Reader: That last chapter wasn't scary at all.
Me: Really? So why are you laying down, curled up in the fetal position?
Reader: Because I'm comfortable this way, alright?! Now then, what's this story about?
Me: Just your average Texan family, the fear of losing a family member and being shunned from the family yourself.
Reader: That sounds good...
Me: It is also over 8000 words long.
Reader: NOOOOOOOOOOOO! Why, Tokyo, why?
Me: Because I'm a sociopath. Now shut up and enjoy my work of really dull art.
Bee Cave, Texas, December 24th, 1969
Christmas time was always a busy period for the Conagher family. The guests had to be welcomed with open arms, the food had to be immaculately prepared, the decorations had to be festive, yet not tacky, and everybody had to be jolly at all times.
This year was no exception. The biggest house in Green Lane was hosting a Christmas party. The biggest house belonged to the Conagher household, and the party implied two days of something resembling a family reunion. The 24th of December was the so-called "preparation day", when all the food had to be cooked and all the liquor locked away from grandma. The first guests had already arrived; Dell's parents, along with their presents for Sarah and Pepper, and Irene's mother along with her company she brought over. They were Ginny (a bottle of gin), Jack (a bottle of Jack Daniels), Johnny (a bottle of Johnny Walker), and Sherry (a bottle of tequila). The guests have been immediately secluded in the crystal liquor cabinet in the living room, much to Irene's mother's discomfort.
Other family members were arriving either later that day or on Christmas morning. Two extra non-family members were invited as well, Pepper's boyfriend Mikey, and her friend from Boston she met during her brief stay there. This only meant one thing for the lady of the house.
They needed more food.
"Okay!" Irene clasped her hands together loudly, marching across the sterile white kitchen tiles and making her way to a large turkey propped up on a wooden board and ready to be gutted. Her 19-year-old, Pepper, was looking for some butter in the deep, dark crevasses of the refrigerator, while 8-year-old Sarah was squeezing a pair of lemons. Her mother stomped around the kitchen, pointing at each foodstuff being prepared at the moment.
"Lemons are squeezing, nuts are roasting, apples are baking, batter is setting, guests are talking, Ah am panicking…" she huffed and fluttered her hands close to her face. She rummaged through a small kitchen drawer in search of a wooden spoon. After pulling it out with an air of triumph, she realized that she didn't need it to gut a turkey. Promptly after putting it back in the messy drawer, she remembered that she still needed it to stir the nuts. Sarah was talking about the casting for her upcoming school play while her mother searched through the drawer, a string of muffled, watered-down curses leaving her mouth.
"So," began the little girl, oblivious to her mother's hyperventilating; "The role sheet for our school play came out. Ah got the title role."
Irene pulled out the wooden spoon once again, exhaling in relief. She made her way to the roasted nuts and tossed them around, enjoying their crackling. She didn't attempt to hide her enthusiasm about her daughter's first taste of stardom.
"Honey, Ah'm so happy for you! The title role! You must be thrilled, sweetie!"
"Mom, it's Helen Keller. Ah don't have any lines! Ah feel betrayed. The whole thing is a big, fat pile of-"
Irene looked at her daughter coldly, and Sarah quickly returned to squeezing the last lemon and averting her eyes from her mother.
Irene's husband flew into the kitchen, opening the double sided door widely. They flapped as they returned to their previous position, and this made Irene huff in annoyance. She saw her mother pull at the handle of the liquor cabinet while Dell's parents were watching television. Her husband walked up to Sarah and grabbed her by the waist, hoisting her up on the counter.
"Hey, kiddo!" he tickled his giggling daughter. "How are the three best chefs in the world?"
"Busy!" responded a voice from the refrigerator. The voice soon obtained a bodily form, as Dell's daughter Pepper closed the heavy door and placed a stick of butter, milk and a carton of eggs in front of her mother. The nineteen-year-old then instructed Sarah to climb off the counter and took a knife along with seven carrot sticks. Irene frowned at her daughter.
"Pepper, it's Christmas for God's sake! Would it kill you to at least try gussying up?"
Pepper looked up from the small orange circles she made, her thin red brows creating a frown.
"Well, sorry, mom. I don't see the point of getting all dressed up in skimpy little dresses and fixing my hair up with tons of hairspray and putting on my make-up with a spatula!"
"Ah ain't talkin' about spatulas, Ah'm talkin' 'bout combing your gosh darn hair one in a blue moon!" Irene gestured to her daughter before beginning to prepare the poultry. She did have a point.
Her daughter's style was different than the one she sported before she went to Boston. Now it consisted of floral skirts, wide, unflattering shirts, many hairclips and wool socks. Irene once described it as the "I give up" look. Though Dell and Irene appreciated the fact that their daughter was dressing up more modestly, the fact that bothered them was that she now looked more conservative than her own grandmother.
"Well, the guests are doin' fine," Dell announced; "Though, Irene, your mother is eating a lot of those weird tasting chocolates with that chocolate gooey liquor." He pulled a grimace to emphasize the horrible taste they had. Irene huffed but didn't look away from her turkey.
"Don't worry, hun, nobody can get drunk off those. Believe me, I tried."
"How's the cooking going?" Dell asked, casually looking over his wife's shoulder.
"Well, Ah still have to put the bird in the oven, bake an apple pie, caramelize some apples, glaze the roast and serve the figgy pudding all in under… seven hOurs," her voice broke.
"Irene, are… are you cryin'?"
"No, no…" she lied, wiping off a single tear off her face.
"Ah'm just exhausted, is all."
Dell carefully placed his gloved hand on Irene's shoulder. This was supposed to soothe her, but it only made her flinch. She wasn't used to feeling icy cold metal where her husband's warm hand should have been. He had explained it to her before, the work accident and a very convenient solution that appeared to scare his wife to no end. He decided to keep it gloved, for her sake. However, actually feeling the cold, listless metal was a harsh wake-up call, telling her that her husband wasn't the same anymore. She jerked her shoulder quickly, and they both felt a short, uncomfortable buzz flying through the room. The moment of silence was interrupted as Sarah walked out of the room, bringing out four glasses of lemonade.
"Why don't you ask Pepps to get started on one of those dishes?" asked Dell. Pepper and Irene looked at each other before they started laughing like hyenas.
"What? What'd Ah say?" Dell stretched his arms out, looking for an answer.
Irene cackled before finally managing to form an eloquent sentence.
"Pepper can't cook."
"It's true!" Pepper agreed after dumping some chopped vegetables into a ceramic bowl;
"I'm a master at chopping, slicing, dicing, pureeing, grating, peeling, kneading, crushing, stirring and, oddly enough, flambéing."
"But if you get her near a stove," Irene interrupted; "She can burn water. Honestly! The girl is a lost cause." Irene then returned to preparing the turkey.
"Aw, yiss," he recalled; "The Conaghers haven't been too skilled 'round the stove. Now the grill! That's a whole other story. Now, you get me a grill and an animal, and Ah swear, any animal the Lord put on this earth, and Ah will give a feast you'd only dream of."
He ended this brief history of his family's culinary skills with a smile. Irene huffed and looked out of the window. Their large backyard was covered with a blanket of pristine snow.
"I doubt you can grill anythin' this time-a year. 'Till then, this party's gonna rely heavily on my cooking. And don't pretend you're some kind-a master chef, either! The only reason you aren't doin' nuttin is because you're even more hopeless than her!"
At that moment, the doorbell went off, and the short, annoying buzz flew through their ears. Pepper slowly stepped out of the kitchen and into the dining room.
"I'll get that. Call me if you need anythin' sliced, diced or julienned."
The kitchen door swung behind her, and her parents found themselves in the kitchen, alone. Dell looked wistfully out of the window. Irene noticed this.
"What's wrong, Dell?"
Her husband shook his head, as if he was trying to rid himself of a foul thought.
"Irene? Do ya think that… Pepps is actin' a bit more…timid than she used to? Ya know. 'Fore Ah got that job at New Mexico?"
"Ah think it's nice. She ain't as flashy as she used to be." Irene looked at her husband with a dissatisfied frown.
"What? There a problem with that?"
"It's unnatural, is all. I mean, you jus' told her she couldn't cook and she didn't make a scene 'bout it. Hell, she agreed!"
"You're exaggerating. She just…grew up." Irene pulled out a slimy gizzard out of the poultry and formed a crooked grimace. Dell watched her prepare the evening's pièce de résistance with a small smile on his face. He watched the bright white light shine across his wife's perfectly clear face. For some reason, she managed to look stunning even as she was slaving in the fiery hot kitchen. She wiped off a single drop of sweat from her brow. Dell leaned against the counter, propping his right elbow against it and leaning his head on his cold mechanical hand. He watched Irene pluck at the bird for a few more seconds.
"Do ya know that you've never looked sexier?" he asked, looking into her sparkling brown eyes.
The sound that ensued resembled the mating call of the Eastern Channel Billed Cuckoo. This could either mean that Grandma was getting brutally murdered, or that Pepper's Bostonain friend, Cindy, had arrived early. Irene brushed off the entrails against her less-than white apron before accompanying Dell into the living room. His parents were looking at the new guest judgingly, while Pepper was enthusing about seeing her.
Dell cleared his throat, hoping to get the guest's attention. After Pepper pried herself off her friend, she gestured towards her.
"Ma, Daddy, this is Cindy. I talked 'bout her."
"Hi," Cindy waved, smiling from ear to ear. Irene looked closely at the peppy young blonde, her luggage consisting of one bootlegged Louis Vuitton handbag. This Cindy, whoever she was, had a remarkable gift for making a stuffed parka look skanky.
"Can I come in now, I'm freezin' mah ass off!" she exclaimed loudly before tossing her bag in Pepper's arms. She first walked up to Dell. Pepper scurried behind her.
"Uh…yeah, Cindy? This is my dad, Dell."
"Howdy!" he greeted, stretching his hand out for a friendly handshake. Cindy interpreted this as an invite for a lengthy squeeze.
"You Texan guys talk soooo cute!" she snorted. Pepper managed to pry Cindy off her father while looking at her mother's eye twitch angrily. She cleared her throat and started the introduction over.
"So yeah… My dad. Dell Conagher. A doctor in-."
Cindy widened her eyes and gasped.
"You's a doctah?" She turned her back to him, pulling down the collar of her shirt and exposing her spotted neck.
"I gawt did mole right 'ere and I wasn't sure if it was a mole or some kinda pimple, so-"
"PhD, sweetie!" Pepper pushed her friend towards her edgy mother; "PhD. My dad's a PhD."
"Is dat like a dentist?"
Cindy stood in front of Irene, who was looking at her wristwatch and tapping her foot. She did manage to form a forced welcoming smile.
"Howdy. Ah'm Pepper's mom, Irene."
"Holy shit." Cindy cursed, examining Irene's figure from head to toe before nodding approvingly.
"You're hot. Question!" she turned to Pepper; "How come your Ma's got dem Dolly Parton boobies, and you've got squat? I mean, you're like Pepper The Titless Wondah and you're Ma is like a Greek goddess, and-"
"Cindy!" Pepper snapped, giving apologetic looks to her mother. Irene, however, looked mad for letting Cindy stop talking.
"Well, I just don't see the fam'ly resemblance!" Cindy protested as Pepper pushed her away from her parents. On her way into the dining room, Cindy bumped into an older woman; a woman in her late sixties with her lifeless red hair strapped into a messy bun, yellowish skin and dull emerald green eyes. She stumbled and waved around the air with her empty flask. She positively reeked of alcohol.
"Irene!" she protested loudly in her strange Irish/Texan accent. "Where'd ya hoide mah booze?"
"Ah didn't hide it, mom. It's in the cupboard."
"Well git it oot! Ah need mah whisky fer me gin and tonic!"
Irene slapped her forehead in exhaustion.
"Whisky doesn't go in a gin and tonic, mom!"
"Whisky goes in everything!" she raised her arms in loud protest. Cindy looked at the unruly old woman, and then back at her shy granddaughter. Old woman, granddaughter. Old woman. Granddaughter. Repeat.
"Okay, now I see the fam'ly resemblance!" Cindy exclaimed while pointing at the old woman. The old woman pointed her bony finger back at her.
"Ah don't like ya. You have any booze?"
Cindy raised her left eyebrow, a devilish grin on her face. She rummaged through her purse.
"Is tequila OK?"
Pepper quickly pushed her friend over to Dell's parents, who remained unusually quiet. Irene's mother ran towards them, demanding her drink. Dell and Irene looked at their new houseguest.
"Well, Ah reckon she's… colorful," Dell shrugged, noticing that this woman resembled a certain obnoxious Bostonian back at the RED base. Irene shrugged.
"I dunno. Ah kinda like her."
"That's because she called you hot. Which you are!" he quickly added as Irene gave him an evil look only comparable to having a dozen daggers fly out of her eyes and straight into your soul. She shook her head and marched back into the kitchen with a sigh.
Dell looked around the house, trying to bask in the Christmas atmosphere. I soothing smell of pot-roast was coming from the kitchen. The Christmas tree was standing in a corner of the room, relatively close to the roaring fireplace. A couple of immaculately wrapped presents were already under it. The Christmas decorations were as tasteful as they could possibly be; a couple of bells here and there, a few red socks nailed above the fireplace, a wreath decorated with a large silk bow on each door. The white surface of the snow reflected the sunbeams, and they fell on the soft green carpet with a warm, silvery glow. Sarah was talking to her grandparents, Irene's mother was drinking lemonade at the dining room table, and Pepper and her friend drank eggnog, reminiscing about old times, quite loudly. Dell thought that nothing could ruin this Christmas.
But the day was still young.
"So," Cindy said through a gush of laughter after telling her hilarious story about her cab drive over to the Conagher household; "What have you been up to?"
"Aw, nothing." Pepper wiped off a single tear off her face, still clutching her stomach. "After I returned to Bee Cave, I've been pretty much…well, me. Jus' workin', and-."
"OOOH!" Cindy shrieked and jerked her hand excitedly. A small drop of eggnog fell on the carpet, and she tried to hide the impending stain with her right foot.
"Whatcha doin' now? Singin' 'round bars? Hotel lobbies?"
"No, no, no, I' done with that!" Pepper shook her head with a small chuckle.
"I'm…pretty much just a stay-at-home daughter."
Cindy tilted her head to the side, trying to enthuse about her friend's occupation. Sadly, she failed to do so.
"Dat's boring! Seriously, dat's boring as shit!"
"I know." Pepper bowed her head down before thinking of an appropriate response.
"So, what's up with you?"
"Well, after you quit that job you had in Boston," she looked around the room, hoping that nobody was eavesdropping; "The club pretty much died. It became the same as… any other club of its nature. I mean, without the singer, it's just a couple of horny guys sitting around pretty girls with daddy issues in awkward silence. Anyway, I quit working at it too, after film school. I tried to get a job as a film director or editor or something, but you know what?"
"People don't wanna hire retired hook-?"
"People DO NOT want to hire retired members of my last profession!" Cindy exclaimed, as if Pepper hadn't already guessed it. "So right now I'm a wedding photographer. It doesn't pay much, but oh well…" Cindy drank up her remaining drop of eggnog before turning to Pepper once more.
"So when do I meet your new guy?"
"Soon. He'll be here any minute now." They both look at the door, as if he was going to pop in that very second, a bouquet of red roses in each hand and an angel choir in the background.
This oddly did not happen.
"Well, is he as hot as your last guy?"
"No, but he ain't a moody prick like my last guy." Pepper frowned at her friend, who was twisting in her place seductively, propping her arms on the wooden chair they were standing next to.
"Mmmm, that last guy. I just wanna… unf! Ya know?" she bit her lip sexily.
"I mean, I want to go down his chimney."
"I want to be on his naughty list…" Cindy giggled.
"Damn it, Cindy! I hate the guy, and I hate puns. Are you really mixing those two together and making them seasonal?"
"Let's say my right leg is Thanksgiving…" Cindy ignored her irritated friend and lifted up her right leg from the floor. Pepper huffed angrily.
"I swear, if you end that joke with something along the lines of 'between the holidays', I will cut you with a spoon!"
A normal person would have taken that threat as a warning and promptly shut up.
Cindy wasn't a normal person.
"Pulling off his underpants, yanking off my ooooown! Underneath the mistletoe, I'll make your last guy mooooooan!" Cindy screeched and clapped her palms together to the tune of Jingle bells. Pepper casually looked over to her dad and her grandparents, who were looking at her friend in shock and disgust.
"Thaaaaaaat guy was hot, guy was hot, and I want to touch his- MMMMPH!"
At that moment, Cindy found her mouth shut tightly by Pepper's hand. The shy redhead looked towards her grandmother apologetically.
"Sorry, Nana. She's got syphilis… of the brain."
Pepper's grandmother looked at her son sitting next to her on the sofa. She sighed.
"Don't worry, dear. You've had worse guests."
With that remark, she looked over to Irene's mother, who was sitting at the dining room table and giving her eight-year-old granddaughter a lesson on mixing cocktails. Dell returned to talking to his father while still listening to his daughter's conversation in the distance.
"Man, you're no fun anymore!" Cindy said after she freed herself from the grip of Pepper's sweaty palm. Cindy looked at her best friend. She couldn't recognize her any more. The Peppermint she knew before would have joined her in her sad attempt at singing a dirty Christmas tune. The Pepper Conagher standing before her was so…unbelievably boring.
"So, what's your new guy like?" Cindy asked, trying to clear her head.
"He's everything my last guy isn't." Pepper took Cindy's empty glass of eggnog and examined the small white stain on the carpet. She refused to look at her in the eye.
"He's smart, charming, sweet, thoughtful… Everything the last guy only wished he could be."
Cindy raised her eyebrow.
"So he ain't hot, den?"
Pepper refused to answer that question, but to Cindy, the answer was pretty clear. She didn't worry about Pepper leaving her to help her mom in the kitchen. She'll come to. She always comes to, because she can't stay mad at somebody forever, or even for more than ten minutes.
At least, the old Pepper couldn't.
Cindy paced around the house, looking for something else to do. Uninterestedly, she grabbed a glass of yellowish liquid from the wooden dining room table and brought it to her lips. After the first sip, it was clear that something was off about this drink.
This lemonade had whisky in it.
"No!" Sarah appeared from behind the table, after helping her drunken grandmother get up; "That's Gram's special lemonade!"
"Ah'll take that, miss!" the tipsy old woman hissed, snatching the glass. She took a small sip before lovingly patting Sarah's head. The little girl smiled proudly.
"You're getting better at making these, love! Next week, we're makin' ah dry martini!"
"Yippee!" Sarah shrieked ecstatically.
At that point, Cindy saw something. An opportunity. A hobby. A fresh talent and a free mind that she could mold until her friend finally decides to talk to her again.
"Hey…Sarah, is it?" Cindy cooed while lowering herself to the girl's height.
"You know what's the biggest problem with your sister?" she asked, tilting her head to the side.
"She's a two-dimensional character who bases her personality on the most influential male figure in her life at that point?"
"She forgot how to have fun! And I won't let that happen to you!" Cindy opened up her purse and rummaged through endless condoms, candy wrappers, phone numbers and one dollar bills. She finally picked up a small cardboard box.
"Now, your Gram, or howevah you cawl her, is teachin' you cocktail mixin'. Dat's good right now, but aunt Cindy can do bettah."
With one quick move, Cindy opened up the small box. She poured the contents of it into her left hand, a stack of playing cards. She shuffled them in her hand, looking at Sarah the whole time. The girl seemed impressed with Cindy's shuffling skills.
"Right. The game is cawled blackjack…"
Dell grunted as he heard a faint knock on the door. There was only one person who constantly refused to use the doorbell and insisted on knocking all the time. And this person came early as well.
Irene will not be happy about this.
Dell decided not to disturb her and opened the door. A rush of cold air filled the room and he let the new guest inside. It was a scrawny ginger boy, shivering in a long, thin coat. His nose was red and puffy, and his teeth chattered. Dell shook his head.
"Ya know, Mikey," he began; "You really ought to get yourself a hat."
Dell looked at the boy's untamed red hair frozen on his scalp. Not wearing a hat was the biggest absurdity, back at his workplace. A hat was a sign of style and job efficiency. To not have one would be the biggest disgrace of all. The young boy sniffed, closing the door behind him.
"Thank you, sir. Ah will. Is-is Pepper here, maybe?"
"MIKEY!" Pepper rushed out of the kitchen, leaving a trail of flour behind her as she ran towards her boyfriend. She stretched her long arms out to greet him, screeching. This mostly irritated the other guests, Dell included. Mikey didn't seem to mind it. In fact, he found it endearing. Even more so when she finally grabbed him by the waist and began kissing his face.
"Hi-hi… Peppsie." Mikey muttered quietly.
"Hi." She responded, looking at his wide green eyes in a daze. She stepped back from him, noticing that she got flour all over his dark coat. She began slapping it nervously, trying to clean it.
Dell looked at the two lovebirds, which seemed equally nervous. He didn't understand why his daughter was dating this… this… worm. The boy had no personality of his own. He was in love with Pepper for as long as either of the three could remember, but his precious Pepps barely gave him a second of her time. However, merely two days after she returned from Boston, she began seeing him. They have been together for over a year, and Dell did not enjoy that one bit. Nevertheless, he couldn't say anything to them. Though he would often criticize Mikey behind his back, he tried his best to endure their relationship, hoping that it would end quickly.
However, it would later turn out that it would last, no matter how badly he wanted it not to.
Mikey slowly slipped off his coat and gave it to Pepper, quietly muttering something about washing his hands. Pepper embraced his jacket tightly, smiling the whole time. Dell rolled his eyes.
"Thanks for havin' me over, Mr. Conagher. I'm glad you consider me family," Mikey said to Dell.
"Frankly, Ah don't." Dell admitted. Not having anything to respond with, Mikey smiled nervously before leaving the room. Pepper stared at her dad for one intense second.
"Why do you have to be so mean to him?"
"Ah ain't mean to him! I just don't think of him as family, is all!" Dell defended himself.
"Well, I don't care! He is my boyfriend, and you're going to put that weird grudge, or whatever you have against him, aside!"
Dell huffed in protest and looked down to the floor. When he lifted his head up, he noticed that Pepper was still looking at him. She threw the coat in his arms before stepping one step closer to her dad with a menacing frown.
"Dell?" she asked to grab his attention; "Behave."
She hopped after her boyfriend, leaving Dell alone, clutching Mikey's coat. He wanted to rip it to shreds. Dell had absolutely no idea why he hated the boy so much, but he did know that, in some way, he was the reason his daughter had changed so drastically. He wringed the coat in his hands nervously, slowly making his way to the coat hanger. And then he felt it.
It couldn't be wrung.
It was a small, box-resembling object in the boy's left pocket.
Oh God, no.
Dell was usually a calm, collected Texan man. If something went wrong, he would keep quiet about it, until he faced the problem head-on. Then he would shoot it. It was the paradox of the Texan. Sometimes the most laid-back people could be the most ruthless killers. And sometimes the most collected and logical people, would find themselves frantically digging through the pockets of their daughter's boyfriend, looking for their worst fears.
And soon he found it. A small, almost insignificant black box. He carelessly tossed the coat on the floor. He wrapped his small fingers around the top half of the box and licked his lips nervously. A good father would be alright with this, heck, a good father would be thrilled by this. But, then again, how could he bear to give his daughter away to the man he couldn't even stand. He hastily opened the top half, praying that he was about to see a pair of earrings. A necklace, maybe. He would settle for a brooch or a bracelet. He would settle for any possible trinket.
But, oh please God, he didn't want it to be a…
He opened it, still hearing his heart beating wildly inside his brain.
"Irene!" Dell cried before frantically running in the kitchen. His wife stood with her arms on the counter, looking blindly in the distance. Her clothes were covered with flour, sugar and cookie dough. She was crushing two eggshells under her palm and looked absent.
"Uh…Whatcha doin' Irene?" Dell asked.
"Questionin' mah existence." Irene looked at the small box Dell held in his hand. Her eyes lit up.
"Dell! Oh, Dell, sugah!"
She ran up over to her husband, kissing him on the lips. He wanted to protest, but couldn't. Before he regained consciousness after the kiss, he saw Irene ogling the ring.
"Oh, Dell, it's divine!" She pulled it out of the box and prepared to put it on her finger. Dell quickly snatched it away from her.
"It ain't fer you Irene!" Dell cleared his throat, realizing how wrong that must have sounded;
"Ah found it in Mikey's jacket."
Irene looked at him blankly. She slapped her forehead.
"I'm not even going to ask."
"Irene," Dell followed Irene back to the counter; "Ah think the boy's gun' do something he shouldn't."
"I don' care. It ain't mah job to interfere!"
"Well, it should be!"
"Calm down, Dell! Ah'm sure it ain't so bad…"
"Cahm down? Whaddya mean cahm down?! Look at this ring!" he pulled the small rather expensive trinked and pushed it in her face.
"This is a five carat Tiffany cut with a platinum rim! The dang boy's been savin' up fer months!"
"Dell, Ah don't care if he sold his kidney fer it!" she moved out of the ring's way. "It ain't our job to interfere! And 'sides… That ring is six carats, easy."
Their argument was interrupted by their eight-year-old daughter entering the room.
"Hey, mom, can I borrow some money? Cindy and Gram are gonna teach me to play poker, and-"
"Sarah," Irene sighed; "This is an adult conversation, and you're really gonna have to leave. Go on! Practice your lines for the school play, or summin'!"
Sarah propped her wrists on her hips and tapped her foot.
"Ah play Helen Keller. Ah have no lines."
"Well then," Irene stretched her arm out in annoyance; "Practice… runnin' into walls or something!"
Sarah looked at her dad, nodded and left. She held her arms out and began feeling around the air, pretending to be blind. The double-sided door flapped behind her. Irene sighed before looking at Dell one last time.
"Look. I know you're worried about Pepps. But you have to learn to control yourself. You don't run her life. Now, what you're gonna do, is talk to Mikey, in a nice, civilized manner-"
"Nice. Civilized! MANNER!" Irene stressed; "And you are going to sort it out. I'll go chat with the guests." Irene took off her apron and headed towards the door.
"The food is being prepared, so it will take a while. You can have the talk in the kitchen." Irene tossed away the stained apron on the floor.
"So, what, Ah'm just gonna have to pretend to be on board with the idea?"
"You don't have to pretend, Dell. Just…behave."
Soon she scooted between the gap between the door flaps. Dell picked up the eggshells and tossed them in the trashcan.
He really wished that people would stop reminding him to behave.
"What are you doin' in mah seat?" Sarah asked Mikey, who was sitting in the sofa and cuddling with his girlfriend.
"Well, Ah didn't think it would matter…"
"It does. Ah always sit with Pepper when we're watching TV."
"Aw, come on, Sarah. Ah love Pepper," Mikey protested, scooting closer to his beloved. Sarah snorted.
"That changes nothing. Get outta mah seat, bitch."
"Sarah!" Pepper shouted at her little sister's profanity. The rest of the guests found it amusing. Pepper quickly turned to Cindy, judging her angrily.
"You did this. You taught her to swear!"
"What? No I didn't." Cindy flinched. "I won't be teaching her to swear until she's at least ten!"
"Well if you didn't, who did?"
Irene's mother whistled nonchalantly.
Dell poked his head out of the kitchen door, looking at Irene. She nodded and nudged Mikey.
"Hun? Ah think mah husband needs to talk to ya."
"Oooo-kay?" the poor boy narrowed his eyes and got off his seat. Sarah awaited this opportunity and sat next to Pepper, hugging her tightly. Pepper kissed the top of her head, watching Mikey walk into the kitchen nervously.
The boy was standing opposite of Dell, only a dirty counter separating them.
"You uh…wanted to see me…sir?"
Without a word, Dell slid over a small black box, exposing the shiny diamond ring inside it. Mikey smirked as he looked at the jewel.
"Sir, I'm flattered, but I'm already dating your daughter."
"Cut the crap, Mikey," Dell commanded, pacing around the kitchen determinately. To calm himself down, he began rummaging through a drawer, not looking for anything in particular.
"Now. Why don't we talk about what you were planning to do with this?" he ticked his head towards the box. Mikey bit his lip.
"Well, Sir," he stammered a bit; "Ah… Well… As you may already know…though Ah am not sure if you condone it… Me and Peppsie, Ah mean- your daughter and Ah… uh…"
Dell picked up something from the kitchen drawer. It was a small black porcelain ashtray. He grabbed it with his other hand and twisted it, watching the young boy stutter his way out of this situation. For some reason, Dell found his babbling quite amusing.
"So…uh… We have been…together fer a long time now, and Ah… wanted to take it to the next level. The next level bein', uh, matrimony. Sir." He coughed.
"Heh," Dell chuckled, still holding the ashtray. "Now boy, Ah thing that this 'takin' things to the next level' of yers is kinda…how do I put this delicately… ridiculous."
Mikey raised his eyebrow as Dell walked slowly up and down a straight line, not even looking at the confused boy.
"You see, boy, this whole 'next level' thingis…it's just stupid, ya know? You kids are young! You don't need to get to the next level! Hell, you can stay on your current level forever!" Dell raised his arms up in a nonchalant manner.
"Or not! You can go down a level or two, if ya like. You kids can separate. You can move to Dallas or somethin' and leave mah Pepps here. No need to rush things, boy. That's all Ah'm sayin'."
Mikey cleared his throat and looked down at his feet, as if he was preparing to say something extremely personal and slightly insulting.
"Sir, Ah really think that…you have a problem with me…dating your daughter. Sir."
Dell turned to the boy, slamming the ashtray on the counter. A small ring it emitted made the boy jump in his place. The slightly irritated Texan took a deep breath before smiling at the frightened Mikey.
"Alright, now. Ah'm gonna say this bluntly, 'cuz Ah probably won't git a chance to say it again. You got that?" He looked deep into the boy's eyes. Mikey nodded nervously.
With a sigh of preparation, Dell looked at the boy head to toe before finally managing to speak.
"Remember when Pepps went to film school? To Boston? She returned after only a year, I guess she couldn't stand bein' away from home so long or summin'. She thought that she disappointed us. Honestly, we were jus' glad that she was home."
Mikey nodded, carefully looking at the ashtray Dell was pushing across the smooth surface of the counter. The boy was slightly terrified, but mostly irritated.
"But here's the thing: she changed. I'm not sure if she changed for the better, or for the worse, but Ah sure as hell don't like it. It's not like her to dress that way, or act that way…" he made a pause before speaking again;
"Heck, it ain't like her to date you!"
The boy gave out a careful smile, but was clenching his palm into a fist behind his back. He was staring at the clean, white snow covering the backyard. He wanted to be outside; he needed to cool of his head. A strange anger was boiling inside of him. Dell did not notice this.
"What Ah'm sayin' is," Dell continued; "Ah don't think marriage is a good deal for her at the moment." His voice suddenly turned deeper, more powerful. He looked at the boy, who was almost shaking with fear and fury.
"If it were up to me, boy, you wouldn't even come near mah Pepps."
Dell took the ashtray and looked out of the window. He noticed the transparent reflection of the boy's face. He was frowning at Dell, and looked ready to pounce. He saw Mikey's lips move as he hissed;
"That's the thing, isn't it, mister Conagher? It really isn't up to you."
Dell squinted at the window before casually turning his head to the young man. He seemed angrier than before, breathing heavily. His right eye was twitching slightly, and his nostrils flared. Still, Dell couldn't help but notice a small smile on the corner of his pale, freckled face.
"Come again, son?" Dell asked, bringing his eyebrow upwards slightly.
"I think you heard me, Dell," Mikey said determinately. Dell turned to him, half insulted that this pathetic creature used his first name to address him. He placed his hand on the ashtray, twisting it in place. Though Mikey was supposed to be intimidated by Dell's warning look, he showed no emotion besides pure frustration.
"I think the fact that bothers you the most is that Pepper isn't a kid any more. You can't tell her what not to do. You have to rely on her choices, and you're afraid that she might make the wrong ones. Is that correct?"
Mikey tipped his head to the side, letting his unkempt hair fall down his shoulder. Dell could feel his teeth rub against each other. Everything about this man bothered him at this point, right down to those messy locks of hair that needed to be cut hastily, preferably with a pair of old, rusty scissors. The kitchen seemed to evaporate into this air. The only things present in the world were Dell, this horrible brat, and a black ashtray, gripped by Dell's right hand.
"You don't want what's best for her, Dell. You just say that you do. In reality, you are just scared. You're scared of losing her again, aren't you?" His voice provoked the agitated Texan, and he soon felt his fingers tightening around the smooth surface of the ashtray. It seemed to be weightless at this point. Dell tried not to say anything, but instead frowned at the boy, realizing that this was a battle of endurance, a test to see who could stand more provocation.
Dell was losing miserably.
"Don't worry, mister Conagher. We are both fairly convinced that your daughter is an idiot. But in the end, she's my idiot, not yours." With a smile, he picked up the wedding ring case and placed it in the back pocket of his jeans. He looked straight at the fuming Texan with a conceited smile.
"Remember when we worked together? At the oil rig? You were the great mind, and I was just an inexperienced grease-monkey, anxious to catch a break?"
"Vaguely," Dell mumbled, lifting up the ashtray.
"I remember how well you treated me…until you got bored of workin' there. You threw a wrench at my head the last day we worked together… about a minute before the rig blew up to smithereens." Mikey smirked at Dell, whose eyes widened.
"We all know who was responsible for that oil rig explosion. We both know who left six great men jobless. And, we both know that your precious little wife and daughters don't know anything about it."
Dell wanted to protest at that. He needed to say something, anything. But all he could do at that point was let out a small puff of air, along with a couple of incoherent grunts. Mikey smiled. He walked up to Dell with a smug grin on his face, snickering.
"You know what, Dell? I'll humor you. I won't propose today. Not even you deserve to lose your daughter on Christmas."
Dell could feel the porcelain crack under his hand and wondered what would happen if his robotic hand held the porcelain. Mikey got dangerously close to him, and tested him some more. Mikey didn't care about their little quarrel anymore. This time he had the upper hand, for the first time in years. He wanted to see just how much the friendly neighborhood roughneck could endure.
"Besides," he started; "I suppose it's best to ask her when there are no relatives around. No, I'll ask her somewhere more intimate, you know? Somewhere where she'll be able to… thank me properly."
And then it all went to hell.
Never has there been such a sound in the Conagher household. Never has there been such a painful shattering noise, such loud cries of pain. Dell was breathing heavily above his latest creation; his daughter's companion's cataleptic body. A gaping hole was showing from under his red hair. It was bleeding; small red strings of the fluid flattened his hair. There was blood on the ashtray as well; it dripped on the once pristine white kitchen tiles. As Dell smelt the coppery blood, the world began to form itself again. He could feel the weight of the makeshift weapon in his hands. He dropped it on the floor, and in cracked into three pieces. Never has Dell felt such anger; such a burning rage which made him knock a man out cold with a single blow. He even restrained himself, trying to stop the impact. But the force was still strong enough to knock the young man from his feet. A small puddle formed around the boy's head. As Dell looked up, he saw his daughter's crying face, as she ran to her beloved.
"Mikey!" she shrieked. Dell's stomach turned at that point. He didn't want Mikey to hurt her, but doing what he did, he himself caused her pain. She sobbed, shaking Mikey's stiff shoulders and trying to wake him up. Her friend quickly ran up to her, tapping the boy's face. His eyes opened slightly, revealing the whiteness of his scleras. Pepper looked at her father in pain, her lip quivered while she tried to speak.
"You…" she sobbed; "You…!"
Dell took a step forward, not knowing what he was to do at that point. His daughter moved away from him. As Dell looked towards the kitchen door, he saw the rest of the family. Irene's mother was sheltering Sarah from the gruesome sight while Dell's father tried to keep his wife calm. Her face was white as the snow outside, and her eyes were vacant, as if they refused to see the horror in front of her.
Barely a minute later, the family was half dragging and half carrying Mikey through the snow. They needed to get him to the hospital. The snowflakes fell on the red specks of blood oozing from the wound. Dell stared out of the living room window, unable to speak. His wife was standing next to him. She wasn't speaking at all until that moment.
"Control yourself, I said. Talk in a nice, civilized manner, I said."
"Irene," he tried to defend himself; "I couldn't… he provoked me!"
"Dell, that's not an excuse!" she screamed. She marched away from him and grabbed a family portrait from the mantelpiece above the fireplace. There was a happy family on it, a family which Irene couldn't recognize any more. She pointed to a smiling man, lifting up his six-year-old daughter by her waist, while she laughed whole heartedly. His wife and older daughter were standing by their side, smiling happily. Irene ran her finger across the man's face, which seemed familiar but also quite unknown and almost forgotten.
"I loved this man, Dell. He wasn't like this! What happened to him, Dell?"
"That man is still me, Irene, Ah swear!"
"No, it's not! No, it's not!" she cried, slamming the family portrait against the wall. The glass shattered into a million small pieces, much like her heart. She looked up at him, tears filling her eyes.
"You were wrong, Dell. Pepper wasn't the one who changed."
With that, she ran into the cold snow with the rest of her family. She didn't even bother to take off her apron. Dell could only stand alone and look at the snowflakes hide the trails of blood the boy left behind him. They could hide the blood, but they couldn't hide the scars.
There was nothing he could do at the moment, nothing he could build to fix this. This unpractical problem would take more than a couple of bangs with a wrench to repair. All he could do was stand and watch the snow.
Let it snow, he thought to himself. Let it snow.
"After that, the reunion was abruptly cancelled. The boy was falling in an' out of a coma for the next week or so," Dell said with a small smile on his face. "He never managed to mention that bit of information to either Irene or Pepps… but the blow to the head didn't stop him from proposing to her two weeks later."
He looked down at his feet, and felt his teammates' gazes, fixed up on him. He scratched the back of his neck and sighed.
"Pepps is… they're married now. They moved to Dallas. She probably hates mah guts, and Ah can't exactly blame her. Ah…Ah haven't spoken to mah family in a while. Ah'm not even sure if they wanna have anythin' to do with me. Ah can't even remember the last time I talked to them. It's like…it's like we're not fam'ly anymore."
His teammates were looking at the Texan, unable to say anything.
"You should 'ave finished him off while you 'ad the chance," said the Spy calmly.
With a growl of impatience and anger, Dell stood up and picked up the small wooden desk the Heavy and the Soldier were playing poker at. He tossed it halfway across the room, and it hit the floor. The mercenaries stared at the broken desk in awe, while the Texan stood behind them. He clenched both of his fists, both the human and the mechanical, breathing heavily.
"Ah'll be outside," he announced just before he walked out the door. The mercenaries stared as he was leaving.
Dell was standing in the desert, shooting some practice targets with his shotgun. He noticed that it was gradually getting colder. He had been outside for merely twenty minutes, and he already couldn't feel the tips of his fingers. He shot another target in the head. The woodchips flew upon impact. Dell couldn't think of anything right now. For all he cared, he could have done this all night.
"A bit chilly 'ere, ain't it?"
Dell didn't even have to turn around, as he could immediately recognize his Australian teammate's voice. He ignored his question and continued to shoot.
The withdraw was stronger this time, for some reason. Dell steadied himself out. He could still sense the Australian, looking at him.
"You know, mate, Oi've been thinkin'. If the bloke does anythin' stupid again, you tell me. Oi ought to fill his eyes with led."
This time Dell lowered his weapon. An empty promise. Dell heard a lot of those in his life. But for some reason, this one made him smile.
"Ya know, Slim," he started; "Ah don't think you could've said anything better right now. Ah… 'ppreciate it, pard'ner."
The two men shoved almost no emotion. The Sniper nodded at him, kicking a pebble with the tip of his shoe. Dell shook his head.
"Naw, but, he wouldn't do anythin' to hurt mah Pepps. Sure, he's an idiot, but he still loves mah girl. He wouldn't hurt her…willingly."
"So, ya comin'?" The Sniper gestured to the door of the base.
"In a minute."
Somewhat pleased with what he had just done, the Sniper turned on his heel and began walking away. The Texan's call stopped him in place.
Dell didn't wait too long for a response. He reloaded his gun and pointed it at the last remaining target.
"If he does hurt her, Ah give you permission to give the guy a couple extra nostrils, but under one condition."
"Wot condition?" Sniper asked.
The last target fell down, and the Engineer grabbed his heated weapon with an air of triumph.
"Ah get to watch."