Last of the Summer Whine by Kristen Bealer

o O o

August 1994

Tom watched as his father shut the trunk on their suitcases with a loud and final "clunk." But maybe it's not too late, he told himself. Out loud, he said, "Spencer Prentiss's family is going to Disney World this summer."

"That's nice, dear," his mother Kay said absently as she frowned at a tiny scratch on the family BMW. "Elsie, are you ready to go?"

Elsie trotted out of the house, letting the screen door slam behind her. "Ready for yet another tedious four-hour drive, full of the wondrous sights that accompany a state highway running through miles of farmland?" she asked. "Can't wait."

"Byron Cunningham's going, too. This'll be the third summer his family's gone," Tom persisted. "To Disney World, I mean."

"Did you remember to set the security alarm?" Tom's father asked Kay as he walked around to the driver's side.

"Yes, Angie, and I also put a hold on the mail. It'll be delivered the day after we get back."

"None of the guys could believe it when I told him we've never even been," Tom added, still unwilling to give up.

Elsie nudged him as she walked past on her way to the car. "Nice try," she said, "but it had as much chance of success as one of Mom's attempts at baking."

Tom was about to argue, but then he looked at his parents-both still oblivious to everything he said. He sighed and glared at his sister. "You could have helped," he pointed out.

Elsie snorted. "Oh, right. I'm sure if both of us had started dropping blatantly obvious hints, we'd both be wearing mouse ears right now."

Throwing one last despairing look at their parents, Tom shrugged and got into the car. "The Cove again it is," he grumbled, buckling his seat belt. "All the fun of waiting in line for Space Mountain without the thrill of actually riding it."

"That's the spirit," Elsie said, settling in next to him. He glared at her again. "Don't blame me; it wasn't my idea to visit Great Aunt Mildred every summer."

Tom relented. "Yeah, I know." His father started the engine and the sound of The Carpenters filled the car. Too quietly for anyone but Tom to hear, Elsie began humming "It's a Small World, After All." Tom wasn't sure if he should laugh or cry, so he settled for a small groan.

Four hours later, the Sloane family pulled up in front of Great Aunt Mildred's house. Tom and Elsie climbed out and stretched their legs, looking around at their surroundings with growing despair. "It looks exactly the same as last year," Tom moaned.

"Not true," Elsie argued. "The paint has peeled a little more since last time."

Tom looked more closely at the house. "You're probably right." He shrugged. "And I bet we'll have plenty of time to watch it peel even more this summer."

"Oh, goody," Elsie remarked. "I'll just go and make the popcorn, shall I?"

"Thomas, you made it!" Tom turned at the sound of a droning voice and saw his uncle Percival standing in the living room with his wife, Angier's older sister Sylvia. "I've got the checkers board all set up," Percival told him.

Tom looked at his uncle. He looked at the peeling house paint. He looked at his uncle again. "Elsie," he said, "go ahead and start that popcorn."

o O o

Fourteen games later, Tom was starting to feel desperate. He'd tried everything to make the game feel interesting, even pretending the checkers were part of a secret militia that he was training for battle against Percival. Nothing worked, and the tedium was beginning to wear him down. The only reason he kept playing checkers was because he couldn't think of anything else to do.

At last even Percival seemed to have had enough and folded up the board. "Excellent playing," he remarked. "Although I think I won most of the games so far."

Tom, recalling Percival's "move first and strategize in hindsight" method of playing, doubted it but knew it was pointless to argue. He just shook his uncle's hand and stood.

"Join me in a rematch later?" Percival asked.

Tom grunted something that was neither a yes nor a no and got up to look for something vaguely amusing to do. He looked out the window at the water and wished he could go swimming. Unfortunately his parents refused to let the kids in the water without an adult to supervise, and all of the adults were either busy with other things or just plain unwilling to leave the house. Most of the adults, at least: Uncle Edwin, Angier's brother, enjoyed pretending to try to drown them. At least, he said he was pretending.

At the very least it would be nice to have a few other kids around to be bored with, Tom thought. All of his cousins were away at summer camp, taking guided tours of foreign countries, or-in the case of his cousin Cornelius-going on a mission trip to the Himalayas. Tom wished he could have done any of those things, even the missionary work. Unfortunately, like Disney World, they all cost money. What's the point of having a lot of money if your parents never actually spend any of it?

Sighing, he wandered off in search of Elsie. He finally found her in the living room with Great Aunt Mildred, watching the only TV in the house-a black-and-white set with a twelve-inch screen. Tom was pretty sure the thing was antiquated before his parents were even born.

Elsie caught his eye and gave him a long-suffering look. He looked at the TV and understood why. The TV belonged to Great Aunt Mildred, which meant that Great Aunt Mildred always got to choose what to watch. And Great Aunt Mildred only ever wanted to watch soap operas.

"...how can you even think of leaving me for Dominic?" a blandly attractive man was saying in poorly-feigned shock. "What about our baby?"

The woman he was pleading with took a few steps away from him and laughed darkly. "Haven't you realized?" she asked. As she turned around dramatically, Tom and Elsie both mouthed the words along with her: "It's not your baby!"

"Wow!" Great Aunt Mildred cried from her armchair. She was a frail-looking elderly woman with blond hair, although the gray was easy to spot at the roots. "I bet no one saw that coming!" Tom and Elsie just exchanged a knowing look.

Tom came over to stand next to Elsie's chair so their conversation wouldn't disturb Mildred's viewing pleasure. "How many cases of amnesia?" he asked.

"Only one so far," she whispered back, "but Gabriella and Sebastian got into a pretty bad car crash before the last commercial break. I'm sure at least one of them has forgotten who they are and whom they're currently sleeping with."

"While the other will be tragically killed, only to be resurrected miraculously when sweeps week arrives," Tom added.

"Unless it turns out to be their evil twin that no one knew about, come to take their place."

"Or if the actor demands too much of a pay increase."

"Shhh!" hissed Mildred.

The kids stayed quiet for a few more minutes, until at last a toothpaste commercial came on and Tom felt safe talking to Mildred. "Do you think maybe we could change the channel after this show is over? It's just that Elsie and I would like to-"

"But Tragic Hospital is on next!" Mildred interrupted, horrified. "Blake and Seraphina are getting married! It's sure to be a beautiful wedding!"

"And no doubt it'll go off completely as planned, too," Elsie muttered under her breath.

Tom ignored her. "Okay, then maybe after Tragic Hospital we could-"

"And miss The Shrewd and the Shallow?" The look on Mildred's face made it plain that she would relinquish control of the television only after she'd taken her final dying breath. And even then, she'd probably cling to life just long enough to see Blake and Seraphina tie the knot.

Shaking her head, Elsie slid out of her chair and left the room, followed by Tom. They wandered down the hall to find their mother in the kitchen, talking to their aunt Sylvia. "There's nothing to do," Tom complained.

"There's plenty to do!" Kay replied cheerfully. "You could play checkers with Percival-"

"-already did," Tom said.

"Watch TV with Aunt Mildred-"

"-check," Elsie said.

"Then you could...um..."

"Watch the paint peel off the house?" Tom supplied.

Sylvia broke out in shrill peals of insincere laughter. "Oh, your children are absolutely droll, Katherine!"

"It's a large house and you've only been here for a couple of hours," Kay said. "I bet you can find something to do!"

"How much do you want to put on that wager?" Elsie grumbled as she left the kitchen with Tom.

"We're not getting any help from her," Tom said. "This happens every year: we get bored out of our minds, but everyone else refuses to acknowledge that anything's wrong."

"Then maybe we have to make them see it," Elsie said thoughtfully.

"What, you mean we should whine more loudly?"

"Tempting," she replied, "but I was thinking we should see how far they're willing to go in ignoring problems around here."

Tom raised his eyebrows. "Tell me more."

o O o

"So we're all set?" Elsie asked after she and Tom had gone over their plan for the sixth time.

"We're set," he confirmed. 'Operation Vacation Cancellation' is a go."

She looked in every direction as they crept into the hallway. "The coast is clear," she said. "Do it."

Tom pressed his back against the wall and sidled cautiously along the hall until he reached his target. Taking one last look to make sure no one was approaching, he held his breath and slowly reached out his arm to perform step one of their meticulously-planned scheme. Once complete, he crept back to where Elsie anxiously waited.

"The air conditioner is off," he told her in a whisper as they hurried away from the scene of the crime. "Now...we wait."

So they waited. And waited. And waited more. Tom was just about to fall asleep on his feet when he heard Edwin ask from the next room, "Does it feel warmer in here to anyone else?" He and Elsie exchanged grins before putting on their most innocent faces.

"You know, now that you mention it, it does," they heard their father reply.

Tom held up a hand to Elsie, who was just about to give him a high five, when they heard their mother add, "Thank goodness!"

Confused, they poked their heads around the nearest door to see Sylvia shrugging off a sweater. "I didn't say anything because I simply hated to complain to dearest Aunt Mildred," she was saying.

"Of course," Kay agreed, "but it was starting to feel awfully chilly in here, wasn't it?"

As the adults all chatted about how much more comfortable the house felt, Tom and Elsie looked at each other in dismay. "Should we turn it back on?" Elsie asked. "Maybe set it really low instead?"

Tom shook his head. "No, because then they'd probably all talk about how refreshingly cool it feels. They'll do anything except admit something's wrong."

"We need a new plan," Elsie sighed.

Tom look around the hallway and snapped his fingers. "Got it!" He led her into the now-empty living room. Elsie took a longing look at the TV, but Tom just waved her over. "We've got more important things to do now," he said. "And besides, that thing only gets four channels."

Elsie nodded reluctantly and joined him next to one of the family pictures. "Let's do this," she said.

Grinning mischievously, Tom reached out and tilted the family portrait to a forty-five degree angle. Seeing his intention immediately, Elsie scurried over to another picture frame and did the same thing. Moving around the living room and into every other unoccupied room in the house, they methodically tilted every single frame they could find.

At last they returned to the living room. Tom turned on the television and they flipped through all four channels-all of them boring-as they waited for the expected explosion.

A few minutes later, their mother walked in. "Kids, dinner is almost-" She stopped and looked curiously at all of the pictures now hanging crooked on the walls.

Elsie smirked at Tom. Tom smirked at Elsie.

Slowly, Kay walked around the room and thoughtfully examined each picture. At last she turned back to her children, who looked back at her without reaction. "Did you do this?" she asked quietly, raising an eyebrow.

Tom gritted his teeth, ready to wait out whatever interrogation was about to come. We're tough enough to withstand whatever she can throw at us, as long as we stand together.

Elsie melodramatically put a hand to her forehead. "He did it, Mother! I told him not to, but he just laughed and kept going!"

Traitor. Tom shot a brief glare at his sister as Kay turned her attention to him. "Yes," he admitted, looking down at his feet as he waited for her response. "I did it."

"This is just...just..."

Tom put up a hand to try to halt her anger. "I'm really-"

"Just remarkable!" she finished.

Elsie's mouth dropped open and Tom's head snapped back up to look at Kay. "What?" they both asked.

Kay swept an arm around the room. "And here I thought all of the hours I spent dragging you along with me to the Lawndale Art Museum were wasted! Tom, you have clearly developed a precocious sense of post-modernism, particularly as regards absurdist art. I couldn't be prouder!" She kissed him on the forehead. "Dinner in fifteen minutes," she added as she left.

Tom and Elsie wandered into the kitchen to see a platter of hamburgers next to an assortment of condiments-ketchup, mustard, pickle relish, and more. "Shall we postpone Operation Vacation Cancellation until after dinner?" Elsie asked.

Tom looked at the food and suddenly grinned. "No need," he replied. "We're still on." Glancing around the room first in case anyone was walking in, he pushed a stepstool over to a little-used cupboard above the refrigerator. Next he gathered up as many of the condiments as he could carry and took them up the ladder so he could stash them all in the cupboard.

"Clever," Elsie said, watching him. "Although I suppose this means I'll now have to enjoy my burger sans mushrooms?"

Tom rolled his eyes. "Would you rather have mushrooms on your burger or a Disney World vacation next summer?"

Elsie pretended to consider her options and then picked up the mayonnaise. "Well, all right. But I get to choose which park we visit first."

"Epcot it is," Tom grumbled, but he nodded and handed her the mustard.

Working together, they managed to hide every jar and bottle before anyone came in. Tom was just putting the stepstool away when their mother returned with the rest of the family.

"Help yourselves," Mildred told everyone, picking up a plate and putting a bun on it. She frowned at the empty counter.

"What a truly marvelous idea!" Sylvia gushed. "We'll enjoy our burgers plain, so that we might better appreciate the savory taste of the beef without any interference. I just adore it!"

The others began chatting enthusiastically about the idea as they chose their burgers and found places around the dining room table.

"Should we hide the drinks next, and see if they want to enhance their palates by limiting their beverage choice to tap water?" Elsie whispered.

"Don't bother," Tom said, discouraged. "They'd probably consider it a thrilling break from flavor."

o O o

Elsie and Tom ate their "refreshingly simple" meal in sullen silence while the adults around them talked, cheerfully oblivious. They fled the table the moment their parents gave them permission to excuse themselves and hurried back to the living room to discuss their next step in privacy.

"I can't think of anything else," Tom complained, "but we can't just give up!"

"Oh?" Elsie asked in an exhausted tone. "And why not?"

"Because if we give up now, then we'll be stuck coming here every single summer for the rest of our lives!" He leaned forward eagerly. "Disney World, Elsie. Think of Disney World!"

Elsie shrugged and sank into an armchair. "All I can think about right now is finding something on TV that isn't completely unwatchable."

Tom started to argue, but then followed her gaze to the television set. Slowly an idea formed. "You're brilliant, Elsie!" he finally cried.

"Of course I am," she said without moving. "What finally made you realize it?"

Too excited to take his sister's bait, Tom turned the TV on and began flipping through channels with the knob on the front of the set.

"Wait," Elsie protested. "That show looked like it might have been okay!"

"We're not looking for 'okay,'" Tom said. "We're looking for completely abysmal."

"We are most certainly not."

Tom stopped turning the knob and grinned. "Perfect."

Elsie leaned to one side to see around Tom's head. "The Brady Bunch Hour?" she asked in disbelief. "I don't know which is worse: that some network is actually crazy enough to air reruns of this dreck...or that you're crazy enough to want to watch it."

"I don't want to watch it," Tom said. "And I'll bet no one else in this house does, either." With a flourish, he turned the other knob all the way to crank the volume up to the maximum, then plucked both knobs off the set and stuck them in his pocket.

"You mean...ohhhhh," Elsie said, finally understanding. She wrinkled her nose as the Brady family launched into a cheery rendition of "Good Morning Starshine." "So how long do we have to watch this drivel?"

"Until Mom and Dad agree to take us to Disney World," Tom replied confidently. "I'll bet you five dollars we won't have to wait much more than ten minutes before people start begging us to turn the TV off."

"Unless they just unplug it," Elsie pointed out.

Tom looked at the plug. "Um...do me a favor and keep that idea to yourself."

Elsie rolled her eyes and grabbed two pillows to cram against either side of her head. Tom ignored the blaring TV as best he could, then breathed a small sigh of relief when people began drifting in to see what was making all the racket. It being eight o'clock, Great Aunt Mildred had already gone up to bed.

"Oh, dear God," Angier said in surprise as he saw the TV.

"I know," Kay breathed, eyes wide. "I can't believe it, either."

Sylvia clapped her hands together. "I was utterly devoted to this show! I watched it every week, without fail."

"I'll admit, I did as well," Percival said with a chuckle. "No accounting for taste, eh?"

Edwin crossed his arms and rolled his eyes. "I don't know about you losers, but I never watched this even once."

"That's not how I remember it, Eddie." Angier poked his younger brother, who turned pink and mumbled something under his breath about youth and ignorance.

The adults gathered around the TV, laughing and reminiscing. "It's as bad as I remembered it!" "No, it's even worse!" "I used to wear my hair just like Marcia's, you know." "Oh, Percy, you did not!"

Tom collapsed into the armchair next to Elsie's with a groan. "Well, now what are we going to do?"

Elsie's only response was to hold out her hand, palm upward. Grumbling, Tom dug into his pocket and found a five-dollar bill, which he slapped into her hand. He watched the others for a few more minutes, just to see if one of them would finally break, then gave up and went upstairs.

He could hear Great Aunt Mildred's thunderous snoring before he even made it all the way to the second floor, and gritted his teeth at the thought of the sleepless night that awaited him. An instant later, it gave him an idea.

Tom came back downstairs later, whistling softly to himself. He saw Elsie in the kitchen, pulling the can of mushrooms back out of the cupboard. "Care to join me for a snack? I was thinking of making condiment salad."

"No thanks. You go ahead, though," Tom replied with a smile.

"You're looking awfully chipper for someone whose Disney World dreams just went up in smoke."

"Have they?" Tom replied playfully.

"Yes. They have. Did you not see the campy TV show love fest in the living room? If The Brady Bunch Hour isn't enough to shake them, then they'll resist pretty much anything short of Chinese water torture."

"What about lying awake and miserable all night long?"

Elsie shook her head. "They've all had decades to build up a tolerance to Great Aunt Mildred's snoring," she reminded him. "I think you're the only one who still can't tune it out. Honestly, Thomas, why can't you just stuff a pillow over your head and hum a lullaby?"

"That would be difficult, considering the sudden pillow shortage we're about to experience."

His sister already had her mouth open to make a snarky reply, but instead she blinked at him in mild confusion. "Pillow shortage? Since when?"

"Since I went upstairs and hid them all in the attic."

"Really?" Elsie's tone was an interesting mixture of impressed and annoyed. "Including mine?"

"And mine," Tom told her. "Besides, if I left yours alone, everyone would immediately suspect you. Now, no one will know who did it."

"Right, because no one would think to blame the guy who's been doing things like this all day," Elsie pointed out.

Ignoring her, Tom walked into the living room to see that The Brady Bunch Hour was coming to a merciful end and the adults were heading upstairs. He replaced the TV knobs and turned it off. "Any minute now," he told Elsie as she followed him in.

"Watch as I hold my breath," she said dryly. Still, she stayed and waited quietly with him until their mother came in to shoo them up to their rooms for bed.

Lying awake an hour later, Tom strained to hear even one voice raised in protest over the missing pillows. By the time his eyes sleepily closed that night, nothing had happened.

Never mind, he assured himself as he finally fell asleep. I'm sure there'll be a ton of complaints tomorrow morning.

o O o

Between Mildred's snoring and his eagerness to find out if his plan worked, Tom had a restless night and overslept the next morning. He got dressed and hurried downstairs to find out how badly everyone else had slept with no pillows. As he reached the dining room, he could hear everyone talking as they finished breakfast.

"It was such a nice change, wasn't it?"

"Oh, I know! You get so used to sleeping on a big, fluffy pillow that you don't realize how comfortable it can be to lie on a bare mattress."

"I don't know about anyone else, but my back feels great!"

Disappointed, Tom entered the kitchen and immediately spotted Elsie. She raised an eyebrow as she lifted another spoonful of cereal to her lips. He sat down next to her and grumpily poured himself a bowl. "Okay," he finally muttered between bites. "I finally concede defeat."

"At last," she said, rolling her eyes. "I thought you were going to beat your head against that wall forever."

"Excuse me? Operation Vacation Cancellation was your idea, remember?"

"And it was an excellent one, if I may say so."

Tom snorted. "Hardly. Nothing-absolutely nothing-is going to bother these people."

"Hmmm," Elsie said thoughtfully. "I don't know about that. Perhaps you just haven't been trying hard enough."

"Haven't been trying-" he burst out, interrupting Percival bragging about the fish he'd caught early that morning. Tom quieted down at a look from their mother. In an angry whisper he continued, "What do you mean, I haven't been trying hard enough? I was trying all day yesterday, if you hadn't noticed!"

She smirked. "Yes, but I think you were the wrong person to put in charge."

"I suppose you think you could do a better job?"

"'Could'?" Elsie replied, dabbing her mouth daintily with her napkin. "Goodness, dear brother, I already have."

"Oh, Percy, darling," Sylvia laughed at the other end of the table. "Of course the fish was never that big. You always exaggerate terribly."

"Not at all!" Percival insisted.

Edwin snorted. "Like that supposedly enormous fish last year that was barely big enough to make a fish stick out of? I can only imagine the guppy you pulled out of the water this time."

"It's two feet long if it's an inch and I can prove it to you! Come look in the cooler."

As the adults left to judge the fish for themselves, Tom leaned in closer to Elsie. "Well, what did you do? Set their alarm clocks to go off early? Use up the hot water in the shower? Hide the coffee so everyone would be cranky all morning?" He paused. "Damn, that would have been a good one. Wish I'd gotten up early enough to do it."

Elsie shook her head and gave him a cryptic look. Tom, realizing that she wasn't going to reveal what she'd done, took another bite of cereal and grimaced. "Ugh, this tastes awful! Did the milk go bad?" He took a drink of orange juice to try to wash the taste out of his mouth and discovered that the juice also had a very nasty aftertaste.

He pushed away his breakfast and started to get up when he realized that it wasn't the culprit. Taking a few sniffs, he almost gagged. "What is that horrible smell? It smells like...like..." He slowly turned to look at his sister, who was grinning so widely it had to hurt her face.

"Like fish?" she asked.

The adults came back into the room, led by Percival. "I don't know where else it could be," he was saying. "I mean, even if that bass was still alive it couldn't very well have climbed out of the cooler and wandered away!"

Tom sniffed the air again and then looked suspiciously at Elsie, who had gotten up and was now rinsing out her cereal bowl with a perfectly innocent look on her face. Their father also sniffed, then frowned. The conversation among the others ended as everyone else became quickly aware of the growing odor.

Raising an eyebrow, Angier asked, "Tom, you wouldn't happen to know where Percival's fish might have disappeared to, would you?"

"No idea," he replied truthfully.

"It's just that-hypothetically-youthful hijinks should only be taken so far, and-also hypothetically-going past that point could result in very severe punishments."

"Hypothetically, of course," Elsie remarked from her place near the sink.

"Dad," Tom said quickly, "I only just came downstairs, remember? And you know I haven't left the table since then."

"Hmm." Angier considered his words, then nodded slightly. "I suppose you have a point." He glanced briefly at Elsie, who couldn't have looked more angelic if she'd been strumming a harp. Satisfied of his children's innocence in the matter, Angier nodded again. "All right."

"Well, someone must have taken it!" Percival exclaimed. "We have a dastardly fish thief in our midst, and my bass cannot go unavenged!"

Sylvia gasped loudly. "A fish thief? Gracious, how dreadfully exciting!"

"All right, all right," Angier said, holding up his hands to calm everyone. "Standing around talking about the problem isn't going to get us anywhere!"

"Because heaven knows no one here even knows how to discuss problems," Tom whispered to Elsie.

"Welcome to the Sloane family," Elsie replied quietly.

The adults, meanwhile, began looking under furniture and inside cupboards. "I'll search the liquor cabinet!" Edwin called out enthusiastically.

"I'll dig out the family stomach pump," Tom muttered. He and Elsie briefly considered trying to beat Mildred to the TV, but the stench was rapidly growing unbearable. "Okay, Elsie," Tom said after the adults were out of earshot. "Where'd you hide it?"

Elsie examined her nails. "Have you forgotten your newfound philosophy that one must endure a certain amount of discomfort in the pursuit of Disney World? What does not kill us, earns us the Magic Kingdom."

"Fine." Tom tried to breathe through his mouth but still wound up gagging. "I'm going outside."

"Good luck with that."

It wasn't until he stepped onto the porch that Tom realized what she meant. Despite the early hour, it was already scorching hot out. He tried to stick it out, but within two minutes he had already sweated through his clothes. Giving up, he came back into the air-conditioned comfort.

Elsie, seated comfortably in front of the TV, wrinkled her nose as he came in. "Oh, how delightful. Dead fish mingled with sweaty preteen boy. My favorite perfume."

Tom noticed that the fish smell was getting stronger by the minute. "How can you stand it?" he asked her.

She pointed to her upper lip and pulled a small jar out of her pocket. "Vicks VapoRub. Want some?"

Still trying to figure out a way to draw air into his lungs without actually inhaling, Tom nodded. The moment he'd rubbed a bit of the strong-smelling ointment under his nose, the fish smell all but vanished. Sighing with relief, he handed back the jar. "Thanks."

He was about to join Elsie in watching a truly awful morning talk show featuring a roller skating chimp when their mother came in. "We still haven't been able to find the, er..." Kay seemed to hesitate to actually say the word out loud.

"Fish," Tom supplied.

"Yes. I'd like the two of you to come help us look." Her tone made it clear that it wasn't a request, and Tom knew that arguing might bring her suspicions back to him. He and Elsie stood and began poking half-heartedly in the various nooks and crannies of the room.

"I think the prank has served its purpose," Tom said as he peered into a curio cabinet. "You could end this by just telling everyone where it's hidden."

"I could, true. But then everyone would know that I was the one who took it in the first place."

"Isn't that the point? Once Mom and Dad know we're capable of ruining vacations, we'll have leverage for Disney. We take our lumps for being troublemakers for the greater good. So let's put the final phase of Operation Vacation Cancellation into action and end this."

Elsie was taking an absurdly long time to look under the couch.

"...Elsie?"

She sighed, stood up, and mumbled something Tom could barely understand.

"Try that again."

She closed her eyes. "I forgot, all right?"

"You...you what?"

Turning around, Elsie finally looked him in the eye. "I found the fish and hid it right after I got up. I was half-awake, and now it's been awhile and I just..." She shrugged, looking helpless.

Tom held back a groan. In general Elsie was a very intelligent girl, but occasionally she could be maddeningly absent-minded. This was clearly one of those times. Getting angry wouldn't help, and honestly would only make things worse, so instead he kept a calm expression on his face. "All right," he finally said in an even tone. "It's fine. We'll figure this out."

"Hopefully soon," Elsie said, wrinkling her nose. "I do believe the fish smell is beginning to win out against the Vick's."

Tom resisted the urge to snap at her. "Think back. You took the fish out of the cooler...?" he prompted.

Elsie closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then immediately regretted it as the stench sent her into a coughing fit. "I took it out of the cooler, and I started thinking of really good hiding places."

"And you chose...?"

Elsie scrunched her face up as she thought as hard as she could, but at last she deflated and shook her head. "No idea. I remember deciding to hide it, and I remember sitting down to breakfast, but everything in between is a great big blur."

Tom covered his face with both hands. "Great. You watched a couple of soap operas with Great Aunt Mildred and now it's given you a case of amnesia."

"I didn't mean to!" Elsie pouted. "I'm trying as hard as I can to remember. What else can I do?"

Tom went back to checking under couches and chairs. "The same as everyone else. Start searching."

Elsie reluctantly began poking around the room again, still clearly concentrating on trying to recall the location of the missing fish. From another room came a burst of laughter as the aunts and uncles shared a joke about the search.

"Seriously?" Tom said in shock. "They're even enjoying this?"

Elsie paused in her search and smirked. "Well, I can think of worse things than hunting through the house in search of a pungent dead fish."

"Oh, really? Like what?"

"Think about the kind of day the fish is having."

Tom's mouth twitched as he tried not to laugh, but he finally gave in and chuckled. "Okay, fair enough. But keep looking-if you find anything, let minnow."

"Ah, so you're saying we have bigger fish to fry?"

"I'm saying this is all because you've got the memory of a goldfish."

Elsie shook her head. "That pun was too easy. Like shooting fish in a barrel."

"Stop carping; you took the bait-hook, line, and sinker!"

"Now, now. Don't fish for compliments."

"Nah," Tom said, grinning, "I need compliments like a fish needs a bicycle."

"You can pretend to be koi, but I suspect it's just a red herring."

"This conversation is making me feel like a fish out of water."

"That's because we're stuck in a fine kettle of fish." Elsie finally broke down into a fit of giggles, and Tom joined her.

"Is salmon making a lot of jokes in here?" Kay asked as she entered the room with Angier. Feeling guilty, both kids quieted down and hurried to resume searching. "No need," their mother assured them. "Sylvia just found the fish in the kitchen-it was in a cupboard along with just about every condiment in the house."

"Oh, so that's-!" Elsie put her hand to her mouth as she stopped herself. "I mean, that's such a strange place for a fish to be."

"Unless it was looking for the mustard," Tom said, trying to deflect attention away from her slip.

"It may have been trying to find all of the bed pillows," Angier suggested mildly. "Percy and I found those in the attic while we were searching."

"Er..." Tom was at a loss.

"In fact," Kay went on, "Your father and I were just discussing with Aunt Mildred how many strange things have been happening around here since we arrived yesterday."

Elsie's eyes met Tom's, and they nodded slightly at each other. The time had finally come.

"Sylvia, Percival, and Edwin have noticed the same phenomenon, as it happens, and we were all in complete agreement about how we feel about the matter."

Tom and Elsie struggled to hide their smiles as they waited for the long-awaited explosion.

"It hasn't even been twenty-four hours yet, but this vacation has been, without a doubt," their mother continued, "the most entertaining yet."

"Beg pardon?" Elsie asked, blinking in dismay. Tom, meanwhile, hoped he was having hallucinations brought on by sleep deprivation.

Angier nodded. "We can't wait to find out what other surprises await us over the next week." His smile dimmed slightly as he added, "Assuming, of course, that they don't involve any further odors."

Without hesitation, Tom and Elsie nodded. "That goes without saying," Tom assured him.

Their parents gave their children a satisfied smile and left. Tom looked at his sister. "Even a dead fish in the cupboard didn't spoil the trip. I guess that's the end of Operation Vacation Cancellation."

"Undoubtedly. Still, you can't say we didn't have a little fun, even if we failed."

"More than a little, I'd say."

"True," Elsie admitted. "Want to see how much TV we can watch before Great Aunt Mildred comes in to put her soaps on?"

Tom looked thoughtfully at the TV. "I suppose we could try to find something to watch that doesn't completely suck, or..." he began slowly.

Elsie raised an eyebrow curiously. "Or...?"

"Or we could put a new plan into effect: Operation Vacation Shenanigans."

"That doesn't rhyme."

"So? It doesn't matter what we call it; we've got a genuine opportunity to pull some serious pranks here."

She stared at him in amused surprise. "Well, what have we here? Could it be that my dear brother has discovered the joy of creating chaos?"

"Laugh all you want, but our parents just gave us carte blanche to do just about anything we want. I think if we put our heads together on this we could have at least as much fun here as we could at Disney World."

Elsie looked skeptical. "More fun than Disney?"

"What if I told you that when I was in the attic I came across some fireworks left over from the Fourth of July?"

"I don't know..."

"And I happen to know exactly where Great Aunt Mildred keeps the superglue."

"Oh, really?" Now Elsie looked interested.

"Just since we've been talking, I've come up with at least five fun uses for the garden hose in the backyard. How many can you think of?"

She looked at him silently for a few moments, and then slowly grinned. "We might just have a new contender for the name 'The Happiest Place on Earth.'"

o O o

Thanks to RLobinske for beta reading.