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The family reunion lurched into full swing.
Will Bailey’s back dug into the battered picnic table Stick-like joints folded elbows to knees like a grasshopper enjoying the sun. They unfurled with a snap, a closed fist smashing a wayward volleyball from shattering his head. Crack.
“Wow. Did you see that, guys?” A crimson-cheeked fat kid raced forward, slack-jawed.
Perspiring teenage boys and girls milled around Will, anxious hands patted his back and shoulders. A hand still at half-mast, his booming laugh replaced a self-satisfied grin. ”It’s nothing. Back to your game boys and girls. Which side is winning again?”
The boys, rowdy and energetic, high-fived. A reedy boy leaned forward. “I can’t believe the girls whooped that wild ball so hard, Uncle Will.” Adam’s apple bobbing, he smirked at his friends. “Surprise. Surprise.”
A raven-haired girl fought her way through the throng and crossed her arms. “The girls? It only takes one, buster, and that would be me—Penny.” She poked a thumb into her chest. “Little old me.” Hoisting herself to full height, the curvy girl stood no more than four feet from naked heels to the top of her head. The boys snickered and shook their heads.
“You do have a mean serve, girlie. Maybe you’ll learn to straighten it before you kill somebody?” He pointed at his nephew. Intermittent gasps sputtered in the crowd. A couple girls whispered, heads bowed, stealing glances at his hand. “When’s the last time you hit the ball half that hard?” He churned the air with open palms. “Go on and play fair.” The boys shuffled off elbowing each other. Will folded his gangly form once more, eyes closed, face to the sun.
Hot and limp from chasing the ball, someone threw a T-shirt heavenwards. “Last one in lake is a loser.” Bare feet pounded the sand, churning it in all directions as they passed organizers filling the park’s stone barbeque surfaces with meat. The sound and smell of sizzling burgers already worked on their appetites. Soggy tees soared like damaged birds only to nose-dive with a thump. Unzipped shorts followed, marking a wide trail to water’s edge. Dozing sunbathers and excited children at play in the sand slowed the rambunctious flock. They wove in and out around them, pushing and tugging, shouting and squealing at the top of their lungs.
Will ran a hand through thinning white hair and smiled. He dropped his hand and studied it. After all these years, he still wasn’t used to it. He turned with a start at the light hand on his shoulder. “I didn’t hear you come up, Josh.”
The reedy nephew pleated himself on the bench beside him. “Dad’s always saying I look more like you than him. Weird, isn’t it.”
Will studied the seventeen-year-old, a corner of his mouth twitching. “Seems so. A hardship, is it?”
“No-o. A comment—is all.” Josh toed the patch grass. “Good to see you. It’s been a long year since the last family picnic. We never see you.”
“You know I can’t drive, right? Can’t afford one of them fancy cars, neither. Even if I had a license, they probably wouldn’t renew it at my age. Something on your mind, Josh?”
“Not really. Wanted to talk without interruption. How you been keeping?” He squinted over his shoulder, breathing in through his nose. “I’m famished. Given the opportunity, I’d eat a whole cow not just a couple burgers. Why does food always smell so good outside?”
Will chuckled, pushing hands against the bench to rearrange his lean rump on the hard surface. “Fresh air and exercise, I suppose. I’m good for an old geezer and the shape I’m in. Thanks for asking. What I’ve missed—can’t lie—was playing sports and the freedom to do as I pleased.” He lowered reflective sunglasses to peer over the top. “Is that your mother bringing food?”
Changed to a dry Tee, Josh rubbed his chest and belly. “That’s mom. Bless her.”
“Son, my hat—is it under the table? The dang sun is frying my brains like steak.” The high-pitched clang of an iron dinner bell pealed in the distance. “Thanks. That feels better already.” He raised a hand in salute to Josh’s mother.
“Why don’t we move you and your chair into the shade? High noon. It’s hot enough to fry bacon on my nose.”
“About time you put your hat back on and moved out of the sun. Can’t chat—don’t want a stampede. The young ones are over eager now the food’s ready.” She chuckled, a buttery sound. “Later, Will.” Plates smacked down, she was gone.
“More comfortable in the chair, Uncle Will? Let’s eat.” Half the burger disappeared in one bite. He chewed, a look of bliss on his face. A raspy noise like someone coughing up sandpaper forced his eyes open. “What?” He bit off another hunk.
“It’s a pleasure to watch you eat. I used to put it away too when I was your age. Don’t want much nowadays.”
“Why do you come to these reunions? Nobody pays attention to you. I don’t even know half my cousins—there’s new ones every year—you can’t know many. The older people are busy cooking, serving and packing up again. Why do you bother to come so far to sit ignored?”
Will chewed and looked away. “You’re all the family I have. No fun living alone in the retirement home. Still enjoy counting the additions to this huge family every year. My friends are gone or dying. I’ll be gone soon, too.”
“Are you sick? Why don’t you live with us? Never understood why you didn’t in the first place. You wouldn’t be lonely in our house. Guaranteed.” Josh leaned over the plate in his lap, earnest brown eyes studying the man he wanted to know.
“Your father has badgered me for years. Can’t do it, son.”
“Why not? You’re Dad’s only brother. Why the heck not?” A crimson river of heat rushed from his chest, over his face, to the roots of his pale blond brush-cut.
“You have your hands full with six aunts and cousins, never mind your mother’s side of the family. I have good 12-hour care. I’m good.” A quick wink and he speared a forkful of potato salad. “You’re right. Food tastes a hundred times better outside.”
Josh dove into the salad and bit into the second burger, thoughtful, eyes assessing his uncle. He swallowed and cleared his throat. “How come no one talks about what happened to you? I want to know, but Dad always makes excuses. I’m not talking about idle curiosity, understand?”
“Nothing to tell.”
“You’re a hero and nobody talks about it. I don’t understand.”
Will heaved a deep breath, wiping his face and hands with a crumpled paper serviette. Like I said, nothing to tell, but if I can answer, I will. What do you want to know?”
Josh grinned scraping together the last of the salad on his plate. “Easy one to start. Why does no one call you Bill Bailey? Why only Will?”
The coughing-sandpaper sound began low and grew in volume. “It’s nothing to do with the song. I was named William, shortened it to Will by my teens. Once I heard about the song, I made it clear my name was Will and nothing else. I’ve had the song hummed enough times to lose my sanity.”
The boy slapped the folded paper plate against his knee, then grew serious. What happened to your legs? Dad says you never married.”
It was the Vietnam War, son. I drove a jeep over a landmine… End of story. About not marrying—why sentence a young woman to a life of caretaking when she can do better?” A shadow of sadness flickered across his face and vanished. He handed the half-finished plate to the boy. “I’m done.”
“And the finger? What happened to the top half? Do you mind if I ask?” Nervous hands slid up and down his thighs.
This time, Will honked when he laughed. His nephew heaved his webbed sun chair closer, exhaling.
“That’s a funny story—stupid if you want to know. About 20 years ago, I worked a table saw, moved the wrong way, put my hand out to catch my balance, and well, lobbed it off. Passed out—don’t know how long. Afterwards no one could find it.” He shook his head. “Dumb accident.”
Neither of them spoke for long minutes.
“I want you to promise you will come visit more often and stay over a few nights.”
Once Josh’s friends knew him better, they liked hanging around Will. No one noticed the wheelchair after a while. His habit of stabbing the air with a finger when excited was another matter.
© 2016 Tess @ How the Cookie Crumbles