Lila places a green card on the pile and pronounces the fatal word.
Nate groans and picks one from the deck.
“Why do you always put green?” He whines.
A laugh comes from the kitchen. It’s soft, a little fragile, but Lila’s just glad to hear it again. The grown-ups are sitting around the lunch table, drinking coffee and watching the sky’s late afternoon glow. Sometimes they murmur words of comfort they think the children can’t understand, and Dad’s breath stops for a tiny second, before picking up again with a hesitant sigh. Auntie Pepper’s face falls for a second, memories clouding her brow when she thinks her daughter isn’t looking. Sometimes they shoot that worried parent glance, only to turn away when Lila gazes back.
But most of the time, Lila’s busy wrecking her brothers at Uno.
She smirks. “Not my fault I keep picking them.”
Cooper adds another card. “Liar. You know exactly what you’re doing.”
She sticks her tongue out, and he rolls his eyes.
“Oh yeah?” She taunts. “And what would that be, Coop?”
“You’re weeding out all our greens so you end up winning.”
Lila snorts. “All right, Master Planner. That doesn’t even make sense.”
It’s a warm autumn afternoon, and Lila feels the breeze playfully tugging at her hair. It rustles through the lawn, whispering in the distant trees. Nate’s chair creaks against the decking as he swings it back and forth, long after Cooper gave up on chiding him.
She looks on towards the empty field, where a hare jumps around, scavenging for food. Dad will probably ask Lila and Coop to mow the lawn in a day or too.
Her eyes squint against the sun as it starts setting in sparks of red and gold. The scent of roasted chicken wafts through the window. Morgan and Nate both lick their lips as they study their cards.
It’s a perfect scene, Lila thinks. Like a happy ending in the cheesy movies Cooper makes fun of.
Except Auntie Nat isn’t here, sipping her coffee and teaching Lila how to beat Dad in chess.
Auntie Nat isn’t here, cuddling her on rainy days while watching the morning cartoons. She isn’t here, playfully punching Dad’s arm when he makes a stupid joke or cheering her on as her arrow hits the target.
Auntie Nat isn’t here, and she leaves a whole that pounds into Lila’s chest whenever she wakes up.
She’s a little old to be praying to dead people, so she thinks about her instead. The sunset colours remind her of her hair, of its shadowy undertones that bounce around like a halo on the rare occasions she lets it loose.
It doesn’t take long. A few words in her head, merging with thoughts of green cards and dinner. A twinge in her heart that she makes sure isn’t carried through her eyes. Cooper has always been the sensitive one, the one rushing into Mom’s lap with tears streaming down his face while she stared on though the fields, remembering.
“The trick is all in the swing.” Lila digs her feet in the dirt, feeling the grass between her toes. Cooper is busy feeding baby Nate, who greedily sucks on the milk bottle and grips it like a lifeline. Which means she has Auntie Nat all to herself for once.
“When you’re upside-down,” she continues, “don’t get scared. Just let the spin carry you.”
Auntie Nat throws her hands up in the air, and Lila is pretty sure they can touch the giant cloud that glides above them. Then she swiftly brings them down, meets the grass, spins –
And then she’s back up again, as if her body hadn’t been thrown upside down one second ago. She’s a ballerina, all grace and pointed toes. Lila watches with awe, eyebrows thrown high on her forehead.
Auntie Nat smiles back at her, and waves to her.
“Go on. Your turn.”
Lila’s smile is a little less sure, and a little more terrified. She takes a deep breath, glances down to the earth, which suddenly looks very far away.
“I’m right here to catch you,” says Auntie Nat with a steady voice.
Lila holds her breath, throws herself down – her fingers hit the ground, tickling the tips of her fingers – she’s flying, falling, she’s upside-down and giggling –
She promptly falls on her back, her vision spinning between the clouds. Only she isn’t lying on the ground. She’s cushioned by two strong ballerina arms, and the azure sky is hidden by soft crystal eyes and a chiseled jawline. There’s a beauty spot above Auntie Nat’s upper lip, and it bounces up and down as she grins at her.
“I got you,” she says.
Lila climbs back up on her feet. “Did I do the swing right?”
Auntie Nat chuckles. “Almost! You just need to push up a little more.”
Lila groans. “I’ll never make a good one like you!” She whines.
Two hands perch on her shoulders. “Hey, котёнок. Look at me.”
She glances back up. Auntie Nat’s touch is firm but warm, caressing her like the brush of a dove’s wing.
“Just because you can’t do it perfectly now doesn’t mean you should give up. You know what you do when you fall? You jump back up and try again and again, until you can do it with your hands behind your back.”
Lila giggles. “That’s impossible!”
“Oh yeah?” Auntie Nat stands back up, smirking. Her eyes sparkle like lemonade. With a sudden leap, she’s back up in the air, only this time her hands stay firmly behind her back. She flips all the way to the other side, her legs thrown in a complete circle before landing scissor-like on the grass. Lila feels like she’s watching a really cool superhero movie in slow motion.
“Never let anyone tell you what you can or you can’t do, котёнок. Not even yourself.”
The last rays of sunshine slither into the patio, where Lila busies herself with Morgan’s hair. The boys are still playing, hurling cards at each other in the boring frenzy of a two-player Uno game. She finally reaches the end of her cousin’s thin, chocolate hair and neatly ties it up. Her gaze flicks back up towards the fields, where the hare’s still hopping between the dry grass.
“Make sure you remember her, sweetie,” Dad had said in a half-choke, when she’d zoned out one day on the porch, silent earbuds fastened in her ears. When his eyes were still misted over, lost in another dimension. When the hole had been so raw, so demanding, so glaring. When the little bundle of flowers filled with Lila and Coop’s drawings had been dropped on the river, carried away into oblivion by the hungry torrent. “Make sure you remember her.”
“Li?” comes Morgan’s squeaky voice from below.
Lila sighs and stands up. Brushes the dust off her thighs, and extends a hand toward her cousin.
“Come on, Morgan,” she says, “I’ll teach you how to make cartwheels after dinner.”