This story is by Rachel Grayson and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Fifty years was a long time to be married.
Kristy O’Malley shook her head at the thought of being with another person for so long. She hefted a box of string lights onto her hip in the dusty attic of her grandparents’ farmhouse.
The entire family had decided to throw a surprise party in honor of Grandma Rose and Grandpa Carl, and Kristy somehow found herself in charge of almost everything. She had always displayed an innate talent for planning, so despite being a busy high school senior, everyone thought she’d be perfect for the job.
Still, she wondered if she’d been the best pick.
Outside, it was chaotic.
Four generations of O’Malleys bustled here and there, putting out food, blowing up balloons, and hanging numerous streamers from trees surrounding a firepit, which would be used later that evening.
Kristy wove her way to the big oak near the food tables, calling to her Aunt Lily. “Have you heard from Uncle Dylan?”
Aunt Lily set out an aluminum pan filled with grilled chicken, locking down the lid to keep flies out. “Not yet. He’s taking Mom shopping, and Dad is just tagging along, probably checking his watch every five minutes.” She checked her own watch. “They’ll be here in about half an hour.”
Kristy groaned as she dumped the lights out near an extension cord. “That’s not much time. The cake isn’t even here yet.” She looked down the gravel driveway that led to the house. “I hope the delivery person can find us.”
“You don’t think the twenty cars parked in here will be enough of a clue?” Aunt Lily laughed. “Relax, Kris. Everything’s fine.”
“I’m trying,” Kristy muttered, attempting to untangle a snarl of lights. It took several minutes, but she managed to find the end of the cord.
Just then, the crunch of gravel beneath tires reached them, and they both looked up to see a lime green sedan with a dent in its bumper roar up to the farmhouse.
A dust cloud engulfed Kristy and Aunt Lily, and Kristy coughed as her cousin, Freddy, got out of the sedan’s driver seat, his bleached fauxhawk hanging over half his face like a horse’s forelock.
Freddy held up two grocery bags in triumph. “I got ice cream!”
Kristy waved the dust out of her face. “Great! Just take it over to the punch table, and I’ll mix everything up.”
“You got it!” Fred started toward the table, walking backwards as he spoke. “By the way, I couldn’t find that stuff you wanted, so I got rocky road instead. Nana Rose likes that kind, right?”
Kristy froze. “You got what?”
Aunt Lily glanced at her, then began testing the lights.
Fred plopped the grocery bags on the table and lifted out a carton. “They were all out of that—what’d you call it?”
“Sherbet,” Kristy said, staring at four cartons of rocky road.
“Yeah. Well, they didn’t have it, but I figured this’d work.”
Kristy got up and went to the table. She picked up a carton. “Freddy…you do realize I wanted to make punch with this…right?”
He frowned. “What?”
“Uh, Kris?” Aunt Lily said behind her. “We’ve got a problem. None of these lights work.”
Kristy whirled around, feeling her eyes grow wide. “Are you serious?”
Aunt Lily made a face. “Guess we should have checked them earlier.”
Kristy’s eyelid twitched. She rubbed it as she took stock of things. “Okay, well…we still have plenty of ginger ale. The lights don’t work, but we still have some illumination with the firepit. And we have tons of food, so…things are still all right.”
Then she remembered.
“The cake!” she said, clapping her hands to her head. “What time is it?”
“Dunno,” Freddy said.
Kristy looked around. “I need a watch!”
Aunt Lily looked at her watch again.
“You need to chill,” Freddy muttered, shoving his hands in his pockets.
Kristy shot him an aggravated look.
“It’s six forty-seven,” Aunt Lily said.
Kristy’s heart fluttered. They had less than fifteen minutes before her grandparents got there, and nothing was ready. She went back to the lights and scooped them up. “Do we have anymore of these?”
Aunt Lily looked doubtful. “Uh…”
Suddenly the family dog, Layla, charged past, almost bowling Kristy over. The retriever held something in her mouth.
Kristy gasped. “The chicken!” She, Freddy, and Aunt Lily all turned toward the food. No one had been watching it, and Layla, along with the two other farm dogs, had pulled all of the meat trays onto the grass, popping them open.
Aunt Lily jumped up. “Don’t let them eat the bones!” She and Freddy ran to stop the dogs, and a crowd of other O’Malleys gathered around to either help or watch.
Kristy just stood there, dumbfounded.
Above the racket, she heard another car pull into the driveway, and without even looking, she knew who it was.
Then she did something she hadn’t since she was a little girl.
She ran from the commotion and the fact that she had failed. She ran across the yard, down to the creek bed, and over the little footbridge. It was a path she knew like the back of her hand, and it led to a treehouse her grandfather had built years ago.
Clambering up the sturdy ladder, she retreated into the safety of the little building, closing the door behind her.
Settling into a dusty corner, Kristy buried her face in her hands and sobbed.
Why had her family saddled her with so much responsibility? A fiftieth wedding anniversary should never be planned by a teenager. Now everything was ruined, and they would all blame her.
She sat there for about ten minutes before a light knock came at the door.
Kristy quieted her sobs, hoping the intruder would go away.
But Grandma Rose came in, dressed in a stylish new outfit. She sat on an old three-legged stool with a groan.
Kristy turned away, looking out one of the treehouse’s little windows.
“Well,” Grandma Rose said, her deep, calm voice still beautifully resonant. “This place has held up well, hasn’t it?” She patted a wall. “Your grandfather put a lot of effort into it.”
Kristy closed her eyes, trying to keep more tears from flowing.
“But you know,” her grandmother continued, “it wasn’t an easy project. He’d never done anything like it before and made lots of mistakes. Once, he even fell through the floor.”
Kristy looked up, shocked. “What?”
Grandma Rose nodded, a small smile on her lips. “He wasn’t hurt, but he took it hard. He wanted this treehouse to be safe for his grandchildren, and almost gave up on it.” She looked up at the mountain scenes painted on the ceiling—her own contribution. “Imagine if he had. You and your cousins wouldn’t have all the memories you do.”
Kristy thought back on all the things the O’Malley cousins had done there. “Freddy wouldn’t have broken his arm that one summer.”
Grandma Rose chuckled. “He thought he could use a kite to glide safely to the ground. He’s always been imaginative.”
A breeze blew through the window, carrying the scent of flowers.
Grandma Rose breathed it in. “So, are you thinking about giving up?”
Kristy stared at her. “I ruined everything! I didn’t plan well enough, and now one of the most important moments in your life is trashed.”
“Some things went wrong, yes, but I wouldn’t say the whole thing is trashed. I’m surprised you’d give up on something just because it isn’t perfect. After fifty years of marriage, I should know.”
That surprised Kristy. “You mean, you and Grandpa have had…problems?”
“Most marriages do. But that’s where grace comes in, along with the determination not to give up when things get tough. ‘For better or for worse,’ remember? The ‘better’ is easy. The ‘worse’ is more difficult. But it makes your relationship stronger as long as you love each other sacrificially.”
She wiped the tears from Kristy’s face. “I think you’ll find your family loves you enough to look past this evening’s hiccups. Besides, I’d hate to see my granddaughter give up just because some dogs ate a few pieces of chicken.” She winked.
Kristy couldn’t help but smile. “It was more than the chicken, but…”
“But nothing.” Her grandmother stood and helped her up. “Come on. There’s still plenty of food, and your grandfather found hot dogs in the freezer. We can have a cookout. Plus, there’s no lack of rocky road ice cream.”
Kristy laughed. “I guess we should get back, then.”
At the party, her grandfather had passed out the hot dogs, and to Kristy’s surprise, no one seemed upset. In fact, several family members came up to make sure she was all right.
When Freddy saw her, he waved and pointed to the table where the chicken had been.
Kristy gasped in delight.
There, gleaming in the firelight, was the cake.