worry, I faced that years ago!”
As if being cued by a director both of their faces went cold and completely void of expression. Then taking a single side-glance at each other from their seats they shot their heads back and laughed merrily without warning.
Rydell was completely lost, and had been lost since it began. Sometimes it seemed that they two of them spoke their own secret language and she just couldn’t ever understand. When someone is left out of a conversation, lost behind a language barrier they feel left out. Surprisingly it comforted Rydell. She didn’t always understand her parents but it was obvious there was some kind of impenetrable connection between the two of them. Watching it unfold made her feel safe and secure, a product of that confusing but undeniable bond.
“Honey, don’t let your father psych you out. Trust me when I say, if he’s worthy of pursuing you he’ll go to great lengths to be a real friend, not someone who’s only in it to eventually be more. Anyhow, if he is really trying to be your friend he won’t squirm away when your dad goes into his awkward routine. In a way your dads is doing you a sort of favor. If anything, at least then you’ll know.”
Rydell was still lost, “What do you mean? I’ll know what exactly?”
“Well, if he sticks around after that you’ll know he’s a keeper. Whether that be a ‘friend-keeper’ or a ‘more-than-friend-keeper’ will be totally up to you.”
“I disagree!” interrupted her father, “Until she is legally an adult, we still get a say in weather he’s a ‘more-than-friend-keeper’!”
Rydell rolled her eyes and held her tongue. She could have continued the current line of conversation but she thought it best to let it die out. This way she would still have a mile or so for them to sit in silence and hopefully forget their conversation about boys as friends and their potential as boyfriends before meeting Elam and his family. Perhaps it might lessen the chance of her being immensely embarrassed.
Usually a mile down the road took no time. However, Rydell had come to learn that a mile on a country dirt road takes double if not triple the time. Apparently the driver is obligated to admire the scenery no matter how many times they’ve seen it before.
The sun had fallen almost completely out of sight behind the black horizon line by the time they arrived. Elam’s house sat twinkling atop a small rise lights glowing from every corner. Rydell wasn’t sure where all of them were coming from. It was beautiful.
Elam’s family lived in a modest, light blue, two-story home. The grandest feature was a deep wrap-around porch. The boards were painted dark red and were littered with potted ferns and flowering vines, rocking chairs of all sizes and a huge curling wrought-iron porch swing.
“Welcome one and all!” called a deep slow voice.
Carefully exiting the Voltzwagon, pasta salad in hand, Rydell craned toward the sound. A man standing over six feet with broad shoulders and a barreled chest was walking toward them, a familiar grin beaming from ear to ear. Rydell instantly came to two conclusions about this man. One, based only on his grin this had to be Elam’s father. Two, she was going to love him just as quickly as she did everything else here. A sweet sadness swelled in her throat.
“Glad ya’ll found the place. When Elam told me he’d invited ya I was a bit concerned ya’d get lost. Not many folks can navigate these parts and our Elam has a poor track record with directions.”
He lifted his hand toward Mr. Firr for a handshake. The mans meaty hand enveloped Mr. Firr’s. “The names Lowell Stills. I’m the patriarch of this hear family.”
Rydell’s father swayed with the strength of Lowell’s handshake. “It’s nice to meet you! Hank you so much for letting us join you tonight.”
“Ah, the more the merrier!” Rydell heard the faint echo of footsteps approaching. Here comes the rest of the brood. You know my son Elam. This here is my wife Violet and that scrawny one bringing up the rear is our youngest, my daughter Willona.”
A small piercing voice sounded from the tiny girl clear as a bell and lacking any of the slow drawl her father and brother had. “Pop! Not funny!”
Lowell’s belly flexed with laughter. “Sorry folks. Her given name is Willona but she refuses to answer to it. She’s our little tom-boy and’s gone by Tommy since she was just a tike.”
In comparison to father and son, Violet and Wilona Stills were more than small. Mrs. Stills and her daughter held petite frames with dainty features. Outwardly, it seemed Elam was a carbon copy of Lowell and Wilona a copy of Violet. Rydell wondered what traits Violet might have passed on to a son who in no physical way resembled her and what Lowell could have given to Willona.
“And don’t you forget it! Call me Wilona and reap what you sow, that’s lesson number one around me!” Wilona had positioned herself an arms length away from Rydell and was looking her directly in eyes. About three inches shorter than Rydell and far less developed the tiny girl’s presence managed to seem titanic.
“Well enough of this dilly dally Rydell, lets skip the cordialities and go strait to being friends. Elam seems to think highly of you and that’s enough for me.” Without skipping a beat she continued, “Now let’s hurry up and drop that pot off in the kitchen and grab mason jars for the hunt. I can’t let those wretched twin cousins beat me again! Seeing as I dropped Elam from y team last year, (he gets to distracted by the pretty lights) you’re going to be on my team. Think you can handle that?”
To be honest Rydell didn’t think she could, this tiny girl seemed very intense and Rydell had no idea what the clues “mason jar”, “hunt” and firefly’s” could add up to. It didn’t really matter though. In raptures with the Stills easy manner and jubilant spirits Rydell happily shook her head and proclaimed “Sure! I’m in!”
“Excellent, just what I was hoping to hear! Now come on, we’ve got to get to that race line before they start without us!” Tommy grabbed hold of Rydell’s wrist and gently towed her toward the front porch. As they climbed the steps Rydell caught Elam’s eyes throwing back twinkling reflections of the house. One shoulder was leaning on the porch entryway, his hands folded across his flannel-planked chest. One booted foot was crossed on tiptoe over his other. Elam was the picture of country ease.
“If your teamin’ up with Tommy don’t ya wander off now, ya hear? That’en is blood hound! She’ll track ya down and give ya a tongue lashin’ to boot!” Elam’s pearly grin spread out in a mischievous smile, his eyes flickering toward his sister.
As the screen door creaked open and Rydell stepped into the Stills homestead the smell of fresh baked bread filtered into her nose. Above a large limestone hearth a rugged wooden plank read, “Be STILL and know that I am God. –Psalm 46:10” The word still was signed like a signature on a check. The warm flickering light coming from beneath it seemed to wrap itself around her. It was marvelous. She wanted more than anything to call back through the door, “You won’t have to worry about me running off. I don’t plan on going anywhere. Ever.” If only the desires of ones heart always became the manifestations of their reality.