Just one of the guys, p.4
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       Just One of the Guys, p.4

           Kristan Higgins
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Page 4

  Author: Kristan Higgins

  “And are they falling over each other in love?” I ask.

  “Not exactly,” she acknowledges. “She hasn’t forgiven him yet. ”

  “He did cheat on her, Mom. ”

  “Do we have to discuss this now?”

  “No, we do not. Is everyone else here?” I ask.

  “Yes, we’ve been waiting for you two, the roast is almost ready, now shoo! Get out of the kitchen! Take that carcass you call a dog with you. Go!”

  “Auntie! Auntie! Play Bucking Bronco with me! Please? Please? Pleasepleaseplease?” my nine-year-old niece Claire begs.

  “No! Wild Wild Wolves! You promised, Auntie!” Annie, seven, yanks my hand.

  “Okay, okay, wolves and Broncos, coming up. Let me move Buttercup, okay?” Buttercup does not agree to get up, just blinks at me reproachfully. I slide my arms around her belly and heave her to her feet, but, jellylike, she refuses to stand. I’m forced to grab her collar and drag her into the living room, where she lies next to the door, happily allowing Dylan to look in her massive ears.

  Dad’s sitting in his chair, pretending to be asleep. Sophie and Olivia giggle wildly as he snores. “Wake up, Grampa!” Sophie orders. “It’s dinnertime!” Dad snuffles and snores some more, then lurches upright.

  “I’m starving!” he bellows. “But not for dinner. For…for…” He looks at his granddaughters, who wait with breathless joy. “For children!” He growls and lunges at them, pretending to devour limbs and heads and bellies as the girls scream and pull away, then fling themselves back for more.

  “Hey, everyone,” I say.

  “Wolves, Auntie!”

  “Yup, in a minute, kids. Hi, Lucky,” I say. “Hi, Tara. ” I kiss my sister-in-law’s cheek. “How’s it going? Where’s Jack?”

  “He and Trevor are in the cellar with Chris. Playing Nintendo, I think. Mark’s down there, too, avoiding his wife,” Lucky says.

  “Ex-wife,” Tara murmurs.

  “Not yet,” Lucky corrects.

  “I’m right here, so if you’re gonna talk about me, could you at least keep it quiet?” Elaina says, doing her inimitable Latina head wiggle. “Hey, Chas, what’s new?” Before I can answer, she picks up Dylan and sniffs his bottom. “Hold that thought,” she says, hastening off down the hall, her black curls bouncing.

  “Are you ready to play Broncos, Auntie?” Claire begs.

  “Chastity,” Tara says. “Listen, before it gets crazy in here, I wanted to ask you a favor. It’s our anniversary at the end of the month, and we were wondering…we hoped, actually…”

  “We prayed, Chas,” says Lucky, putting an arm around his wife. “We prayed on our knees that you would find it in your heart to watch the kids for us. Friday till Sunday, last weekend of April. ”

  I pause, bending down to pick up Graham, Jack’s youngest, who is one and a half and gnawing on my bootlace. “Are you out of your minds?” I ask Lucky and Tara. “Come on! You want me—me!—to babysit your little monsters? For an entire weekend?” They have the grace to look ashamed. “Do you remember what happened last time? The rope burns on my ankles?” Tara grimaces. “Christopher eating raw pumpkin and throwing up behind the couch? Annie peeing on my bed?”

  “I remember that!” Annie exclaims joyfully. “I peed on Auntie!”

  Lucky hangs his head. “Forget it,” he mumbles. “Sorry. ”

  “Oh, lighten up. ” I grin. “Of course I’ll do it. ”

  “Told you,” Lucky murmurs to his wife. I nuzzle Graham’s soft, chubby cheek, then imitate a bird to make him smile.

  “You’re a saint. ” Tara sighs happily. “Name your price. ”

  I feel a flush creep up my neck. “Well…”

  Their eyebrows rise expectantly. The flush prickles hotter, but I can’t afford not to ask. “I’m interested in…you know. ”

  “Becoming a lesbian?” Lucky guesses with a knowing wink.

  I punch him in the ribs, gratified to see him wince. “Aren’t you supposed to be kissing up to me right now, Lucky?”

  “Yes, yes, of course,” Lucky amends. “What can we do for you, Chas?”

  I heave a sigh and roll my eyes but force myself to continue. “I’d like to meet a decent guy,” I mutter. “So if you know anyone…”

  “Sure!” Tara chirps. “Slim pickings so far in Eaton Falls?”

  “Well,” I say, staring at Graham’s creamy skin and translucent pink stick-out ears. “It’s not that I don’t meet single men. It’s just that they tend to be…freaks. No one I’d want to father my children. You know how it is. ” Actually, she doesn’t know. She’s thirty-one, married for eight years with three gorgeous kids. “Anyway. I can use all the help I can get. ”

  “It takes a village,” Lucky murmurs with false compassion. I narrow my eyes at him, but I need him. All the literature on dating (yes, I’ve read it) says to tell everyone you know that you’re seeking a mate. However mortifying and demeaning that might be.

  “I’ll keep my eyes open,” she says. Lucky nods. From the bedroom down the hall, Jenny cries out, and they both head down to check on their youngest. Graham squirms to be let down and toddles after them.

  I find that my hand is over my abdomen, as if checking for my own baby. Not there, of course. At this moment, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like for my stomach, which is as lean and hard as plywood, to swell with a baby. For the pink-cheeked, drowsy-eyed baby to be my little boy or girl.

  “Auntie, look!” Olivia says.

  I put my hand on her glorious red curls (she takes after her mom and not the black-Irish O’Neills). “What is it, Poopyhead?”

  “I have a loose tooth!” she announces, opening her mouth. Before I can protest, before I can even get a sound out, her chubby finger shoves a front tooth way, way back to reveal a gaping, crimson crater. A string of blood trickles down, threading through the other teeth. My stomach drops to my knees and all the breath seems to leave my lungs.

  “Thee?” Livvy asks, still revealing the pit. A little blood-tinged spittle lands on my hand. “Thee it? It’th tho looth!”

  “Don’t…I…honey…” My vision is graying, my hands clammy and cold. I take a staggering step back, bumping into my father, who steadies me.

  “Livvy! You know Auntie doesn’t like blood! Show Uncle Mark instead. ”

  I blink, then shake my head in disgust. “Thanks, Dad. ” I sigh.

  “My poor little weenie,” he says, patting my shoulder.

  The familiar mixture of irritation and self-disgust rolls over me. In a family of alpha-male hero types, not only am I the only girl (and single, and childless), I am also the only wuss. Just in case I didn’t feel different enough. Despite my strapping stature, my ability to run marathons and hike the Appalachian Trail, there’s a chink in my armor, and its name is blood. And gore. The twins, Blood and Gore. I am the only O’Neill who missed the “I’ll save you” gene.

  As members of the Eaton Falls Fire Department, Dad, Mark and Matt (and Trevor, for that matter) have saved dozens, possibly hundreds, of lives in one way or another, whether it’s carrying someone out of a burning building or doing CPR or pulling them out of the river or just installing a free smoke detector. Lucky is a member of the New York State Police bomb squad. Jack is a helicopter paramedic, now with a private company in Albany. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for a dramatic rescue during his tour in Afghanistan, for crying out loud.

  Even my mother, who is five foot two and weighs one hundred and eight pounds, gave birth to five children, none of us under nine pounds, without a drop of painkiller of any kind.

  But somehow, I have the embarrassing tendency to faint at the sight of blood. When Elaina invited me to witness Dylan’s birth, I nearly peed myself. Once, at the bris of a friend’s son in New Jersey, I hyperventilated and staggered into the hors d’oeuvres table, ruining two hundred dollars’ worth of d
eviled eggs, smoked salmon and matzo balls. When we had to dissect a frog in high school, I passed out, hit my head on the lab counter, came to, saw my blood and fainted again.

  But I’m taking steps on that front. Though I won’t tell my family about this until it’s over, I recently enrolled in a course to become an EMT. An emergency medical technician. Me. Surely, I like to imagine, buried beneath my layers of weenie-ness and a massive case of the heebie-jeebies, there lurk the genetics that let my brothers enjoy their adrenaline-soaked lives. Plus, maybe there’ll be a cute guy in the class.

  “Who wants to play Wild Wild Wolves?” I ask my nieces.

  “I do!” shriek Claire, Anne, Livvy and Sophie.

  “Who wants to be the hurt bunny?”

  “Me! Me!”

  I get down on the floor and begin snarling. “Grr! Oh, man, it’s been a hard winter, and I’m so, so hungry! Oh, look! A poor wounded bunny rabbit!” The girls scream with joy and try to crawl away, dragging their legs behind them. I pounce, drag and chew, their screams of joy piercing the air.

  “So how’s everything else with my little girl?” my father asks as I gnaw on his grandchildren. His black hair, heavily laced with silver, is mussed. “Did you start work yet?”

  “Just the meet and greet. Grr! Gotcha! Delicious! And you’re the only man on earth who refers to me as little,” I answer. “I’m starting Monday, actually. ”

  “Can’t wait to see your byline. ” He winks.

  “Hey, Chastity. ” I turn to see Trevor leaning in the doorway, smiling, and my knees tingle shamefully.

  “How are you, Trev?” I ask briskly.

  “Great. How are you?” He smiles in conspiratorial knowledge—ah, yes, the Scorpion Bowls—and my stomach tugs in embarrassment.

  “So what’s new at the firehouse these days, guys?” I ask both my dad and Trevor, while still chewing on Claire’s chubby little foot.

  “Oh, the usual,” Dad answers. “Fifty pounds of shit—”

  “In a five-pound bag,” Trevor finishes amiably.

  “Porkchop,” Dad says, “what’s this about you wanting a boyfriend?”

  My jaw clenches, but I’m saved by my niece, who crashes into my father’s knees. “Grampa, can you eat us again?” Sophie begs. “Can you pretend to be asleep, and then we’ll play with your hair and then you can open your eyes and say you’re hungry for children and pretend to eat us? Please? Please?”

  “Not now, honey. Grampa wants to eat real food. ”

  “Should have stopped somewhere first, Dad,” Jack calls. I wave to him.

  “I won’t have you kids insulting your mother’s cooking. It’s perfectly wonderful,” Dad states loudly. “Of course, I stopped at McDonald’s, so…” he adds much more quietly.

  Trevor wanders off to get a beer, so I am saved further humiliation as my father picks up the thread of our earlier conversation. “Anyway, Chastity, why do you want to start dating? Don’t you know what schmucks men are?”

  I finish chewing on Graham, who’s the most recent wounded bunny, and stand up. “You need to get over that weird Irish idea that it’s my destiny to wipe the drool off your chin, Dad. And, yes, of course I know what schmucks men are. Look around! You gave me four brothers. ”

  He smiles proudly.

  “I’m a normal person, Dad,” I say with a sigh. “Of course I want to get married and have some kids. Don’t you want more grandchildren?”

  “I have too many grandchildren already,” he answers. “I think I may have to start eating more!” With that, he pounces on Dylan, who bursts into tears.
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