Story: Niobe: “Lessons Learned”
Michael’s story was a runner up for the Niobe Contest. I loved how his characters jumped off the page, even with very short appearances, and his choice to tell this story through Niobe’s point of view was inspired. Thank you for writing Michael!
The sun bore down relentlessly, and the grass tickled at her ankles as she waited outside for the ceremony to end. Naomi blamed the twins, of course. Perfect Adrian and with his dazzling looks and headstrong Diana with her love of nature. They were always looking for her approval. As if she didn’t have better things to do than wait for the two bookworms to be handed their certificates. But their mother, Letty, was Naomi’s best friend, and that had to count for something.
So, there she was, out in the scalding heat, trying desperately to find a signal. The other parents were giving her dirty looks – in fact, so was Letty – but she had a business to run and clients to talk to. Naomi didn’t see what the problem was. It wasn’t as if their little celebration required silence.
“Can’t you take a break for one afternoon?” Letty said churlishly.
“No. Some of us are needed.”
“And others, wanted,” Letty murmured under her breath.
Letty, resplendent in midnight blue, stood in the shade of a nearby tree, fanning herself with a brochure she’d taken from inside. Her blonde hair was tied in a neat bun, but her fringe fell sufficiently to hide her eyes, and she held a blue fan aloft to hide the rest of her face.
Naomi, by contrast, had welcomed the opportunity to show off her figure, and a little tanned flesh. Her strapless red dress showed off her ample cleavage, and more than a few of the men had glanced lustfully her way. But even their attention was becoming tedious now.
At long last, the class of 2016 swarmed towards the waiting guests, beaming proud smiles and adjusting their mortar board hats. They looked ridiculous. Thankfully, the bars popped up on her phone just in time to provide a distraction from the silly robes. They all looked as though they were off to wizarding school.
“Craig, yeah, me again. We need this sorted out today,” Naomi said
Naomi cut Diana off mid-word with a sharply raised finger. “I don’t pay you to think, Craig. Just get it done.”
She hung up, and released an exuberant sigh. With an exaggerated smile, she stepped forward and threw her arms open, but what followed wasn’t so much a hug as a light touch on either shoulder of her niece and nephew. Of course, they weren’t blood relatives. Naomi and Letty had once been as close as sisters. Until the children.
“Well, finally,” Naomi said. “All this pomp and ceremony, I thought it’d never end. It’s just a lot of talking and self-congratulating really, isn’t it? I thought graduation was a big deal. I expected a band, and fireworks, or… something.”
She wafted her hand lazily in the air as if the summer breeze might bring her more ideas.
“I’m sorry to disappoint,” Adrian intoned.
“I don’t understand all the fuss,” Naomi said, shrugging. “All you did was read some books and write down the answers at the end of the year. When I was your age I was already married. You’re only just finishing school. And what does a degree get you these days anyhow? Every tom dick and harry has one.”
“It’s roughly twenty seven point two percent of the population, depending on the dataset utilized,” Adrian remarked. “But why squander a jibe with statistics?”
Naomi pouted at the young man. Standing head and shoulders above her, Adrian was a lean, sculpted figure of a man, with cool blue eyes and glowing blond tresses. His movie-star smile and model looks were deceptive; he was more than just a pretty face. Naomi found him condescending, if she were honest; he held himself and everyone around him to high standards, both intellectually and aesthetically, but he could never stand for anyone outdoing him.
Which, of course, meant Naomi and her family were a constant threat to his ego.
“It’s not a jibe, Adrian. Don’t be so sensitive.”
Naomi rolled her eyes. That family always wanted praise, always fishing for compliments and acting hurt when they didn’t get them. And what was there to praise? Three years of study, thousands in expense, and nothing to show for it. Except a rolled up piece of paper and a mountain of debt.
The experience hadn’t tamed Diana in the slightest. The young brunette’s hair fell over her shoulders in a tangled knot of windswept locks, untouched by product. Makeup hadn’t touched her face since childhood, and her natural blemishes were joined by little cuts from woodland walks. Diana didn’t wear earrings, and she’d chosen a suit instead of a dress.
Naomi was only thankful she hadn’t attended in her usual hunting leathers. She’d hoped a few years in the sorority would have made her a little more lady-like, but the tomboy phase clearly wasn’t over yet. Still, Naomi hadn’t given up hope.
“Well, Diana. Now you’ve got your degree, you can settle down and make a start on a family. Do I spy a little bump?”
Always so sensitive, Naomi thought. Maybe if the girl ate a little less meat, and dialled back her voracious appetite, people wouldn’t make such innocent mistakes. She was perfectly lean and toned, in fairness, but her refusal to wear anything figure-hugging had to be a sign she was hiding something. Didn’t it?
The thought made Naomi regret her own dress. Her abdomen was wonderfully flat and toned, and it seemed a waste not to show it off. But there’d be plenty of opportunities for that. The same couldn’t be said for Letty. She’d never quite been able to lose the baby-fat from the twins. Diana’s self-conscious streak clearly stemmed from her.
“But there is someone special, isn’t there?” Naomi persisted.
The girl shook her head.
“I’m waiting for Mr. Right,” she announced. “I’ll know when I find him. If I find him.”
“Oh, don’t tell me you’re still a…? My goodness,” Naomi gasped. “Doesn’t look like you’ll ever get that big family you’ve always wanted, Letty.”
A group of other students, all girls, walked past in a gaggle, tittering as they stared at Adrian. A number of them played with their hair and bit their lips, hoping desperately for the young man to notice them. He didn’t. Naomi watched them, perplexed. Why would anyone be so devoted to someone who took no notice of them. Naomi had always been very attentive to her admirers.
“How about you, Golden Boy?” Naomi said with a nudge and a wink.
“I’m more focused on my studies,” Adrian said coolly, his baritone voice like music to her ears. “But I’m sure I’ll find someone. When the time is right.”
He seemed to be looking over her shoulder. Turning, Naomi saw a pair of students over by the main entrance with their families, chatting and celebrating their achievements. One was a bronze-skinned girl with ringlets of raven hair, wide hips and shapely legs revealed classily by the cut of her dress. The other was a shaggy-haired guy with a square jaw and tattooed arms. He wore a shark tooth necklace around his neck, just visible under his shirt collar.
For the life of her, Naomi couldn’t tell which of the two he was staring at. Maybe both.
“So,” Diana said impatiently. “What is it you came to tell us?”
“Tell you?” Naomi said. “I came to see you two graduate.”
“Right. Except you never come to anything unless you have news of your own to share. So…?”
Naomi shook her head in disbelief. The current generation just has no respect. And no wonder, when Letty refused to discipline her children. They were brought up believing they could do no wrong.
“Really, I’m shocked.” The twins waited. “Fine. I came to tell you about the children, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t here for you too. And I’m insulted you’d think so lowly of me.”
“What is it, Naomi?”
“Where do I start? Cleo has her first music recital next week. Mel has her first ballet performance the week after, and Amy built a working model of the solar system, all by herself. Okay, I may have helped a little. But it’s very good.”
“Did you make the world revolve around you?”
Naomi ignored Diana’s harsh remark. She expected nothing less from poorly reared children. Although, she had thought her own kindness to the pair might have softened them. She used to be their favourite aunt.
“Meanwhile, Chaz has his tryouts for the school football team, Archie has a spelling bee at the end of the month, and Alphie drew a wonderful picture of the eight of us. You should really see it.”
“Did you help a little with that, too?” Diana sneered.
“Oh, and I almost forgot. Cleo has her first exams this year. Her teachers have predicted all Cs. How great is that?”
“Decidedly average,” Adrian said.
“Well, we can’t all be A star students, Adrian. Some of us have social lives.”
“Speaking of the children…” Letty said, peering over her fan into the crowds. “Where are they?”
“Oh, over by the trees I think. They had better not get their clothes dirty. It cost a lot of money to get those dresses, and I’d really like a picture with the graduates.”
She scanned the campus, looking out for the perfect spot to pose with the kids. And the twins. There was a shaded area a little farther down the walkway, filled with daffodils and a lavender bush. It would have been idyllic if not for the bees buzzing around. The church looked far too grim to use as a backdrop, and the campus itself was bland; too new to have character, too old to be impressive. What she really needed was a background that screamed luxury.
“I think the photographer’s ready now,” Letty said.
“We’ll get the kids!” the twins offered at once.
Naomi watched them rush off into the crowds to find the children. Diana stopped to grab a few bottles of water, in case they were thirsty, and then disappeared into the masses. All around them, families congratulated their children, and students chatted about how well they’d done, and how much they’d miss the place when they were gone.
It all seemed a little disingenuous to Naomi.
“You know, you could try to sound pleased for the twins for once,” Letty drawled.
If she’d stood any closer to the old oak she would have been inside the trunk. She seemed to be melting in the heat, and so was her facade of affection.
“I don’t see why. They’re going to leave here and join the real world, and learn that life isn’t all in a textbook. If they get a job at all. What was the point? Three years learning theories when they could have been out learning on the job. And why? So Adrian could be a certified mechanic.”
“He did engineering,” Letty hissed.
“Right, right. And Diana did…agriculture? Couldn’t she have settled for a flowerbed and a vegetable patch like everyone else. I thought she wanted to be a midwife, anyway.”
“It doesn’t matter. Just be happy for them. This day is meant to be about them.”
“Oh, of course. As usual, we have to praise the twins. Just forget about my kids and all their accomplishments. All the twins have done is learn, but they haven’t even started anything to be proud of. They’ve just learned how to do it. Amy actually has her model. Mel and Cleo are actually performing. The boys are all doing things we can cheer them on for. Not just pages of notes. And I raised them. Not just one child, not two the same age doing the same thing. Six children, all with different needs and interests, and I was there for them. And all the while, I ran my own business and made a profit. I think I’m entitled to share my successes, even if the twins are getting a piece of paper that says they’re smart.”
Silence. Naomi swallowed hard and smoothed down her dress as she regained her composure. Between the shade of the tree and Letty’s bangs, she couldn’t see the other woman’s expression, but her icy blue eyes gleamed malevolently. Staring daggers was nothing compared to this. For a moment, it seemed the woman would finally move the fan away from her face, and then all Hell would break loose.
But then a strange, unexpected sound broke the silence between them. Letty was laughing. Not a cold, infuriated, menacing laugh either. An actual giggle. Naomi frowned, worried. Had the woman finally lost her marbles altogether?
“It looks like the kids are ready for their photo,” Letty said.
Turning around, Naomi saw the twins returning with the six children in tow. The boys all clustered around Adrian, waddling like penguins in the shiny shoes, starched white shirts and close-fitting jackets. The girls, in designer white dresses and matching pink shoes walked in a line, holding hands, beside Diana.
The twins were grinning. The kids were grinning. Their hands and faces were covered in chocolate, and there were tiny chocolate handprints smudged all over their clothes. Naomi’s jaw dropped.
“They were hungry,” Diana said. “We got them cake.”
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