CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE: THE REFORMATION
My art class was almost over for the day, so I began putting all of my things into my bag. I always felt a little disappointed when my classes ended because I enjoyed learning about art so much. Christmas was just around the corner, so it was the last day of class before break. It was a Friday, and the following Monday was the day of the trip to Florida.
Leaving the campus, I headed straight to Parker’s Internet Café. I hadn’t seen Brittany since the day when I first met her, which was almost a month ago, but I often went to the café to see if she was there. Snow was covering the ground and made the roads more dangerous than usual, so I had to drive slower and take even longer to make it to the café.
When I arrived, I let out a sigh. Brittany hadn’t been around for a while and it wasn’t very likely she was going to be there that time. I was beginning to worry, thinking I did something to make her dislike me … or maybe she had gone back to Pennsylvania … or went on to another town. I figured she would have told me if it was going to be her last day in the area, but that was a baseless hope on my part. However, it was also possible she would’ve had to leave at the last minute and didn’t have a chance to tell me. It was also possible that she just didn’t care to tell me.
No luck again as she wasn’t there. Deciding that it’d be pointless to drive out to the café for no reason, I wanted to get a small cup of coffee to go. As I was walking up to the counter, Nicole noticed me and waved happily.
“Hi!” She was as bubbly as ever. “Did you just get out of class?”
“Yeah, I just got done with it,” I said. “I’ll just have a small cup of coffee to go.”
“That’s all?” Nicole asked. “I can make it a large for no extra charge if you want.”
“No thanks,” I replied with a small smile. I didn’t need too much of a caffeine buzz for the day.
Nicole quickly filled up a cup and put a lid on it. She could always move so fast, and I wondered where all of her energy came from. Maybe she was sneaking coffee behind her boss’s back ….
I felt disheartened when I made it back home. The coffee warmed me up a little, but it didn’t get rid of the lingering glum. Getting out of my car, I gazed across the snowy yard and thought about what Brittany had said about snow. A symbol for death covered every inch of the neighborhood, frozen and glistening. Never in a hundred years would I have imagined her to say something so dark and foreboding.
Gary had taken a month off for vacation, so he was home to greet me as I came through the door.
“Hi,” he said. “How was class?”
“Good,” I said, stomping the snow and mud off my boots. I hung my coat and walked lazily into the living room, then plopped down on the couch.
“I’m getting excited about our trip,” said Gary as he came into the living room, “and I couldn’t stop thinking about it all day.”
“Yeah,” I replied.
“You look kinda tired,” he said, sitting down next to me.
“A little,” I said. Actually, I was more disappointed about Brittany than anything, and even disturbed by how much I was missing her. It didn’t seem natural or healthy.
“Let’s eat out tonight,” Gary suggested. “You can take the night off from cooking and get ready for the trip.”
“Okay,” I said hazily.
Anna wandered into the living room eating some pretzels. When she saw me on the couch, she ran over and jumped on me.
“Hi, Mommy!” she said happily.
“Hi, sweetie,” I said, giving her a big hug. Any negative feelings I had almost instantly vanished. “How are you?”
“Good!” Anna replied. “Only three days until we take the airplane, right?”
“Yup,” said Gary. “We’ll be in Florida and you can see Grandma and Grandpa.”
Anna jumped off the couch and ran back into her room, probably seeing what toys she wanted to bring along. I watched her run down the hallway, thinking how nice it would be to have that youthful spring again. I lost mine at such an early age.
Gary and I just lounged around the house virtually all afternoon. We watched some more TV, which I barely paid attention to. Instead, I was focusing more on what plans we could make for dinner that night. Eating out was always enjoyable for me.
During the middle of a game show, the doorbell rang, catching Gary and I off guard. We looked at each other for a couple of seconds before Gary stood up.
“Who’s that?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, also standing up. I looked out the window to see a taxi driving away from our house.
Gary walked to the door with me right behind him. A small surge of excitement and anxiety filled me. It couldn’t be Brittany, could it? How did she know where I lived? What would I say to her?
When Gary reached for the doorknob, my heart began to beat faster. He opened the door, and I was both confused and happy when I saw who was standing there.
“Gary, my best bud!”
James immediately wrapped his arms around Gary and gave him a huge bear hug. Gary’s face started to turn funny colors as the life was practically squeezed out of him.
“Hey, Krystal!” said James, letting go of Gary to give me a hug that wasn’t nearly as life-threatening as the one he gave Gary.
“Hi, James,” I said happily. “It’s been a long time.”
I was surprised to see how much James had changed his appearance since our teenage years. His once shoulder-length hair was cut short so that it didn’t hang down at all anymore, and his facial hair was beginning to get scruffy. However, no matter how much he changed his appearance, I could never forget his face.
“Man, it’s been so long!” James announced. “I’ve missed you two so much, you don’t even know!”
“What are you doing here?” Gary gasped, trying to get air back into his lungs as he smiled. “This is so random, dude!”
“I got your email about you guys going back to Florida,” he said, “so I thought I’d go with you guys!”
“Well, come on in!” said Gary. “It’s been a while since we’ve seen you!”
“Yeah,” said James, “it’s cold out here! I’ve never seen snow like this before.”
The three of us went back inside and took seats in the living room. James sat down and looked around with a big grin on his face.
“Nice place you guys got here,” he said. “Sure beats my trailer.”
“So, what are you doing up here?” Gary asked him. “Wouldn’t it have been easier to just fly down to Florida and meet us there?”
“Blah, that would’ve been boring,” James replied, leaning back in his chair. “Besides, isn’t traveling more fun when you’re with friends?”
“Um, I guess you’re right,” Gary chuckled.
“It’s nice to see you again, James,” I said. “I wasn’t expecting you to visit so suddenly.”
“Yeah, how long has it been now?” said James. “It was at your wedding about seven years ago.”
“It’s hard to believe it’s been that long,” said Gary.
“I know, man!” said James, scratching his beard. “Damn, we’re old.”
Anna came into the living room to see what was going on. She had some more pretzels and was looking at James as she munched them.
“Anna, this is my friend, James,” said Gary.
“Ah, so that’s the little squirt?” said James. “She looks just like you, Krystal.”
I felt myself blush a little. Everyone said Anna looked a lot like me, even James.
Anna smiled and waved shyly at James before turning around to run back into her room.
James chuckled a little.
“You guys have a beautiful daughter,” he said.
“She’s our pride and joy,” said Gary.
James looked over at Gary and gave him a small congratulatory smile. Then he leaned back in his chair again and stretched.
“So, James,” said Gary, “can I ask you something?”
Gary paused with a grin.
“You had a long trip,” he said. “Are you hungry?”
James’s eyes lit up as he practically jumped out of his chair.
“You can read me like an open book!” said James enthusiastically. “What’s on the menu today?”
“We aren’t sure yet,” said Gary. “We were thinking about going out for dinner, so we’re just —”
“Pizza!” James had a look of hypnotic hunger on his face.
“Pizza?” Gary asked, puzzled. “You mean like delivery?”
James’s eyes got even brighter, if that was somehow possible.
“Yeah! Doesn’t that sound delightful right now?”
I felt a small pang of hunger. Pizza did sound really good.
“But we were going out somewhere,” Gary tried to explain.
I could clearly see the gears turning in James’s head as he thought about it. He had this small, goofy grin on his face while he was in deep thought.
“Where are you guys going?” he asked finally.
“Uh, we haven’t thought about it yet,” said Gary.
“Well, let’s think about it,” said James, sitting back down.
“Where do you want to go, Krystal?” Gary asked me.
“I don’t care,” I replied. “You can pick.”
“You want me to pick?” said Gary. “Uh, how about that restaurant by the car dealership? It’s a pretty nice restaurant, but not too expensive. Well, it’s a little costly … but that’s not a problem.”
“Okay,” I said, “we can go there.”
“Alright, I’ll tell Anna to get ready,” said Gary, standing up.
“I’ve been ready!” Anna ran back into the living room, dressed up and ready to go. “You guys are slow!”
James was incredibly amused by our daughter.
“She told it how it is, Gary!” he said. “I’m practically starving to death over here while you guys decide what we’re going to do!”
“Yeah!” Anna chimed in. It was easy to see she was highly entertained. “I’m hungry!”
“Your parents are slowpokes, aren’t they?” James asked Anna playfully.
“Slowpokes!” Anna repeated.
“They’re gonna get along just great,” Gary muttered.
We all put on our shoes and coats to get ready. James and Anna were practically pushing Gary and me out the door. Gary offered to drive his car, so I took the front passenger seat while James sat in the back with Anna.
“Are we there yet?” James asked about five minutes after we had left.
“Don’t make me turn this car around,” said Gary.
“It isn’t very far, is it?” Anna asked.
“Yeah, how far away is it?” James asked. “It’s not too far, is it?”
“It’s far enough,” Gary told him.
“What’s that mean?” James asked, irritated.
“It means we’ll get there when we get there,” Gary replied, sounding a little impatient, “so don’t ask, okay?”
“Yeah, don’t ask!” Anna told James firmly.
“Just whose side are you on, kid?” said James disappointedly.
“So, how’s Arizona, James?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s great!” he said. “It’s kinda hot and dry and all, but it’s really nice. I’m the assistant manager for a restaurant.”
“Assistant manager?” Gary was astonished by what James had said. “You?”
“Yeah,” said James. “I took a few business classes. I know what I’m doing.”
“When did you take business classes?” Gary asked.
“A few years ago when I was in college,” said James. “I got my associate’s degree early last year.”
Gary looked even more astonished.
“You did?” he asked. “No way, that’s awesome!”
“I bet you guys never imagined me going into the business field!” said James proudly.
“Well, no,” said Gary. “The part about working in a restaurant is like you, but not being assistant manager and taking business classes.”
“Yup,” said James. “My girlfriend was really happy when I got the promotion at work.”
I thought Gary was going to crash into a tree.
“GIRLFRIEND?” Gary sounded almost hysterical. “When did you get a girlfriend?”
“I met her in college,” James replied.
I was a little curious as to how James had no idea that Gary never imagined James amounting to anything in his life. Nonetheless, I was really happy for him.
“Where is she?” Gary asked.
“Actually,” said James dully, “she’s my ex now.”
“Oh,” said Gary. “Didn’t work out?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “But it was nice being with her. And I made sure to get some fun out of it, if ya know what I mean, heh.”
“What’d you do?” I asked.
“I think it might be kinda personal,” Gary whispered to me.
There were a few seconds of silence before James spoke up again.
“Hey,” he said, leaning forward between the front seats, “turn the radio on. Let’s get some music going.”
I immediately turned on the radio and went through the stations. Gary had satellite radio in his car, and I always loved messing with it.
“Uh oh,” James grinned, “Krystal’s the DJ tonight! Get ready for something heavy!”
Gary smiled and shook his head.
“Try not to pick something too heavy, okay?” he said to me.
“Okay,” I replied.
“Oh, come on, man,” James protested. “Whatcha got against the metal?”
“I have nothing against it,” Gary explained. “I just prefer something a little easier on the ears, you know? And less angry.”
“Your daddy’s not a true rocker,” James told Anna. She grinned and laughed.
“Oh, whatever!” said Gary humorously. “At least I don’t listen to pop, like somebody I know ….”
“Hey, hey, hey,” said James, “there is nothing wrong with listening to pop music! And it’s not all pop, a lot of it is EDM. I keep up with the latest artists all the time. You have to if you go clubbing as much as I do.”
“Clubbing?” Gary tried to keep himself from laughing out loud. “Living life to the fullest out in Arizona?”
James leaned back and smiled.
“Yup,” he replied contently.
We made it to the restaurant in under half an hour, and James was already pumped up to eat. He had his seatbelt off and was out of the car before Gary shifted into park. The rest of us climbed out and took a look around.
“It’s kinda busy tonight,” said Gary.
“Oh yeah!” James stretched and yawned loudly. “That stretch felt good. Why is everything so far away from your house?”
“That’s just how it is in Michigan,” said Gary.
“Michigan kinda sucks,” said James. “It’s freezing out here! Let’s go inside and eat! I’m so hungry that I could eat a bear.”
“A whole bear?” Anna asked, wide-eyed.
“A whole bear,” said James, looking dead serious. Anna was amazed.
“Don’t listen to him, sweetheart,” said Gary, putting Anna up on his shoulders. “He’ll make you think weird things.”
“Weird things?” said Anna. “Like ferrets being slapped by rainbows?”
Gary was completely dumbfounded by what Anna had said. I giggled a little.
“She’s already corrupted like me!” said James proudly.
“Let’s keep our corruption to ourselves,” Gary told him with a half-grin.
We walked into the restaurant and stood in line. There was a large group of people, and more people kept coming in behind us. I had only eaten there a couple times before, and it was usually pretty busy.
“Man, it’s like a mosh pit in here!” James blurted out.
“It’s probably really busy because it’s Friday night,” said Gary.
“What’s a mosh pit?” Anna asked as Gary placed her back on the ground.
“A place where crazy and angry people go to have fun,” Gary replied.
Despite the crowd, we were only in line for a couple minutes before we were seated. Gary sat next to James, and I sat next to Anna and across from the men. As soon as we received our menus, James flipped his open and buried his face in it. I wasn’t very sure what I wanted, so I slowly looked over the menu to carefully decide what I was going to get, closely reading the descriptions of each item.
“Hello,” said the waiter when he got to our table. “How are you folks this evening?”
“Good,” we all said in unison.
“Are you guys ready to order?” the waiter asked.
“It’s gonna be a minute,” said James abruptly, not looking up from the menu.
“Okay,” said the waiter, “I’ll be back in a little bit. Can I get you anything to drink in the meantime?”
After we ordered our drinks, I watched the waiter swiftly take off through the busy restaurant before I looked back at the menu. Everything sounded so good and it was hard to decide what I wanted.
“Ooh, I’m gonna get the steak!” said James with a dedicated expression. “It comes with veggies and stuff. Doesn’t that sound SCRUMPTIOUS?”
“Scrumptious!” Anna repeated.
“Uh, that’s kinda expensive,” said Gary slowly. “Are you paying for yourself?”
James slapped the menu down on the table with a smug expression.
“Of course I am!” he said cockily. “What’d you think? I don’t have money? I’m an assistant manager, remember?”
“I was just asking,” said Gary. “What are you getting, Krystal?”
I looked quickly over the page of the menu I was on until I found what I wanted.
“Chicken strips,” I told him quietly. “I like them here.”
“I’m looking at the fajitas,” said Gary. “They look good. I’ve never had them before.”
“Hamburger!” said Anna. “With fries! And ketchup!”
“Their hamburgers are pretty big, Anna,” said Gary. “You think you can finish it?”
“She can if she takes after her mommy,” James chortled. He looked at me and smiled, and I smiled back. It was nice to see good old James again after so long.
While we were eating, Gary and James talked almost nonstop about anything they could think of. I could only imagine how they felt to be with each other for the first time in years. The chicken strips I ordered were delicious, and I tried my best to eat them at a reasonable pace without inhaling them. Anna was about halfway done with her hamburger when she started showing signs of stopping.
“Oh no,” said James, looking at Anna. “You can’t stop yet! You’re halfway done!”
“That thing’s about as big as her head,” said Gary. “You can’t expect her to eat the whole thing.”
“But she’s the daughter of Krystal!” said James statistically. “She has to be able to consume all food within a small radius of herself! If black holes can eat light, then ….”
“You calling my kid fat?” said Gary amusedly. “Even if she does take after her mom, she still can’t eat something bigger than her! Krystal has her limits, too.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” said James.
When I smiled at James’s comment, a piece of food fell out of my mouth and onto my plate, which I quickly picked up and ate. James had apparently noticed.
“She leaves no crumbs behind,” he said.
Anna let out a surprisingly loud burp, then looked around with a big smile. Almost immediately after, she continued eating her hamburger again with no problems.
“Aha!” James cheered. “She found her second wind. That burger’s toast.”
Gary just smiled and shook his head.
The rest of dinner was nothing but a good time spent together. As soon as we got situated in the car, James let out a huge groan and sprawled back against the seat. He was clutching his stomach with a look of painful satisfaction.
“Oh man, I am stuffed!” he announced.
“How was dinner, everyone?” Gary asked out loud as we were leaving the parking lot.
“Good,” I said.
“Scrumptious!” said Anna happily.
“Urgh,” James groaned, “so full ….”
“Well, it sounds like everyone’s happy,” said Gary. “Let’s get back home.”
The ride back home was a rather quiet one. James was the most talkative person in the car, but now he was too full to even move. The only signs of life coming from him were occasional groans whenever the car went over a bump. I watched the snow slowly fall against the windshield as Gary drove through the town. Leaning my head back against the seat, I took the opportunity to relax.
The next morning, after taking my shower, I was walking out of the bathroom when I smelled food. Half curiously, half hungrily, I followed the lovely scent through the house to the kitchen. James was standing by the oven with a ripped-open pizza box on the counter next to him.
“Oh, morning, Krystal!” he said. “I’m making a frozen pizza for breakfast. If I knew you’d be up so early I would’ve made you one, too.”
“That’s okay,” I assured with a weak smile. “Are there any more?”
“Yeah,” said James. “I bought five this morning.”
Gary came trudging groggily into the kitchen when he stopped in his tracks, looking at James with a curious face.
“What are you doing?” he asked. “Are you making pizza?”
“Yup!” said James. “I bought some this morning.”
“You bought some?” Gary opened the freezer and saw the other four pizzas. “How many did you buy?”
“Just five,” James replied.
“JUST five?” said Gary. “What’s with you and pizza?”
“It’s good,” said James innocently.
“How did you get to the store?” Gary asked. “You don’t have a car. You didn’t walk, did you?”
“I borrowed a bike from the garage,” said James, checking the pizza in the oven.
“A bike? Weren’t you freezing? You can’t take a bike in the winter!”
“Nah, I’m fine,” said James. “When it comes to food, I’ll do anything.”
“You couldn’t have just made something else to eat, could you?” Gary sighed, taking a seat at the kitchen table. “You work in a restaurant, and here you are making frozen pizzas.”
The oven timer went off, and James quickly yanked the pizza out of the oven and set the pan on the stove.
“Remember to let it cool,” Gary warned, not sounding very empathetic. “I wouldn’t want you to swallow a ball of molten cheese in wild excitement and hurt yourself.”
“Yeah, I know,” said James. “That’s not a lesson I wanna learn for the third time.”
“You can use the pizza cutter,” I said, pointing out the drawer it was in. “It should be in there.”
“Nah, I’ve got it.” James held out his hand, and in a flash of light, a brilliant, sparkling sword appeared in his grasp. The blade looked as if it had been polished for a hundred years straight, and the glistening jewels in the hilt refracted the light with a magnificent display of colors.
James held the sword in both hands and pressed the tip of the blade straight down into the center of the pizza. Small beams of light spread out of the blade, cutting the pizza into eight perfect slices. James made the sword vanish into thin air, then turned around with a triumphant look.
“Is that what you’ve been doing with Luminae all this time?” said Gary in an annoyed voice. “Using Flare Blade for culinary purposes?”
“I’ve been practicing a little to do that,” James replied proudly. “You can have some pizza if you want. I’ll make another one.”
Gary mumbled something, then got up and took a piece of pizza. When he grabbed it, the pizza pan itself split into eight perfectly sized slices.
“Oops!” said James, scratching his beard. “Guess I used a little too much Luminae.”
Distraught, Gary took his slice of pizza and left the kitchen with it. I looked over at James, who smiled stupidly.