The word that Emily had finally settled on was “fake”. For weeks she had struggled to define the feeling that had been overwhelming her. All summer the anticipation of starting college had consumed her thoughts, but after her first month of classes, anticipation had changed into a feeling she could not shake.
“It’s all fake…” She mumbled after a bite of scalloped potatoes.
“What was that honey?” Her mother asked from across the table.
Emily’s father put down his fork to study her face for a moment.
“Are you doin’ ok baby?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.”
“Well then put a smile on your face. No one likes a moody girl.”
Emily popped on a smile as effortlessly as she had done with her Mrs. Potato Head as a little girl. Her token happiness answered any remaining questions about the state of her contentment with life and the family resumed their meal in silence.
The chirp of dishes piling into the sink signaled the start of the evening’s festivities. Tradition was stronger than law in the Williams household. On Tuesday’s, it was Emily who chose the TV show that the family would watch.
Seating arrangements had not changed for as long as Emily could remember. Her father had his chair. Emily and her mother shared the sofa and her younger brother Kenneth sat on the floor up close to the screen.
“Dad, I don’t feel like watching TV tonight.”
Emily’s father turned and answered her with a look to make it clear that this issue was not up for discussion.
“Just this once Daddy. I’m sure Kenneth wouldn’t mind getting an extra night to pick the show.”
Kenneth turned around and nodded, half to show that he would indeed like to pick the night’s first show and half to watch the show unfolding behind him.
Emily’s father stared at her in silence. His brown eyes suddenly looked black. The clock crept closer to 7 like a timer, after which nothing could be changed. Emily’s father did not like change and the frustration in his voice could not be hidden.
“What are you gonna do?”
She had not prepared for this question and cursed at herself in her mind. Time was running out and she needed to answer quickly.
“I just… want to go outside for a bit. Get some fresh air.”
Her father’s stare returned. Emily decided to use the only proven strategy she had and quickly threw on a fake smile and cheerful voice.
“It’s fine Daddy. I just want a little ‘me’ time. That’s all.”
Seconds ticked by at half speed as the family waited for the verdict.
“Put a sweater on. It gets cold at night. Kenneth, go ahead and pick something.”
Emily let out the breath that she had been trying not to hold and retrieved her college sweater from her bedroom before slipping out onto the back porch.
The cool night air drove her hands deep into the soft pockets of her sweater as she sat down in the porch swing. Crickets played a quiet serenade for her night of freedom.
Emily’s eyes wondered with her thoughts. They followed the outline of the sycamore tree at the edge of the yard until they came to rest on the night sky. The first glimpse of the stars silenced her mind.
It had been years since Emily had taken the time to really look at the stars. Disbelief and awe collided inside her as she took in their beauty. She suddenly felt ashamed at having forgotten to enjoy the masterpiece on display for free each night.
Emily lost track of time as she swayed on the swing and watched the heavens shine down on her. Each gust of wind brought with it the sounds of the night and eventually a runny nose.
After a deep breath, Emily uncurled herself from the swing to go in search of a tissue. As she slid the back door shut she was shocked to see the credits rolling from the show her family had just finished. Kenneth turned around when he heard the door behind him.
“You missed a great show Em. The Nature Channel had a special on the stars. Did you know that the sun pours enough energy onto the Earth in a single hour that could power everything in the world for a year?”
“That’s cool.” She said as she made her way to the tissue box.
Emily’s dad turned his head and looked at her causing her to stop.
“You should have been here baby. The show was really good. The stars are amazing and you missed it.”
A tight-lipped smile spread across Emily’s face and for the first time in a long time it was not fake.