Billows of smoke fill the back third of the yard. I can almost hear Pop’s catch phrase, “If it ain’t smoking it ain’t cooking.” I claw my way through the surging mass of vapors.
“I just know somewhere inside this smoke is my brother, Joe.”
“Beth!” he says.
“Quite a cloud you got here.”
“If it ain’t smoking, it ain’t cooking.”
I smile again, but this time my eyes are wet.
“Just like Pop used to say.”
“Yep,” Joe says, turning into the source of the smoke.
He flips the ribs quickly, letting crisp, juicy sections of skin stick to the grill. He and I will fight over those crispy bits later. I marvel at Joe’s cloud of smoke. How does he create such a flourish, exactly how Pop used to barbeque? Must be genetic, like how Joe got Pop’s severe chin and that cowlick that never behaves.
“You okay Sis?”
“How do you do it, Joe? How do you go on with life as if nothing ever happened?”
Joe dives back into the grill, checking on the tenderness of the ribs with the precision of a surgeon. Just like Pop.
“I forgave Mark Jessup,” Joe says over his shoulder.
Bile rises to my throat. The mere mention of the man who killed Pop churns my stomach.
Joe hands me a plate of crispy bits. “Here. I won’t fight you for them this time.”
I take the plate, though I can’t eat.
“Forgiving wasn’t easy,” Joe says plainly. “But I had no choice. The hate was killing me. So where’s the husband and kids?”
“They’re coming. I needed some time alone to adjust before the crowd arrives. Who am I kidding? It’s been a year, and I still can’t adjust. Pop should be here right now.”
“I know,” Joe says. “I miss him too. Have you gone to the prison?”
“To visit that animal, are you crazy?”
“Jessup is a person, just like us.”
My teeth clench.
“Jessup is nothing like us. We would never shoot up a park full of families celebrating at the park. The man is evil, and the sooner he gets the needle the better.”
“Will you feel better then?” Joe asks.
He removes the first batch of ribs from the grill, and lays down the second, and then he claws through the smoke filling the space between us.
“Jessup is not evil. What he did was evil.”
“Has Jessup found God? Has he repented? Has he shown remorse?”
“No,” Joe says gravely.
“Then how can you forgive him?”
“The day I forgave Jessup was the day I became free from hate. Don’t you see? Forgiveness is a gift to the forgiver. Every day you hold on to hate is another day Satan has won. Only forgiveness can bring the glory of God into a situation like this.”
Joe and I turn to the sound of squeals coming from the gate. Aunt Gene has arrived.
“I can’t do this,” I say.
Joe leans close and braces my shoulders.
“You can,” he says. “Every guest who comes today will know exactly how you feel. We were all at the park that day. We are all haunted by the memory of our friends, family, and neighboring strangers falling to the ground, wounded. Mingle. Talk to these people, even the ones you don’t know. You’re not alone.”
I set down my plate of crispy bits and shuffle toward Aunt Gene, who has already befriended the family of four arriving next. Aunt Gene hugs me tight, squeezing out my breath, and then she flutters toward Joe, leaving me alone with the strangers.
“Hi,” I say. “My name’s Beth.”
“Hi,” says the mother, her shaking hand tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “I’m Rachel. Almost didn’t come.”
Her voice is quivering. She’s nearly stuttering.
“I’ve been hiding in my house since that day. Can’t believe it’s already been a year. I can still hear the bullets whizzing past my head, and your dad…if he hadn’t pushed me out of the way…”
I clap my mouth. I had not known of Pop’s final heroics. An unknown sensation rips up my spine and I lunge at the woman, brazenly scooping her into my arms.
Billows of smoke reach the front third of the yard, as Rachel and I embrace, shake, and cry, while a surging mass of guests arrive.
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