by Quentin 'Cubist' Long and Hallan Mirayas
1 2 3 4
I heard a car pull up on the street, and shortly afterward,
there was a knock at the door. Glancing out the window, I recognized
Wanderer, who was carrying what looked like an armful of groceries.
As I unlocked the door and opened it, I felt a rustle around my
neck, and Wanderer did a classic double-take on seeing me. "I
don't mean to be rude, young Hallan, but pray tell why you're
wearing a dog collar?" he asked over the top of an especially
I sighed and removed the collar from around my neck. "Jubatus is feeling particularly mischievous, apparently. C'mon in before your arms fall off." I glanced around for Stratus, but she was nowhere to be found. I shrugged. Then, taking some packages from the wolf's arms as he stepped inside, I led the way to the kitchen. We passed the living room, where Jubatus was draped across as much of the couch as he could, with a smug little smile on his muzzle and tail.
Wanderer chuckled. "On the bright side," he somehow drawled in that clipped British accent of his, "at least he's showing signs of abstract thinking."
"Yeah, but I'm getting kind of worried. There's not much left of summer, and if he doesn't get better before school starts..." I let it trail off as I turned the corner to the kitchen.
Wanderer jumped with a startled yelp as Stratus flung herself out from under the kitchen table onto his foot, saving me the need to continue that thought.
I chuckled. "That means she likes you and thinks you're safe to be around. If she didn't, she'd hide and you'd never see her."
Wanderer picked her up, and she promptly turned her pretty blue eyes full onto him. I grinned as the wolf melted. "She's adorable!" he almost whispered, and she quickly snuggled into his chest with a purr.
As Wanderer started to coo over her, I glanced over at Jubatus. He was looking quizzically at the kitten. A second yelp from Wanderer returned my attention to him. "Careful, she's not declawed."
"So I noticed," he replied through the tail waving across his face. Stratus, having sufficiently snuggled his chest, had climbed up onto his shoulder and was rubbing against the side of his head, not much caring where her tail happened to wind up in all of this. Or maybe repeatedly tickling it across his nose was part of the fun. I found it particularly amusing how she distracted him out of his accent three times during the rest of the conversation.
Wanderer left after he'd dropped off the supplies, and I was just putting them away when I heard a thump from the living room. Closing the fridge door, I went to see what the matter was. Stratus had knocked my mom's knitting basket off its stand by the armchair, and was copying Jubatus' 'Who, me?' look from her position half-buried in the yarn. Jubatus was holding a yarn ball in one forepaw. Hand, I chided myself. He may be four on the floor most of the time, but those are still hands, and he's still a person. Don't you dare forget that. Meanwhile, Jubatus' gaze flickered between the yarn ball and Stratus, like he was trying to figure out what Stratus found so fascinating about it.
Seeing my attention distracted, Stratus gleefully started playing with the yarn, sending yarn balls bouncing out across the floor. Both of Jubatus' forepaws -- hands -- blurred out to catch another one as it rolled by, and he let his first yarn-ball bounce away elsewhere. I picked Stratus out of the basket before she could get herself thoroughly entangled (and ruin Mom's yarn), and set her down amidst her kitty toys, then started picking up the yarn balls that had rolled all over. I paused when I came to Jubatus, who was staring intently at the ball of yarn he'd thrown away. As I eased the yarn-ball out of his hands, I was very careful to watch his face. If he was going to get mad at me, I at least wanted a chance to see it coming. Fortunately for me, he didn't protest. In fact, he started purring as I watched! Extricating Stratus from the basket (again), I set it up out of her reach and went back to the kitchen. She immediately started mewing unhappily.
A few moments later, I heard a rapidfire sequence of 'thuddadud's. "What the..?" I ran back into the living room and saw unballed yarn drifting to the floor all over the place. It looked like Jubatus had thrown all the yarn-balls at the walls, letting them unwind to leave colorful lines floating in midair. The cheetah himself was lying on his back in the middle of the room, fascinated with the moving lines over his head, apparently not concerned that the falling strands were even now wrapping him up in a cocoon. Meanwhile, Stratus was merrily bouncing about among the strands again. Sighing, I set to untangling both kitties, put the basket up out of Jubatus' reach this time, and went back to arranging the steaks and hamburger in our freezer and fridge.
Then I heard the basket thump again. I put my head in my hands and thought to myself, This is going to be a looooong day...
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
Sounds... I remember... wolf? No, many wolf. And cat. Big cat,
smells very very good, I want her. And... horse! Bug, too! I remember!
I remember! Labels -- no, not labels, names! Names! Stein and Ringwolf and, and Wanderer! Feels good, it feels good to remember, I feel good. We are all of us in big room, and we make sounds.
Music. Good music! I remember, and I feel good, and --
-- feel... strange..?
Okay, where the hell was I? And what was I crying for?
I reviewed my memories: Driving to Chi-town, check. The crash, check. A shitload of fire and pain, check. Then it got fuzzy, and the next thing I knew, I was, well, here. Wherever 'here' was -- I had no clues whatsoever. Christ, I couldn't even be sure what year it was! Where was I? How'd I get here? My head was filled with these, and too many other, questions. My scent was strong in this room; I must've been here for quite a while. As in, "longer than it would have taken my injuries to heal". And I was non compos mentis all the while until just now...
The conclusion was obvious: Someone had done this to me, forced my higher cognitive functions into dormancy. I didn't know the "why" of it -- maybe they were Humans First, maybe they wanted my money, maybe one of a dozen other possibilities -- but for some reason, keeping a man braindead for an extended period just didn't strike me as a friendly act.
I prowled, searching the place, touching only the floor to minimize the risk of triggering any nasty surprises my "host" might have left for me. Odd; although I didn't recognize any of the pictures on the walls, mine wasn't the only familiar scent. I caught whiffs of Wanderer; Derksen (phew!); Stein; damn but there was a lot of that new kid, Hallan My-
It was beginning to add up, and I didn't like the total.
The gauntlets were such a simple idea; I hadn't stopped to think why nobody had bothered to make them before, but I should have. Any time you've got a de facto underclass like SCABs, there's money to be made in keeping them down, plus any number of slimeballs who're willing to take that money. And the aforementioned slimeballs don't take kindly to any threat to their ill-gotten income, such as a relatively inexpensive gadget that could go a long way towards defusing normals' concerns about SCABs.
It all fit. The tanker had been meant to take me out, and they'd been so confident that they hadn't made a backup plan. So when I obstinately refused to turn up dead, they had to improvise, and thus tried to kill my mind. Shiva, did it ever fit.
But why Myers? He was just a kid! Had my mystery assailants contented themselves with working me over, okay, that's one thing -- but the sons of bitches had had to drag an innocent child into it, didn't they?
I would find out who was behind it all. And then somebody was going to die.
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
"The duct tape on the fridge door didn't work as well as I'd
Mom and I were coming back from grocery shopping, which was much earlier than usual since Jubatus had once again gotten into the fridge during the middle of the night. "It was a good idea, honey. I didn't think Jube would be able to cut it, either."
"Yeah, but now I'm going to have to think up some new way to end his midnight snacks. I've seen him eyeing the freezer when he thinks nobody's looking. I'll bet he's going to try for the frozen hamburger next."
Mom chuckled. "At least he leaves Stratus' food alone. And anything that's not meat in the fridge."
"Stratus eats dry kitten chow. And Jube's a meat-eater."
"Oh, stop being so depressed, Harry. I bought some chain and padlocks from the hardware store, should we need them." She smiled that little smile of hers that always left me guessing whether she was kidding or not. After a long pause, she asked, "Have you spoken with your father lately?"
I growled and sulked further into the seat. "Why, so I can send him a mail bomb?"
Mom frowned, and pulled over. Uh-oh. I was in trouble. She didn't pull over unless she was winding up for a lecture. "Harrison Alan Myers, you stop that right now." Yup, I was right. "He is your father, even if we are divorced. He deserves your respect. Understand?" She kept that all in an even tone of voice, but her look could have drilled through granite.
I folded my arms across my chest and looked out the window. "I'll give him my respect when he earns it." I love my mother, but there are certain lines I won't be coaxed across, not until I'm darn good and ready. Charles Myers and I had been in a state of war for as long as I could remember. After the divorce, he and I had settled into entrenched mutual silence. He didn't bother me, I didn't bother him. It worked for us, or at least it did for me. Mom, on the other hand, felt that I should have some sort of relationship with him, being his youngest son. I felt I had all the relationship I needed.
She sighed and pulled into traffic again. "Well, what about your brother and sister? Any e-mail?"
That brought a smile to my face. I may detest my father, but I liked my brother and sister. (Technically, she was my half-sister, but I could care less about the 'half'.) "Jay is feeling a bit homesick, but says he likes the Minnesota autumn. He's enjoying bible college and says that if all goes well, we'll have a minister in the family in three more years."
She chuckled. "I wish he would write normal letters, though. I grew up with e-mail and I'm still awful with it."
I just smiled. Her skills at creating e-mail disasters were legendary. "Jean is rather frustrated with her customers, but her arts and crafts store is running well." Jean was ten years older than me, and only related to me by my father, but she loved Mom and treated Jay and I like full brothers. The title 'half' never existed for her or me.
"We should get everybody together and have some new family pictures done. It's been well over a year since our last one. Everybody's gotten older," she said, then leaned over, grinning, and tousled my hair! Aack! "And you've gotten fuzzier."
"Mom!! Cut it out!"
"But you look so cute when you're embarrassed!" She laughed, then stopped ruffling my hair and gave my arm a squeeze. "And you've put on a bit of muscle. It was so nice of Mr. Jones to loan you those barbells for the summer. What did he call it, summer homework?"
We continued on with this as we turned the corner for home. Just before she got out of the car, she smiled. "Jube is going to be happy with the steaks. Was he alright with us both heading out at the same time?"
"He should be. He was curled up on my bed when we left, fast asleep. I left my Strikebreakers album playing for him, since he seems to like it."
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
On searching the place, I'd found a collar and leash, but the
scents on them were very cold -- they hadn't been used in days,
maybe weeks. The tools and parts in my vest and bag were intact,
so I put the stuff to use; didn't find any hidden cameras or bugs,
in fact no indication of any extraordinary security precautions whatsoever. Fenris and Tyr!
I had to have been running on instinct, and if I'd gone berserk,
there's nothing that would've kept me away from the general populace! I found
myself hating my unseen enemy more and more.
Well, my captors had probably decided that a non-sentient me didn't offer any risk of escaping. Not any more, guys! And whoever they were, they didn't know I'm back, which gave me a golden opportunity to prep the place in anticipation of my keepers' return...
...and in the fullness of Time, someone pulled up in front. I saw two people get out of the car, a little red compact that could park in the back of my Extremis. Wouldn't have pegged it as a kidnapper's vehicle; then again, they wouldn't want to be conspicuous, would they? I didn't recognize the woman, but I sure knew the kid. I rechecked my preparations one last time. And when the front door opened, I made my move: I upshifted high, carefully transported Hallan into the room I'd been occupying, and locked the door, the single mode of egress from that room that I hadn't already sealed. Elapsed time: Less than one clock-second. Next, I stepped around behind the woman, moved my fingers into position, let the clawtips of both hands press gentle dimples into either side of her neck, and finally downshifted.
Her shriek died a-borning when I started talking. "Don't move or scream," I breathed into one ear. "I'm going to ask you some questions. Tell the truth, and nobody has to get hurt."
"What have you done with my son?" Her voice was firm under the fear-induced tremors. That response wasn't one I'd expected, but what the hell. Either she really was Hallan's mom, or an enemy was trying a little emotional manipulation on me; either way --
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
One eyeblink, I was outside, opening the door. The next, I was
in my room, the door slammed and clicked, and a stifled scream
came from outside. Only one person moves that fast... I whirled
and grabbed for the doorknob. Locked! "Jubatus!" I yelled as I
pounded on the door. "Jubatus, don't you hurt her!" The door rattled
on its hinges, but didn't open. My throat and hands hurt, but
I didn't care.
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
Hellfire and damnation! There went any hope of secrecy; that
roar must have rattled every window in a 3-mile radius. I had
to focus on the job at hand -- no time to waste, no telling when
we'd be interrupted. "I didn't hurt him. Talk to him. Tell the
truth, and you'll be fine."
She shuddered and swallowed. "H-Harrison? I'm -- it's a little tense in here, but I'm alright..."
At this point I upshifted, made myself some time to think about what Hallan had said: 'Don't you hurt her'. Okay, he was way the hell worked up. So he knew this woman, whoever she was. She did claim that he's her son, so maybe that's it. Come to think of it, their scents did match up pretty well. And hers was all over this place like Hallan's.
So she really was... and they really were... but that would mean...
At this point, a small piece of me was thinking, What have I done? The majority damn well knew what I'd done: Held an innocent woman at knifepoint ("clawtip", if you're into picayune pedantry). And not just any innocent, but someone who must have been actively helping me while my mind was AWOL. So what's the problem here? Come on, Jube, you know that no good deed goes unpunished. Just finish ripping the bitch's throat out already, that'll teach her a lesson she'll remember as long as she lives! And hey, after you find out if she's really got good taste, there's a few more do-gooders you can punish, Wanderer and Donnie and Ph --
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
My mom was talking to me, you know? She was telling me she's
alright. And all of a sudden there was this horrible scream like
I never, ever want to hear again, as long as I live.
I didn't stop to think. Didn't stop at all. My vision went dark around the edges and I just moved.
I heard something splinter and there was pain in my shoulder and my upper back hurt and I was in the hallway and why was the front door open and she was standing there, my mom was okay! Except there was red on her neck and I smelled blood and she had this really weird look on her face and I swear to God I'm gonna rip his throat out --
"Calm down, honey," she said, her voice even. "I'm okay."
"But he hurt you, Mom! He --" was all I managed to say before my voice gave out with a strained squeak and a raw stab of pain. Ow... my throat felt like I'd swallowed a box of razor blades.
She saw my expression and handed me one of the discarded bags of groceries. "I'll make you some tea, honey. You just be quiet and let your throat rest." She looked amazingly composed for someone who'd just been attacked by Jubatus. Had he attacked her? Of course he had, where else would those marks on her neck have come from? But...
I followed her into the kitchen to put the groceries away. That's when I saw how much her hands were shaking. She turned and gave me a long hug. "I'm okay, honey," she said, sounding like she was trying to convince herself of that as well. "It's, he only, just a scratch. He missed the carotid, missed the jugular, missed the -- it's just a scratch. I'm really okay. Just a scratch. Just a scratch."
We decided to leave the groceries where they were for the time being, and both of us had some tea to calm down with. Stratus came out from under the couch where she'd been hiding and curled up in Mom's lap.
After her third cup, Mom finally broke the silence. "According to Dr. Derksen, his head injury was completely healed weeks ago..."
I scribbled my reply on a pad of paper: SO WHY DIDN'T HE SNAP OUT OF IT? I'd definitely have to think about relearning Sign. I was too out of practice to make coherent sentences. WHY DID HE STAY WILD?
"I don't know. But I've looked over the notes and files we got from Drs. Derksen and Halliburton, and I've tried to imagine what that kind of existence would be like. Did he strike you as a person who enjoys life, Harrison?"
I considered for a moment, then scribbled: NO. WANDERER, DONNIE, THEY ENJOY LIFE. JUBE DOESN'T ENJOY MUCH. SOLVING PROBLEMS, MAYBE.
"How sad," Mom said with a thoughtful expression. "I think that might be the key to the puzzle: For the first time in a very long while... he was happy."
It fit. AND HE DIDN'T WANT IT TO END, I replied.
"And when it finally did," she said carefully, staring off into nothing, "he woke up in a place he'd never been in before. A strange and empty place. With no idea how he got there, or who put him there, or why, or what they wanted to do with him. It couldn't have been pleasant for someone who's ruled by fear.
"That poor man..."
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
I came to my senses... again... in a grove of trees with a stream
running through it. Nice, peaceful place. I could hear people,
all of them far away; good. I didn't want to deal with genuine
human beings, not until I can once more persuade myself I really
am one of them.
The trouble is, I'm not human. No matter how much I kid myself otherwise, I'm just not human. And I woke up in a private residence instead of a jail cell or wherever, so the beast -- that's what I like to call my wonderful instincts, which had to've been running the show while I was out to lunch -- must not have hurt or killed anyone during all the time my body was parked there.
Makes for one hell of a contrast with what happened after my mind got better.
My greatest worry was that the beast would run amok, leaving a trail of maimed and half-eaten bodies; in reality, it's less dangerous than I am. And now that I know what the real beast is, it's pretty clear what I've got to do: Settle my affairs, check into a SCAB colony, and never ever put any other human at risk, ever again.
To walk away from human civilization, human existence... the prospect doesn't disturb me. Really, it doesn't. 'Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.' The less contact I have with other people, the less opportunity for me to damage them, physically or emotionally. 'First, do no harm.' And it's not like anyone will actually mind my absence; I'm sure Wanderer will make some appropriately regretful-sounding noises, but only because it's the kind of thing that's expected of him. He's got a reputation to maintain, after all. Not a chance in Hell that he'll really give a tenth of a damn about the bastard who told him to fuck off and die when first he made that offer of a teaching position... 'To thine own self be true', and mine own self is a congenital asshole, pure and simple.
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
It was easy to find Jubatus. All I had to do was follow the
quiet, near-ultrasonic keening wail of a soul in torment to a
secluded grove in the park behind my house. He had his knees wrapped
to his chest with his arms and was rocking frenetically back and
forth. A very human display of distress, played out in Jubatus'
Rather than approach him in that state and risk scaring him off, I reached over to a nearby bush and snapped a dead twig. As expected, the sound I'd followed cut off the instant Jubatus blurred to his feet. He was in fight-or-flight mode, all his many personal demons hidden behind an iron mask of an expression even before our eyes met. When he was 'wild', reading his body language gave me a window into his thoughts. Not now, not when every inch of him was rigidly controlled, as impassive and featureless as a steel door. On recognizing me, he said, "Congratulations -- you found me. What do you want."
I stepped into the shaft of sunlight that pierced the canopy of leaves and made this unimproved little nook one of my favorite outdoor spots, and smiled slightly at the warmth. I couldn't help it. It felt good. But I didn't let that stop me from what I'd meant to say. "I was worried about you."
There was no good cheer behind his smile. "Me, or the trail of bodies you feared I might leave behind."
His voice sounded flat. Dead. Inhuman, even. It sucked the warmth right out of the sunbeam I was standing in. "You. Are you planning to run away again?" I coughed. My throat still hurt, and my voice sounded like gravel in a grinder, but at least it didn't fade in and out on a whim. I soothed it with tea from the thermos I'd brought with me.
"No point to running away," the cheetah said. He looked calm enough, but his voice was even worse than usual. There was no inflection, no feeling. It was like a computer talking. "Not any more."
I sat down, and gestured to the ground next to me. "Have a seat, Jube. If you're not going to run, then we might as well talk."
"I'll stand," he rumbled, looking off into the distance.
"Are you sure you won't feel more comfortable --"
"What part of 'I'll stand' are you having trouble comprehending." He turned his gaze on me, and his dull, zombie-like stare sent chills up my spine.
I replied, "The part where you said there wasn't any point to running. If you're not going to run, then why bother being prepared to run?" I tried to keep my tone as even and reasonable as I could, remembering Mom's words before I'd left the house. He's just lived through two of his worst nightmares in rapid succession, Harry. l can't begin to imagine what his current state of mind must be like, but he's got to be terrified. Be extremely gentle with him, or you'll scare him away. To which I added, or worse. Without the cues from his body language, I wouldn't stand a chance against him if he got violent again.
"Fine. Have it your way." There was a waist-high rock outcrop about 15 feet away from me, poking out from the ground like a shelf. He walked over to it (at a normal speed!) and sat down. "Talk."
"Are you feeling okay now?"
"Better than your mother, at least."
I bit my tongue to keep down the anger that tried to boil up in me, which I figured was probably Jube's goal: To make me angry enough to leave him to whatever doom he was concocting for himself. Well, full-body poker face or not, I wasn't going to play that game. Not after seeing how happy he was capable of being. "Mom's okay. Matter of fact, she's cooking your lunch now. I'm told by cheetahs in the know that her recipes are quite tasty." Appeal to his ever-empty stomach. I knew he had to be hungry by now. He hadn't eaten in three hours.
He went on like he'd barely even heard me, holding his hands before him and staring down at his fingertips: "There's residual scent on the claws... I had to've done some damage. How bad is it."
"Some superficial scratches. Nothing serious. She patched them up in under three minutes."
I could have said something, but let him close his eyes, take a deep breath, release it, swallow, and continue: "How bad... was I."
I knew what he was really asking for -- assurance that he hadn't killed or maimed any living thing. "I thought you were pretty well-behaved. For the most part, anyway."
"'Well-behaved' for a human being, or for a nonsentient carnivore."
"Door number three -- well-behaved for a playful housecat. When you weren't sleeping, which was most of the time." Thinking back on some of his tricks, I smiled and wished I'd thought to digicam him. "I won't kid you, Jubatus. You were quite a handful. Your first night, you discovered how to raid the fridge and ate every ounce of meat we had. If we hadn't had a set of steaks in the freezer, you'd have gone hungry the next morning. Never a good thing. Then you discovered the use of opposable thumbs." I shot him a sidelong glance, curious if he remembered the pranks he'd played with the collar. "You also started taking lessons in the art of cuteness from my kitten once you saw her make silly putty out of Wanderer."
"You have... a kitten?" The slight tilt of his head was the first bit of body language I'd seen out of him since I'd snapped that twig.
"Yeah. A gray tabby, named Stratus."
"Huh. I think I caught the scent. Didn't see her." He shrugged, then locked his eyes on mine. Those dead, dead eyes... "What are you looking at."
"You," I said frankly.
"Because you're deliberately blocking your body language, which means I have to watch closely to catch anything that might peek around the fringes. It makes it very hard to talk to you."
"And despite everything, you think it's worth the effort to try."
"Because I've seen how happy you can be."
Jubatus muttered "Happiness is overrated," eyed me for a bit, then changed the subject before I could think of a better reply than a reflexive one-liner. "You snuck up on me. About 20 feet away when you broke that twig. How'd you get that close without me noticing."
I smiled slightly. "Cheetahs chase. Lions stalk."
I was hoping for a laugh. A smirk, at the very least. But before I could get either, Mom's voice cut in with a single mortifying phrase, carrying from the back porch. "Soooooouuuuuie!!" I put my face in my hands and inwardly panicked. Please, please, please tell me she didn't do that.
Jubatus stared off towards my house. "Hog call. I'm going to assume that this has happened before."
"Yes," I muttered into my hands. " My mother's an Indiana farm girl with a weird sense of humor."
"You'd think a farm girl could tell the difference between a pig and a lion."
Was that a joke? I couldn't tell -- not even his tail was moving! "Yeah. Dinner's ready. I assume you're interested, sir?"
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
I don't want to do this. I really don't want to return to the scene of my crime...
Tough shit. Life is hard all over.
"What the hell. Gotta face the music sooner or later," I said. "Your mom called from your house, right?"
"Yes, sir." The kid was nervous. No surprise, considering I'd damn near given his mother an impromptu tracheotomy. Fortunately, I was under control; he should calm down as soon as he figured that out. As for myself... well, I don't do 'calm'. Especially not now. Maybe I'd been wrong about my little 'episode' being a backup plan, but if my accident hadn't truly been accidental, I'd be a fool to assume there wasn't any backup plan. As we walked to Hallan's place, I upshifted once every few seconds; tempo of 30-something, just long enough to do a 360° scan for trouble. Of course my instincts would automatically trigger an upshift if someone took a shot at me, but that wouldn't do the kid much good if he was a target, now would it? Better safe than sorry, by Themis.
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
The walk back home was unnerving. It wasn't just that the cheetahmorph
was still as unreadable as a robot, which he was, but also that
he was sort of "blinking" in place every second or so... After
about the twentieth time, I finally lost it. "Would you quit doing
that? Nobody's going to shoot you."
A flash of annoyance squeaked its way out from under the lid he was keeping on his emotions. "How do you know?"
"You 'blink' every time you upshift and downshift. I just added in what I knew of you, which is 'maximum paranoia', and figured what would make you 'hiccup' along like that. 'Sniper on the third hill to the right' just happened to be the first thing that came to mind." I smirked slightly.
"It's not paranoia if they really are out to get you," he pointed out, looking around suspiciously.
"Ha, ha. Actually, I'm amazed you didn't go check. You must really be hungry."
"Yup -- and the Sun rose this morning. What's your point?"
I tried my best to ignore that as I climbed the steps to the back porch, jumping the creaky third stair. I could already smell Mom's cooking, and it put me back in a good mood. "Welcome to Casa Myers," I said with a smile. "Home cooking a specialty."
He nodded. "You first. Your mom's had enough surprises today."
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