Best Short Story: Third Place
The Sunshine Kids
By Jim Auer
Editors Note: Each year, the Catholic Press Association puts out a call for entries of books, newspapers, magazines, and other publications to its Catholic Press Awards program. “The Sunshine Kids” won third place for Best Short Story! The awards honor the accomplishments of Catholic journalists and publishers and affirm their commitment to spreading the Good News. For Liguori, they affirm our commitment to the mission of the Redemptorists.
Judges comments: Interesting and fresh approach to depicting a well-recognized event. Generally well written from the perspective of younger people, but not overdone.
The whole thing started as a confirmation service project, where to prepare for confirmation you have to do some cool things for other people. My sister wouldn’t call them “cool things.” She’d say, “loving outreach and service” or some churchy thing like that. She’s into all that church talk. Don’t misunderstand me—I’m not a seventeen-year-old heathen. I just don’t talk churcy. My name’s Brandon Klaster, and my sister is Natalie. We’re twins. Not identical, as you likely gathered.
But—get this—a couple people actually asked us that. After the first time, I had a really awesome answer ready. OK, it was a little sarcastic, also a bit earthy—but Natalie knew what it was and shushed me up as soon as I started talking. I never should have told her ahead of time.
Anyway, our project was Mr. Carmichael. Lonely as a right fielder against a team with no left-handed batters, he was an elderly widower in our parish, late seventies, no kids; he lived in a little house on Windstone Drive. Mrs. Byerly, who was in charge of confirmation preparation at Our Lady of Grace, gave Natalie and me the Carmichael case. We were supposed to (it was left pretty wide open) take care of stuff he needed done and maybe couldn’t do himself, but especially—and this is verbatim—“be two little rays of sunshine.” I almost ducked out right then. I don’t talk like that either, and I’ve never been mistaken for a ray of sunshine—a storm cloud, maybe, but….All right, already! Sorry, I gotta retire for a few paragraphs. Natalie and I agreed to take turns writing this, and she was about to push me off the computer chair.
No I wasn’t. Brandon always exaggerates. It’s a character defect. I simply didn’t want to give the impression that we didn’t take “loving outreach and service” seriously. I don’t know why Brandon has a problem with church words; they’re beautiful. We did take it seriously, even Brandon. Well, I think he did, sort of, but it’s hard to tell if Brandon takes anything seriously—another character defect. He wouldn’t get away with half the stuff he does if he didn’t have this gorgeous mop of curly black hair. Personally I think Brandon feels intimidated by old people. Mr. Carmichael was actually a beautiful, giving person. I think he was lonely because he had no one to be a ray of sunshine for.
Mrs. Byerly told Mr. Carmichael we’d be coming sometime Saturday morning. He must have been waiting at the window because when we rang the doorbell, he opened the door almost immediately.
“Come in, come in, come right on in, that’s it. Have a seat. Anywhere you like. The sofa’s really comfortable, and it’s very wide so you can sit far apart in case you don’t like each other,” he said. It was obvious he meant that as a subtle joke because his face was beaming slyly. Brandon rolled his eyeballs. I fell in love with the man right then.
“What can I get you to drink?” he asked. I shot a glare at Brandon just in case asking for a beer was crossing his programmed male mind.
“Oh, we don’t really need…” I started.
“Nonsense,” Mr. Carmichael interrupted. “Here. I’ll get you several and you can choose. I have some really different ones—I like to be adventurous! Don’t be put off by some of the names. They’re all good. I’ll be right back.”
He returned carrying a large plastic tray with a half-dozen bottles wobbling unsteadily. As he set it on the worn coffee table, he read the names—“High Mountain Huckleberry, Pumpkin Pie, Snake River Sarsaparilla, South Fork Strawberry-Rhubarb, Bacon, and Bug Barf.”
I couldn’t believe what he was saying, but the proof was on the bottles. When we got home, we looked them up online. They exist, along with many others. You can look them up yourself. Mr. Carmichael got them at this huge market in Fairfield just north of Cincinnati called Jungle Jim’s. They sell any kind of food or drink you could imagine and a whole lot more that you couldn’t.
“I’ll have Bug Barf,” Brandon said immediately. I searched the bottles for something close to normal and selected South Fork Strawberry-Rhubarb, which actually wasn’t bad.
The Bug Barf wasn’t bad, either. Mr. Carmichael said it was kiwi pineapple. On a different visit I had Dog Drool, which was excellent, sort of a lemony orange. Anyway, Mr. Carmichael and Natalie got into this conversation about confirmation and how excited she was. The thing is, she actually meant every word of it. That’s my sister. If we live at home until we’re forty, we might get used to each other.
So while they were doing church talk, I started looking around for things that might need doing in the house besides cleaning. I’m pretty good with tools and stuff, especially with wood. The rug, chairs, sofa, tables, and lamps were all old but clean and unbroken. The only thing that looked bad was a mahogany mantle above the gas fireplace. It had water stains, lots of nicks, and a couple of big gouges. I could’ve filled, sanded, and stained them, but it probably wouldn’t have been a good match. It needed a complete stripping, multiple sanding, stain, and a clear finish. Or else a whole new mantle, but I didn’t think that was the kind of thing Mrs. Byerly sent us here to do.
I came out of thinking about the mantle, waited for a break in the holy conversation, and asked if I could see the back yard. It was late September, still warm, grass still growing, and I figured I could log a few loving outreach hours cutting grass. If I padded the log a bit, I could put a good dent in the service hours I needed. Which I, in fact, did, starting that afternoon while Natalie was inside with Mr. Carmichael. I wasn’t outrageous about it, just rounded up here and there.
Fast forward. We got confirmed in late November—finally, after the bishop gave what felt like a twenty-four-hour homily. Our Uncle Justin was my sponsor; Aunt Margie sponsored Natalie. Now the chrism was awesome—the scent, I mean. I’d get reconfirmed just to smell it again. The rest of the service was OK. I kept looking for some kind of warm confirmation glow, but it never happened. I’ve looked for the seven gifts to start popping up inside me, but that hasn’t happened yet, either, at least not that I know of. Maybe they’re in there somewhere. It’s not something I worry a lot about.
It was a lot more than OK! It was a beautiful ceremony, the bishop’s homily was inspiring—many gifts but the same Spirit—and I did feel a real, unmistakably warm glow. OK, Brandon, but only a sentence.
It was hot in church. Back to you, Sis.
Oh Brandon! I’m going to ignore that. And a bonus—Mr. Carmichael came to our confirmation! Afterward, I invited him back to our house for the get-together and introduced him to everybody. It was a wonderful evening.
After confirmation, I kept visiting Mr. Carmichael on Saturdays and helping him. Mrs. Byerly said some young people continue their service work, and I thought, what a great idea. I tried to get Brandon to come with me, and he actually did once to help put up the Christmas tree. I didn’t expect him to come regularly anyway. Now what, Brandon?
I need to write this part so Natalie won’t make it sound worse than it was. In January, I got into a fight with Bert Lykins at school and got suspended. I didn’t make the final cut on the basketball team, and he ragged me about it one too many times. He’s the star, so of course he didn’t get suspended because allegedly I started the fight. Bert just had to write an essay on conflict resolution. They say there’s no justice in the courts; well, there’s none at our school, either. That evening, before I broke the news about the suspension, I went to a friend’s house, and that didn’t turn out well, either—let’s just say it involved generous amounts of vodka to soothe my anger, even though I almost couldn’t stand the stuff. It tastes like it was distilled in an inner tube.
My parents were seriously, seriously bummed, and I was grounded for two months except for school. A couple weeks later, Natalie rescued me, at least for Saturdays. She suggested to Mom and Dad that I come with her to Mr. Carmichael’s place and continue service work. So I did. He always had snacks for us. Weird stuff again—not just weird sodas but weird cheeses, weird lunch meat, even weird crackers. He usually had several kinds on a plate, which was good because some of them we just couldn’t handle.
In April, he was in the hospital for spine surgery and then at a rehab place for three weeks. He left us a house key so we could keep an eye on the place. While he was away, I did a lot of sanding, staining, and finishing in our basement. Luckily the old mantle was attached with nails, so it only took a pry bar to detach it. Gently and carefully, I attached the new one with cleats. Mr. Carmichael liked it.
Liked it? He cried a waterfall when he came home and saw it!
In late May, Mom and Dad celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary and went on a fourteen-day cruise. Brandon and I stayed with our grandparents in Terre Haute. When we were all back home, before Brandon and I started summer jobs, we went to see Mr. Carmichael. We knocked on the door and a lady answered it.
“Oh, you must be the two young folks that visit Henry. The church lady wanted to get hold of you, but you were off somewhere. She said you probably couldn’t get back in time anyway.”
“I’m afraid we’re confused,” I said.
“Oh, my heavens! You must not know. Henry passed away right after you left. Heart attack. Took him just like that. I’m handling things and getting the house ready. The real estate agent’s coming. I’m Henry’s nearest relative, Joanie Chandler. Not all that near, really—second or third cousin. I live in Bridgeport. Well, don’t mean to cut you kids short, but I have things to do before the agent comes. It was nice of you to take an interest in Henry.”
We stared at the closed door for a long time before we turned and walked to Brandon’s car. He put his arm around me. I was too numb to even cry until we got in the car. I looked through my tears at Mr. Carmichael’s house. Nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.
Suddenly Brandon bent over the steering wheel, his arms folded across the top, his face buried, and sobbed…loud, heaving sobs that came from a depth I never dreamed Brandon had.
I touched his shoulder, he turned toward me, and we hugged for a long time until at last the tears subsided.
“What do we do now?” I said, not
really expecting an answer other than, “I dunno.” Brandon looked straight ahead for quite a while and then said, “We have a wake. We go to Jungle Jim’s and get snacks and sodas.”
He turned the ignition key, and we pulled away from Mr. Carmichael’s house. “You know his stuff. What kind of lunch meat?”
“Soppressata,” I said. “That was your favorite.”
“Bello Rustico Crostini Fennel. You pick the sodas.”
“Bug Barf and Dog Drool.”