I brought the lucky quarter.
I don’t know why I did. I’d walked past it hundreds and hundreds of times without a second thought while a thin layer of dust formed around the edges. But there was just something about the way it was sitting there tonight, on the same bookshelf where it had sat untouched for three years.
Tonight I swear it looked…
I cringe as that word pops into my head, an image of blue eyes and long brown hair following it, never too far behind. Luck was my mom’s thing. Not mine. But I still reach my hand into my pocket to feel the smooth metal, my thumbnail finding that familiar nick on the edge just above George Washington’s head.
“This’ll be fun,” my dad whispers to me, turning around in the card-buying line to give me a big, blindingly hopeful smile. A smile that acts like we didn’t just spend the past three years before tonight avoiding absolutely every possible reminder of her.
I snort. “?‘Fun’ is definitely not the first word that comes to mind,” I whisper back to him as I scan the room, taking in the absolute zoo that is the Huckabee School District monthly bingo fundraiser. Even after all this time away, almost nothing has changed. My eyes move past two old ladies locked in a heated arm-wrestle battle over a premium spot near the speaker, over to Tyler Poland with his collection of rocks, each one laid carefully out in size order on top of his five coveted bingo cards.
“Chaotic,” maybe. “Chaotic” would be a good word to use.
But not even the chaos of elderly people arm wrestling and prized rock collections can distract me from my uneasiness at being back here. And not just because of what this place meant to me and my mom.
For someone who just succeeded in blowing up her entire social life three weeks ago at junior prom, there is literally no worse place to be. Unfortunately, with said social life in shambles, that also means there wasn’t a single thing I could claim to be doing to get out of coming.
And I can’t talk to my dad about what happened, or about pretty much anything for that matter, so here I am. Stuck Scarlet Lettering my way around, while Dad shamelessly uses this fundraiser as a mini–high school reunion. Because tonight is “conveniently” the night his best friend, Johnny Carter, is moving back into town after twenty years away.
I say conveniently because if you want to jump straight back into the deep end of Huckabee society, this is certainly the splashiest way to do it. I mean, half their graduating class is probably still sitting in this room.
Once a month the elementary school cafetorium is turned into a group audition for a rural-Pennsylvania mash-up of My Strange Addiction and WWE SmackDown. Don’t believe me? Back in fifth grade, Mrs. Long, the sweetest little angel of a kindergarten teacher, decked Sue Patterson square in the face because she thought Sue was intentionally not calling any B numbers.
What’s even more unbelievable is that she was right.
“I’m going to get Johnny’s and Blake’s cards for them,” my dad says, choosing to ignore my skepticism, as he pulls out his billfold. “You know how hard it is to find parking.”
He’s acting like I was just here last week, instead of three whole years ago.
I shrug as nonchalantly as I can muster, watching him buy three cards off Principal Nelson, the whiskery middle school principal, and the only one trusted enough for the past ten years to hand out the bingo cards without need for suspicion. There was a whole series of town council meetings and six months of rigorous debate before he was approved for the position.
“Emily! Glad to see you here,” Principal Nelson says to me, that all-too-familiar sympathetic glint in his eyes. I grimace internally since “Glad to see you here” automatically translates to some variation of “We haven’t seen you since your mom died!” He begins rifling through the massive deck of bingo cards and pulls out a small worn card, holding it out to me. “You want you and your mom’s card? Number 505! I still remember!”
I wince slightly as my eyes trace the familiar crease straight down the center of the card, landing finally on the red splotch in the upper right-hand corner, where I spilled fruit punch when I was six. I hate these moments the most. The moments when you think you are healed just enough, and then something as simple as a bingo card makes every fiber feel raw.
When I was born on the fifth day of the fifth month, Mom’s superstitious mind lit up like a Christmas tree, and she swore five was our lucky number. So that number became intertwined with everything in our lives, from the number of times I had to scrub behind my ears, to my sports-team jerseys when I attempted one spring’s worth of T-ball and one fall’s worth of soccer, to lucky quarters she pressed into my palm, whispering about how it was “extra special” since twenty-five was five squared.
Extra-special lucky quarters that would one day collect dust on a bookshelf. Until tonight.
But I shake my head at him. “No thanks.”
There’s a long, uncomfortable pause, and my dad glances at me before quickly pulling another wrinkled five out of his billfold and holding it out to Principal Nelson. “I’ll take it. Thanks, Bill.”
“You shouldn’t have done that,” I mumble to my dad as we walk away, Principal Nelson shooting me an even more sympathetic look now.
“It’s just bingo, Em,” he says to me as we zigzag our way to a free table and sit down across from each other. “Blake can take it if you don’t want it.” He looks down at the cards as he says it, though, refusing to meet my gaze.
As if this all wasn’t awkward enough, Johnny’s daughter, Blake, is coming. Which I’m still not sure how to feel about yet. We got along pretty well back when we were kids, but I haven’t seen her since Christmas a decade ago, when we almost set my house on fire trying to set a booby trap for Santa. Which is not exactly a conversation starter at this point, especially since we’re about to be seniors in high school, instead of wide-eyed second graders. Still, she doesn’t know anyone else here.
Which after tonight she will probably think is a good thing. Especially if things get dramatic.
Or, knowing the people in this room like I do, when things get dramatic.
I hear a laugh and my eyes automatically dart past Dad to the back corner table, where familiar long fingers comb through a familiar mess of brown hair.
My stomach sinks straight through the floor as a sea of eyes returns my stare. Jake, Ryan, and Olivia, my former friend group, are shooting daggers at me from across the room, expressions angry enough to pronounce me guilty of first-degree murder.
But I guess after prom, all the evidence would suggest, that’s… a pretty fair verdict.
Matt doesn’t look over, though. His gaze stays fixed on the table in front of him, his dark eyebrows knit together in concentration as he shifts his body to face pointedly away from me. Which is somehow a million times worse than the glares.
I’m surprised to see they’re here tonight. In the summer we’d usually all be hanging out at the Huckabee Pool after close or playing Ping-Pong in Olivia’s enormous basement.
Then again, I guess I was the only thing stopping them from going to bingo night. I guess this is what summer nights can look like without me.
I pull my eyes away as my dad slides card number 505 in front of me. “I’m not going to play,” I say. This whole thing is already starting to feel out of control. This is one thing I can decide.
“How about you play for me then?” he says as he shakes a bunch of red chips out of a white Styrofoam cup. I watch as they shower down in front of me, forming a small pile. “If that card happens to win, I keep the prize basket.”
I stare at him, unamused. Why he even wants to play is beyond me.
Although, I guess this has kind of been his thing lately. Pretending things don’t have meaning when they actually do.
Talk about my mom? Never in a million years.
Get rid of her stuff? Definitely.
Go to the monthly bingo fundraiser she religiously attended as if she didn’t? Absolutely.
“The ‘Football Fan Fiesta’ basket, preferably,” he adds, giving me a big wink as Olivia’s mom, Donna Taylor, the head of the PTA and former prom queen (rumored to have literally bought the vote for both those elections) finally comes trotting onto the stage.
You know what? Fine. The sooner we start playing, the sooner I can get out of here.
“All righty! Everybody ready to get started?” she calls into the microphone before flashing a practiced pageant smile to the crowd.
“Fuck yeah!” Jim Donovan shouts from two tables over, causing a wave of laughter to travel around the room.
“A couple more of those out of old Jim over there, and Donna’s gonna purse the lip filler right out of those babies,” my dad whispers to me, his dark brown eyes crinkling at the corners as he gives me one of his smirking grins.
I shake my head, stifling a real laugh for the first time all night.
Huckabee has a weird disconnect, and Donna Taylor and Jim Donovan are the perfect examples of it. You’ve got the Donnas, in their McMansions, or “newly renovated farmhouses” as they like to call them, their husbands working nine to five in the city while they watch the kids and meet their mom gang at Pilates five days a week. And then you’ve got the Jim Donovans, living just a few miles south on farms that’ve been passed down since Betsy Ross first started messing around with designs for the American flag.
My dad is a slightly less yeehaw Jim Donovan. Born and raised in Huckabee, with the four generations before him sharing the “Joseph Clark” name. This town is so embedded in his blood, he’d probably crumble to dust if he crossed the limits. So, I guess it’s good Johnny’s moving back or Dad’d never see him.
“Will you man Blake’s card for me?” my dad asks, sliding yet another card across the table at me.
“For real?” For someone who didn’t want to play bingo, I sure was about to play a lot of it.
“They’ll be here in a few minutes,” he says, distracted, as he nods to his beat-up cell phone, the cracked screen opened to a text from Johnny. “They just found a spot.”
I’m about to say I’d rather watch old Jim over there win the tractor pull for the fifth straight year at the county fair, but the familiar sound of the tiny yellow balls rattling around the ball cage stops me. I look up at the stage, and for a lingering moment I’m transported back by the sea of numbers just waiting to be called.
I learned how to count in this very room, sliding red chips over numbers as I sat on my mom’s lap, rattling off the number of spaces we needed to win. My mom and I came every month for as long as I can remember, and we won nearly every time. We used to bask on a throne of wicker baskets and cellophane. All our winnings, Mom always said, were thanks to card number 505 and my lucky quarter.
The gossip was endless. Half the room was convinced we were cheating, while the other half was convinced we were just the luckiest two people in all of Huckabee township, my mom’s charm making it pretty difficult for anyone to think bad of her. Even when the odds would suggest it.
I couldn’t set foot in the convenience store without getting asked about a set of lottery numbers. I even apparently helped Paul Wilson win $10,000 on a Fourth of July scratch-off, which he spent on a finger-losing patriotic pyrotechnic show a week later.
Then, when I was fourteen, my mom died, and any luck I had got blown to smithereens, just like Paul Wilson’s finger.
Since then I’ve avoided this place like the plague. I’m not interested in trying my luck anymore, even if it’s as simple as playing a game of bingo.
But watching Donna Taylor pick up a yellow ball in between her soft-pink acrylic nails, I feel the same pull I felt when Principal Nelson held up the fruit-punch-stained, crease-down-the-middle bingo card.
A feeling like that bingo cage inside me is one spin away from all the balls tumbling out.
“The first number of the night,” Donna calls into the microphone, pausing as a group of elementary school kids three tables over start a drumroll. I catch a glimpse of Sue Patterson sitting in the corner just beside them, actively saying the rosary and sprinkling holy water over her set of four cards.
“B-twelve!” she calls, eliciting a cheer from some and groans of disappointment from others.
I reach out to grab a chip, knowing even before I look that it’s on card 505. Even now I could name every number in every row, the card ingrained in my memory like a home address or a favorite song.
I hesitate over the chip pile and cast a quick glance down to see that it’s on Blake’s card too. As I slide the red chips over the respective twelves, I look over to see Jim Donovan eyeing me like this is the start line for the hundred-meter dash at the Olympics and I’m here to win gold. I stare back at him, amused that I’m counted as any kind of competition after three whole years, a swell of my long-forgotten competitiveness pulling my lips up into a smirk.
Donna calls a few more numbers: I-29, G-48, B-9, O-75, I-23, and N-40. Slowly the cards start to fill up, people eagerly eyeing one another’s to compare, the cellophane over the stacked prize baskets in the front of the room glittering underneath the fluorescent cafetorium lights.
I catch sight of a basket filled with movie theater popcorn and a $100 gift card to the historic movie theater in the center of town, which Matt and I always used to go to on date nights, resting in the exact center. The thought of Matt makes my cheeks burn, and I have to resist the urge to look at him, just past my dad, a wave of guilt keeping my eyes glued to the table in front of me as I slide the red chips carefully into place, one after the other.
“Good thing I got those extra cards!” my dad says to me, letting out a long exhale as he shakes his head. “I’m striking out over here.”
I glance over to see he has somehow managed to get only a single number past the free space. “Oh my gosh,” I say, laughing. “How is that even possible?”
“Dang. Look at you, Clark,” a voice says from just over my right shoulder. “Still can’t count for shit.”
My dad’s face lights up as Johnny Carter’s thin, tan arm reaches across the table to give him a firm handshake. I haven’t seen him this excited since Zach Ertz caught that touchdown pass during the Super Bowl the winter before my mom died, securing the win for the Eagles.
I look up to see that Johnny looks almost exactly like he did when they visited for Christmas ten years ago, plus a few extra wrinkles. A loose white button-down hangs limply on his tall, lanky frame, while a mess of dirty-blond hair sits atop his head. He’s even unironically wearing a puka-shell necklace, and actually pulling it off.
But I guess you can do that when you peaced out to Hawaii six months before high school graduation to become a surfing legend.
“Hey, Em,” a voice says from next to me, as the person it’s attached to slides onto the bench beside me.
My head swivels to the other side to see Blake.
I’m fully expecting to see a slightly taller version of the lanky seven-year-old who wore oversize T-shirts and had apparently never heard of a hairbrush, but that’s definitely not who just sat down next to me.
It’s safe to say Blake won the puberty lotto a million and one times over.
Her skin is a deep glowing tan, a color that nobody else in Huckabee has by the end of August, let alone now in early July. Her hair is long and wavy, darker than her dad’s but with the same bright streaks of blond, like the sun rays that put them there.
It’s her eyes, though, that startle me the most. Long eyelashes giving way to a warm, almost liquid honey brown. Ten years ago they were hidden behind a pair of glasses bigger than the state of Texas. Now they’re on full display.
And I’m not the only one noticing. Literally everyone is looking at our table right now. So much for flying under the radar.
“I have your card,” I blurt out, once I realize I haven’t actually said anything back to her. Her eyes swing down to look at the two cards in front of me, and I slide hers over, careful not to send the chips scattering everywhere.
Could it be any more obvious I’ve been a social pariah for the past three weeks?
“Thanks,” Blake says, smiling at me, the gap in her teeth the only constant between the girl sitting in front of me and the girl that convinced me setting off sparklers indoors would scare Santa just enough to get us both ponies.
“You’re one away from a bingo in two places,” I add, like that’s not completely obvious.
I hear Donna call out a number, but it’s nothing more than a hum in my left ear, my fingers wrapping instinctively around the quarter in my pocket.
“Hey! Lucky you.” Blake’s eyes widen in excitement, and she holds up a red chip, reaching over to carefully slide it onto my board. “You just beat me to it.”