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Rating: PG-13

We rode to Devil's Backbone in our uncle’s black Ford Falcon. My sisters and I picked at the tears in the red leatherette seats and elbowed and kicked each other for more room. Uncle Jayce smoked Raleighs and flicked his ashes out the window and they flew back into our faces like snow. We drove on a flat road under low clouds. It felt like we were being pressed between two vibrating hands. Uncle Jayce said to tell him when we saw a red-tailed hawk and when we did, he'd take a sip of something he had in a bottle between his fat legs. We were well-tended, like livestock. Still, we imagined the car careening off the road, our bodies like Lincoln Logs in the ditch. The headline: Grundy Triplets Perish Unnecessarily.

When we arrived, the relatives looked up from their plates and nodded hello. The cousin in the wheelchair turned his head in our direction. His mother clipped a napkin to his shirt and spoon fed him butterscotch pudding. He smiled and sometimes laughed, but he never talked. His mother wiped his chin, told him, hush, hush, Teddy, open wide. We watched her small, brown hands, one spooning, one wiping.

The wind blew cold in two directions and helicopter seeds spun down from the maples, covering the wheelchair cousin's hair and his shoulders. His mother brushed them away and more came and landed on her, too. Uncle Jayce picked a helicopter out of his drink. The relatives lined up at the dessert table.

The trees leant over and paper plates and napkins skirted along the tables, lifting into the air. The little kids chased them and the adults cried out, their voices muffled and dislocated. A toddler stamped his feet and screamed what sounded like, Germs, germs!

We joined hands and ran down to the dock and jumped into the lake.  Over our heads, raindrops dented the surface and our hair stood up like horns. We stretched our toes, trying to touch bottom, imagined ourselves mermaids. Uncle Jayce had told us our mother had died unnecessarily. And that’s all he cared to tell us. And then he was there, pulling us out, one by one. We scratched at his face and arms. We kicked his shins and punched his chest. Water and snot ran from his nostrils. He kept going, oh, oh and one of the aunts pulled us away from him, wrapped us in picnic blankets.

The shelter smelled like creamed corn and everyone but Uncle Jayce, who'd gone to sit in his car, stared. Somebody offered us bottles of Grape Crush, said you girls should learn to swim. And somebody said you girls need a firm hand. We huddled and shivered and clamped our jaws. Our mother would have brought two pies and a lemon chiffon cake. She would have worn a pretty dress with a wide belt and tiny, flat sandals with rhinestones in them. She would have known what to do.

Award-winning flash fiction writer with stories in Ploughshares, Copper Nickel. Creator of Fast Flash© workshops and The Art of Flash Fiction newsletter.