The Dinner

by Jessica Hsu

I wanted to write a story. 

In a book I’d read, a little girl traversed the galaxy with a young woman. I wanted to write a story like that. Instead, I was stuck here. If this refrigerator in front of me was a planet’s surface, would it be like one of those icy moons the little girl discovered, or could humans inhabit it?

Dad shouted from the kitchen. “Annie, can you hurry up and get the ginger?”

I lingered in the basement, not wanting to see Claire. She had a penchant for catching up with people, which also involved incessant questions and thinly veiled compliments. We had nothing in common. Well, besides how her father was my uncle. I felt sorry for the gas costs my parents had wasted on yet another trip down the coast.

Grandpa stumbled towards me, pointing towards something I couldn’t see. How could he get down these stairs anyways? He was an amicable old man. But he really could be (how do I put this politely) slow. In the book, an old man was left behind, when the young woman and the little girl departed on the ship. They assured him they couldn’t have possibly brought him along. Though it was necessary, nevertheless, I did think it was cruel.

Standing with the fridge door open, I grimaced. Dad would scold me, telling me that the food would go bad. I decided he’d be the technical engineer of the ship in my story. I hadn’t actually written anything down yet, but I liked to think of this as productive brainstorming.

I looked down at my phone.

There, the ginger. It was resting in a valley surrounded by hills of ice. Or mountains. I imagined them growing jagged peaks. Maybe if I slowly inched my hands forwards, I could surmount the mountains, and behind them, I would discover some new coordinate system…

I heard someone coming up behind me. I scowled. That could only be Alex, my older brother, who probably was trying to sneak up on me again. This seemed to be his latest episode of amusement after recently discovering I was freaked out by jump scares. About to hurl some choice words at my brother, I turned around, expecting to encounter his annoying face. Instead, I found myself staring right into Mom’s face, her eyebrows raised dangerously.

“Annie! What are you doing down there? And for so long!”

I gulped. Earlier today, Mom had already given me a long talk about too many shows and a terrible sleep schedule and too much daydreaming. I quickly apologized, and Mom huffed and turned around, marching upstairs, muttering something about not connecting with family and how special of an occasion this was or some other nonsense like that. But not wanting another scolding after we got back home, I hurriedly gathered the ingredients Dad wanted.

By the time I returned to the kitchen, Mom and my aunt-in-law were arguing over a paper by some French author whose name was hard to pronounce and whose work was even harder to understand: something about orbital eccentricity and capillary phenomenon. I decided that in my story, there would be no asteroids. Too complicated. The young woman and the little girl had enough to deal with.

“I’d appreciate having someone help. That’d be great, right?”

Mom jabbed back at Dad. “It’s not like you’d say my help is of much use even if I tried.”

“Then just get out of my kitchen.”

“Is it your need to focus again? Can you just—” She bit back the rest of her sentence, huffing, and swung around, ushering my aunt-in-law out. “He’s been like this the past couple of days. Don’t mind him.”

If I were on a post-apocalyptic ship, I’d trust Mom to lead everyone through an engine failure or a foreign shuttle attack. She was bold and brave enough for the job. But Alex didn’t seem to inherit much of that confidence. Last night, Mom and Dad were discussing something a bit louder and accidentally dropped a few pots. He looked bothered when he came back to our room, but he told me everything was fine. I think he got unnerved at every little thing. I shook my head. Clearly, not meant to be a ship captain.

“Annie! Oh my god, I haven’t seen you in forever!”

Not again. I couldn’t even get to the bathroom in peace in this house. I’d already had to dodge Grandpa, who’d try to waylay me as he hobbled towards me with his walking stick, only to encounter Claire. My cousin would be the perfect sidekick of the protagonist of my story. She’d want to be the main character, but she definitely wouldn’t be. She’d just sit there and ask questions and poke at things and get in the way of the crew.

She started prattling on about asteroid strikes. I nodded along. Being born into a family of astrophysicists didn’t seem to make her particularly smart. Didn’t she know seventeen asteroids hit the Earth every day? Unlike in the book, none of these asteroid strikes could really cause any damage. I wanted to correct her, but then she’d just talk more.

Drifting away, my eyes caught a glimpse of Alex’s soft smile. He was watching Mom as she talked with my aunt-in-law, seated at the dining table. She was using that cheery fake tone of hers. Definitely fake, because she never used that tone at home.

“Food’s ready!”

Dad carried a plate of fish to the table. My uncle took the chopsticks to scoop some fish for my aunt-in-law, who excused herself from the conversation with Mom. Mom’s smile faded a little as she stared at the two of them, probably from how boring this party was.

My uncle seemed to finally notice me hovering nearby trying to get at the fish.

“I can’t believe you’re all grown up now. Don’t need anyone to serve you food, now? Gosh, I remember when you were just a little girl, you always pointed to this and that and then demanded people get it for you. I always told your mom she spoiled you too much, with all that candy and allowing you to get a phone so early. But I knew you would turn out…”

Mom glanced at us, lips pressed together tightly, a smile rigid on her face. Not again. The last time we had one of these parties, Mom and my uncle started arguing after he made a remark about how she scolded Alex over every little thing when he was young. She was adamant she had done an equally fair and good job of properly bringing my brother and me up. Frankly, I didn’t really care. I’m already all grown up, for God’s sake. All I knew for sure is that my uncle could have taught his own daughter to be a little less like him, with all that excessive chattering.

I groaned. They better not get into an argument again. I nodded politely to my uncle, as I furtively glanced at Mom to reassure myself no imminent outburst from that side of the table was going to occur.

My uncle would be that bubbly character who would keep making jokes when the ship was clearly about to go down. He’d regale them of all that they’d accomplished already, telling everyone it was alright. It was a bit pitiful to think about this, him still smiling as everything went up in flames around him.

After expressing enough grunts of affirmation through my uncle’s reminiscing session, my legs now sore from awkwardly standing and my plate still devoid of that delicious fish, I noticed there was another empty seat at the table. My eyes found Grandpa standing near the front of the house. Who knew what he was up to, again.

I sighed. The fish would have to wait. I excused myself from the table, approaching him from behind.

“There is nothing,” I coaxed, patting his back.

Then I saw the window. It was dark gray.

I flung the door open. The sky, in fact, was gray. I shivered. Heavy dust swirled in the air. Frost coated the sidewalk. I could not see the sun. I shivered. Faintly, I recalled Claire mentioning something about an asteroid strike. Was she talking about an impending one? I couldn’t really remember.

Would my house still be standing? Wind blast and overpressure shock have devastated San Diego County, I could imagine some news reporter saying on the TV right now. Authorities are looking for survivors. Seek shelter underground if your area is experiencing the effects of debris. Dazed, I wondered how I missed it.

I opened my mouth to call for help.

In the book, when there was a leak in the ship, the little girl always listened to the young woman. Mom always said I had a wild imagination. Maybe Mom was right. Everything would be fine. And who would even believe me? And even if they did, what could I do? Alex would absolutely panic, and then I would have to comfort him. He was always so scared of every little thing.

I paused for a moment, and locking the door behind me, I turned back.

A sheet of ice-covered Grandpa’s shoes. Tendrils of ice crawled between cracks in the floorboards, climbing around his torso. Icicles dangled from his sweater.

In the book, in the space shuttle, the young woman taught the little girl to carve an ice statue with the ice they found on an icy planet. It melted within hours. The little girl cried, but the young woman told her everything would be alright.

The ice would melt soon. Grandpa would be okay. In the living room, I could hear Claire laughing with Alex. My uncle and aunt-in-law murmured in quiet conversation. Mom picked at the fish. Dad sipped the wine. One cozy and contented family.

He croaked, “Outside. Do you see?”

I rubbed my hand across my eyes, shook my head, and smiled at him. He was just an old man.

In the book, the young woman and the little girl continued to travel the galaxy forever. They would always be happy. It was a good ending. I decided my story would have a happy ending.

I walked back to the dining table, scooping a small piece of fish into my mouth. It was good. Everything was good.

A man with a large glass coming out of where his head should be containing a fish. There is also a dog to the left of him, an orange and yellow house in the back right, and a rainbow just beyond that.

In Search of a Rainbow

by Ronald Walker

Jessica Hsu is a sophomore undergraduate student at the University of Michigan. She is an aspiring poet and fiction writer, and her poems have appeared in the Foredge Review and Polyphony Lit.

Mr. Walker works in a painting style he terms “Suburban Primitive”. This style combines his interest in the origins and functions of art along with life in the suburbs, which he views in both a physical and psychological manner. His work has been shown in 45 solo exhibits and numerous group shows over the years. He holds both a MFA and a MA degree in painting and drawing.

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