The red flag sprouted from the side of the mailbox, indicating delivered contents.
“Maybe it’s not here yet,” said Walter.
“They said six weeks for a reply.” Staring at the box, Bethany chewed her lower lip. Dust and a film of mulch melted onto her tongue, providing a taste of the surrounding fields.
Stopping the nervous chomp, she scrubbed her mouth with the inside of her checkered flannel, dousing the countryside flavors in hand-washed cotton. She took the mailbox tab between her thumb and index finger. The sun-warmed metal heated her skin. Her touch vibrated the box upon the twiggy stand she remembered watching Walter and Pa hammering into the earth.
After a jerk, the lid opened. Edges of envelopes faced her along with a rolled newspaper. She retrieved the lot, cradling the bundle in the crook of one arm. Tossing Walter the newspaper, she flipped through those remaining.
Bethany scowled, pitched bills and a letter from Aunt Margery at Walter, and then stood stock still. The return address stared back at her, the pressure of the type bars depressing each letter.
Holding out the other mail, she released the bundle, absently hoping Walter might be there to catch.
With her hands shaking, Bethany turned the envelope over. She worked her nail between the back flap and adhesive, gingerly peeling the two apart. Once opened, she plucked the single sheet and unfolded the page with care.
A swell of wind rippled across the upper edge, bending the corner and obscuring the letterhead and salutation. Holding her breath, she skipped to the initial paragraph, her eyes darting from word to word.
Surfacing from the contents, she met her brother’s wide-eyed stare. She felt her mouth beginning to curve, her eyes to water. Before she could even relay the news, he dropped the rest of the mail, scooped her up, and swung her around, her legs flying, the page fluttering. He set her down, and howled with victory.
“I knew it!”
“Hush,” said Bethany, fighting to regain her breath, and waiting for the world to cease spinning. “He’ll hear.”
She bit her lip again, and clutched the letter close. “You know Pa’s not going to be so happy.”
“I’ll be leaving, just like Mom—”
The screen door opened with a thump. “What’s going on Walt?”
Bethany winced, and slipped behind Walter’s broad shoulder. “Just the mail, Pa.”
Hearing his footsteps creak upon the porch slats, Bethany cringed. She lowered her voice. “Is he coming?”
“Of course he is,” said Walter. “He’s not daft. He knows something’s up.”
“What am I going to do?”
Turning around, Walter grabbed her shoulders. He straightened her as if hefting a bale of hay. “You tell him the truth.”
Giving her a firm nod, Walter began collecting the scattered mail. Bethany squared to her father as he traipsed down the front path, dust wafting from his dungarees and the sweat-stained tee-shirt plastered to his bony torso. He stopped at the opened gate, and set a calloused hand on the picket.
Bethany tightened her grasp on the letter. “I…I got into school, Pa.”
Walter, his hands full of the retrieved mail, side stepped, preventing anything from intercepting their father’s scowl.
“College,” said Bethany.
His knuckles turned as white as the fence’s flecked paint.
“It’s only a day’s bus ride away.” Bethany extended the letter. “And they offered to pay for everything.”
“She got a full scholarship,” said Walter.
Pa held up a quieting hand, and Walter shuffled back a stride. Seizing the letter, Pa dragged his gaze to the typed offer. When he finished, his hand dropped as if made of lead, his head bowing.
Bethany glanced at Walter, his worried frown latched upon their father’s downturned face. Stepping forward, Bethany laid a tentative hand on Pa’s bare fingers, tense upon the fence post.
Looking up, he wrapped both arms around her, smothering her in his chest. His hot breath wet the top of her head.
“I don’t have to go, Papa,” she said, her words muffled. “I can stay. I won’t be like her, I won’t leave.”
“No, no,” he said into her raven hair’s center part. “My little girl’s going to go to college. She’s going to go be somebody.”
“I promise I’ll come back, Pa. Every holiday, every vacation.”
“I know you will.” He slackened his arms, and cupped her chin with one hand. The scarlet rim around his eyes glittered. “You’re going to do us proud out there won’t you?”
His face blurred with the tears pooling in Bethany’s eyes. She nodded dumbly, and then leapt back into his arms. Her father released her long enough to drag Walter into their embrace. She savored their musky stench and their body heat, knowing neither could be packed in the bags she’d take when she finally departed for a wider world.