Trent carefully set the table. One by one he brought out the main dish, the side dishes, and then he proceeded to make everybody's drinks, just like he always did. Well, lately he was doing everything himself, but in most ways that night was nothing out of the ordinary, save a few.
"This is gonna be good, guys!" Trent said as he sucked in the sweet, tangy scent of the barbecued pulled pork from the bowl in the middle of the table. He had worked hard on it. His had been a pretty good cook herself, but Trent, when he did cook, was almost a perfectionist; he'd cooked the pork shoulder butt almost all day, first on the grill outside, smoking it for hours, then in the oven for several more hours, until it was just right.
All the plates and silverware had been in place so it was time to get the drinks. He poured a small glass of fresh milk for his daughter, Trin - her full name was Trinity - and set it next to her little Sleeping Beauty plate. "Now be careful, don't spill it," Trent said. It hadn't been long since they'd stopped giving her drinks in sippy cups.
Next, Trent poured some more milk, into a sippy cup this time, for his one-year-old son Simon, who had just started to eat table food. He set the sippy cup on Simon's high chair. "Now, don't throw it Simon," Trent said, wagging his finger. Seeing how far he could throw his cups had been a new game of Simon's that Trent and his wife had grown quite tired of.
He grabbed two cans of cola from the refrigerator, one diet for his wife and one not for himself, and set them in next to his wife's plate and his, respectively. "All right, everybody! Time to dig in!"
Trent opened his arms up to call attention to the delicious-looking, steaming spread upon the dining room table. He smiled big, quite proud of himself. What a father, what a husband he was!
"Are you Mr. Cuthbert?" said a voice in his head, that he had heard on the phone back when--
"Oh!" Trent said, throttling that memory out of his head. He almost forgot. He pulled tiny threads of the pork off, pretty easy since he had made it so tender, and gingerly dropped them one by one on his son's high chair tray. Trent also put bits of the other side dishes on the tray, like the green beans, coleslaw, and macaroni. "Ok, NOW we're ready!"
Somebody was at the door. Trent sighed. He hated it when people interrupted his family's dinner. He waited. Nobody else offered to get the door. "Well, I'll guess I'll get that if nobody else will." His grumbling stomach ordered him to take at least one bite of his pork before getting up, so he did.
At the door was his friend, drinking buddy, and neighbor, Andy. He was always such a cheery fellow, his mouth curved up into his rosey cheeks in a friendly smile. But today he looked a tad somber.
"Andy, what's up?" Trent said. "It's family dinner time, you know."
Andy looked puzzled. "Umm... well... fam--" He looked a loss for words. "Uh, hey, I was just, kinda, you know, wondering how you were doing, Trent. I haven't, you know, seen you much, since... since..."
"I have been fine, I suppose," Trent said. Andy looked past Trent. "Hey... something smells GOOD! What... you've got quite a spread back there! I think I smell that pork I saw you smoking on your grill earlier."
"Yup," Trent said, smiling, a hint of pride creeping up into his mind. "Would you like to come in? Maybe try some?"
"Well, all right." Andy seemed unsure, reluctant. Trent smiled put his arm around Andy's shoulder and ushered him in.
Once they were walking into the dining room Trent offered Andy a beer. "Uh, well, all right..." He trailed off as he studied the table. He looked over at the high chair, then back at the table again.
"Quite a meal, eh?" Trent said as he handed Andy a cold bottle of Miller Lite.
"Um..." Andy suddenly looked pale. He just stood there, looking at the table, holding the beer.
"What?" Trent asked. "Something wrong?"
"Um, Trent," Andy said, "I, uh, I really don't know... I'm not sure how to..."
"Come on, man, spit it out!" Trent said.
"You..." Andy sighed. He swallowed. "You set the table... like... like they're all here."
"Who?" Trent said. "Who is 'they?'"
"Your family!" Andy said. Quickly, he added more in a not-so-snappy tone. "Um, I mean, well, you know th-they're gone. I mean, of course you do... but, well..." He trailed off again. Andy was becoming pretty distressed. Trent became concerned.
"Andy," Trent began in a calm, slightly patronizing tone, "my wife, Julia, she sits here," he said, gesturing to the chair at the right end of the table, "and my daughter, Trin, she sits here," he said, gesturing to the chair right in front of him, "and my son, Simon, he sits back there, near Julia. And I sit here, on the left side."
"But, Trent, I know that's where they sat, b-but dude, they're not here! They're not--"
"What are you talkin' about?" Trent said, starting to get really annoyed. "Of course they are!"
"Man, you gotta get it together! I mean, maybe this is your way of coping, but, I mean, I'm no psychologist, but maybe this isn't healthy, man! I mean, shit, you're... you're pretending that your dead family is here!"
"You don't really think they're here, do ya?" Andy said, pointing to the table. "Do ya?"
"It's time for you to leave!" Trent exclaimed. "I've had enough of your bull shit, all right? Enough! It's why I haven't called you, or come over! Always full of shit! Like when you swore that you gave me back that power drill! I still don't have it!"
"Trent, listen to yourself!" Andy said. "Forget about the drill. You think your family's here! And they're NOT! I mean, I was there, I happened to be on the interstate that afternoon, too! When I saw the wreck, and saw that it was your van, I pulled over! I saw... I ss-s-saw..." Andy stammered into silence, apparently unable to finish.
"Get out, Andy!" Trent yelled. He stood up tall right in front of Andy. Trent was at least a half-inch taller.
"Look, I know it's only been two months, and I know you'll never get over it, but you've got to get past it... somehow! I'm not... I mean I'm not equipped for this... maybe I shouldn't be saying anything... you need a professional. I knew obviously you'd take it hard, but I didn't realize-"
"I told you to LEAVE!" Trent flared out his nostrils. He was fuming. How DARE he? How dare Andy tell him these things? "They ARE here!"
"THEY'RE NOT, TRENT!" Andy yelled. "You know it! Or you really are goin' crazy!"
Trent grabbed Andy's forearms. He looked into his eyes. Thoughts came to the front of his mind that he had been blocking out. He knew that he would be the only one eating the dinner he'd prepared... all on his own. He knew it. But that's all he would allow himself to admit. It took what must have been superhuman effort to keep back a tidal wave of emotion and thoughts and memories that were threatening to come ashore and wash him away, obliterate him, destroy him... What he said next he said while trying his hardest not to actually think about what it meant. "I know... in the back of my mind... I know, Andy, I know that... I made too much food, ok? Just. Let. Me. Do THIS."
The silence in the air that followed was louder than the AC/DC concert he'd gone to with Andy many months prior. Andy slowly nodded his head.
"OK," he said. He swallowed. "OK, man. All right. I'll, uh, just... j-just let you get back to it, ok?"
"Thank you," Trent said as he let go of Andy. Each man breathed deeply.
"Thanks for the beer," Andy said, pointing it at Trent. "I guess I'll be seein' ya sometime. You know, that block party is still on... on the 30th... even though..." Andy stopped. Then he started again. "Well, it's still on. Maybe I'll see ya then?"
"Sure, Andy," Trent said, slowly nodding his head, smiling again. "I'll see ya then."
Trent followed Andy to the door. He left not saying anything else, just waving as he strolled down the driveway.
Once Trent was back to the table, he smiled and looked at each empty seat. "So, now... where were we? Oh! Let me make your plate, Trin." As he scooped some food onto the little plate, he turned toward his wife's chair. "So, how has work been honey?" He smiled big, and then looked at Trin's chair. "Is that too much, dollface?" He always loved to call her that. "Oh, good." Then he looked at Simon's high chair in mock scorn. He pointed his fork that way. "Don't you throw that sippy cup, young man! I see you!" Then he laughed.
What a beautiful family he had! "Hey!" he said. "I think next weekend we should go to the ZOO! Yeah! We haven't done that in a while!
"Remember, Trin, that time that monkey came up to you..."