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Prudence, Chapter 41

The party was at one on Saturday. They decided that Kristen riding with him could be easily explained by her father's busy schedule and Mark living conveniently close by. It'd be natural for him to offer her a ride. They even stopped briefly by Steven's house, so that his car, if anyone saw it, would be seen leaving from there.

When they got to Kayla's house, the door was answered by a small child. Blond, male, about 7 years old. He looked up at them suspiciously. " 'lo," he mumbled. "You here for the party?"

Mark smiled. "Yes, we are."

The boy gave a long suffering sigh. "C'mon in then. They're all in the basement."

"Okay," Mark said, and followed Kristen in. The house was a mess. Not dirty, exactly, just chaotic. A cage of small, multicolored lizards occupied the couch in the front room. None of the furniture matched, and much of it was slightly burnt, torn, or chewed looking. What was probably meant to be a den was completely empty, except for boxes stacked against one wall. There were random pieces of lab equipment here and there. And books were everywhere, of course.

The boy led them through the house and to a door in the kitchen. A flight of stairs led down, decorated with purple and green paper streamers. The basement was huge. In fact, it looked quite a bit bigger than the house above it.

The stairs were sturdy, with a good handrail. A table full of alchemical glassware was pushed against one wall and tied with balloons. There were chairs and a table in the center of the large space, as well as what looked like it might be the furniture from the empty den upstairs. One corner of the basement was walled off, with a sturdy looking door leading into the large room.

Something strange and Middle Eastern sounding was playing, and the sound seemed to come from everywhere, as if the musicians were surrounding them. It took Mark a little bit to spot the tiny speakers nestled amongst the rafters. Half a dozen or so people were already in the room. He managed to spot Kayla in the center, sitting with a resigned expression on her face while being fussed over by a woman who looked a lot like an older version of herself.

He took a step towards her, then stopped, startled, as a fireball suddenly blossomed with a "WHOOSH!" in one corner. "Nearly had it that time!" The man in the corner was about 40, had black hair, singed eyebrows, and Kayla's grey eyes.

"Dad!" Kayla shouted. "It's okay. Self-lighting candles are not necessary!" A pretty blonde girl, about sixteen, snickered from the couch.

"Kayla, are you sure I shouldn't have brought my bag of tricks?" Mark asked, smiling.

"Definitely not," she said, standing up. "Hey, gang, this is my science teacher, Mark Hasseran, and Kristen. Guys, the one on fire is my Dad, Jacob. The one with the hairbrush and the maternal gleam is my mother, Anna. The demon who led you here is Josh, my baby brother. This--" She nodded towards a well-preserved older woman, who appeared to be in her mid to late forties, "Is the only sane person in my family, my grandma Sheila. Grandpa Joshua is somewhere with his demonic namesake. Aunt Ellen has control of the... music... over there. Her husband's in Germany." She pointed to a pair of twin boys, about three years old. "These two littler blond demon are hers. And Amber here," she said, pointing to the girl on the couch, "is technically my aunt. And you know Aaron, of course."

Mark blinked, taking it all in, then looked at Amber. "Your aunt? I see your family must age very slowly, then."

Amber looked him up and down with appreciative blue eyes, then smiled seductively. "Oh, we can age quite fast, I assure you."

Kayla snorted, her eyes narrowed with irritation. "Amber is Grandma's last child. The baby of the family."

"Older than you, Kayla dear!" the girl snapped defensively.

"Ah, I see," Mark said, hastily, then looked around for someplace to put his gift.

Grandma Sheila smiled, and he got the impression that she was quite aware of the tension between her youngest daughter and her granddaughter and found it interesting. "Table. Over there away from the open flame," she said helpfully. He smiled his thanks and headed that way.

After he deposited the packages, Kayla's father came up to shake hands. "Nice to meet you," Jacob said, "Kayla talks about you a lot."

Mark smiled, taking his hand. "Complaining I give her too much homework?"

"I think she enjoys it, actually," Jacob said. "Thank you for letting her use your telescope. I think it's wonderful of you to give the kids a safe place for extended learning after school."

"I'm just glad to see some kids who actually want to learn," Mark said, then lowered his voice, "Actually, could I talk to you a moment about Kayla's present? I want to make sure it's okay with you."

"Sure, no problem," Jacob said, then turned to where Kristen was lingering nervously near Mark. "Kristen, honey, why don't you and Aaron and the other girls see if you can find something that's not as awful as Ellen's favorite. I'm sure Kayla has some CDs. All teenagers have CDs." Once she'd moved out of earshot, he cocked his head curiously. "What's on your mind, Mark?"

"Well, I wanted to get her something she'd really like, so I settled on coupons good for me to take her on field trips. Museums in Fort Worth, that sort of thing. But I thought I should clear it with you first; if you aren't comfortable, I can swap it out with an identical package with money in it."

"No, no!" Jacob protested hurriedly. "That's a wonderful idea! It's so much trouble to get the whole family together to go out... and Josh is quite a handful, to be honest, so we don't take trips as often as we should. She'd love it. But are you sure you want to saddle yourself with a teenage girl on your weekends like that? I mean, you're not a parent yourself."

Mark grinned. "Honestly, I don't mind. And it's an excuse for me to go to those places as well. I'd probably never get around to it on my own.

"Well, if you really don't mind. I know she's bored here in Prudence. She'd be simply thrilled."

The party was... odd. The whole family seemed to have a habit of carrying on at least two conversations at a time, and changing their focus of attention rapidly. It was a very loving group, actually, and Kayla was obviously very fond of them, and even showed marked affection for her little brother. The only outsider was Amber, who was about as far from Kayla in personality as was possible to get and still be the same species. She was quite aware of her looks, and was obviously used to using them to get her way.

She was quite good at making catty little comments in a perfectly 'innocent' way, too. For example, after Kayla opened Mark's present, "What a wonderful present for a little bookworm like Kayla! And of course no one would think anything about you being alone with her!"

She also seemed determined to get close to Mark, and was particularly, and blatantly 'friendly' towards him, until he'd maintained an attitude of 'polite but not interested' for long enough to make it clear that his mind wasn't going to change. Then, after a brief pout, she shifted her primary focus from him to Aaron.

Aaron certainly didn't welcome the attention, but seemed to be at a loss as to how to deal with it. His eyes flicked pleadingly towards Mark, who in turn had a quiet word with Kristen the first chance he got, suggesting she might want to help the boy out.

Kristen, who up to then hadn't been sure Amber was being deliberately nasty, narrowed her eyes dangerously. Amber had simply avoided her, rather than saying anything directly, since Kristen didn't seem to be interested in either of the 'available' males present. The fact that Kristen, in the clinging black silk, with her red-gold curls loose down her back, was much, much prettier than Amber probably had something to do with it, too. The girl wasn't used to having competition without some flaw for her to jump on, and she didn't know how to handle it.

Kristen knew how to handle her, though. "Amber dear, I've just got to ask... what brand hair-dye do you use?" she asked sweetly. "I can barely see your roots at all, and it's so hard to get a blonde that will cover them."

Amber stiffened, then smiled. It wasn't a particularly friendly smile. Mark got the impression that war had been officially declared. He decided a diversion was in order... but one that would firmly place Kristen even further above the little viper's class. "By the way, Kayla," he said, as if trying to change the subject, "did you know you've actually got a challenger for first place in Chemistry now?"

"Oh?" Kayla asked, then glanced at Aaron speculatively.

Mark nodded. "Yep. Kristen, here, is giving you a run for your money."

"Cool!" She grinned, and her grey eyes gleamed. "Studying together has helped, then. My English grades have come up, too. Aaron, you'll have to start joining us."

"Jeez, Kay!" Amber sneered. "Some people have better ways to spend their evenings."

Aaron looked at her with a slightly curled lip. "Actually," he said quietly, "I can't think of a better way to spend time than with Kayla and Kristen. No matter what they want to do."

Mentally, Mark clapped as the girl seethed speechlessly.

The rest of the family seemed blissfully unaware of Amber's snippiness... they weren't the most socially astute people he'd ever met, that's for sure. Fun, yes, but very strange. Jacob showed Mark his collection of fertilizers... or rather, the plants growing in them. Some of them were quite odd. More than a bit alien looking, in fact. Slightly ominous, even. Kayla's brother, having lost his sullen mood with the arrival of cake, showed off his pet squirrel, with traces of blue dye still showing it its tail. Her aunt Ellen reclaimed the stereo and, at one point, played a CD which consisted of 5 minutes of silence, then one drum beat. Over and over again. Her mother proudly admitted that she baked the cake herself. It was boysenberry flavored, with pomegranate frosting. Throughout most of the party, Grandpa Josh and little Josh amused themselves by filling balloons with hydrogen, tying bits of fuse cord to them, putting them in metal cages, and lighting them on fire.

Upon first witnessing that, Mark sighed and leaned towards Kayla. "I should have brought my bag of tricks. I really should have."

"Please don't encourage them!" she whispered. "And where the fuck did she get that jumpsuit?"

Mark chuckled quietly. Kayla had very carefully concealed any reaction to Kristen's outfit when they arrived, but he knew she'd noticed. "At a tailor's in Dallas. She's having some more clothes made. You said she needed more clothes, remember?"

He smiled as he looked over at Kristen and Aaron, who had finally found an effective Amber deterrent. He was quite convincingly playing the role of lovesick puppy for Kristen, at the same time displaying absolute repugnance anytime the blonde girl came near him. Earlier he had done the same for Kayla. He was even sweetly flirtatious with the three eldest women in the room. Everyone except Amber, in fact. Kayla and Kristen were openly amused, and Amber was reacting with poorly concealed rage.

Kayla shook her head. "Yeah, but... I mean... damn! You let her go outside in that?!"

"Yep. Nice, isn't it?" he asked, and she swallowed hard. "I wonder what you'd look like in something like that?" he added.

"Yeah, right," she said, but there wasn't any bitterness in the words. Actually, she was looking more relaxed than he'd ever seen her. The new contacts let her get rid of her thick glasses without squinting blurrily at the world, and her grey eyes, hid for so long, seemed huge and exotic now. Her hair was down, just a bit gathered away from her face. And the dress her mother had insisted she wear was a soft, flowing thing that flattered her slender figure and draped enticingly across her large breasts. She smiled up at him. "Be right back, gotta ask Mom something."

"Oh?" he asked.

"Need to see if I can spend the night with Kristen. Should be okay, since Grandma's staying the night and Mom knows Amber and I can't stand each other."

"Oooo, I like that idea."

She grinned. "Gonna ask your pet to join us?"

"Think he could get away with it?"

"His dad's still doing that deer thing down at the park," she said. "I doubt he'd care, really."

"Hmmm. You ask him for me," Mark said. "It'll give you a chance to make Amber turn an even more interesting shade of purple."

"Um... I can't ask him to spend the night with me and Kristen, Mark," she said patiently. "My parents aren't quite that permissive!"

He laughed. "No, no, just ask him quietly if he wants a ride home... that might not get there until tomorrow."

"No... she'd tell, the little bitch. Though... hmm... got it." She raised her voice, "Mom, can I spend the night with Kris?"

Her mother looked up. "Well, sure, honey, if you want to. Oh, and if Dr. Hasseran doesn't mind giving you a ride, since she rode with him?"

"Not at all," Mark said.

"Thanks, Mom," Kayla said brightly. "Hey, Aaron, you wanna come and watch a movie with us or something? I know you hate being home by yourself when your dad's working."

Aaron smiled angelically. "I'd love to. I'll meet you over there. Want me to bring the movie this time?" His smile became caressing, and the tone of his voice softened to match. "I know just what the two of you like."

Amber, who was already glaring at the words "this time", had more than enough of a dirty mind to interpret that last sentence less than innocently, and choked on her punch. Mark was hard pressed to keep his expression neutral.

Kayla smiled with evil glee. "Sure! You know our tastes. I'm sure we'll like whatever you... bring." There was just the slightest hesitation before the last word, it was almost unnoticeable. But Amber noticed it, and her face darkened to a lovely red.

The party gradually wound down. Kayla unlocked the door to the corner room and emerged with an overnight bag, then carried her presents inside. All except Kristen's drawing, which she was bringing with her. She didn't actually say so, but probably she didn't trust its safety in the house with Amber. She was done shortly, and locked the door behind her. "Bye, guys," she said to her family. "It was a nice party, Mom. Not bad at all. We didn't even have to call the fire department! I'll be back tomorrow evening sometime."

Aaron gave her mother a small bow. "Thank you for inviting me, Mrs. James. I had a wonderful time." He smiled sweetly, the very soul of the amazingly courteous teenager, and lovely enough to leave Anna a touch flustered, graceful enough to leave Amber staring furiously at his back as he mounted the stairs without so much as a glance in her direction.

Once Mark and the girls were safely in the car, with him driving and the two of them in the back seat, Kayla asked cheerfully, "So, are we really going to museums and things, or is it just a clever ploy to get your lecherous old hands on my nubile young body?"

He grinned. "Whatever y'all like. But it lets us go places outside of Prudence."

"Oh gods yes," she said. "Thank you so fucking much for that. And drive faster. I don't think she's got anything on under this jumpsuit."

Kristen giggled.

Mark laughed. "She doesn't. I checked. Oh! Kristen, have you told her about the other present?"

"Ooooooh!" she murmured, sounding kinda distracted. "Hmm? Uh... no, not yet."

"Don't you think you should?" he asked.

"Um... oh!" Kristen gasped instead of answering, and he heard the sound of a zipper, then the rustle of cloth.

"Ahem," he said. "Getting started without me?"

"Just unwrapping my birthday present," Kayla said cheerfully.

Mark chuckled. "That's not your other birthday present. Tell her, love."

"Kayla, we're going to-- mmpfh! Mmmmm... you tell her," Kristen murmured dreamily.

"We're going to get you a set of tailored clothes, like Kristen is getting," he said.

She sat up, stopping what she was doing and causing Kristen to mew in protest. "Huh? Why? I've got clothes."

"So did Kristen," he pointed out.

"No, I've really got clothes. A whole closet full."

"That look like that?" he asked.

"Well... you have a point," she admitted. "But nothing will look like that on me. Just buy more for her and let me take them off, and I'll be quite content, I assure you."

He chuckled again. "Nope. Things will look good on you. Trust me."

"Sounds like a waste of money to me, but fine," Kayla said. "At least it's another trip to Dallas. Besides, Kristen needs a trench coat."

He blinked. "She does? Why?"

"'Cause she's naked, of course."

"I think that's your fault, silly," he said, grinning.

Kristen sounded offended. "You're not even peeking!"

"Nope," he said. "I don't want to run off the road and get us all killed. Think of the newspaper article."

"Here I am, stark naked in the back of your jeep in broad twilight, and you don't even peek!"

He just laughed. Finally, Kayla admitted, "Okay. So she's not naked. But if you had a trench coat handy, she could have been. Just think of the possibilities!"

"Good point," he said. "She needs a trench coat. So do you."

The girls both giggled, and resumed necking in the back seat.

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