Carson brought his friend Jeremy home for Thanksgiving, and Layla watched in the entry way as mom and dad hugged Carson. Layla hadn’t seen many of Carson’s friends since he went away to college, but when she saw Jeremy she took a deep breath.
Jeremy had shaken her parent’s hands, confident, tanned, five o’clock shadow. Layla watched his arms, her hands trembled. She tried not to smile so she wouldn’t have to reveal her braces. It seemed that soon she would be shaking Jeremy’s hand herself, and she knew her face would turn an unforgivable shade of red; it was already turning. Carson saw her face as she skittered off. He smiled to himself, didn’t say anything.
Layla got the piano bench at dinner that night because they only had four dining chairs. She complained to mom and got a terse reminder: “You’re the youngest, you get the piano bench. Your brother isn’t here often, and his friend is our guest.” An afterthought: “And you shouldn’t have run off earlier. It was rude.”
When Carson and Jeremy came down the stairs for dinner, Carson picked the seat next to her, put his arm around her, squeezed. “How’s it going, kid? You ran off there.”
She bit her lip and nodded.
Carson: “How’s big bad junior high?”
Jeremy cut in. “Uh oh, you’re in junior high?”
Red face. Nod.
Jeremy smiled. He didn’t draw attention to her shyness. He said, “I always loved science in school. Do you have a good science class?”
She shifted. Shrugged. “I guess. I like math better.”
Jeremy answered in mock surprise, “Really? You like equations better than poking dead animals?”
She made a face, and he laughed, said, “Just kidding. You have to be smart for math.”
He didn’t comment on her braces. She felt calm, fell silent, let her parents ask the boys about, school, life, girls, plans for the future.
Layla made a sculpture of an alpine valley with her mashed potatoes. She was diligently tracing the path of a stream down the side when Carson started collecting dishes and taking them to the kitchen. When she looked up it was only her and Jeremy. She looked around, startled.
He looked around surreptitiously, held out his plate, the last few pieces of broccoli. “Need some trees?”
She stared at the plate, thought that broccoli shaped trees didn’t grow in the mountains, decided against turning Jeremy down and took a few, placing them around the stream. They both smiled.
Layla heard her name from the kitchen when Carson said, “Mom, can we take Layla for ice cream?” Layla wasn’t old enough to remember how the first-snow ice-cream had become tradition. But mom and dad stopped coming when Carson got his driver’s license.
Her mother pursed her lips, looked into the dining room, rolled her eyes. “She didn’t even finish her dinner. You’re going to spoil her.”
Carson laughed. “She’s my baby sister.”
Layla watched, wishing Carson still lived at home.
Her mother walked out to the dining room saying, “Well, try and bring her out of her shell, would you?” Layla’s mountain scene was taken from in front of her. “And don’t let her play with her ice cream like this, not in public.”
Layla went and hid in her room, but it didn’t work. She heard mom’s voice calling down the hallway. “Layla?” She found Layla in her room with a book. “Layla, you can go to ice cream, but you have to do the dishes first.”
“But, mom,” she said.
“No buts. You didn’t even eat your dinner and I’m letting you get ice cream. The least you can do is clean the kitchen before you go.”
Layla dog-eared the page and set the book down to the sound of her mother saying, “Oh, Layla, honey, why do you always have to ruin books like that? How many book marks have I bought for you?”
In the kitchen Carson was loading the dishwasher, Jeremy wiping the counters. She breathed a sigh of relief.
Her mother walked up behind her. “Carson, your sister was supposed to do the dishes.”
“It’s fine mom.”
The boys went upstairs to grab their keys and wallets. Layla stood at the front door, mom making sure her scarf was tied tight, that she had gloves on. “The boys should be down in a sec.” She laughed. “Well, I guess I shouldn’t call them boys, should I?”
Layla quite agreed. She shrugged.
Her mother looked at her sternly. “You shouldn’t have made Jeremy do the dishes. You’re making me look like a terrible host.” She sighed. “And Carson was more than happy to jump in and help. Why can’t you be more like him?” She went to the living room.
Layla stood waiting, thinking. She’d spent her whole life wishing she was more like Carson. And every time she’d said as much, her mother had said, “Don’t compare yourself to your brother. You just need to be yourself. Don’t be so shy all the time.” But Carson was the one who wasn’t shy. Layla didn’t know what she was supposed to do.
She thought of Jeremy, so calming, so kind, so intimidating. She tapped her foot, crossed her arms, stared at the wall. She got tired of waiting and ran upstairs with her boots on, a grievous sin.
Carson’s door was closed and she rolled her eyes, thrusting it open. Jeremy and Carson turned, stared at her wide-eyed, Jeremy’s hands on Carson’s waist, Carson’s on his neck. They separated, cleared their throats.
Layla’s shoulders fell. “I’m going out to the car,” she said.
In the car, after silence, Carson said. “Look, Layla. Could you not tell mom and dad?”
Layla sat slumped in the back seat, zipper pull in her mouth, scarf lying on the seat next to her. “Why would I tell mom and dad?”
Jeremy and Carson exchanged a glance.
Layla said, “You know they’d take it out on me. You don’t even have to live here anymore.”
Carson smiled tersely at her in the rear view mirror.
Jeremy turned from the passenger seat, smiled at her. “Parents are tough.”
Layla looked at Jeremy, sighed, and stared out the window.