By Meg Peresich
Ocean Springs, Mississippi
Jim was sitting on the porch steps when Joanna returned home from school.
"Uncle Jim!" she shouted, waving a paper in the air as she ran down the dirt driveway. "Look what we made in art class." She pulled to a stop at the bottom of the stairs, little chest heaving as she handed over her picture.
Jim sniffed, eyes red as he looked over the crude drawings of a man and a small girl standing before a large yellow shape that vaguely resembled their home. Jim nodded, and smiled. "It's good, Jo-Jo. It's real good." His voice was soft.
Joanna dropped her book bag and stared at Jim, head cocked, brows pinched in a perfect imitation of her father's well-known frown. "What's wrong?"
Jim sniffed again, back of his hand rubbing roughly under his nose, and he set aside Joanna's artwork, hands reaching out for her. "C'mere. We need to talk."
Joanna hesitated, wary at the waver in Jim's normally strong voice, the defeated look in his eyes. She moved slowly towards him, allowed him to scoop her up and seat her on his bent knee. He looped his arms around her waist and held her, embrace tight enough that she could feel the warmth from his t-shirt and the way his heart beat inside his chest. She dropped her head to his shoulder, his stubble tickling her nose.
"Joanna," Jim said, jaw clenching and unclenching as though he couldn't find the words. "Joanna," he began again, turning to look into her large brown eyes. "Joanna, your father's… Your father is sick."
Joanna stared up at Jim. "Like with the chicken pox?" she asked. She'd had the chicken pox last fall and had missed three days of school and an entire weekend before she felt better.
The corners of Jim's mouth twitched and he huffed a soft sound that might have been a laugh. "No, Jo-Jo, not like the chicken pox."
Joanna frowned. "Is he going to be alright?"
Jim stared out at the dirt driveway for a long time, eyes unseeing. Joanna stayed still in his arms, waiting.
When Jim finally turned back to look at her he was smiling, but his eyes were shining with tears. "I don't know," he whispered.
Joanna was silent. She felt an odd tightness in her throat, in her chest, and suddenly the warm day was chillingly cold. She'd noticed how her father had been less active lately, always tired or sleeping, how Jim had been coming over more often and doing most of the chores around the house. He'd even helped her with her homework, helped her brush her teeth, tucked her into bed and checked for monsters.
Her lips trembled as hot tears pricked at her eyes. Jim lifted a large hand to brush them away, ignoring his own.
"But," she said, voice trembling and weak. "But he's a doctor. He can fix it."
When Jim said nothing Joanna pounded an insistent fist on his chest. "Jim? He can fix it!"
Jim nodded and swallowed, arms squeezing her tight, and said nothing.