Warning: this epic, though not necessarily this chapter, contains scenes involving
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Chapter 24 of The Tail of the Tiger
It was a warm day in Florida. The air condition in the kitchen was already working overtime even though the cooking hadn't yet begun in earnest. Sweat was running off Nina and me as we rinsed, cut, chopped and talked. The talk was in our patent mix of Spanish and English.
When Tom or Maria popped by to get new assignments it was rather random what language the instructions were handed out in; my wires tended to get crossed. The Task List on the fridge was in English, so things worked out eventually.
I was settling comfortably into the madness of cooking a traditional Danish Christmas lunch in Florida in early April. Somehow it fit my mood just fine. Being busy when the house was bustling with people was keeping my thoughts off Chris - at least most of the time.
"Flower decorations?" Tom was studying the List; he did not sound especially happy about that assignment. It was typical Tom to follow the list meticulously instead of picking the assignments in order by entertainment value.
"Ah!" He held up his hand. "Me English guy. I thought that you already made them?"
"Didn't get around to it. I overslept." Tom had been thoughtful that morning and let me sleep in. I still wasn't sure whether to be miffed or glad about it. It was the first proper stretch of sleep I had had since Chris broke up with me.
Chris, peacefully asleep, head fanned by a tangle of watchful, little snakes. A loosely curled hand on the pillow; a thumb near his mouth: a remnant of a forgotten reflex.
Tom growled. "You want me to - fucking flower decorations?"
"Er? Oh. Sure. Everything you need is in the washing room." I had had the choice between doing chores myself or preparing work delegation. I had taken the last track. "You take a lump of wet, green foam moss from the bucket, cut pieces off it, and put a piece in each of three dishes. Then stick flowers into it until the foam moss is mostly covered. Easy. "
"There's gotta be more to it than that."
"Well, at the intermediate level one bothers with colors, patterns and symmetries. On your level - just cover the foam. Cap-"
"Ah! Me English." He held up his hand. "Yeah, I do. What's for the level after intermediate?"
"A-symmetries and creative use of do-nots."
"Okay." He headed towards the back of the house, calling out for Maria to come help him.
"Do you want me to fix the flower decorations?" asked Nina.
"No, no. Let them. They'll do fine." I finished cutting the last carrot-flower, and slipped it into the cold water to the other cut vegetables. After a while in water, the "petals" would curl outwards, and the "flower" would open. "We need more onions than that."
"More?" She eyed the pile. "Okay, Boss. It's your guts. Just remind me not to stand downwind of you or your family."
The doorbell rang. Since Tom and Maria were busy with the flower decorations, and Mormor and Jennifer were in the back yard, either setting the table or fighting or both, I went to answer the door.
It was Tom's football coach Jim. When I offered to take him to Tom he said, "It's not Tom I'm here to see."
"Oh? Who then?"
"My secret but very… effective Sunday co-coach. Is she at home?"
"Mormor? Sure, she is."
"I believe some coordination of strategy and tactics is in order. Do you think she will grant me an audience?"
"Of course. This way." He marched behind me through the house, making me feel like a parading officer. Tom made a very funny sound when Jim offhandedly barked hello as we passed the washing room. Mormor and Jennifer were setting the table when we got there - working back to back with as much distance between them as possible.
"Jim?" Jennifer said with a puzzled expression.
"Jenny. Hello." He sent Jennifer a cool nod before settling his very determined attention on Mormor.
I did my best to hide my grin. "Mormor, this is Jim Perry, Tom's coach - Jim, this is Rose Werner." As if they didn't already know each other by sight.
"Good day, Ms. Werner. I'd like to talk with you for a moment. Do you have the time?"
"Of course, Mr. Perry." Mormor met his gaze square on - her very polite smile was framed by reddening cheeks. "My office?" she said, meaning the library.
"What did he want?" Tom asked when they were out of earshot.
"Coordination of strategies and tactics."
"Uh, oh. I knew something was gonna happen when Steve told him about her theory on the male killer instinct. Man, after yesterday…."
"What happened yesterday?" I asked. Tom had hardly talked about the match.
"We didn't win because we were better, man. We won because we scared the sh-"
"Tom." Jennifer admonished.
Tom ignored her. "-shit out of them. All Granny's dirty tricks! And the guys've been eating her lines raw, man. I didn't think it would work, but it did - like, no fucking ethics."
"Tom!" Jennifer tried to assert herself.
I zoomed in on the really important part of what he had said: "Do you think any of the football players are going to pop up too?"
"Maybe. Yeah. Some of them could."
"Well, make a guess at how many."
"Three? Maybe five."
"Jennifer do you mind making a pile of utensils so that we're ready to seat another six? The yellow tablecloth will have to do, have that ready." We could bring out the kitchen chairs and the table from the dog's den. "Make it four flower decorations if you can, Tom." And maybe we'll be people enough to make a decent dent in the mountain of food that we're cooking. Good. Better add another half a meter of the sausage, that one's always popular with young people.
"Okay." Tom grinned. "Boss."
"Did you check on the drinks?"
"Don't worry, Boss. I won't forget them."
One of the tasks from the List had been to pile the bottles and cans into a shallow bathtub, and cover them with a thick lid of newspapers and dark towels. The bathtub was placed right in the sun, and the lid was kept drenched with water. It worked fine - the evaporation neatly pulled heat away from the drinks.
Jennifer just blinked at me. I took it for an "okay" and went inside. "More onion rings and apples," I said to Nina when I got into the kitchen. She mumbled something about definitely staying upwind of the entire neighborhood.
I started cutting the bacon that went with the mix of fried apples and onions. With all the warm dishes that had to be ready at the same time, it was best to have all ingredients ready beforehand. Most of it could be kept hot in the oven during the serving of the fish, but I didn't want it to stand in there losing both taste and consistency for longer than absolutely necessary.
When Jim came into the kitchen, and offered a to lend a hand, the next item on the list had become - folding paper napkins. He looked about as funny as Tom had about the flower decorations. Maria volunteered her help, and they disappeared towards the back, carrying the napkins, and the instructions that I had printed from the Internet.
It wasn't the football players that rang the doorbell next. Mormor answered the door herself.
A loud female voice exclaimed, "Mom! What happened to your leg?"
Mormor, sitting in her wheelchair with her braced leg sticking out, answered as she was want to do: "Nothing! What are you doing here - I didn't invite you."
Oops! That's aunt Annie. I recognized the voice from a phone call that I had taken at Jennifer's house when I was there the day before - a phone call that I afterwards had forgotten all about.
"Miguel invited me! Didn't he tell?"
"Miguel? Mikkel! You impossible lout, come here!"
"I'm working." I was decorating the ice cream cake. "If you want to talk then you can move your wheeled carcass out here. Hi, Annie. Sorry, I forgot about the phone call. Come on in."
"It's my house!" Mormor raced the wheelchair into the kitchen.
"My aunt!" I replied, finishing the pattern with a flourish.
I turned to face her. "My fault!"
She had her lips pressed together, ready for another crack beginning with "my". She shot me with the lasers, and forced her lips into a softer position. "Why?"
"A brake on Jennifer. Also I want to meet my other aunt." I looked at the tall woman that appeared behind Mormor. She was dressed many layers of almost transparent pieces of cloth in varying reds, pinks and yellows. Her long hair was dyed bright red, and piled on top of her head in a precarious heap held somewhat in check by black and gold chopsticks.
"Oh, my. You're a good looking guy!" Annie said.
I wondered what my phone voice sounded like since she seemed so surprised. Also, I wasn't quite sure how her odd statement was supposed to function as a conversation opener. "Hello, Annie. I just have to put this back in the freezer - then we can greet each other properly."
Mormor noticed what I had been doing and rolled closer. "Is that chocolate?"
"Yes." Keeping myself between Mormor and the desert, I carefully slipped the tall lid on the dish with the cake, and picked it up.
When I came back up from the basement Nina was quietly going on with her doings. An upset Annie was fluttering her hands and talking to Mormor who was busy cleaning the chocolate off the bowl with a finger.
"That's not true! You should've called! Ma, you can't break a leg and not call! It's wrong!"
Mormor threw the bowl in the sink with a flick of her hand. The clatter made Nina jump, and mutter something in Spanish.
Mormor sent Nina a split second's worth of apologetic gaze, then returned to attention to Annie. "Things were already complicated. I didn't need you around too."
But Annie was somewhere else by then - she was looking at me, "What did you mean by "a brake on Jenny" - is anything wrong?"
"Well, yes. It's kind of multidimensional. Frank had a messy, nervous breakdown, and is in hospital, Jennifer is… unstable. I think you should talk with them all, and separately - there are tensions between Jennifer and the kids."
"Oh. Frank. I see. Oh dear. They're in the back?"
I nodded, and she flew off, flames of silk flickering behind her, calling, "Jenny? Hello, Jenny? It's meee, Annie! Hello, everyone!"
"It's not going to get any better with Annie here." Mormor was adamant.
"Jenny may actually listen to her, or do I have a wrong impression?"
"No. And that's exactly what's the problem." Mormor rolled off.
"Annie seemed quite sensible when I talked with her on the phone."
Mormor snorted. "The glamour of distance."
The kitchen got very quiet after Annie and Mormor had left. Nina sounded like she had a problem with several valves. "Are all families as weird as mine?" I asked her.
She solved her problem with the valves by grinning outright. "I think so."
"Oh. Where were we? What were we talking about when the bell rang?"
She motioned towards the list on the counter. "The fixings for the liver paste. But Miguel, I can read, and you wrote everything down like a battle plan, you even made little drawings! And you already told me once."
"Okay." It was perhaps a surplus of information going through it all again. "Sure. We can do it like that. But I'd like you to read through the list to see if there's anything that's unclear."
She picked up the slip and a glass of water to go sit down on the bench outside the kitchen door, reading while I washed the apples.
"It's all very clear," Nina said when she came back in.
"Let's get serious then."
The concept of innocent passers by ceased to exist after that. Well, Maria was in a class entirely her own. Anybody else that entered were expediently reduced to intruders, and placed in one of two categories: chore-doers that had to be put to work at once, or roadblocks that had to be removed immediately. Not all roadblocks left in grace:
"It's my kitchen! My house!"
"Out of my kitchen!"
"My kitchen! Out!"
"You are impossible!"
"Yes. Scram!" I really liked that word for its effectiveness. I still hadn't gotten around to check it in the dictionary.
When Mormor not long after that returned to the kitchen, she was holding the phone in front of her like a priest holding up a cross when facing a vampire.
"What?" I asked.
"For you." The other hand came up, holding my headpiece that was plugged into to phone. She had really taken to the headpiece - I had to hunt through the house for it every time I was going to do business work.
"Kurt. He says it can't wait."
Which meant that Kurt couldn't wait; I had premonition about this one.
I slipped the phone into the pocket of the apron, and put the headset on. "This better be good!" I told him while lifting bacon off the frying pan. "I'm cooking." I slapped at a thieving claw but was too late. Mormor rolled out off the kitchen, victoriously munching on a piece of bacon.
"I don't care what you're doing. This piece of code is a disaster!"
"It sure as hell does something. Do you know how many critical combinations-"
"Yes. They're all taken care of." Early that morning I had entered several hours of weird clarity. The code had been transparent and fluid - a thing of pure and malleable beauty. The magic mood had evaporated shortly before sunup. Now, with bacon hissing at me, I was no longer sure what it was that I had created during those hours. Somebody or Something sent me a couple of hours of magic sight. Perhaps it was a blessing from Loke.
Which I don't hope. His favors were bound to be overpriced.
"There cannot be only three! Mikkel, it's a monster gyro!"
"It's elegant, I think. Like juggling oranges." Chris! Oranges falling on his head; his grin was sparkling as he let them.
"Juggling oranges? Partner mine, this is supposed to be code, not a circus performance. And it isn't elegant - it's a monster. How can there only be three?"
"I uploaded my own edition to my archives - perhaps you can make sense of the extra remarks." Before I uploaded the code to our common archives, I had as usual edited the comments, striving to make them something that others could understand. What Kurt wanted was the unedited edition.
"Do I get the feeling that this is one of those times when you cannot make sense of your own notes?"
"You probably do."
"Where did you put it?" Kurt was unable to resist this kind of challenge. He was going to proof read it himself. "You know, it would probably be quicker to rewrite the whole thing and proof read it ten times than doing this."
"I'm not sure that you're right." The construction had seemed so simple when I had finished it; I fuzzily remembered the feeling of accomplishment.
Maria came out in the kitchen not long after I had finished talking with Kurt. "Granny wants the phone back."
I twisted so that she could get to the kangaroo pocket. "Here." Her innocence was not quite believable. "Ratatosk," I added.
She dug the phone and headset out. "What's Ratatosk?"
"A squirrel, a messenger of foul messages, running up and down Yggdrasil, the ash that is the world tree in Norse mythology." My hands were busy but there was room in my head for Maria, who apparently had a soft spot for squirrels. "Ratatosk likes to gossip and make mischief-"
"If I'm Ratatosk - who's the dragon that drinks blood off the dead, and who's the far seeing eagle?" She asked when I had finished describing the enemies who live respectively at the bottom and the top of the tree, and whom Ratatosk will run messages between.
"You and Granny - that's two blood drinking dragons," she said, shyly triumphant.
I growled at her; she ran off, laughing, telephone in one hand and two pieces of contraband bacon in the other. Ratatosk indeed.
The next invasion was that of the witches and their pugs. It was Mormor opening the door; the gaggle was on immediately. I heard my name mentioned. They probably had noticed the pug-goyle over the door.
"Oh, Mikkel-dear, it's fantastic! So life-like!" Sara said, sailing into the kitchen, feet lost in a yapping blanket of light brown backs and wagging, furry curls. She was wearing a flower patterned dress and an equally cheery, wide-rimmed hat. Her two cohorts were more demurely dressed. "Hello, Nina!"
I requested immediate removal of their little infection-bearing monsters, but they didn't hear me; Beth had just asked why there were so many cars in the drive, and Mormor was telling them that both Jennifer, Maria and Annie were there. Which cheered both Sara and Beth enormously, but Karen turned pale enough for me to wonder if she was going to be sick. Sara and Beth left to greet the other guests, the monstrous blanket went with them; very last in the parade came Karen, still pale and quiet.
Nina decided that it was time for me to join the party. "Go wash, Miguel. Now I am the Boss of the Kitchen." Dethroned, I did what I was told.
I had hardly said hello to Paul or sampled the aperitif before Sara pulled me away, full of comments on the pug-goyle.
"It's there to protect against evil spirits - like a gargoyle, or a totem. I think of it as a pug-goyle," I explained.
Annie, curious, had trailed along. "Isn't that just the cutest thing! Really, you made that? Those eyes - they're beautiful! It's like they're going to blink any time."
"Yes, yes. And those little fangs just break your heart." Sara said with a happy sigh.
All this was said at a distance from where the totem was supposed to appear really mean and scary.
Cute? Beautiful? Heart-breaking? Is this just another weird thing American women do? Nobody yet had found the totem scary at all - and it had been downright invisible to Annie upon her arrival, and perhaps had to others too. It doesn't work!
It was difficult to look at it with a stranger's neutral eye. Usually, I could do the change of perspective with a flick of a thought, but this time my point of view was stuck inside the wood. Like Siamese twins sharing an internal organ.
What is going on in my head?
Never mind; it'll pass. In a year or two. I can do this step by step. I think. Maybe I should make the fangs longer? Nah. The furrows deeper? Nah. Well, maybe. Change the angles of the furrows? Tough. But - perhaps. The unintended appeal probably came from the rhythm of the underlying proportions. If my bad luck was with me, then no amount of patching and fiddling could fix it. I might have to start on a new block of wood.
Now, the basic proportions are. Maybe like. A child's? No, that's not quite….
It's Chris. Inside the pug-goyle.
"I'm so in love with it!" Annie declared, and Sara nodded her agreement with that rather kinky sentiment. They walked closer to the ferociously cute Chris-pug-goyle, chatting with each other like excited birds, none of them noticing that I was for all practical purposes quite stunned.
Chris - with fangs.
Yes, yes! Bite me!
How do I pay the little punk back for this?
Want bites! Nice teeth!
It doesn't work. Something that looks like that just cannot work. And Mormor really needs the protection.
"What? What did you say?" Annie was talking to me.
I had said something but wasn't sure what or in what language. "It doesn't work. The basic proportions are all wrong. I've got to make a new one to put up instead of that one."
"What? No, no, no - it's good, Mikkel." Annie fluttered her hands. "It's brilliant! You're an artist!"
Sara blinked nervously at me. "You look just like Rose when she's about to do something stupid, dear."
"It's supposed to scare the evil spirits away. And it isn't scary at all! You guys want to sleep with it!"
"Well, perhaps that's because we're not evil spirits." Annie said primly, suddenly coming into focus, being much easier to define when she wasn't trying to be all over the place with her overblown enthusiasm.
Sara nodded determined consent.
"I know you're not evil spirits. You two are like, I don't know, the good fairies or something. The totem is still wrong." And what do I do with it? Take an axe to it? Hey - what a great idea! "Mormor will need another one. It has to be mean and tough, you see. At least when viewed from a distance. And that one is not."
Stupid punk! I'm done with rolling pins - this is the era of the axe!
"Oh, boy," Lisa said. I hadn't noticed that she and Maria had arrived, and were following the debate from behind me. "Can I watch when you tell Rose that you're gonna take it down and put up another one? 'Cause I think she really likes that one. Like, she's been telling everybody about it, and about how artsy you are."
She has? Well, that's easily solved. "I'm not going to ask," I told Lisa. "I'm just going to do it."
She frowned. "You know? I think that would be really stupid. I mean, like, if somebody gave me a birthday present that I really liked, and I told all my friends about it, and then they came back then took it away again, and put something else up, something that they liked better - I would be really, really mad. And Rose is, like, super good at being mad."
Maria nodded. "Granny'll tear your head right off, and hang it over the other door."
What? "Who has been telling you bloody stories?" Talk about who's going to have his - or her, very likely her, head torn off. Telling Maria that kind of-
"Oh." Oops. "Remind me to stop doing that."
She bit her lip but couldn't quite keep the grin back. Perhaps because I couldn't help smiling.
"I know what you can do," Sara was suddenly all bubbly. "You can make another one, and put it up over another door. Then Rose has two pug-goyles."
"Sara! You're a genius!" Annie beamed at Sara who basked in the glow. "What a grand idea!"
No way! I want a go at it with the axe.
Which I was just about to tell them when Tom rounded the corner. "Mikkel?" He eyed me sardonically. "Food's ready. Nina said to tell you that if you bungle the military precision of the Plan then she knows where to find the chili."
"Right. We better get seated."
"Oh, yes." Sara was eagerly taking the lead. "Pickled fish!"
Lisa winced at that.
"It's okay," I told her. "There's lots to choose between, you just take what you like."
"Mikkel?" Lisa obviously wanted a word in privacy. I stopped, and the three of us waited for the adults to move out of hearing range. "The guy that saved Busta, and gave mum the flowers - he looked a lot like Chris from Nsync. Maria showed me pictures but. Was it him?"
They were both staring at my mouth, waiting in suspense. "Yes."
Lisa determinedly checked my face for signs of joking. "Really?"
I nodded. Chris, dripping wet, his clothes clinging to him, a small bundle of wrapped Busta in his arms. Lisa patting them both gently, trying to give comfort. Chris! Wet Chris!
I'm going to take an axe to him.
"Oh, my God, Lisa - you met him!"
Lisa stared at me and appeared unaware that Maria was patting her back and jumping up and down next to her. "I met Chris Kirkpatrick? Like, for real?"
"Yes, yes!" Maria was laughing. "He gave your mum flowers!"
A smile lit Lisa's face up from the inside. "I met Chris - and I didn't even know it!" And then they were clinging to each other, babbling and laughing.
"Come on, lunch is waiting. We can talk about this later. Chili in the chitterlings would be really bad."
"Can we sit with you?" Maria asked. She and Jennifer still hadn't made friends. It was getting difficult not to meddle further.
"At a guess, Mormor has already placed everyone. Do you think the seating arrangements are worth fighting over?"
"Uh. I. No." The frown could be heard in her voice; I didn't need to look.
"Okay," I said.
Lisa had a flinty glint in her eyes, and her jaw was set. When Mormor pointed them to the two empty seats next to Jennifer, Lisa immediately plunked down next to Jennifer.
Jim was placed across from Annie and between Jennifer and Paul; he was effectively walling Paul off from Jennifer's death rays.
I had been placed at the end opposite Mormor and closest to the door, presumably so that it was easy for me to go to and from the table. I had Paul on one side and Tom on the other; the talk was very much about what had happened at the football game. Both Jim and Annie had things to say, one rather more qualified than the other.
"Did you hear about Pugheaven?" Sara asked Annie at some point, and they were off on what was the favorite subject of Sara, Beth and Mormor. Usually it also was all Karen could talk about - but for once she didn't have anything to say on her pet project. Instead she distractedly carried on a conversation about Nsync, and the cuteness of pop singers in general, with the two girls across from her.
"Miguel?" Nina asked quietly from the doorway in a tone that made me put down my utensils and rise immediately. I followed her towards the kitchen, wondering what could have gone wrong with the cheese. Did she drop a dish on the floor?
"I think you should see that." She pointed to the table by the large window towards the front yard. Everything looked okay to me; the cheese was very neatly arranged, and the fixing was almost perfect. Perhaps what she wanted me to take a look was at the other side of the window. I looked out.
"Behind the bushes to the right."
A small man was standing mostly hidden by them, watching Mormor's house. I could see enough of him to recognize the Asian anthropologist that I had seen the day before.
"Do you think I should call the booth?" Nina asked.
"Nah. I'll go talk with him. Maybe he's just hungry."
"Maybe he's dangerous."
"Take it easy, okay? Let me talk with him before any of us panic." He was out of sight when I came out the kitchen door; I walked quietly between the cars.
He was by the next-door driveway - struggling to swing a large backpack unto his back. He nodded briefly to me, and tried to catch the strap that was trapped between his other shoulder and the backpack.
"Hello," I said. "You need a hand? The strap is stuck."
"Oh." He let the backpack slide down so that he could free the strap. "Thank you. I can manage." The back of his shirt was sweaty and sticking to his skin, the sweat stains were edged by dust outlining the shape of the knapsack. He swung the backpack on, got his arms smoothly through the straps, and bent to pick up the long thin case at his feet.
"I'm Mikkel. Mikkel Svendsen. You've been watching our house. Who are you?"
"Nobody. I'm sorry. I'll go now."
"One of the staff saw you the other day too. She thought you were pissing in the bushes."
He pressed his lips together, and started walking.
I walked right next to him. "Were you pissing in the bushes?"
"Then what were you doing?"
"So, you're a nobody spying on me and my family, and you call it "doing nothing"? It doesn't make sense. I mean, people usually have a reason when they spy. Do you work for anybody?"
He didn't answer but picked up speed. So did I.
There was something familiar about the faint scent that blended with his smell of sweat and dust. Uh, oh. "You're my granny's ex, aren't you?"
"Huh? I don't know what you're talking about."
"I think you do. What's you name?"
He stopped, obviously irritated with me. "I don't know if I'm your granny's ex, I don't know who you granny is, and, in any case, I don't care. Go away and stop harassing me." He started walking again.
I followed. "Rose. My granny is Rose. And she likes them cheeky too."
"Then you must be her favorite grandchild."
"Nope. I'm the impossible grandchild."
"Surprise," he muttered.
"Why don't you come in? There's plenty of food and room."
"She still has all your stuff in the cabinet in the bathroom. I think it must be yours. The cologne is the same that you're using."
He stopped, and turned to stare at me through the grimy glasses. "The Impossible One, huh. You talk too much." He pushed the glasses further up his nose, and started walking again.
"Well, you keep running away. It's kind of confusing."
He gave another snort. He and Mormor must have met at the same communications class: Advanced Snorts 4.
"She keeps your stuff way past the expiry date even though there isn't room for it, and you're lurking in her bushes. It's pretty pathetic, if you ask me."
I ignored that. "It's rather obvious that both you and she need some kind of closure or something. I can see why you may not want to come in, what with the Witches there and everything. I can help set up a private moment if you want."
"Well, maybe I just had my closure."
He grunted affirmatively.
I stopped. "Well, if that's the case then."
He kept up the trod.
"Good bye, Chicken."
He just walked on, ignoring me and ignoring the car that was coming down the road.
That didn't make him stop either. Determined fucker.
I considered tackling him and force walking him back. If he's running away like that then he isn't worth it. Fuming, I turned and headed back. The car slowed down next to me.
"Hey, Mikkel." Danny spoke out of the driver's window. I could see Steve and Victor in the car too. The three of them were part of Mormor's Sunday Killer Instinct Cult.
"That guy, was he trouble? You looked pissed." Danny had a liking for confrontations.
"Nah. It was nothing. Are you heading down to Mormor?"
"Yeah. Hop in."
I did. It was just a few meters, but I wanted back to my food.
"Man, that's a lot of cars." Danny muttered.
"It's her birthday party," I told him.
"What? Why didn't you say so? Then we shouldn't barge in, man."
"You not being invited was an oversight. I cooked enough for you too."
"But we don't have any gifts," Victor leaned forward to look between Steve's and Danny's shoulders. "Oh, f…."
"What?" Steve asked.
"That's coach's car."
"Alright. That does it." Danny stopped the car. "Good bye, Mikkel. Tell them we said hi. Help him open the door, will you, Victor?"
I could open the door just fine. "It was nothing," I told Nina who had been watching from the driveway. She nodded, and headed inside. I spoke to the cabin. "I am going to tell the whole party that you guys left before anybody could change your diapers."
Steve and Danny both turned to look at me.
"Baby chickens." I rolled out the car. "In diapers." I closed the door.
"What did he say?" Steve asked, perfectly audible through Danny's open window.
"I believe he just called us baby chickens in diapers." Danny answered mildly.
I ran. Behind me a couple of car doors slammed, and then I could hear the sound of heavy, and very quick feet behind me. Steve and Victor caught me as I opened the front door.
It was a rather disheveled and manhandled Mikkel that Steve held up in front of Mormor. "Is this yours? Do we just dump it in the trash bin?" Steve asked.
"Hello boys." She grinned. "Yes and… ah. Actually, I think the trash is already full. Just leave it by the road."
"Congratulations, Rose. We didn't know it was your birthday. Mikkel said it was alright to come in." Victor was civil. "Uhm. Hi, Coach."
Jim answered with a cool nod, eyes glinting promises that Victor pretended not to notice.
We made room, and got them seated. Everything was going fine; people were eating and chatting, and both Karen and Jennifer seemed to relax a bit. I had yet to see them meet each other's eyes.
Then Steve said: "Hey, Mikkel, what was going on out there with you and that Chinese pool shark?"
The table fell oddly silent. For a moment Mormor looked astoundingly vulnerable, wide-eyed and full of questions.
I shrugged, knowing perfectly well that I didn't look as casual as I wanted to. "He dissed my food."
"Chinese pool shark?" Mormor asked. Next to her Karen had gone white as a sheet. Mormor continued in Danish: "Leroy was here, and you didn't tell me?"
It was all kinds of rude using a secret language across the table like that. Still, I switched too. "He took off again. I figured that telling you could wait." Yeah, right. Preferably until he told you himself.
I told her an edited edition of what had happened, and gave a description of him. "Is that him?"
"Yes. Did he say anything about coming back?"
"No." It was obvious that she wanted him to. "I'm sorry if I made a mess of it."
"Is he really a pool shark?"
"You are not seeing that dreadful man again, are you mom?" Annie asked quietly, looking really concerned.
"Apparently not," Mormor snapped. "He left. And I wonder why!"
"Maybe the pug-goyle works." Annie turned my way. "That could be it, Mikkel. See? The little totem works - he couldn't enter! It warded him off!"
"I don't know. He didn't come across an evil spirit." More like a scared one. I suddenly felt utterly bad about having called him names. Maybe he got scared by an evil spirit already in the house. Beth was frowning speculatively at Karen who was looking for crawly things hiding out in her food.
And Beth wasn't only keeping an eye on Karen but also on Jennifer, who was busy with a finger trying to catch something in her drink, maybe an imaginary fly. The finger suddenly went still. Jennifer raised her head, and focused her pulsing lasers on me.
Wham - all of us jumped when Tom toppled a bottle of snaps while reaching for a can of soda. His "Fuck!" got a "Language!" from Mormor but no "Tom!" from Jennifer - who had gotten quite a spray on her, and took off inside without a word.
I suddenly had an overwhelming and quite uncharacteristic inclination to start a food fight. "Smooth," I muttered to Tom as we were trying to repair the mess he had made. "Couldn't you have toppled the water?"
"Out of my reach." His teeth were clenched.
"Maybe you should go check on her?"
"Well, she was about to tear my throat out."
"Maybe I should," Jim suggested, having listened in. I probably looked as grateful as Tom did when Jim got up and headed inside. While he was gone, the rest of us agreed that snaps could only make the chitterlings better. Even Danny who had eyed the gray mush with utmost suspicion wanted to try some - of course the reason could be that Mormor had vetoed small glasses for anyone below the ridiculous age limit of twenty-one.
"More snaps, Mikkel," Mormor ordered, and I went inside to get the other bottle from the freezer.
Jim was by the door to Jennifer and Maria's room. "Jennifer? Can you hear me? Are you alright?"
He listened, and shook his head at me. "She won't open. Maybe we should let her be for a while."
"It looks like that is what she wants." I was finding less and less patience for Jennifer. And just what have she and Karen done?
Nina, the epitome of sanity, had cleared the kitchen, and was having a cup of coffee while reading the paper. "Tom overturned the snaps," I told her, and opened the freezer. "Did you get anything to eat?"
"Yes, Boss. It was delicious. Who was that little man?"
"Leroy. One of Mormor's old friends. You want some?" I held up the bottle; she shook her head. "If he pops up again, tell Mormor or me. Don't tell Jennifer. Mormor really wants to talk with him. He's harmless."
Jennifer's chair was empty like a hole turned inside out. A silent Mormor sending a jumpy Karen penetrating glances, was a mood killer on its own. Sara and Annie were enthusiastically trying to make up for it.
Once again, this time in the middle of the cheese, Nina came to the door; she looked panicked, and I was up and hurrying inside before she said anything.
Somehow the thump thump from the front porch didn't surprise me; it was more of a surprise that I couldn't guess what was going on.
The sound was coming from outside. I opened the door. The first thing I saw was an axe coming, edge first, at my forehead. It was pure reflex that made me twist, and grab the wrist attached to the hand holding the axe. The hand let go, and the axe continued forwards, nicking my arm before it fell to the floor, digging itself in with a hollow clunk.
The owner of the wrist squealed, the stool under her toppled; a quick tumble, and then Jennifer was dangling from my grip, staring at me, and doing nothing to get on her feet.
It wasn't on purpose. Right? I lowered her, and let go. Not on purpose taking a swing at me with a damned sharp axe. Not at all on purpose, either, chopping up the pug-goyle. Running the film over in my head, I was almost confident that it was the door opening that had upset her balance. She was getting up; I kept an eye on her while I picked up the axe, just in case.
"Oh, my god. Oh, my god. Jenny - you tried to kill Mikkel! With an axe! And right on the front porch too!" Annie did not only draw her own conclusions, she also had to blare them out for those who came after to hear.
"What? No!" Jennifer could hardly be heard over Mormor's roar.
My kingdom for a screech. I don't do screeches well. But I could do a whistle through stretched lips, putting all my lungpower behind it; it wasn't a sound meant to be let lose indoors. But it worked: the room fell quiet, and I could feel three sets of consternation on me.
"Would you three mind using your brains, and take it slow for a change?" I asked.
The side effect of my whistle followed before any of them could say anything: a billowing blanket of barking pugs came galloping through the house, followed by a herd of masters ineffectively yipping dog names.
"Close the door!" Mormor said.
Jennifer, standing in the front door, and Annie, blocking the door between the entrance and the living room, both responded with confused blinks.
Leika was among the first dogs to arrive. I thought I recognized one of Beth's bitches competing with her for the foremost spot. I tried blocking their way while keeping the axe aloft but my heart wasn't in it. Chris' next step would have been creating as much confusion as possible.
Which meant that at least one representative of every master had to escape.
The dogs must have read my thoughts. Mormor sent me a searing look when she rolled past me, following Beth, Karen and Sara. After her came more helpers: Lisa and Maria.
"You tried to kill Mikkel!" For all her scatterbrained powers, Annie could be quite persistent.
Through the open doors I saw Maria stop by the ramp. She whipped around, horrified.
I was cursedly out of ideas for confusion. Help! Maria's gaze shifted to me, and I shook my head. "It was an accident." I said, for a moment falling into step with Jennifer, which felt really odd.
"No - it was an accident!" Jennifer had her back to Maria, and hadn't seen that her daughter for two seconds had believed that her mother was a murderess wanna-be. "I can't believe that you really think that I could…. Annie, I wouldn't! What did you think?"
Maria's gaze got stuck on something above the door. She blinked. Her gaze stayed stuck while all color drained from her face. Behind me I could hear the heavy trod of football players.
"I don't know what to think! Mikkel is bleeding, and, I mean, if you can just throw out your own kid like a, a reject - then all limits are off, aren't they? It's like I don't know you anymore! What were you doing with that axe?"
Maria walked back, slowly, dragging her feet as if they really wanted to run in the opposite direction.
"It's black magic! He put black magic on my mother's house. I couldn't just do nothing!"
"Protection against evil spirits is black magic? Excuse my confusion, but what do you call the thing you did to Tom? Goodness?"
"Yes! I had to protect Maria! He'd pervert her like, like, he", this was said while pointing a shaking finger to Paul who was just arriving with the Tom, Jim and the other three guys, "perverted Tom!"
Behind Tom, Paul turned and ran past Victor. Victor frowned, and hurried after Paul.
"That's crazy!" Annie fluttered her hands. "You've got it all…. Wrong!"
"Mom." Maria had stopped. Her mother was blocking her way.
Annie shook her head at her sister. "You can't believe that homosexuality is catching like, like measles! That's nonsense! You just cannot be that stupid. Not when it's your own child!"
The room got kind of quiet; Jennifer was eyeing her sister and probably not aware of the consternation on Danny and Steve's faces. She certainly didn't react to Tom's muttered, "Oh, fuck."
This must be the payment for Loke's blessing. Blasted humor that guy has.
I had no problem imagining an axe going repeatedly into first one scull and then another; I knew exactly how the dull the sound would be, and how the bloody brains would fly everywhere. Not a healthy atmosphere to lug an axe around in.
But I couldn't move, not when Maria demanded, "Mom!" Not when she was speaking in such a pained voice, and tears had begun running down her cheeks.
This time Jennifer heard her, and she turned to speak indignantly at her daughter, "Maria - are you listening at the door?"
Maria didn't appear to hear that, "Mom, are you sick like Dad?"
Jennifer stiffened. "No, of course not, Maria. What. How."
"You destroyed the pug-goyle, and you wanted Dad to beat me up like when he threw Tom out. Are you sure you're not sick?" She really wanted a yes. No, what she wants is to be able to believe a yes. That's different.
I wonder if Jennifer appreciates the courage in Maria.
"But. I never wanted Dad to beat you. Or Tom. Never!"
If the communications are not working this time, then I don't see when they would. The realization blazed in my mind. I motioned for Tom and the people around him to get the heck out.
Steve stared at the axe in my hand, disbelieving. Maybe I shouldn't wave with the axe. But it worked: Tom left, and Danny pulled Steve along. Jim followed them.
"Then why wouldn't you unlock the door? You left me outside!"
Annie was holding a hand to her lips; if she had been a statue then "Horror" would have been a very good name for it. The cynical woodcutter in me was coolly recording the stance for future projects while I walked over, took her hand, pulled her with me into the kitchen, and closed the door behind us.
"Did she really. Mikkel - did she really want Frank to beat Tom and Maria?"
"No, I don't think so. I believe Jennifer is speaking the truth. But there's a misunderstanding that Jennifer should have cleared away days ago. She's shit at talking and listening; I wonder if Maria's initial question is that far off the mark."
"I wish I knew. Oh, I wish I knew."
Nina put the first-aide box down on the kitchen table, took the axe from me, and put it next to the box. "Take your shirt off."
She was not a woman to be trifled with; even Mormor obeyed her when she spoke like that. I pulled the shirt off. "Annie - do you mind making sure that nobody enters through the main entrance to disturb them? I'm afraid if they don't get talking now it'll be really bad."
"Sure. Of course. Perhaps Tom can-"
"He's got enough on his plate at the moment. He wasn't out to all of his friends." And Jim's there - which is good. "Ouch." Nina was thorough when cleaning the wound.
She gave my arm a small yank. "Stand still."
"Oh. Oh, my, what've I done," Annie muttered as she left by the backdoor, hopefully to do what I had asked her to do.
The first-aide box had more stuff in it than I remembered it had had. "Did you fill this up?" I poked around it, looking for the kind of dressing that I would want.
"Rita did. Rose said to because there's a football player in the house. She didn't say anything about axe fighters, though - I'm sure Rita would've told me about that. Will you stand still!"
I did, and when she finished cleaning I handed her the dressing that I had chosen. "I'll go clear the table in the back. Would you mind keeping everybody out of the living room from this end? I'll try to cover the other entrance."
"I can do that."
I flexed my arm to check the dressing; it gave easily without pulling or coming lose.
"Oh, stop that or it'll start bleeding again."
It didn't, perhaps because I stopped playing.
I put the axe away in the basement, and checked the front of the house. Annie was there, busy trying to re-pile her dyed mane, chopsticks held between her teeth.
Deliberately postponing my inspection of the damage to the pug-goyle, I headed towards the backyard. On the porch, Tom, Paul and the others were seated around the end of the table.
"The hell! It may be hard for you to believe, but I've got fucking taste." Tom was growling at Danny. "You guys are too butt ugly! I wouldn't ever."
Jim merely raised his eyebrow, and sipped his beer. I quietly started piling dishes onto the tray.
"You'd have a problem if you were playing baseball, huh." Victor was grinning, and Paul turned red, red.
"Don't go there," Tom reddened too but his eyes glinted, hinting at a smile. Perhaps the smile was mostly for the fact that Victor openly was meeting his gaze. Steve was busy peeling paper of a beer bottle.
"Man, this is weird." Danny said. "Hey, Mikkel - what do think of having a fag for a cousin?"
"I think you should watch what you're saying; you're talking about my favorite cousin."
"Sheesh!" Danny held up his hands as a warding against me. "Okay, man, lay off the axe. You don't think it's weird?"
"That your cousin's gay."
"No. Actually, you can ask Tom the same question."
"Huh? No shit. You too?"
"Yes. Do you know those films where everybody turns into zombie-things, one after the other, or into emotionally inept, slimy aliens?"
"Yeah. What about them?"
"It's like that. I infected Tom, and now you've been so much around him that you're all infected. The first sign is when you feel this irresistible craving for decorating all your clothes with sequins."
Steve looked critically at me. "You're not wearing sequins."
"Trust me, every day is a battle. During the full moon I'm down for the count: sequins, bras, lipstick, plastic nails, sanitary napkins-"
Tom rolled his eyes. "Stop it, Mikkel."
"I was just getting started." I picked up the tray.
"I know. And put a shirt on, you idiot."
"Okay. Really, you guys should be glad Tom isn't a lesbian." I wasn't sure about the logic in that, but it sounded like a nice parting line.
As I walked inside I heard Danny behind me: "Sometimes, your cousin is really weird."
And Paul, "He can read thoughts-"
By then I was mercifully out of hearing range.
When I, properly dressed, next walked out to offer Annie a drink, Sara and Lisa had just come back, and they had, as well as I could count, leashed all the furry fugitives. "You got them all?"
"Yeah." Lisa smiled. "Where's Maria?"
"In the living room, talking with her mom. They should be left alone."
"Oh. Is it bad?"
"I hope not. I don't think so. Say, where did you mislay Mormor?"
"She went to talk with William." Trust Lisa to know who was in the booth when. "Beth and Karen went with her."
Sara shook her head denying any knowledge of what was going on, and then she followed Lisa heading for the dog's enclosure.
"How's Tom?" Annie asked.
"Doing fine. It looked like they're working it out."
"Oh. Good. I. I shouldn't have. I mean."
"Tell Tom that." I walked over to the front door, took a deep breath, and looked up.
The pug-goyle grinned down at me. A deep, ragged, and bright groove ran right down the center of its dark forehead; it had gotten a smaller, equally bright scar through, and almost parallel with, the ridge over one eye. I took a step closer and - snap! The attention of the pug-goyle was suddenly focused on me, unwavering. Whoa! Down, boy./
Wrong, I did wrong - it should be menacing up close, and friendly from afar.
Just like Chris at work on a bad day.
"-changed a lot. A lot. I haven't seen him for a year or so. Are you okay?"
"Huh. Yes. That's when he was still working his way out of his bully phase, isn't it?" I walked backwards as far as I could.
Oh, my. That's a sly one. Sly and scarred - a veteran. Perhaps a little on the manic side.
"I'm sorry. I mean, you made such a fantastic piece of art and-"
"It's okay. Look at it." Jennifer fixed it. It works!
"It's. Oh, no. Do you think that you can repair it?"
"I don't want to. It's good." I turned to look at her. "You were saying about Tom?"
She shook her head. "Yes. Tom. I'm amazed. Really, amazed. He was so mean to my kids and now. He's. Sweet. It's like I've gotten another new nephew."
"He found himself."
"Yeah. He did."
"Annie, what is all this about Leroy? Why is he such a terrible person?"
"I don't think I should tell you."
I tried a copy of Chris' Blink on her.
"It's. He's a criminal, really."
Ah, an ex-collegue? "Yes? That doesn't really tell me anything about him."
"Oh, I mean, a seriously criminal criminal. If you know what I mean."
"Leroy went to jail?"
"Yes." She took a deep breath. "He was convicted of bigamy and fraud."
"Is he a Mormon?"
"Not that I know. He cheated those poor women, took all their money, and ran."
"Does Mormor know that?"
"I… I don't know. Are you going to tell her?"
"Probably. Who told you?"
"Oh. It's so long ago - Jennifer, I think. Her or Karen. Perhaps it was Beth. We all talked about it, actually. Mother wouldn't listen. She got angry every time we mentioned Leroy - you saw her, she's. Infatuated. I don't know."
"If anybody told me they didn't like my boyfriend, I'd tell them to shut up."
Annie sighed and nodded.
"But what happened? He was around, and then he wasn't. Something must have happened. Did they just break up?"
"I don't know. Mother told us to stay away, and leave her alone. I have no idea what happened."
"And now he's back, but too afraid to come in, and Jennifer and Karen are all weird."
"Yeah. Isn't that weird? I have no idea what's up with them."
"Okay." And Mormor is at the booth, talking with William.
And I'm standing here being stupid.
"Mikkel, where are you going?"
"Mormor is going to need the van." I hurried inside for the keys and Mormor's handbag.
I met them half way to the booth, Mormor well ahead of the other two, wheelchair going at maximum speed. I stopped, and got the ramp out as quickly as I could. It was ready for her to roll onboard when she reached me. "What took you so long?" she snapped when racing past me; she braked hard, and came to a stop just before she rammed the front seat.
"Stupidity is a process. And I was gossiping with Annie. Did you figure out where he went?"
"No. Stop talking, and get this thing moving. Mach five, you dullard!"
"Aye, Cinderella." I slammed the backdoor, and got into the driver's seat.
Tensely she guided me to a slummy neighborhood, and had both of us risk the rickety elevator to a fourth floor apartment. But, no, the woman, who a couple of times had rented Leroy a room, had not seen him for at least a year.
Next we checked a pool hall, and no they hadn't seen Leroy either.
"He changed his hunting grounds? Maybe he doesn't want to be found," I suggested when we were back in the van.
She ignored me. "Turn right. Now, hit the fibbergibling pedal! This is not a Sunday drive."
"Mikkel! The jets!"
"This is a van, not a Batmobile." It was Sunday afternoon so there wasn't much - which made it relatively easy making headway. "Mind telling me where we're going this time?"
"Take the next left turn. I don't know. A couple of miles."
My phone buzzed. I checked it when we were held up by a red light; the ID was that of Home Base. "You want to talk with Tom?" They probably had finished eating the ice cream. Perhaps the celebrants were getting bored, and wanted inspiration as to what to do while waiting for the celebrity to return.
"No. I don't do interim reports. Now, shut up. Give me the map."
I found the tattered book in the glove compartment, and handed it to her.
"Pen," she ordered. She got that too.
We found the diner; it was a wooden building plastered with tattered commercial signs and faded posters. It also had a staircase. And, rather surprisingly, it had several cars parked outside telling of customers. That's probably just a trick to lure unsuspecting people inside.
Compared to the sunlit outside, it was dark in there. One could hardly see through the windows. "Can you see him?" I asked Mormor.
"No. You go in," she said. "Here. Take this."
"Twenty dollars - for what?"
"If he's not there, you ask for Carolyn. Give her the money, and tell her to call me the moment he arrives."
"How much money do you have in that handbag?" I was sure that there had been like transactions involved when she talked with the people at the pool hall.
"But that's crazy. You shouldn't carry that much ca-"
"Get in there," she hissed, and with a glare she fairly catapulted me out of the car.
And what do I get? Another cockroach dump. The dull thump of my feet on the wooden staircase was the suspense-building music to my mounting, nauseating premonitions.
The small bell above the door destroyed the effect of upcoming doom. It jingled merrily, announcing my presence in the din of several, North American families dining. The place was more than half full, and most customers were well into their meals. A young woman was clearing a table, and behind a counter a young guy was putting glasses from a dishwasher tray into a cupboard. He smiled to me when I came up to him. "Hi. Table for one?"
"Hi. No thank you. It smells good in here, though." The air was surprisingly without underlying rancidness. I couldn't see Leroy anywhere. "I'm looking for Leroy, have you seen him?"
"Leroy? I'm not sure I know him."
"Small guy, Asian, middle-aged, gray temples, carries a pool cue around."
He slowly shook his head.
"Is Carolyn in, please? She knows him, and it's really important."
He hesitated. "Who do I tell her you are?"
"Mikkel, Rose Werner's grandson. She won't know me but she knows my grandmother."
"Just a moment."
He disappeared into the kitchen, and came back out a moment later, followed by a woman a few years younger than Mormor. She was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.
"Miguel?" she asked me.
"Nice to meet you." For once, I could use the odd phrase honestly - it would be really nice if she knew where we could find the elopee. "My grandmother is looking for Leroy, she said you might have seen him." I pointed towards the van outside. "She would have come in but the wheelchair cannot climb steps."
She checked the van. "Rose in a wheelchair? What happened to her?"
"She was in a traffic accident a while back, broke her leg."
"Oh, my, poor Rose. Excuse me." She walked out to Mormor.
I wrote down my phone number on one of my cards, and got the guy behind the counter to sell me a pack of cigarettes. "You keep the rest," I told him when I gave him the money and the card. "Please call me if Leroy comes in. But don't tell him that you're calling."
Outside, I took a smoke while waiting for Mormor and Carolyn to finish talking. Once we were rolling out the drive, that small item of course got me an irritated, "Are you using my money on cigarettes?"
"Yes. Want one?"
She grunted; I handed her the pack and the lighter. "So, where do we go now?"
"The bus station. Head down town." She lit the cigarette. "Carolyn said he'd talked about going to California."
California was one of the few states that I knew where were. "Wouldn't he take the plane?"
"Too expensive. Also, he likes cars and buses. He won't travel all the way in one go."
"Are you saying that any bus heading west will do?"
"Okay. Do you have any idea why he's running?"
"No," she said while looking out the window.
"I got a bit of old gossip from Annie. Do you want to hear?"
She glared at me in the mirror. "I hate gossip."
"Right. She said he's a criminal, that he's been in jail for bigamy and fraud. I asked her who told her, and she couldn't really remember. It was Jennifer, Karen or Beth. Annie didn't know whether you'd heard it."
"And?" She did not sound particularly surprised or upset; she sounded merely annoyed.
"And, nothing. Just that Jennifer and Karen were behaving pretty oddly today."
"Yes, they were, weren't they?"
In the mirror I could see her frowning thoughtfully. "Did you know that they were sharing that particular piece of gossip?" I asked.
"No. I certainly didn't tell them. And I doubt Leroy did either."
"Who told you?"
Nobody? And what's so interesting about that office building? Oh.
If anybody would succumb to that particular piece of stupidity - it's her. "Mr. Beirut, huh. You had Mr. Beirut or one of his colleagues research your boyfriend's past!"
"His name is Barrut! Now, shut up, and keep your attention on the road."
My answering, "Aye, Cinderella," was pure spinal reflex. Oh, boy. I would be really mad if anybody did that to me. Why did Leroy come back? Really, it all was too fascinating for me to shut up properly. I nearly overlooked a sign that pointed me towards downtown. "Does Leroy know-"
"Mikkel! You're an insufferable brat. It's none of your business!"
"Give me your phone."
I handed it to her. She punched buttons, and then asked somebody for the phone number of the Greyhound bus station in Orlando.
"The 419 at 3.45 pm." She patted her gold watch. "It's delayed for fifty minutes, she said. That's gives us an hour until departure."
"We're that good?" I checked my own watch. "Did you remember to rewind your watch this morning?"
She read the time on the phone. "Turn the jets on, Mikkel!"
My grandmother saw way too many Agent 007 films. I closed my ears to her exceedingly extreme orders, and concentrated on driving the absolutely jet-, missile- and wing-less vehicle while keeping brief checks on the speedometer - I did not want to lose my drivers permit in case we ran into Officer B. Johnson and his partner.
She directed my right past the fenced parking lot by the station.
"It's here!" Mormor held on while I took the turn; none of us mentioned the several signs that hinted at dire consequences for drivers of unauthorized vehicles that entered the grounds without a permit. "Gate 3. It's right there!"
There was a bus. And, our luck, it had been delayed more than the fifty minutes we'd been promised - if this was the right one and not the next one.
"Park there!" Mormor said; I didn't need to look to know where she was pointing. She would want me to park behind the bus, effectively cutting it off from going anywhere. I stopped next to the bus, taking up some space of Gate 2, and got out, flinging the back doors open, and nearly gutting the van when I pulled the ramp out.
"You cannot park here!" A man in a blue, sweat stained shirt told me.
"I know. You tell her." While he frowned at Mormor backing out of the van, I slunk away to the other side of the bus where a couple of passengers were boarding. Inside the bus, people were moving around, stowing things away. A man was stowing luggage into a large compartment from the outside. To be more precise - he was stowing away a worn knapsack that I had seen before.
The owner of the knapsack was heading in my direction. He had changed his shirt since I last saw him.
He stopped. "You." The greeting was not particularly enthusiastic.
"What do you want?"
"It's not what I want - it's what she wants."
"Who do you mean she? Your mother?" The last was spat with venom enough to convince me that, even though it was highly unlikely, he might actually know my mother.
"No, no. Mormor. Rose."
"Oh." He straightened his back, wrapping himself in dignity. "I already bought a ticket."
"Yes. And she's getting one."
His eyes bulged. "She's coming on the bus?"
"Nope. We're parked in right on the other side of it. That kind of ticket. The thing is -- if you board that bus then she'll have me driving her to where ever it's going next. Look, I'll reimburse you if you'll just talk to her-"
"Mikkel." Mormor came a-rolling.
"Fix it." She waved her hand in the direction of the man behind her.
We obviously had outstayed our welcome even before we arrived; his face was rather red. Sighing, I turned to proxy for Mormor, having her due poured over my burning ears, praying that this was not one of those people who'll just keep on working themselves up. What did she say to him?
He paused when the bus noisily started. As it backed out, Leroy and Mormor came into view; they were entering the station, their backs turned my way.
When the noise had died somewhat I said: "I understand, sir, and I'm deeply sorry, sir. I'll move the van right now. Is there anything you want me to do first, sir?"
"She tried to bribe me!"
Arrrgh! "My granny tried to bribe you? She's out of her mind! Look, I promise I'll make sure it doesn't happen again. This is so embarrassing. She's crazy when she's in love. I'm sorry, so sorry."
He studied my face. "Your granny, huh."
I nodded. "She's not reasonable at all, I'm afraid. Her boyfriend left, and got himself a ticket for the bus. I really hope that they can work it out, otherwise she'll drive the rest of us right over the edge - I mean, look what she got me to do, parking here, endangering people's lives, upsetting the schedules, breaking all kinds of sensible rules. I don't know what I was thinking, sir."
"Just don't do it again, you understand?"
"Yes, sir. I understand, and I promise, I won't. Thank you, sir."
I folded the ramp up, and got out of there.
"Where the hell are you?" was the first thing Tom said when I had stopped at the curb to call home base.
"Leaving the bus station on John Young Parkway. Mormor and Leroy are talking; I figured they could use some time so I'm on my way home. How are things at your end?"
"The party's over, man. Annie's the only one left, apart from us. Mom gave birth to a fucking rocket when she heard where you'd gone. Do you know what Leroy did?"
"Annie told me the rumor."
"And you.... Well, get the fuck home, you coward."
"Sure. Bye." I disconnected. Coward? I guess that it'll look like that to a guy left behind in a house full of crazy women.
One of those crazy women was stuffing a large black plastic bag into her car when I got back. "Are you leaving?" I asked Jennifer.
She sent me a harried look. "It's all you fault!" she snapped, and ran inside again. There were several bags and a suitcase in the car already.
"Isn't the information just flowing today." I went inside; in the kitchen Maria was crying in Tom's arms. In the hallway Annie and Jennifer were having a low but intense discussion.
Tom looked helplessly at me. I put my arms around them both. "What's going on?"
"I don't want to go to a hotel!" Maria sniffled, and sunk the catch. "I want to stay here." She put her arms around both Tom and me, squeezing us for emphasis.
Resting his cheek on Maria's head, Tom closed his eyes; he was breathing oddly. I was pretty sure that he was storing a memory of her smell. His eyes flew open, and he looked at me. "Mom and Karen fucking blackmailed Leroy, and then they paid him to stay away from Granny."
"Yes? How much?"
"Hell, I don't know. I didn't ask. She didn't mean to tell it at all, but Annie made her."
"Mormor will probably find out now that she's talking with Leroy."
"She'll be. Oh, fuck."
"Yes. I can see why Jennifer will want out of her way. I don't suppose she considered telling Mormor that she's sorry."
Tom snorted or perhaps it was the sound of another packet sent into mental storage.
None of us said much when we were standing on the porch watching the car with Annie at the wheel slowly backing out of the drive. Maria's stricken, white face looking at us from the backseat was nightmare material for years to come. Jennifer next to Annie had a facial color much like Maria's but otherwise her expression was neutral and her eyes unfocused.
"I hate her," Tom whispered when the car was out of sight. "I fucking hate my own mother."
"She sure spreads messes like a cursed witch."
He sighed, and leaned against me. "You fuck, running out on me like that."
I squeezed him, and turned us both around; unlike Maria, we had an immediately upcoming snuggle with pug-therapy involved.
End of Chapter 24
© Morgenfryd 2004