"Hey, is the road supposed to be gravel?" He asked.
"Yep." Louis said simply.
They parked in a cul-du-sac and stepped onto the gravel road. Mary looked up at her mother.
"Is it legal to be here?" Mary asked.
"Yes, sweetheart. We're visiting Laura and Jonathan." Jessica answered, opening the trunk of the car. Pulling out a covered glass pan, she closed the trunk and they set off down the road.
Mouse looked at the pan in Jessica's arms. "What's that?""That is eggplant, mushroom, and beef casserole." Jessica said proudly.
Mouse wrinkled her nose. "There's eggplant in that?"
Jessica frowned at her and said, "Yes, there is eggplant in it."
"Mommy, what's eggplant?" Mary asked.
"It's a vegetable, sweetheart." Louis answered her.
"Mom, I don't like mushrooms." Leo said, "They're all squishy and gross. They make me think of pudding when you, like, leave it out in the open for too long or something and it gets that nasty film over it."
Mouse gave him a look of disgust. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
Jessica shot her a look and hissed, "Hey! No swearing in front of Mary!"
"What does hell mean?" Mary questioned innocently.
Louis told her quietly, "Don't say that, Mary. It's a bad word."
Mary looked shocked. Jessica snapped, "Kids, stop complaining. I made this casserole and you are going to eat it."
Leo, Mouse, and Mary all scowled and Jessica put her arm around Leo's shoulders.
"Now," She said, "I want you all on your best behavior."
They reached a blue house with a huge garden in the front. Jessica gasped, "Ohh, kids, look at this garden!"
The screen door on the house opened and a woman with pale, strawberry blonde hair and a freckly man (who reminded Mouse disturbingly of Chris) stepped out. Both of them were smiling cheerily. The woman threw her arms out and she squealed, "Jessica!"
"Laura, hi!" Jessica cried, her voice jumping up an octave. She rushed over to hug her.
Mouse elbowed Leo and whispered, "Look, it's Chris and Alice in ten years."
Leo snorted and the freckly man walked over to him.
"Hey, Leo, how's it going?" The guy said, smacking Leo on the back.
"Oh, not much... Jonathan." Leo replied, laughing uncomfortably.
The guy's eyes lit up.
"He-hey, you remember my name!" He said, "You can call me John, Leo, no need to be so formal. Man, it's been a while, hasn't it?"
Jessica smiled. "Quite a while, John."
She gestured to Mouse and added, "Laura, John, this is Mouse."
Laura gasped and grinned widely. "Ooh, Leo. Is this your girlfriend?"
Mouse and Leo looked horrified.
"Ew!" Mouse said, disgusted.
"Uh, no, she's my step sister." Leo muttered.
"Oh!" Laura squeaked, "Excuse my ignorance."
John shook his head and he and Laura laughed. Leo smiled tightly, hoping that they wouldn't bring up his dad not being there. It really had been a while.
The screen door opened a crack and Laura turned around. She beckoned toward the house and said, "Oh, come on out, honey. Jessica and the family are here."
Leo and Mouse watched as the door opened a bit wider and a skinny boy slid through the gap. He had fair hair like Laura and freckles like John. He looked about the same age as Mouse and Leo and he was staring down at the sidewalk.
"Come on, it's alright." Laura said perkily. The boy hopped down the steps and stood next to Laura. She put her arm around his narrow shoulders and said, "Kids, this is our son, Casey. Say hi to Leo and Mouse, Casey."
The boy, Casey, looked up at them shyly. His eyes fell on Mouse and his shoulders sagged slightly, his eyes wide.
Arms crossed, Mouse eyed him. When he kept staring, she gave him a threatening look and Casey looked away.
John said cheerfully, "Well, there's no reason to stand out in the yard. Let's go inside."
Leo and Mouse exchanged a look; did they even want to see the inside of the house?
The group followed their hosts into the house and Mouse whispered to Leo, "Remind me why we're with these people again? Are we here to let them chop us up into little pieces and feed us to their outcast son?"
"They're my mom's good friends, Mouse, that's why we're here." Leo whispered back, "We've known them for years and yeah, they're dorks, but don't be so hard on them. They're nice."
Mouse scowled at Leo and he gave her an uneasy smile.
The two families sat around the neatly set dinner table, the adults chatting enthusiastically.
"This casserole is fantastic, Jessica." Laura gushed, "Oh, it's just wonderful."
"Thank you." Jessica replied, nodding slightly.
John turned to Leo and Mouse, "So, where do you kids go to school?"
"Withrow High." Leo said. Mouse kicked him under the table and he winced.
Laura beamed, "Oh, I've heard of that place. Excellent education program it has!"
Leo leaned over and hissed to Mouse, "What was that for?"
"What's wrong with you, Leo, do you want them to know where we go to school?" Mouse whispered quickly, "Next thing I know, you're gonna be telling them where we live!"
Leo answered, "They already know where we live, Mouse, they've been to our house."
Mouse studied him, then sat back in her seat. "What is the world coming to?"
Louis smiled politely and addressed Casey, "So, Casey, where do you go to school?"
The boy sitting across from him looked up from the food he had been stirring together on his plate.
"Dinsbury." He replied softly.
Jessica nodded and said, "Oh, where is that?"
Casey stared at her, looking troubled by the demand for conversation.
"J-just north of here." He muttered.
Mouse looked over and saw both Jessica and Louis nodding like they were really interested in where his school was located, identical tight smiles on their faces.
When no more answers were requested from him, Casey quickly turned his concentration back to stirring his dinner.
Leo had barely gotten two more bites of mashed potatoes in before the next question was fired at him. Laura set down her wine glass and grinned at him.
"So," She said, "Are there any girls that you like, Leo?"
Leo looked up, surprised and a little taken off guard by the question.
"Any girls?" He said, swallowing his potatoes. He glanced at his mother. She was giving him a dark look, but smiled sweetly when he looked. Leo turned back to Laura and said, "Well... I guess there is this one girl..."
Both Laura and John gasped, like their friend's son's love life was the most exciting gossip of the evening.
"Her name is Tae-Hyun," Leo said thoughtfully, "She's in the same grade as us and she's from South Korea."
"Oh, how cool." Laura said, her eyes lighting up.
Her face propped up on her hand, Mouse looked over at Casey. Even he didn't look like he didn't want to be there.
He is the same age as us. Mouse thought, There has to be something human about him.
That look on his face, that look of discomfort and unhappiness, that was it. It made Mouse smile.
"What about you, Mouse?" John asked.
"Huh?" Mouse said, breaking away from her thoughts.
Laura and John watched her expectantly.
"Is there anyone special in your life?" Laura asked.
Casey looked up. Leo gave Mouse an uneasy look. Even Jessica, Louis, and Mary looked interested.
Mouse looked around at all of them, suddenly feeling even more uncomfortable.
"No." She said flatly, "I... No."
John and Laura stared at her, their faces stuck in between a smile and a frown, like they didn't have a reaction prepared for this response. They simply nodded and an awkward silence fell over the table. Mouse looked back down at her dinner, picking through it with her fork, and Mary saved her.
"This is boring." She said out loud.
"Mary," Jessica hissed.
"Oh, that's alright." Laura said, laughing and waving it off. She turned to John and said, "John, dear, why don't you show them the..."
John put down his fork and started wiping his hands on his napkin, "Oh, yes, of course!"
He got up from his chair and walked around the table. He squatted down next to Mary and she gave him a very skeptical look.
"How would you like," John said, smiling, "To see our dog's puppies?"
Mary's eyes widened. "Puppies?"
Mouse's shoulders sagged.
"Yep! They're just out back." John said, straightening up, "Come on, kids, let's go have a look. Grown-ups, too, whoever wants to."
Jessica, Leo, Mouse, and Mary followed John out through the dining room door and out onto the deck.
"I built this deck myself." John said proudly, "With the help of my little buddy, Casey, in there."
"Oh, really." Jessica said, her voice still high and enthusiastic.
John nodded, leading them onto the grass, "Yes, indeed, a couple of summers ago. Come along."
He lead them to what looked like a small house across the lawn.
"We built this as well," John said as he opened the door and flicked on a light, "But this one is newer. It's like a high-class shed."
"Wow, very nice." Jessica said, surveying the small room, "Very clean."
Just then, small whimpers made their way across the room and Mouse looked at John. "What was that?"
John beamed, like this was the moment he had been waiting for.
"Here," He said. He lead them across the small room and into another. In the next room, within a short wooden fence in the corner of the tile floor, was a bundle of blankets, a small, cream-and-white colored dog, and several puppies of different colors.
Mouse's heart dropped to her knees.
"Puppies!" Mary cried, rushing to them. The rest of the group followed her and Mouse started to run, then stopped abruptly and walked next to Leo. He gave her a puzzled look. Leo, Mouse, and Mary all squatted down to look at the puppies. Mary gasped in wonder.
"They're so cute!" She cooed, "How old are they?"
John crouched down next to her and said, "They're almost three months old."
He smiled and added, "You know, we're looking for a home for them."
He looked up at Jessica and she smiled, nodding. Mary's and Mouse's eyes widened.
"You want us to..." Mouse said, "Take one of them home?"
John looked at her and smiled, "We would love for you to take one of them home."
He laughed. "Even better, each of you kids pick one out and bring that home!"
Mary gasped and looked excitedly at her mother, who had a look of unease on her face. She asked, "What kind of dogs did you say these were, John?"
"Their mommy is a Japanese Chin." John said proudly, "Their daddy is a Tibetan Spaniel."
Mouse stared at the puppies, her head cocked to the side. Leo glanced at her, looking uncomfortable.
"Hey, Mouse." He said.
"What?" Mouse said lightly, looking at him. She hardened her tone and repeated, "What?"
"D'you wanna hold one?" Leo asked, looking at John, "Could she hold one?"
John smiled, "Certainly."
He opened the little wooden gate and stepped inside. Mouse looked at Leo.
John reached down and gingerly picked up one of the puppies. It whimpered and he shushed it, petting its head gently. He stepped out of the little pen and closed the door behind him. Leo, Mary, and Jessica watched tensely as John kneeled down next to Mouse and carefully handed her the puppy.
Mouse sat down on the floor, holding the little dog in her hands. Its fur was black-and-white and it had huge eyes. It whimpered for a moment, then snuggled up to Mouse and rested its head on her arm. She gasped, looking up at her family. Leo and Mary were watching her in fear. Jessica looked confused and John was beaming.
"I think he likes you." John said adoringly.
"It's a he?" Mouse said softly. She looked down at the puppy in her arms.
John smiled and nodded.
Mouse let out a breath and cocked her head again, gazing down at the puppy. Mary said suspiciously, "Mouse, did you eat anything funny today?"
"She ate the same thing as us, stupid." Leo remarked. Jessica smacked him in the back of the head and said, "Be nice to your sister."
"Does he have a name?" Mouse asked.
John shook his head, "Not yet."
"I wanna name him!" Mary whined.
Mouse shot a deadly look at her. "Never."
"Mommy-" Mary protested.
Leo complained, "Come on, Mary, why does everything have to be about you?"
"Because I'm the littlest and I'm the cutest and I deserve to have everything be about me." Mary shot back.
Leo looked offended, "Nuh-uh!"
"Uh-huh!" Mary argued.
"Guys," Mouse hissed, "Be quiet, you're gonna disturb him."
Leo and Mary exchanged a look.
"Well," John said, "I think I better go inside and help Laura clean up, but-"
"Can we stay here?" Mouse interjected. Seeing the look on Leo's face, she added, "You know... So Mary can get a chance to hold a puppy."
John nodded, "Sure thing."
Jessica smiled and said, "Thanks, John. I'll come inside."
"No problem." John said, addressing Mouse, Leo, and Mary again, "You can hold whichever one you like, just make sure none of them that you aren't holding get out."
Mouse nodded and she, Leo, and Mary watched John and Jessica leave the little house. Leo grinned at Mouse. She scowled at him and snapped, "What?"
"You just love that little puppy." Leo said, his tone dangerously close to a gush.
"Watch it, Leo." Mouse said icily.
Mary reached over Mouse's lap, "I wanna hold him."
Mouse moved away, "No way, dipwad, hold a different one."
Leo stifled his laughter to save himself from Mouse's wrath. Mary snapped at Mouse, "I wanna hold that one, dummy head!"
"Not a chance, dwarf!" Mouse said mockingly, "Dummy head? Is that the best you can come up with?"
"Who are you calling dwarf, fatty?" Mary sneered.
Mouse looked offended, "Shut up!"
"Guys, stop it." Leo said, but he looked extremely amused. "Just... Stop fighting and enjoy the puppies."
"That's what she said." Mary commented.
Mouse whirled to look at Leo, "Did you hear that? Your sister's disgusting."
Leo broke into a furious laughing fit and Mouse grimaced at him. She held the puppy away from him and Mary, "You sicken me. Both of you."
Mary stuck out her tongue and Mouse did the same.
Leo got another puppy out of the pen and set it in Mary's arms.
"It just sits there." She remarked.
Mouse stuck her finger in front of her puppy's face and it licked it. She smiled and let out a little chuckle. Once again, Leo looked at her in horror. He pointed at her, "Did you just...?"
Mouse glared at him. "What?"
"Did you just..." Leo said suspiciously, "... Giggle?"
"No." Mouse said sharply.
A grin spread across Leo's face. "You did. You just giggled."
Mouse sneered at him, "I don't giggle."
Mary giggled. Mouse jerked her head at her. "See? That was a giggle."
"Right." Leo said, looking away. His amusement made Mouse angry, but then she remembered the puppy in her lap.
"Leo, I have to go potty." Mary said, "Help me find the bathroom."
Leo frowned. "No. Can't you find it yourself?"
Mary shook her head and Leo groaned, "Fine."
He took the puppy from Mary and put it back in the pen. He said to Mouse, "You might wanna put that puppy back soon. I heard they disintegrate if they're away from their mothers for too long."
Mouse looked up at him. "Are you kidding? Only a dumbass like you would believe that."
"Believe what?" Leo asked.
"That puppies disintegrate when they're away from their mom for too long." Mouse said flatly.
Leo's eyes widened, "Dude, put that puppy back! You've had it out for too long!"
Mouse stared at her step brother, trying to decide whether he was joking or not. She decided not and said, "Take your sister to the bathroom."
Mary squirmed next to Leo. He nodded and said, "Okay... But be careful with that puppy."
Mouse rolled her eyes and Leo left the room. Mary said, "He is so stupid sometimes."
"Yes," Mouse said, "Don't let him drown in the toilet."
Mary nodded and left the room. Mouse looked down at the puppy and said quietly, "Maybe I have had you out a little long."
She carefully stood up with the puppy and put it down by its mother.
Casey quietly poked his head into the room. Mouse turned around and jumped.
"Oh," She said, the edge returning to her voice, "It's you."
Casey edged into the room and asked quietly, "So, you like the puppies?"
Mouse grimaced and said, "Yeah, I guess. They're alright."
She turned and looked down at the nest of puppies. Casey walked up and stood next to her, his hands in his pockets.
"I saved that dog." He said, gesturing to the pen, "The mom... She was laying in the road, 'cause her foot was hurt. She was little then."
Mouse gave Casey a questioning look and he continued, "It's a miracle that she didn't get run over. I guess I came just in time."
He looked at Mouse for a moment and his eyes darted back to the pen. Mouse looked down, too.
"So, the mom's a..." She said.
"And the dad's that terrier thing?"
Casey nodded, but he said, "A-a Tibetan Spaniel."
Mouse raised an eyebrow at him and he said, "They're not much... Bigger than the, uh, the Japanese Chins. They're like-"
Casey held out his hands to show her. Mouse cracked a grin.
"Right." She said, looking back at the puppies.
Casey stood there a moment. He shifted uncomfortably and said, "So..."
Mouse's jaw tightened.
"W-which one's your favorite?" Casey asked, "Which puppy?"
Mouse studied the huddle of dogs. She pointed to the black-and-white one that she had been holding. "That one. With the black fur."
Casey nodded, grinning slightly, "Yeah, that's a good one. He's the only black-and-white one."
"I can see that." Mouse said, nodding.
Casey smiled at her, looking like it wasn't something he practiced often. He backed away and said, "Well, I guess I should probably go now. Inside."
He turned to leave and Mouse said, "Hey, Casey."
Casey turned around, surprised. "Yeah?"
Mouse nodded to him and said, "Thanks for the story. About the mom."
Casey stood there, not sure how to respond.
"No problem." He said, and he turned and left the little house just as Leo and Mary came back. Leo watched him leave.
"You were talking to that Casey kid?" He asked Mouse, surprised.
She shrugged, "Yeah, he's alright."
Jessica popped her head through the doorway and hissed, "Kids, we're only bringing home one of those dogs."
Mouse protested, "No! Mary will make Mitnick wear girly clothes and she'll drag him around all the time."
Leo, Mary, and Jessica all looked at Mouse. They said in unison, "Mitnick?"
"That's his name." Mouse said, crossing her arms, "After Kevin Mitnick? One of the greatest black hat computer hackers of all time?"
When they returned blank looks, Mouse rolled her eyes, "Kevin Mitnick! He got arrested, like, four times for computer fraud and possession of unauthorized access devices."
"You are so weird." Mary said.
Jessica crossed her arms and looked at the nest of puppies. Mouse picked up the black-and-white puppy and held it in front of her. Jessica stroked its head and smiled. Mary went to pick up her puppy and Leo helped her get it out of the pen.
Jessica looked around at the kids. She rolled her eyes and sighed heavily.
"Have a safe trip!" Laura said, waving.
John said, "Thanks for coming, guys. Come again soon!"
"Thanks for having us." Louis said, smiling and waving at them.
They walked down the gravel road back to the car, Mouse and Leo each carrying a puppy.
"I want to hold Genevieve!" Mary whined, grabbing Leo's arm. He pulled away and said, "No way, you're not carrying it to the car."
"Genevieve is a she!" Mary snapped.
Mouse leaned over and said to Jessica, "You see why we need two?"
"We don't need either of them." Jessica said, but she smiled at Mouse. "... You love that puppy, don't you?"
Mouse scowled, "Why do you guys keep saying that? Sure, puppies are fine."
"Alright." Jessica grinned smugly and they walked back to the car.