It's sleeting outside. Alan shuts his eyes and spends the next forty-five minutes tossing this way and turning the other. But it's a lost cause. He was hoping to get a full twelve hours in. School's out; why not? Instead, as dreams of flying dragons in a faraway fantasy land dissolve leaving reality, two things demand his undivided attention: The sharp taps on the windows and the unmistakable scent of game.
He sits up, eyes drawn to the fuzzy shadow of early morning on the wall. Such a contrast. Sleet. Cornish game hen. Icy, drafty, and dreary. Cozy, aromatic, and inviting. It's then that he thinks: "Wait a minute! This early?"
Or is it already getting dark? Wouldn't surprise him, really. He's been known to sleep all day on weekends. But this is his favorite Thursday of the year. It's his custom to spend the entirety of the morning and early afternoon hovering around the kitchen like a vulture, ready, willing, and able to be the first of the family to swoop in and devour this heavenly carcass. He turns back to the alarm clock for a second opinion on the time. Still 7:00 AM.
Curiosity wins as usual. There's no rhyme or reason why mom would be up cooking this early in the morning, even on this day. Like a reptile, he slithers across the carpet. The mouth-watering fumes grow warmer with every slinking step toward that oven. And when he peeks around the corner at the end of the hallway, he assumes he's dreaming again.
The dining table manages to look fancy for such a low-income family. Candle flames illuminate three faces. Normally, Alan's would be the most well-lit; but today, it's his mother's. He plunges a fork into the depths of his own personal game hen, grinning with a set of glistening, braced teeth. The meat falls off the bones as a steaming pile of what's guaranteed to be the best bird he's ever tasted. Midway between plate and mouth, though, the silver-pronged utensil stops.
"Oops, sorry mom!" he says, jumbling the words together in haste so he can dive back into eating. "Thanks for the..."
She reaches over the table and offers a handshake. "No, young man! Thank you!"
Alan parks a fist-size lump of dark meat behind his left cheek to free up some vocal air. Wrinkles form above the same eyebrow. "Thank me? For what?"
"Oh, don't even bother trying to be modest! Not only was this the nicest thing you've ever done for us, this is the most perfectly-cooked hen in all human history! Restaurant-quality, I'm telling you! Guess all those years of watching the Master at work must've taught you everything, huh?" she laughs pointing a thumb back at herself.
"But I did..."
The "'nt" is missing from that word. Like most thirteen-year olds, he has lots of things on his mind. And one of those things is that skateboard. The purple one with the dual, candy-apple green dragons breathing fluorescent flames. The highest-priced skateboard in his favorite athletics store. The one he's been nagging mom to get him all year.
He turns his attention to Sydney, his nine-year old sister. She's still chewing on the same bite of hen she was ten minutes ago. Nothing unusual there; Sydney always eats like a bird. Unlike a bird, however, she makes the least amount of noise of anyone in the house. A fact mom and Alan have grown used to, but never understood. Mom sets her sight on the girl's pale, freckle-covered face and draws in a seethe.
"Sydney?" she asks, the corners of her eyes pinching the bridge of her nose. "When do you plan on taking out the trash?"
The girl stops chewing and sits silent staring into her plate, guilty as charged. Mom hurls a cutting hiss across the table.
"It's one simple thing! One! Simple! Thing! You tie the strings, lift it out of the can, open the door, and go throw it in the poly-cart!"
Sydney begins to shiver and cry.
Mom continues, un-phased. She flicks her finger to the right while blazing straight ahead into the child's glossy pupils. "Your brother has done all the work today! Do you realize that? Do you even care? He slaved half the night over that stove so I wouldn't have to! The least you could do is thank him and take out the...damn trash!" She doesn't notice the gaping look on her son's face.
"Mom, it's OK! I'll get the trash; no big deal."
"Absolutely not!" her voice rebounds off the kitchen walls. "She's going to learn responsibility if I have to ground her until retirement age to get there!"
Candy-apple green. Envy of the neighborhood. Mine all mine. Alan's stomach has never been happier. This was the best-tasting Thanksgiving dinner ever. But he didn't make it. He sits sunken in his desk chair with visions of Christmas. Only one month away. Keep his mouth shut, the skateboard could easily be his. He already knows he can count on Sydney never saying a word. This should be a piece of cake.
The main thing pumping through his mind is the Tony Hawke video he's got playing on his tiny TV. He studies every move as the pro demonstrates a half-pipe trick with speed, dexterity, and grace. That's gonna be me a year from now.
But in his peripherals, he detects the clanking sound of cans and bottles just beyond the wall of his room. Mom must've finally talked Sydney into taking out that garbage. He pries two eye-level sections of a mini blind open with his fingers. Yep, there she goes with her head still down, at a snail's pace. Maybe mom will leave her alone for a while now.
He takes a stance in front of the TV trying to mimic Hawke, imagination going wild. At that instant, he thinks he hears laughter coming from outside the window.
"Who's peeking in on me?" he grumbles, stomping back to the gap in the blinds. The facial redness deepens. Flexing what muscle he has, he breaks into a sprint for the front yard.
"Well, look who just came out from under their rock! It's Pepper Face!" a gang of three jeers. The tallest boy of the bunch yanks the sack open and dumps the contents onto the street. Sydney drops to the ground, curling into a ball with her hands over her face.
"Lookie what we got here, guys: Pepper Face wants to play 'Ball'. Alrighty then, let's see how far we can kick her!" The boy sounds off a yelp of agony before the swift kick from behind can register as having come from a young man a little older than he.
"Don't feel so good, does it?" Alan roars with a tone of maniacal puberty. Words better reserved for grownups ring through the crisp and otherwise stale atmosphere of the neighborhood as the trembling, bug-eyed trio disperse for their respective homes.
"Good lord! What happened?"
"Mom, obviously you didn't see it; but I think I know why Sydney doesn't like taking out the trash."
"Oh? Do tell! This should be interesting," she invites with crossed arms while brother and sister refill the ravaged sack with the scattered remnants of the afternoon.
After Alan finishes that part of the story, mom's arms fall limp at her sides. The melting sleet crystals glow with the colors of a setting sun. Three plumes of late-Autumn breath rise toward the sky along with those of the village's many chimneys as they hug.
"Hey, what are we torturing ourselves out here for? I say it's high time for pie time!"
She gives him a glance prominent with bewilderment. Alan is always the first to attack dessert too.
"There's more," he declares with an awkward grin.
He pats the top of Sydney's head, and she cracks the first smile in ages. "I didn't do all that cooking," he informs. A lump tries to rise in his throat. "She did."
"Just what I said. The thanks to be given on this day all goes to Sydney. I thought I was dreaming when I saw her in the kitchen last night, but I wasn't. I guess this was her way of making it up to you for not taking out the garbage."
A dropped jaw kaleidoscopes into a half-moon smile. As far as mom is concerned, the Christmas season has already begun. They head back into the house. And from that point on, mom is Sydney's official kitchen assistant.