Fran sat on the brocade sofa wearing a watered down smile as she listened to the conversation between Aunt Millie and Lou Ellen. The glass of lemonade she held was now lukewarm, but her throat was so tight, she doubted she could manage a swallow anyway.
“It really is a beautiful ring,” Millie told Lou Ellen for the tenth time. “My engagement ring is nowhere near as nice. Of course, your daddy—God rest his soul—didn’t come from money.” Millie grabbed Lou Ellen’s hand and turned it this way and that so the emerald-cut stone set in platinum caught the light. “You know what they say about aquamarine, don’t you?”
Lou Ellen grinned, her pupils huge as she gazed down at the ring. “No. What do they say about it, Mama?”
Millie looked over at Fran, who shook her head to indicate that she didn’t know, either. Though it was only the middle of April, the day was warm, and the open windows in the living room did nothing to dispel the stuffiness. Fran pulled the front of her blouse away from her damp skin.
Millie perched on the arm of Lou Ellen’s chair. “Aquamarine is known as an old money stone here in the South,” she said. “Women used to wear it as a sign of their wealth.”
“It belonged to Gil’s grandmother,” Lou Ellen said. “Before she died, she made him promise to give it to his future wife.” She twisted the ring on her finger. “It’s a little loose.”
Millie patted Lou Ellen’s shoulder. “We can have it sized, sweetheart. It’s yours now.”
“I bet it’s a fake,” Fran said.
Millie frowned at Fran, her brow wrinkled in consternation. Lou Ellen snapped her head up and narrowed her eyes.
“Now why would you say something like that, Fran?” Millie asked.
Fran struggled to reply, and a small croak issued from her lips. She was thankful her mother hadn’t accompanied her on this visit. Mama always said she had a careless tongue.
“It’s just that it’s so beautiful, it doesn’t look real,” Fran said.
Millie’s face brightened. “Well, you’re right about that.”
Fran felt like an earthworm squirming on a fishhook as her cousin stared hard at her. Finally Lou Ellen flipped her honey blonde hair over her shoulder and turned back to Millie. “Gil should be here soon,” she said. “I invited him to supper.”
Millie stood and smoothed out her dress. “You’ll stay for supper, won’t you, Fran?”
Fran shook her head. “No, I’d better be getting on home.” She handed her glass to Millie. “Thank you for the lemonade.”
“Well, we’re always happy to see you,” Millie said. “And tell your mama she needs to stop by so she can get a look at Lou Ellen’s ring.”
“I’ll do that.” Fran stood and nodded at Lou Ellen. “Congratulations.”
Lou Ellen gave her a pinched smile that looked more like a grimace as she thanked her.
Fran hurried out of the house, bounding down the porch steps two at a time. The air was heavy with approaching rain, and the fresh green leaves on the trees turned their undersides up to the sky. Fran strode down the dirt road, anxious to get out of sight of Millie’s house. She stopped when she reached the bridge that spanned the railroad tracks. Leaning over the railing, she let her light brown hair cover her face like a curtain. A gust of wind slapped her skirt against her bare legs as her whole body quaked.
She heard his cheerful whistle before she saw him. Gil ambled around the bend in the road, his hands shoved into his trouser pockets. He wore a nice suit, and his hair was freshly washed and combed.
“Hi there, Fran,” he called to her. “You just coming from Lou Ellen’s?”
Fran stormed over to him, her palm itching to slap the grin off his face. “You’re a real bastard, you know that?”
Gil raised his eyebrows; he was the picture of innocence. “What in the world are you talking about?”
She jabbed a finger into his chest. “You know exactly what I’m talking about. You gave your grandmother’s ring to Lou Ellen.”
Gil blinked at her several times. “Well, yes,” he said in the syrupy sweet drawl she used to find so charming. “I asked her to marry me.”
“You promised that ring to me,” Fran said through her teeth. “Remember that Sunday when your folks were out of town, and Lou Ellen was sick with the flu? You invited me over to your house, and we had a real nice time, didn’t we, Gil?”
He studied his spotless shoes. “Fran, I thought we had an understanding.”
“We did. You showed me that ring and said it would belong to the woman you planned to marry.” Fran stepped closer to him and lowered her voice. “You put it on my finger, and then you took me to bed. Remember that?”
Gil’s face and neck flushed, and his eyes darted nervously from side to side. “Be reasonable, Fran. You always knew I planned to marry Lou Ellen.”
Fran’s nostrils flared as she sucked in deep breaths. Her hands clenched into small globes of fury at her sides. “So I was only a bit of fun to you.”
“Now listen,” Gil began. Fran didn’t give him time to finish. She spun around and started back toward Millie’s house. “Where are you going?” He hurried after her.
“Millie invited me to supper. At first I wasn’t planning on staying, but now I’ve changed my mind.”
Gil caught up to her and grabbed her arm. “You’d better not make trouble.”
Fran looked up at him with a sweet smile. “Don’t worry, Gil. I’ll be reasonable.”
When Lou Ellen answered Gil’s soft knock on the door, she beamed and took his hands in hers. Then she caught sight of Fran standing behind him, and her excitement evaporated. “What are you doing here, Fran?”
“Well, I met Gil on my way home, and he talked me into having supper with you all,” she said. “Ain’t that right, Gil?”
Gil’s jaw muscles tightened as he tugged at his shirt collar. “I figured Fran and I will be family soon,” he said. “I’d like to get to know her better.”
Fran held back a snicker, but Lou Ellen continued to eye her suspiciously. The three of them went inside, where Millie was busy setting the dining room table.
During supper, Fran chewed each bite of food until it practically disintegrated in her mouth. She didn’t speak while Millie, Lou Ellen, and Gil discussed wedding plans. Her stare was riveted on the ring Lou Ellen wore. The pale blue stone was the same color as broken windshield glass Fran had once seen scattered on the highway.
“Aunt Evelyn makes a delicious cake,” Millie said.
Lou Ellen rolled her eyes. “Mama, we will have a professional make our wedding cake. This won’t be some tiny reception held in the fellowship hall at church.”
Millie and Lou Ellen were trying to decide where to shop for a wedding gown when Fran cleared her throat. “Lou Ellen, I feel there’s something you should know,” she said.
Gil choked on his pork chop, and Millie looked at him in concern. “Gil, are you all right?”
Beads of sweat appeared at his temples, but he nodded, his eyes flashing a warning to Fran.
“Gil and I…” Fran started. Her voice broke, and she took a steadying breath. “Well, we were intimate several times this past winter.”
Millie let out a pained cry, and her hands fluttered at her chest. Lou Ellen jumped to her feet, knocking over her glass of sweet tea. “You’re a liar,” she shouted. “Get out of my house this instant.”
Millie looked from Fran to Gil. “Gil, is this true?”
He shook his head, his mouth set in a grim line. “No, ma’am. I hate to speak of it, but Fran’s had it in her head for some time that I should marry her, when I’ve always made it clear that I’m in love with Lou Ellen.”
Fran’s fingers tightened around her fork. She fought the urge to bury the tines in Gil’s hand.
Lou Ellen leaned across the table and pointed at Fran. “Get out before I throw you out. How dare you make up such a disgusting lie! As if Gil would ever have anything to do with you.” Her mouth twisted into an ugly sneer.
“If I’m lying,” Fran said, “then how would I know that Gil has a birthmark on his inner thigh that looks like the state of Florida?” Lou Ellen’s eyes widened, and her lips quivered with barely contained rage. “Oh, you know about that birthmark, Lou Ellen?” Fran went on. “I guess a white wedding dress is out of the question.”
Millie burst into tears. “Fran, how could you do such a thing? Lou Ellen is your cousin.”
Fran didn’t look away from Lou Ellen, whose cheeks sported bright red splotches, as though she’d been slapped. Gil sputtered some weak protest, and at the sound of his voice, Lou Ellen lunged at him. A guttural scream tore from her throat, and she wrapped her small hands around his neck.
“Lou Ellen, stop,” Millie said, grabbing her daughter by the shoulders. But Lou Ellen was a wild creature, howling and crying and trying to inflict as much pain as she could. Gil hissed when she clawed his cheek, dangerously close to his left eye.
Fran stood, letting her cloth napkin drop to the floor. Lou Ellen, Gil, and Millie formed a morass of flailing limbs, and during their scuffle, the engagement ring slipped from Lou Ellen’s finger. Fran watched it sail through the air before it landed next to the bowl of mashed potatoes.
She cast a furtive glance at the others before plucking the ring from the table. Fran had only a moment to admire it lying in her palm before she turned her back on the brawl and tossed the ring into her mouth. Lifting her glass, she took a long swig, washing the ring down with a mouthful of sweet tea.
The prongs scraped her esophagus like dull nails, but she managed not to cough, afraid the ring would come back up if she did. Fran felt it travel all the way down to her stomach, taking little scraps of her insides along with it.
Lou Ellen had wrestled Gil to the floor and was now pummeling him with her fists. Millie stood over them, covering her face as she sobbed. Fran made a hasty retreat for the door, her hand cupped to her mouth.
A cold drizzle fell, dampening her hair. The inside of her chest felt shredded, but Fran still smiled as she started home. Her pain dimmed, becoming almost bearable as she imagined the engagement ring nestled safely in her stomach, forever out of Lou Ellen’s reach.