It was delicious. Several short cooking classes and years of practice after their mom got sick had turned their dad into a pseudo-chef. Each bite felt thick in his mouth.
His panic spiked—what if Mr. Flynn had witnessed the locker incident somehow? It had been a crowded hallway, but it was still possible. If he was losing control like his mom, Mr. Flynn would know exactly what that looked like. His face was the first Ben had seen when he had woken up in the hospital all those years ago.
“How’s Mr. Flynn’s class been treating you, Ben?” His dad had a jovial look on his face, like he had meant to tease Mr. Flynn instead of him.
Ben felt his face warm, nonetheless.
“Good.” He shoved a large bite in his mouth.
“Oh, is that so? Well, Ravi, maybe you’re a better teacher than I gave you credit for.” His dad laughed, and it amazed Ben how a reply that sounded so positive could be so negative.
“Actually,” Mr. Flynn started. Ben felt the food harden in his stomach. This was it. He was going to tell his dad he had failed. “I wanted to talk to him after dinner about that.”
Ben looked at his dad, afraid of the reaction he would have. His dad looked skeptically from Mr. Flynn to his son for a moment and then continued to eat. “Whatever you say. Ben’s old enough to handle himself now so I’ll leave it to you two.”
A clatter startled Ben, and he scrambled to pick his fork back up. He couldn’t believe those words had just come out of his dad’s mouth.
Maybe he wouldn’t freak out as much as he thought he would. Then again, his dad didn’t actually know how bad it was.
The weight in his chest dissipated.
“So I wanted to tell everyone something.” Abi had hardly eaten and Ben finally noticed there was something different about her. She buzzed with excitement. All eyes turned on her and the words rushed out. “The Indie Youth Magazine decided to publish my piece!”
“Abi, that’s wonderful!” Their mother was the first to respond followed quickly by their dad and Mr. Flynn, bursting into congratulations.
“I knew they would accept it, honey, that’s great.” Dad beamed at Abi, smile lines touching the outside corners of his eyes.
Another emotion tainted his excitement for his sister and he tried to tamp it—his parents never treated his accomplishments with this much excitement. But he knew Abi had been working for nearly a year on winning that competition. He wanted her to get out as much as she did, even if there was no hope for himself.
He was proud of her in a way. After their mom had gotten sick, his dad had pulled him aside. It was up to Ben to look after Abi. And that’s what happened. Years followed, the two of them scurrying through their shared bathroom to his room, turning up the TV volume to drown out their mom’s screams during the darker times.
All of that was over now. It was almost time for Abi to move on.
“This calls for celebration.” Their dad stood up, his chair scooting loudly across the floor. He reached into the top of the cabinet and set delicately stemmed shot glasses on the counter.
“Whoa, I don’t think I’m okay with this.” Mr. Flynn’s voice was laced with humor and he winked at Abi.
Each shot glass got a splash of purple liqueur, except for one, which Dad filled with juice. He handed them out with a wide smile, giving the juice-filled glass to their mother. “To Abi.” His dad said. “The best writer I know.”
Everyone raised their glass and Ben held his just a few inches higher. It had been a while since they had toasted to anything, and Ben knew how much Abi had wanted this.
“To Abi.” Glasses clinked loudly together, Cora finishing hers first. Ben gave Abi a half smile before drinking his. She didn’t see it.
“So, which piece was it?” Abi didn’t spare a second telling Mr. Flynn all about it.
“How much money are you going to make?”
“Now that you’re a professional, when are you getting that novel published?”
Ben slid his plate away from him and waited for dinner to be over. No one else was in a rush and he nudged his food around on his plate to make it look like he was preoccupied.
Mom excused herself to go to the restroom, holding her posture straighter than she ever did when Mr. Flynn wasn’t there.
When she had gone, Mr. Flynn lowered his voice to Dad. Abi and Cora were talking loudly on the other end of the table, so he had to strain to hear.
“How’s she been?”
Dad sighed. “You know. A lot of the same.”
“Well, I appreciate you having me over for dinner.”
Ben’s dad reached out and briefly grabbed Mr. Flynn’s shoulder. “You know how much of a help it is you coming. She needs these visits to feel normal again.” He looked up, almost involuntarily, at Ben and Abi before continuing. “I think we all do.”
“I can tell you one thing.” Mr. Flynn took a swig of his beer. “I’ll never turn down the opportunity to eat your cooking.”
They laughed and when his mom came back, she joined in too. She didn’t even ask what they were laughing at, but became louder than they were. No one seemed to think this was strange. His dad just appeared to be happy she wasn’t locked in her studio, mumbling strange words.
Ben had never thought failing one stupid test would ruin his day like this one had. Everything was irritating him and he wanted the dinner to end as fast as possible.