he hardly knew what to say. Started with “Nice girls don’t—”

and then went mute. He hasn’t mentioned it since. But it’s not forgotten. I can see it in his eyes.

“Gwen?” Dad’s voice is sharp now.

“Be nice to Gwennie,” Emory urges. He leans on one fist, trailing a square of pancake through a lake of syrup. He has a milk mustache.

“Look, I’m not asking for the kid’s résumé. He’s the yard boy. I’m sure Marco and Tony checked him out. But if I’m going to trust him with my son in the water, I want to know he’s responsible.”

Well, not with hedge clippers, that’s for sure. And not with . . . not with . . . I can’t think of an answer that isn’t totally inappropriate. My life lately seems to be an endless series of mortifying encounters. I push my pancakes around on my plate.

“Simple question, simple answer.” Dad’s snapping his fingers at me. “Gwen! You’re zoning out like your ma.”

“He’s responsible,” I say, glancing up.

“All I need to know. I’ll take your word for it, he’s a good egg. Finish your pancakes. I made a ton because I thought Nic would be coming. What’s the excuse this time?”

Nic has skipped the last three dinners. His reason tonight was vague: “Tell Uncle Mike I have something really important I have to do. Really important.”

Pretty obvious why he’d want to bag out this time, but Nic is usually more gifted with justifications.

More engagement ring shopping? A marriage license? A blood test? A doctor’s appointment?

Viv and I have broken the ice. But every time I open my mouth with Nic I close it again without saying a word, this weird twist in my gut. He’s practically my brother and he can’t tell me? How come he and Viv can both confront me about Spence, but I can’t do the same to them?

Snapping fingers. It’s Dad again. “Where are you tonight, Gwen?” He narrows his eyes at me. “What’s wrong? What’s going on with Nic?”

Em’s forkful of eggs and ketchup hovers halfway to his mouth. He peeps back and forth between us, big brown eyes alarmed.

I parrot Nic’s lame excuse, that same spiral in my stomach.

I want to say, I don’t know, I don’t know, and I don’t know why I don’t know. And just talk to him and find out and fix whatever it is.

Please just fix it, but what comes out is, “Yeah, what is going on with you and Nic, Dad? Why are you being such an asshole to him?”

Silence. Dad frowns over his plate, dicing pancakes with precision, his knife scraping loud.

“Asssshole.” Emory samples the new word, drawing out the s sound, one of the ones he struggles with.

“Just our luck. He got that one down perfectly. Nice work, Gwen.” Dad forks a few more pancakes onto my plate.

“Now you’re being one to me. I mean it. What’s the deal with you two?”

“Your cousin needs to grow up.”

“He’s got another year in high school, Dad.” I hope.

“When I was his age—” Dad begins.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. You had shitty luck and—”

“Stop talking like that in front of your brother,” Dad thun-ders. Em shrinks back in his seat, reaching out a maple-sticky hand for me. I grab on to it, squeeze. Dad grumbles, he doesn’t roar. What is this?

“What I mean is, is that what you want for me and Nic?

Just what you had? What about all that stuff you said at Sandy Claw?”

“Eat your pancakes,” Dad huffs, shoving a forkful into his mouth. “At least, without your cousin here there’s enough to go around. That kid eats like there’s no tomorrow. I swear, half the money I give your mom goes down his throat.”

“You’re mad at him for having an appetite now? What in God’s name?”

Dad has the game face Mom never will, but I see guilt flash across it. “You don’t understand,” he says.

“No. I don’t. Help me out. What’s your deal here?”

He reaches for the plastic gallon of milk, sloshes more into his glass. “It never gets better, kid. Bills, bills, bills. Your little brother’s got asthma. He’s got physical therapy. He’s got speech therapy. He’s got occupational therapy. Insurance covers some, but the damn bills just keep on coming.”

“I know, Dad. But what does that have to do with Nic? He didn’t cause any of that.”

Dad clears his throat, looks over at my little brother; abruptly stands and flicks on the television, shoving in a DVD. Em looks at him uncertainly for a moment, but then he curls up in Dad’s big recliner, cuddles Hideout against his cheek, soaks in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Any day can be Christmas for Emory. Dad sits back at the table, leaning toward me to say quietly, “I bust my butt all the time and every dollar that comes in flows back out like I’ve got a hole in my pocket. I don’t play the numbers, I don’t smoke or spend it at the bar. I’m careful with the cash, Gwen. And it still doesn’t matter a damn.”

“So cutting Nic loose will help?”

“You know I won’t do that. Gimme a break. I look out for what’s mine. Like I do with Em. Even if the kid is nothing like me.”

The words hover in the air.

Dad shovels another forkful of food into his mouth.

I feel sick.

Emory has Dad’s brown eyes. He has his crooked big toe.

Dad’s smile, though he uses it much more often. Anyone, any-one, would look at them and know they were father and son.

But Dad left. He doesn’t see the day-to-day. He doesn’t see Em tilt his head against Grandpa Ben’s shoulder, huskily singing Gershwin lyrics as they watch another Fred-and-Ginger movie.

He doesn’t see Emory hurry to the refrigerator to pick out Mom’s bagged lunch when he sees her pulling on her sneakers in the morning. He doesn’t see Emory carefully align his fingers to respond to Nic’s high fives, his face glowing with big-196

boy worship. He hears how hard it is for Em to talk, the draggy slowness in his voice. He sees that his face is sometimes blank of everything, and even we who love him best can only guess what’s happening inside. He sees everything that makes him different and nothing that makes him Emory. I feel sick, yeah, but I also feel sorry, so sorry for my father.