Thankful

byPuckIt©

It was my turn to fidget uncomfortably and, for the only time in my life, I missed my father's buffering presence as Uncle Billy turned his too wise old blue eyes to me.

"So, what do you think of that mess, Hoss?"

"What? The Iran Contra thing?" I purposefully misunderstood. "The hearings are over. I'd be surprised if there was a man, woman, or child on the planet that hadn't heard them saying everything he just said five or six times already. There is no juice left in the lemon. It's time and past time to stop repeating the same old information and find something else to talk about and let the guilty serve their sentences."

Uncle Billy's eyes sharpened and his grin widened. I wondered if he could see the sweat breaking out on my face.

"I meant, this Star Wars thing of President Reagan. You're the family math and science buff. You think anything like that is possible?"

"Anything is possible," I shrugged. "Some things are just more probable than others. I'd have to know more than the newscasters can give, see some of the raw data on results before I could give an opinion that wouldn't be just a wild guess."

"A wild guess, eh?" Uncle Billy was positively beaming. "Tell me, Nick. Have you ever played poker?"

"Uh, poker?" I blinked at the non-sequitur. "That's a card game, right?"

Pris came to my rescue bearing two plates and offering me one. A pause worthy phenomenon by itself since Priscilla's philosophy was that unless his leg was broken, a man was just as able to get his own damn plate as she was to bring him one.

I had intended to fix my own plate after everyone else was done as I always did. It was a relief, though, that she had deigned to as the kitchen was relatively tiny compared to the rest of the house. Or so it always felt whenever I tried to go in there with any three or more of my family.

Let's just say when you are five feet tall and everyone else is six feet, and most of them female and relatively well endowed, standing in close quarters can be awkward and leave it at that.

"Thanks, Pris."

"Don't get used to it," Pris said with a smile as I took the offered plate.

"Hey, now, Potlicker! Where's mine?" Uncle Billy asked.

"I don't know, Uncle Potlicker. Where did you leave it?"

"Poor Daddy," Michelle laughed as she came in the room, trailed by Laurell. "Nobody loves you."

"You do," Uncle Billy said. "At least, assuming one of those plates is for me."

Michelle handed him his plate and moved to join Pris and Laurell on the "Family Cheer Squad Couch" to my right. I noticed in passing that each plate held several potato chips and a sandwich.

At about the same time, Uncle Billy noticed the same thing about his.

"Sandwiches?! We're having sandwiches? After those heavenly smells filling this house all day, we're settling for sandwiches?!"

"We are unless you want to go in there and cook," Aunt Regina said as she came in, trailed by Mom, Olivia, and Kelly.

"But, they're here," Uncle Billy half pleaded. "Why can't we go ahead and get into it all now? I've had my face set for turkey and trimmings for hours now."

"It's not Thanksgiving, yet," Aunt Regina replied calmly. "The turkey and the rest are for Thanksgiving Dinner, which is tomorrow. Ergo, tonight, we have sandwiches. Unless, as I say, you want to go in the kitchen and cook us something."

"Er, no," Uncle Billy said. "Sandwiches will be just fine, dear. Thank you."

"Thank God," Mom stage-whispered. "I've eaten his cooking when I was a kid. If I never have to again, it will be too soon."

During the traditional banter, almost verbatim from every year for the previous five, Mom and Aunt Regina had claimed their couch over to my left. Olivia had flopped down in her usual spot on the far end of my couch, the better to torment me I'm sure, with her "tower of power" of six sandwiches stacked on her plate.

Kelly, with her much more rational plate of three, was about to claim the spot between us when Laurell spoke up.

"I wouldn't sit there," Laurell said.

"Oh, God, no!" Michelle chimed in.

"If you're thinking of sitting between those two, you might want this," Uncle Billy brandished the poker snatched from the fireplace beside him.

Everyone except for Olivia and I, and Kelly, of course, laughed. Olivia and I just glared at each other and everyone else in the room indiscriminately. Kelly, evidently not familiar with what passed for a sense of humor at our family gatherings, looked confused.

"You'd be safer to sit down here and keep me company," Uncle Billy waved the poker to indicate the recliner across from him.

Safer for whom? Not for me as sitting there placed Kelly directly in my line of sight. Conscious of Uncle Billy's warning, I tried not to stare or even appear to, but it was difficult. She might indeed have been "startling" as Uncle Billy claimed, but she was also damned attractive.

For her part, Kelly couldn't help but see every time I so much as glanced at her with that chair situated to be the best vantage point for my father to keep an eye on me when he'd used it.

Perhaps I choked down my dollop of peanut butter (creamy, never chunky), my Gerber strained peas, and my five orange slices faster than I should have. It was difficult to tell as every time I ate, it felt like a lead ball thundering into my bionic guts and I had to fight to keep from vomiting it back up until I could chase it with my meds.

Kelly was the only one to glance up from her own stack of sandwiches when I popped to my feet and hurried around the couch to pull my kit from my bag and head for the bathroom. My family was long familiar with the medical necessities of my life. Even Olivia honored the five minutes I needed whenever I choked down food.

Five minutes, seven pills, two injections, and a mouthful of green goop that looked like it came from a baby's diaper and didn't smell much better (and some mouthwash to kill the taste and the worst of the smell on my breath), and I was back in position on the couch. One of Mom's two rules I never managed to get her to back off on was that I would sit at the table, or in this case on the couch, until everyone else was done with their own meal. The other was I wasn't allowed to read or listen to my music while they ate.

I never really understood why. It wasn't like any of them ever had much to say to me, nor I to them. But, those were her rules. And I would abide by them. No "or else" required.

It was a struggle not to look at Kelly, the only one in the room I was particularly interested in. I spent the next fourteen minutes and twenty-seven seconds trying to look alert, and not focused on Kelly, as the family Cheer Squad bubbled away on their couch, Mom and Aunt Regina talked much more quietly on theirs, and Olivia and I tried to pretend each other didn't exist as we strained to hear Kelly's quiet replies to Uncle Billy's conversation.

As a result, Mom had to repeat herself to get my attention.

"I said, isn't that great, Nick," Mom asked again in her warning tone of voice.

"Yes, it is," I said quickly. "Fantastic."

"Then, don't you think you should thank Aunt Regina?" Mom asked.

"Of course," I replied. "I was just stunned. Thank you, Aunt Regina. Thank you, very much."

"Don't give up your dreams of space travel for acting, Space Chimp," Olivia snorted. "You don't have the first idea what you're thanking her for."

The babble of my sister and elder two cousins belatedly penetrated my fugue.

"...so gnarly to see you two on the sidelines live!" Pris said.

"I know! Right?" Michelle answered. "It's just lucky Mom's boss had room in his skybox..."

My eyes flickered to Mom's and we had a familiar conversation in a fraction of a second. She could tell I had put together just what was about to be inflicted on me. I could tell she would be most displeased with me if I let my own displeasure show one iota.

"Really, Aunt Regina," I said carefully. "Thank you for arranging for us to attend the game tomorrow."

Olivia huffed, thwarted in her attempt to cause trouble for me. Mom smiled sadly to let me know how much she appreciated me not making waves. Aunt Regina took the gratitude at face value. Uncle Billy was literally chortling and rubbing his hands together.

I'd known Uncle Billy liked to go to the games in person when we weren't visiting. But, I'd always avoided the "pleasure" and it hadn't dawned on me that my luck would run out as it had.

The family cheer couch didn't count as it was difficult to tell when Pris, Laurell, and Michelle were excited or really excited. Excepting of course when they were asleep, they seemed stuck in one of those two gears.

Kelly, though, looked to be almost as displeased by the revelation of our after dinner plans for the next day as I felt when our eyes crossed.

Fortunately, it didn't take much longer for everyone else to finish their own supper.

"Are you sure you got enough, Kell?" Uncle Billy asked. "There's plenty more where that came from."

"No, thank you," Kelly said in that quiet voice.

"Kelly is trying to drop a weight class," Olivia spoke up. "I keep telling her, she's crazy."

"Two, actually," Kelly said. "Becki and Karyn have the super heavy and heavy classes pretty well covered. But, we don't really have a serious competitor, either on the team or coming up, in the middle heavy range."

Sports. Of course. As if the perennial football montage wasn't bad enough.

I covered my need to be gone by collecting everyone's empty plates and taking them to the kitchen trash. When I returned from that chore, it was no major feat to snag my Walkman and slip out the front door.

After what had threatened to turn into a scorched earth battle, the white-coated menaces and I had reached a compromise, little more than a cease-fire really. I would either walk or, preferably, swim so far each day for a little exercise and they would back off, and get everybody else, such as my father, off my back about anything more strenuous.

I didn't run. I didn't even jog. I just walked.

For our visits to Garland, my family and I had decided that I would walk down to a park less than two blocks away and do laps there in case they needed to find me. They were worried about my safety as even at nineteen most twelve and thirteen-year-olds were bigger than me.

It wasn't until my third lap around the park that I realized I wasn't alone. The entire herd had followed me for some reason.

Uncle Billy and Laurell were sitting on the swings as I came around. The other six were strewn out in pairs behind me. Or in front, as I was catching up to Mom and Aunt Regina.

"What's going on?" I paused to ask Uncle Billy.

"Oh, Kell wanted to come walk too," Uncle Billy said. "And you know women. Once one of them wants to go somewhere, they all want to go."

"Right," Laurell laughed. "Daddy thought it sounded like fun and got us all up and moving. But, when we got here, he decided it wasn't as much fun as it sounded."

"Hey! That's a long way for an old man!" Uncle Billy said.

I didn't know why I'd even stopped to ask. I hadn't really cared all that much, so long as they weren't going to try to make me stop before I was ready.

"Well, I'd better get back to it," I said. "I need to crank out a couple more miles tonight."

"Ok, Nick. We'll be here," Laurell said.

As I passed Mom and Aunt Regina, I slowed briefly to speak to them in an effort to be polite. It didn't really seem fair as they were interrupting my exercise, but it made Mom happy when I made the effort.

As we came around again, Michelle and Olivia had taken up position by Uncle Billy and Laurell at the swings. Mom and Aunt Regina fell out to join them.

Good. I popped my earphones back on and picked up my pace once more.

Only Pris and Kelly were still walking. Pris didn't really surprise me as she ran cross country and track in addition to basketball, volleyball, and cheerleading. She often walked with me at home.

Kelly, though, was a surprise. I hadn't often seen big muscular types with the endurance to keep up the pace Pris could set.

As I flipped my cassette, I saw Pris and Kelly sitting with everyone else on the swings.

"You about ready, Hoss?" Uncle Billy asked as I pulled close.

"Um, not really," I said. "I still need to do another thirty minutes."

"Well, it's dark," Uncle Billy responded. "And this is the big city. It's probably about time we took it inside."

Of course, it was dark! It was late November. The sun set before six. But, it was early yet. The nearby houses were well lit and people were moving around inside and out.

And they all knew my medical requirements that I exercise so much each day. They knew! And they'd never had a problem any other time. What was the big deal now?

Mom and Pris both gave me "the look." I didn't know why, but they wanted me to go along with what Uncle Billy wanted and go back. Go back and sit around some more while everyone else talked over and around me.

Well, at least I would be allowed to read now that everyone had finished eating. At least until someone spoke to me, which they rarely, if ever, did. Always assuming, of course, Aunt Regina didn't have another, worse surprise to spring on me. Not that even she could have managed to outdo the surprise she'd already sprung.

Unless... Oh, God no. Surely we weren't having the players and/or cheerleaders come over to dinner while I watched everyone else eat turkey and trimmings!

I was irritated, but I let myself be guided back to their house.

Olivia and Kelly seemed to be in a hurry for some reason and left the rest of us behind. Michelle and Pris trotted along ahead of me, happily chatting away. Mom, Aunt Regina, and Uncle Billy brought up the rear talking about the timetable for the next day.

Oddly, Laurell was just sort of drifting along behind Michelle and Pris and ahead of me. It didn't take much effort to catch up with her.

"Hey, Laurell," I said. "Everything all right?"

"Yeah," Laurell gave me a weak smile. "Just tired."

Alarm bells went off as I really looked at Laurell for the first time. She didn't just look tired. Actually, she looked like she did before. I thought back to the plate she'd been holding while we ate. I hadn't actually seen her do more than nibble a couple of chips. Was she going down that road once more? Was she once again starving herself, sure that she could never be thin enough?

If she was, what could I do about it? Particularly if her lifelong enabler, Michelle, was helping her to switch her full plate for an empty once more?

"Do you need some help getting back?" I asked.

"What? Are you going to carry me?" Laurell asked with a smile.

Where Laurell starved herself to lose weight, trying to be skinny, I was always skinnier. I couldn't put on weight and the only time I'd tipped the scale over eighty pounds was when I stepped out of the lake fully clothed after Olivia had thrown me in the previous July.

"Well, um, you could lean on me, if you needed to," I said. "I could probably do that much."

"Thank you, Nick. But, I'll be fine," Laurell said. "I just need to go to bed when we get back, I think. Big game tomorrow, you know."

"Yeah," I sighed. "I know."

"Do you know we love you?" Laurell asked. "We all do. We don't always understand you, no. But, we do love you."

Several responses came to mind, but I could almost hear Mom telling me to be polite.

"I love you, too, Laurell."

"I mean it, Nick. We do love you. And we're all proud of you," Laurell said. "You should hear Daddy every time he gets off the phone with Aunt Rebekah. He'll go on and on about you to anyone and everyone for days afterward. I mean, we don't know everything about what you do. We can't. You can't talk about it. We understand that. But, what he does know, he will brag about endlessly."

"I didn't know that." And I wasn't sure it was a good thing. While it was nice my family was actually proud of me, assuming Laurell wasn't just saying it, I was worried about just what they might be saying.

"Well, you might think about it next time you and Ollie get into it."

"What? What does Olivia have to do with anything?"

"Michelle and I, we always knew Daddy loved us," Laurell said. "Olivia has always wondered if Daddy wouldn't rather have had you, or at least a son."

"That's silly! Uncle Billy loves you. All three of you. Even Olivia. Why the hell would she think that?"

"Every man loves his daughters, but secretly wants a son," Laurell said. "Ollie has spent her entire life trying to be an imitation son. But, nothing she can do can make her a boy. So, when Daddy brags about you in front of her more than she hears him brag about her, it hurts."

"What are you saying?" I asked. "That's why Olivia hates me?"

"Oh, Ollie doesn't hate you."

"Could have fooled me," I muttered.

"She really doesn't," Laurell said. "She might resent you a little. And she competes with you the only way she knows how. By proving that she's stronger, more of the son she thinks he wants, than you are. Anyway, maybe you could cut her a little slack the next time she starts in on you. Keep the noise level down, at least."

"Um, sure."

"Thanks for talking with me, Nick," Laurell said as we reached the house. "It really did help take my mind off how tired I am. I think I'm going to go ahead and go lay down now."

"All right. And Laurell, I do love you. And I'll try to keep in mind what you told me."

"I love you, Nick. Good night."

For whatever reason, Pris and Michelle wandered along with Laurell towards the back hallway, although there was no way they were going to lay down, or even stop talking, for hours yet.

Olivia and Kelly were nowhere to be seen. I assumed they were back in the bedrooms as well. Not that I really cared. Wherever they were, they weren't bugging me. And Kelly really bugged me for some reason without even opening her mouth or getting near me.

Uncle Billy, Aunt Regina, and Mom took up their usual stations where they would remain until midnight or after according to tradition.

I was still annoyed enough at having my walk cut short that I didn't put my Walkman up and got out a paper I'd brought along to go over.

After several pages, Mom got my attention and pointed to Uncle Billy.

"What ya readin', Hoss?" Uncle Billy asked when I took off my earphones.

"It's a paper by a guy named Larry Wall about a program he's written called PERL that will come out in a couple of weeks."

"What sort of program?" Aunt Regina asked.

"Er, it's a cross-platform extraction program," I said. "In a nutshell, if he's right, it's a compiler that will revolutionize computing as we know it."

"Computers," Uncle Billy snorted and shook his head. "You mark my words. Computers will replace us all one day."

My eyes crossed as I tried to envision just how a barber thought a computer would replace him. A robot maybe. Mom, the school teacher, and Aunt Regina, the lawyer, would have more to worry about from computers.

"Maybe," I said. "But, maybe that's a good thing. After all, if computers were doing some of the tasks that occupy us now, we could focus on other, more important things."

I knew it was a mistake as soon as the words were out of my mouth.

Sure enough, Uncle Billy took off and waxed eloquently about the dangers of relying on computers for a full half hour before pausing for breath.

"I'm going to have to respectfully disagree, Uncle Billy. A computer is a tool. That's all. Just like the clippers you use are a tool. Would you really rather be using scissors or a straight razor than your clippers all day? How many customers do you think you could handle that way? But, the clippers didn't take over your business, did they?"

Uncle Billy sputtered.

"He's got you there, Honey," Aunt Regina said, laughing.

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