With bowed heads the family repeats their practiced version of the meal prayer, which they call grace. Liv steals a glance at Dave. The gold and green floral wallpaper is all wrong against his dashiki.
Dad starts the red and white cardboard bucket around the table after serving himself. The chicken pieces quickly become props in their hands. Soon Dad scoots backwards, his long legs hungry for space, his tall frame in need of a full body stretch. He clears his throat as he wipes the edges of his mouth with the ball of paper toweling in his hand. Mom rearranges the food containers in nervous fidgets.
Liv senses a familiar tension between her parents and reaches for something to say, “Could we have another day before we go to school, Dad?”
“Why?” Resting his elbows on the table, Dad leans forward, lengthening his torso, his eyes narrow. Interrogation mode.
“We just got here yesterday. That’s why!” Liv shocks herself and throws her hands up in the air in an awkward attempt to erase the exclamation.
Dad raises his right hand and directs his pointer finger at her and then Dave like he is delivering a curse, “You’ll start school tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir.” Dave answers. He wipes his mouth on his forearm and asks to be excused.
Liv doesn’t, although pushes back her chair and rises. She steps away then turns, facing her father’s back, burning her eyes into the spot between his shoulders. She feels an engine growing in her gut. “Pack up your things, we’re moving. That’s it? That’s all we get?” Her voice rises in soap opera melodrama. “Dad, we deserve an explanation!”
Liv storms through the kitchen, running from the consequences. The long scrape of a chair against the linoleum and heels pounding toward her signals just that.
“Come back here right now, young lady!” Mom erupts just as Dad catches Liv’s shoulder at the bottom of the stairs.
“Back to the table, Olivia Grace.” He steers her from behind like he might a prisoner. At least that’s what it feels like to Liv. Beats of Earth, Wind, and Fire wane from Dave’s stereo.
Her father forces her back into her seat. Mother sits expressionless with eyes on Liv. The room forces them closer than usual. Liv remembers a play she studied the year before. An uncomfortable family drama that made her dizzy.
She intends to finish her lines before her father dispenses punishment. Best to make eye contact, Liv thinks, so she does. She tips her chin upward. “Dad, it’s just not fair,” she repeats. The inward space between her throat and her navel tremble like a railroad trestle bearing the weight of a steam engine hauling a string of coal cars. Her eyes fall to the floor. She knows she speaks true because the freight train rolls off her back like magic.
Father uncrosses his arms and strides away, his heels pounding hard. “Dave!” he shouts up the stairwell.
Mother could speak to Liv while they are alone. She could admit that what Liv said is true. But she does not speak, and by now Dave is back in his seat, hands folded in his lap. And by now Liv has looked the other way.
Dad stands behind his chair and grips the ladderback. “Kids,” he starts slowly, “Last month I got a call from headquarters that an agent here was killed in a car accident. That emergency vacancy became my new assignment, effective immediately. I had no choice in the matter. That’s why we’re here and not somewhere else.”
“Oh.” Liv and Dave say in awkward unison.
Mom looks directly at Dad, but doesn’t say a word. Why doesn’t she speak, Liv wonders.
Dad stands to indicate the benediction and sets out the terms while he rests a hand on the table’s edge. “Set your alarms, kids. The car leaves at 7:30 on the nose. Understood?”
Nods from Liv and Dave follow, and Liv buses the table before following Dave up the stairs. By the time she reaches the landing, he has already closed his door.
Fate’s latest bomb scattered the family like shrapnel.