Tag Archives: Niblings

2.36.b Sunday Morning Pancakes

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Giggly voice number one: “Her eyes are open, and she’s sitting up.”

Muffled voice number two: “Is she wearing pants?”

Giggly Voice number one: “Nope.”

Catapulted from my revere, I rotated my head and discovered a dark eye below a mop of darker curls surveilling me through a crack in the door. Giggly voice number one, aka my niece Ruby, squealed in response to my regard and attempted to flee the scene – only to plow into and knock over her older brother Theo whom she’d forgotten was standing behind her.

Theo (yelling and kicking the door open wider): “GET OFF ME!”

Ruby (crawling up Theo’s prone form): “She saw me! She saw me!”

Technically the niblings aren’t supposed to open bedroom doors (even temporary ones), but they know I’m a soft touch. 

Me (grinning): “Pipe down guys, or you’ll wake the whole house. Let me find my pants, and I promise I’ll be right there.”

Ruby (streaking down the hall and into the kitchen): “She’s coming to help! She’s coming to help! Auntie Morticia will tell you huckleberries don’t go in……”

Me (getting up to check on her still flattened brother): “You okay down there?”

Theo (groaning): “No, she punched me in the stomach.”

Me (looking down at him): “You gonna be okay, or do you need some ice?”

Theo (clutching his middle theatrically): “No ice.”

Me: “You lay there for a minute while I change.”

Theo (wheezing): “Okay.”

Closing the door, but keeping an ear trained in Theo’s direction, I hastily swapped my pj’s for jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers. I grabbed my pack off the floor and Ira’s mysterious envelope off the desk and reopened the door in four minutes flat, finding Theo sitting cross-legged in the hall.

Me (standing in the doorway): “Feeling better?”

Theo: “Yup.”

Me (helping him up): “So what’s happening in the kitchen?”

Theo (falling in step with me): “Uncle Wood thought it might be fun to try making something other than banana pancakes for breakfast.”

Me (grinning): “Ruby’s not having it?”

Theo (returning my grin): “Nope.”

The pandemonium promised by Wood’s proposed shift to the Sunday Morning menu didn’t disappoint. 

Upon entering the kitchen, Ruby attempted to enlist my aid in explaining to Wood why banana pancakes were the only proper breakfast dish. My oldest nephew Avery stood at the stove carefully cooking bacon, loudly disagreed with his cousin, and extolling the virtues of his dad’s apple cinnamon pancakes. His younger twin sisters Iris and Violet, who didn’t seem to have a stake in pancake controversy, stood at the table enthusiastically mixing bowls of dry ingredients together. Inadvertently haloing their heads in flour and thoroughly coating the tabletop, floor, and aprons with a fine white dust. Wood, who was keeping a close eye on Avery, shot me a mischievous grin and started opening a can of pumpkin puree – sending Ruby into a near apoplectic fit.

Theo drifted towards his cousin, the stove, and the plate of cooked bacon. 

After reassuring Ruby, she’d get her beloved banana pancakes sans apples, pumpkin, chocolate chips, pears, huckleberries, and lingonberries. I crossed the kitchen, set my stuff down next to the door (well out of range of our enthusiastic cooks), donned an apron, and entered the fray.

Forty-seven minutes later, after brokering a pancake peace accord for the ages the niblings, Wood and I sat down at the table to eat. 

Theo, inspired by Scooby Doo’s infamous towering sandwiches, decided to create a new Sunday morning delicacy he named The Stack. Six alternating layers of banana, apple and pumpkin pancakes with pumpkin butter (think peanut butter only made of pumpkin seeds) and bacon between each layer, topped with maple syrup and more bacon. His culinary experiment intrigued everyone, so we all tried our hand at creating this concoction. (Save Ruby, who refuses to acknowledge the existence of alternative pancake flavors.) 

It was surprisingly tasty. 

Demolishing their Stacks in a nauseating spectacle, the niblings now hyped up on bacon, syrup, and carbs took off out the back door making enough noise to wake the dead, the neighbors, and their parents – in that order.

Deciding discretion the better part of valor Wood and I abandoned the kitchen, after making sure the food stayed warm, and there was enough coffee made, to keep an eye on the kids playing in the back garden. Leaning back in the deck chairs, our tummies full of warm autumn spices, we sipped our coffee contentedly.

Wood: “Any big plans today?”

Thinking of the paper-wrapped puzzle in my pack (the real metaphorical carrot helping me bypass my dread), I recalled the deal Wood, and I struck not so long ago.

Me: “Maybe. When’s Laney coming home from the conference again?”

Wood (arching an eyebrow): “Monday. Why?”

Me (warming both my hands on my mug, staring straight ahead): “What are you doing on tonight round about midnight?”

Wood: “I’d planned on sleeping. But I gather you’ve got a counteroffer?”

2.36.a Metaphorical Carrots

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(I do like theSudsy Bubble’s neon sign.)

The continuous rustling, scampering, and whispering outside Uncle’s office door woke me from my full stop sleep. Cracking an eye slowly open, the first thing to kiss my retinas was a weak grey light sidling thru the gap in the curtains. Groaning inwardly, I rapped a knuckle against the hardwood floor twice. 

The niblings giggled in response then scurried off towards the kitchen.

Taking a look at my watch, which read a ridiculously small single-digit number, I managed to heave one leg out from under the well-loved quilt and plant my barefoot on the cool floorboards.

I maintained this pose for the next two minutes.

(The late bedtime, beers, and bull shirting coupled with the absurd – but predictable – early rising of the niblings was producing a speed from me only a three-toed sloth could admire.)

Coaxing the rest of my limbs into coordinating their efforts, I finally sat up. Blinking, my eyesight gradually came into focus on the elephant sitting stoically on the edge of the oak desk, waiting for me to wake up.

The patient pachyderm being a worn inter-office envelope. In theory, it contains a list of names Big Ben dropped in his correspondence with Ira. But after examining the envelope last night, I’m certain Ira included a whole lot more information than just a simple list.

(I’d like to say my powers of deduction have improved…But the fact is the envelope’s bulky, somewhat lumpy and weighs approximately the same as Uncle’s leather-bound, fully illustrated, gilt-edged copy of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities made this illation rather obvious.)

Even though I knew the niblings would return shortly to strong-arm me into ‘helping’ them make banana pancakes and bacon – I longed to solve the riddle wrapped in buff-colored paper. However, the same sly voice in my head that staid my hands last night kept my butt firmly planted on the couch this morning.

It not-so-subtly reminded me that I needed a carrot. 

Not a literal carrot – only donkeys are motivated into action by root vegetable dangling from a stick – but a metaphorical carrot.

Like New Magazine Day.

Founded just under twenty years ago, New Magazine Day developed in response to an unfortunate incident at the Sudsy Bubble Laundromat. When a tremendously tedious chore turned unexpectedly mortifying after the cute guy at the next machine remarked on the shabby state of my underpants. 

In fairness, they were faded, ever so slightly pilled, and threadbare – but that’s beside the point. Snarky Underpants Guy’s comment was a Grade-A violation of laundromat etiquette! Tenets including: never leaving your clothes unattended, never overloading a machine, and never folding a stranger’s finished load. 

You definitely don’t allude to, offer opinions on or critique another patron’s drawers! 

They’re called unmentionables for a reason! 

In any case, instead of wiping the smirk off his face with a well deserved verbal skewering – I turned beet red, stammered out a nonsensical apology, ducked my head, and scurried away (ah, the joys of being nineteen). His subsequent laughter at my very obvious embarrassment caused me to contemplate abandoning my clothes on the spot. Fortunately, I’m made of sterner stuff (and calculated I didn’t have enough money in my checking account to replace them) and waited the sixty-five agonizing minutes for the dryer to finish fluffing my last load. 

Then I booked it out of there, vowing never to set foot inside those four walls ever again. A completely ineffectual vow, as the Sudsy Bubble was both the closest & cheapest of the laundromats in Rye.

Three weeks later, grasping at straws, i.e., dressed in the dredges of my closet, I showed up to Family Feast Day wearing a nuclear green polyester skirt and vest set given to me by my colorblind Grandmother one Christmas.

Aunt Pearl immediately sensed something was wrong.

After sussing out why I was wearing an outfit only Don Knotts could love, she told me I had nothing to be embarrassed about and offered to blister Snarky Underpants Guy’s ears for me. An offer I declined on the grounds it wouldn’t make the situation any less cringeworthy. Nodding thoughtfully over her coffee cup for a few moments, Aunt Pearl leaned forward and confided in me how she managed to sit thru her bi-weekly meetings with her sourpuss of a Principle. 

On the way home, after each of the aforementioned maddening meetings, she stops off at either the Yarn Underground, Warp and Woof or The Crafty Fox to buy herself a little something. A skein of yarn, a yard of fabric or kit – it just needed to be something she’d enjoy playing with – as a reward for keeping her mouth shut. By following her carrot down the straight & narrow, she got something new to craft, kept the peace, and remained gainfully employed. 

(It also explains how Aunt Pearl’s sewing space slowly engulfed the neighboring room – she worked with said pettifogger for fifteen more years after giving me this kernel of wisdom.) 

All I needed to do was find my carrot.

Mulling this over the next day while contemplating which would be worse – wearing my high school P.E. uniform or the ghastly bridesmaid’s dress Jesse’s new husband chose – my eyes landed on a stack of months old magazines I’d borrowed from the Library. 

Eureka! My carrot! I’d buy myself the latest issues of all my favorites magazines to get me past my dread, thru the front doors, and recharge my closet with clean cloths! 

(BTW – I ended up at the Sudsy Bubble at six-thirty am, carrying twelve magazines, in my old P.E. uniform. I used seven machines simultaneously to get every scrap of fabric washed, fluffed, and folded in one go. Thankfully it was a Sunday, and no one, other than the attendant, was around. Otherwise, I’d have been committing a Grade-B violation of laundromat etiquette! Speaking of violations, I didn’t run into Snarky Underpants Guy again for over a month, and happily, my stack of magazines allowed me to ignore him entirely.) 

Ever since then, New Magazine Day has worked beautifully as my go-to carrot.

Until now.

The foot-high stack of unread magazines next to my bed testifies that I needed something more substantial to compel me into investigating the Errant that Flared at Orin.

2.35 Lillith vs. Morticia

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(Yeah, the Halloween mock-up looks just as silly in my mind’s eye as I thought it would!)

Wood, knowing the answer to my question, finished the rest of his beer in one long pull and left to fetch another. 

I’d texted him the news the moment Leo and I parted ways in the Rusty Hinge’s parking lot. The string of emojis he sent back mirrored my own thoughts on the matter. 

On the other hand, my cousins, close to succumbing to sugar comas, only showed a flicker of interest in my intelligence. Though in fairness, their comatose states were enhanced by twenty-five minutes of sprinting from pillar to post and beer. 

Fortunately, nothing, including Morpheus’s sweet embrace, could tamp down Dwight’s professional training and natural curiosity. 

Dwight (visibly forcing the word out): “Who?”

Lounging on the veranda’s railing, as was my custom, I was perfectly placed to watch their reactions in the dim light radiating from the open kitchen door – only Uncle was inscrutable. Sitting, as was his habit, in the comfy chair at the farthest end of the porch fully engulfed in shadows.

Me: “The Brownie Stealing Bench, Josie Reville.”

A collective groan, plus a few choice words, filled the air (the Mynah birds were out of earshot ). 

During the ensuing silence, due to everyone taking a healthy slug from their bottles, I’d have bet money that my relations were replaying a dusty old memory starring Josie and her pack of sycophants. (I wasn’t the only one she’d used to sharpen her poisonously honeyed tongue, just the first of us to ping her radar.)

A disturbingly loud crash from the kitchen treat makers and Susan’s subsequent shout of ‘everyone’s fine’ broke the spell my words had unfortunately cast over the party.

Jesse (sounding confounded): “Did Lucas open a hell-mouth under Rye to lure her back?”

Me (giggle snorting): “No, she’s not vying to reign over hell, Western Regional Bank made her their Chief Loan Officer.” 

Dwight (absently): “Don’t discount the whole Queen of Hell thing entirely.”

Tad: “She’d make a good Lilith though, using her position in the bank to corrupt the hearts of men. Oh! If it helps, we could change your nickname to Sabrina. You already have that luscious red coat, and if you adopted a black cat and named him Salem, you’d really be cooking with gas.”

Carefully backing out of the screen door, Wood reemerged from the kitchen, his hands occupied by a tray ladened with the next round of brown bottles, which we proceeded to helpfully lighten for him. Only Dwight and Uncle declined seconds.

Wood (chiming during the distribution of beer): “Never gonna happen, Morticia Addams would never allow an upstart like Lilith steal her crown.”

Me (laughing): “Plus, I look terrible as a blonde.”

Wood: “That too.”

Sealing our complete agreement, which may or may not be rooted in an unfortunate episode of summertime boredom and an old bottle of peroxide, we clinked our bottles together. 

Jesse (stretching his legs out): “Hate to rain on your parade, but isn’t Lilith literally biblical in origin? Morticia Addams is just a shade over eighty. Lilith would wipe the floor with her.”

Tad (happily diving into the debate): “Wrong part of the multiverse. The original Archie comic version, Madam Satan, is two years younger than Morticia. Lilith, from Netflix’s Chilling Adventures, is less than three years old. Making Morticia the hands-down favorite in a face-off!”

Jesse: “The story is three-ish years old I grant you, but in the Chilling Adventures, Lilith was the second person ever to walk the earth and was literally taught magic by Lucifer. No dice beans and rice.” 

Winding up for the defense of his stance, Tad took a deep and audible breath.

Knowing from prior experience, their bickering over pop culture spin on for hours without any outside help. (And I knew Robbie, who’d just joined us from the kitchen, mug of chocolate in hand, would be unable to resist throwing Dr. Who’s Missy into the mix.) I decided to track back to an earlier point in the conversation. 

Me (looking at an inattentive Dwight): “How exactly can Josie become Queen of Hell?”

It took Wood tapping him on the shoulder before he resurfaced, requiring me to repeat my question.

Dwight (raking his hands thru his hair): “While I was covering the Grindle trial for the paper, I overheard a rumor…”

Wood (grinning): “That Rye really is built on a hell-mouth?”

Dwight (missing Wood’s comment he shook his head): “No, though that might make interesting copy for Halloween, I heard Lucas might be retiring soon.”

Robbie (leaning against the rail next to me): “So? He’s about the right age, isn’t he?”

My cousins reflected a similar sentiment back to Dwight. Wood and I exchanged uneasy looks.

Dwight (clearly still having only half his mind on our conversation): “That’s what I thought too. Which is why it seemed odd that the person repeating the rumor was warned they’d lose their job if word got out they blabbed. So I did some digging in the Harvest’s archive. Do you know how Lucas Reville got his start on the city council?”

We all shook our heads in unison.

Dwight: “He took over his Uncle’s seat midterm. Apparently said Uncle caught scarlet fever as a child and developed a significant heart murmur later in life. After it was discovered and on the advice of his doctor, he retired immediately. Making use of a little known bylaw that allowed a family member to assume his post mid-term.” 

Tad (making the connection Dwight laid out): “At least if Josie was crowned the Queen of Hell, she’d be out our hair, do you really think……..”

The niblings, hopped up on cayenne and chocolate, unintentionally cut Tad’s appalled question off by exiting the kitchen en masse. Jesse and Tad’s lot set about pleading their case to sleepover at Uncle and Aunt Pearl’s house while Susan and Dylan’s two started entreating Robbie, Ian, Dwight, Wood, and I to camp out with them in the living room. 

2.34.b Olly Olly Oxen Free

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(This was the lure Aunt Pearl placed before us to get my cousins and I to comply with her ‘photo op’!)

Tad was slicing himself a second piece of cake when I stole into the kitchen, returning my puckish grin he saluted me with a wave of the cake knife. Easing open the screen door, Squiddy and I slipped onto the back porch and quietly shut it behind me. Tucking in next to Wood, who’d stationed himself in the patio chair next to the dinner bell, he handed me a beer he’d had waiting at his elbow.

Wood (softening his voice): “You’re losing your touch Morticia, twenty minutes?”

Me (twisting the cap off my beer): “The small fry were harder to fool than my cousins.” 

Speaking of those five adorable lookouts, they’d shifted from shouting out hints to peppering my cousins with questions. 

Do you see her dad? / Uncle Ian, do you want to borrow my flashlight? / Did the blueberry bushes just move? I’m pretty sure I saw it move! / Can I try looking? Please! / Have you ever caught Auntie Morticia dad? 

Uncle (sounding amused): “Once or twice.”

Dylan (over his shoulder, his eyes still scanning the yard): “More than that!”

Me (blandly): “Not since we were twelve, and I figured out no one cool wears neon.”

My reply sent a laugh rippling across the line of lookouts – because both Dylan and Ian’s frolicking kitten t-shirts sported a neon hue – pink and orange, respectively. A minute ticked by, then two, but none of the kids registered who’d made the funny, which sent a corresponding ripple of stifled chuckles thru the adults seated behind them. About the time I figured the only way they’d work out I was literally standing under the dinner bell was by ringing it, my youngest niece grew bored with her peripheral participation in the game and turned around.

Standing still as a statue, I watched Ruby’s eyes wander down the line of dim adult silhouettes until they landed on Aunt Pearl – three seats away from me.

Ruby (trying a parental end-run): “Grandma, can we make special coco now?”

Aunt Pearl (a smile in her voice): “It’s a little late, dear, you need to ask your papa if it’s okay.”

Intent on securing a cup of cayenne laced dark chocolate coco, her gaze slid right over me and on to Tad standing just inside the screen door on my left. The other kids perked their ears up but continued to keep their eyes aimed forward.

Ruby (squinting): “Papa, can I have some special hot coco?”

Tad (trying hard to contain a laugh): “After you find your Aunt Morticia.”

Ruby (expressively exhaling): “But it’s taking forever! And dad won’t let us help…”

Smothering a wide grin, I leisurely raised my hand towards the leather strap attached to the bell’s clapper, blocking her view of Tad’s face for a few seconds. When she succumbed to a fit of giggles, I knew my hint had been successful.

Ruby (pointing at me still tittering): “Now, can I have some special coco?”

Aunt Pearl (getting up): “You can be my sous chef.”

This appointment instantly redirected the other nibling’s attention off the backyard and spawned a chorus of protests. (Aunt Pearl’s helper gets to lick the pan – after it’s cooled sufficiently.)

‘Why does she get to be the sous chef?’ / ‘She hasn’t found Auntie Morticia’ / ‘That’s not fair!’

Ruby (thrilled at the chance to cover herself in glory): “Oh yes, I did! She’s right there.”

Pandemonium broke out on the back porch as the kids followed Ruby’s pointer finger and realized they’d been outfoxed. The adults split a seam, the lookouts started hollering for my cousins, and I rang the bell ending the game. 

By the time my cousins slowly rambled across the lawn, joining the rest of us on the porch, the nieces and nephews were in a full-tilt-tizzy; trying to figure out how I’d snuck past them, how long I’d been standing behind them and why Squiddy covered in fir needles….Aunt Pearl, heading off the inquisition, brought a bit of peace to the proceedings by herding the niblings inside to help her concoct the hot cocoa. 

My cousins didn’t bother to ask how I’d outflanked them – the liberal distribution of dirt and detritus on Squiddy, and I told the story. Though they did give me a series of high-fives, attagirl’s and a few friendly pats for Squiddy. (I did divest myself of my cephalopod friend, draping him over the bracket holding the bell, I needed a reprieve from his woolly magnificent.)

So after a quick detour to collect our promised slices and scoops (Wood and Uncle following us in for their second helping of dessert and Tad for his third), we regrouped back on the veranda and started talking about this and that. All of us keeping a half an ear on the din emanating from the kitchen – the clanging of pots and pans, opening and closing of cupboard doors, smacking of spoons against the rim of metal bowls, laughing and chatter – as the kids prepared their treat.

After a short strolling down memory lane, namely other epic bouts of kick the can, we fell into a comfortable silence. 

Right up until I tossed a tiger into our midst.

Me (glowering at my beer): “You’ll never guess who I ran into the other night…”

2.34.a Kick The Can – Becker Style

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(Just a portion of the offerings from Family Feast Day!)

Other than six memorable hours spent helping Mr. Chen locate his lucky fishing lure, he swore he’d left in a rental boat at the bait shop at the lake – the rest of my week flew by in a blur of parking lots, newspapers, sandwiches, and thermoses of coffee. 

Even the Errant Orin encountered in Remembrance Park failed to cause even a flicker of electricity to arc across my toes. (Though unfortunately, that doesn’t mean as much as you’d think – as whizzing past the park at twenty-five mph on my way to pick up Mr. Fernandez, doesn’t provide the most reliable of reads.)

But never fear – things picked up again on Family Feast Day (Friday night) when I showed up at Uncle and Aunt Pearl’s wearing Squiddy (and grinned so hard I think I may have sprained a cheek muscle).

Aunt Pearl, inspired by Squiddy’s magnificence, decided an impromptu themed family photo was in order.

So following dinner (featuring bratwurst, baked beans, corn on the cob and potato salad – in case you’re curious), Aunt Pearl set about bringing her vision to life.

Her theme? International Cat Day.

Digging up from her treasure trove, that’s the envy of packrats everywhere, an array of cat-inspired outfits of varying mustiness. Jesse wore a headband with ears and a tail attached to his belt – leftover accessories from a Rye High’s production of Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. Dylan and Ian sported matching t-shirts embossed with glitter and frolicking kittens – samples she’d whipped up while subbing in a junior high Home Ec. class years ago. With some help from Jesse’s partner Tad and a palette of old Halloween makeup, Dwight got his face painted like Mister Geppetto’s cat Figaro from Pinocchio. And poor Robbie, who by virtue of being the only one who could fit into it without busting a seam, wore the tabby cat onesie. Aunt Pearl uses said onesie to keep her student’s tardiness in check (if you’re late more than three times in two weeks – you must don the onesie for an entire class. Thank heavens for Squiddy. Otherwise I’d have had to shimmy into it!)

Aunt Pearl motivated my reluctant cousins into donning their respective cat costumes by withholding dessert until after the successful execution of her photographic vision. Since she’d gone all out this week, making a dark chocolate cake and homemade raspberry ice-cream, we were moderately motivated to assemble in the back garden and model for her.

Aunt Pearl (waving her hands around in an effort to convey her meaning – which may or may not actually fall in line with her words): “Robbie, stop grimacing and give me a smile! Ian, turn a little to your left so we can see the front of your shirt! Jesse, your ears are crooked, straighten them, please!”

Jesse (hollering back at her): “Mom, if any of my students get ahold of this photo, it will undermine my authority in the classroom!”

Aunt Pearl (scoping us out thru her viewfinder): “Nonsense. This shows you have a sense of humor! Now straighten those ears!”

Jesse (growling good-naturedly at me while readjusting his headband): “If this picture makes it on mom’s holiday card this year….”

Me (finishing his sentence with a giggle): “…then you’ll never fail to consider placing your Black-and-Blue-Becker-Betting-Pool wager on me!”

I could practically feel my cousins roll their eyes in unison.

Aunt Pearl (looking thru her viewfinder): “Perfect! Don’t move! Now channel your inner feline and meow for the camera!”

*Click*Click*Click*

Aunt Pearl, pleased with her tableau, continued her documentation, while I felt several unexpected tugs on Squiddy. 

Me (thru stiff smiling lips): “Robbie, what on earth are you doing? You’re going to pull Squiddy off my head.”

Robbie (voice muffled): “I’m following Brando’s example and embracing my inner feline.”

Me: “What does that even mean?”

Ian (chuckling): “It means he’s nibbling on a tentacle.”

Me (placing one hand on Squiddy and using my other to try and detach my cousin): “Robbie, you brat! Stop that, I don’t want to smell your bad breath every time that arm comes near my face!”

Well, that was precisely the wrong thing to say. 

As one, my cousins turned towards me, each sporting the same impish glint in their eye, eliciting several squawks of aggravation from the direction of Aunt Pearl. Reading their intent – to nibble on and impart their own unique brand of halitosis into Squiddy’s yarned arms – I leaped forward to save my cephalopod friend. Thwarting Dylan’s initial attempt to prevent my escape, I deftly ducked under his bearhug and ran hell for leather across the yard – my cousins hot on my heels.

The boys may be quicker – but I’m craftier.

Plunging into the wilderness Uncle’s never gotten around to taming, I dodged and weaved around tree trunks and bushes, knowing their boughs would both slow the boys down and amplify the dimness of dusk. 

Hearing the closest pair of pursuing feet stumble, I took advantage of the split-second reprieve. Relying on muscle memory, I scrambled up my favorite tree, and into a bolthole, I’d used in my salad days. Though a hair snugger than I remembered, I still managed to secret myself into the heart of the tall tree where all the branches joined. 

Crouching ten feet above the ground, I strained my senses, trying to catch a hint of my cousins’ progress. While I did detect a shape or two moving slowly through the shadows below, I doubt I could have heard an elephant if it wandered on by. As the nieces and nephews – thrilled at watching us act silly and drive our parental unit to distraction – roared with laughter, called out encouragement, and shouted hints to the seekers.

We don’t see her dad! / Check around the shed! / You’ll find her Uncle Robbie! / Try by the rhododendron! / I’m guarding the bell for you guys! / Don’t think you guys are getting out of the family photo that easily!

That last one was Aunt Pearl if you hadn’t guessed. 

It didn’t take a mathematician to figure the odds of me ringing the dinner bell – with five seekers on my tail plus five pint-sized lookouts ready to rat me out – were not good.

However, this wasn’t my first rodeo.

2.04 The Black-And-Blue-Becker-Betting-Pool

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Familiar Voice One: “Did you pick her?”

Click.

Familiar Voice Two: “Not sure I remember who I put my money on. Its’ been over a year since the last payout.”

Click. Click. Click.

Familiar Voice Three: “Someone’s going to get paid! She’s the dark horse.”

Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.

Familiar Voice Four: “Can’t wait until Dylan gets here, and Dad opens the envelope.”

Click. Click. Click. Click.

Me (cracking my left eye open just a slit): “You are going to wear out the shutter on that camera.”

Robbie (unrepentant): “Morticia! Did we wake you?”

My cousins (in descending order Jesse, Dylan, Ian, Dwight, and Robbie) agree with Wood that the nickname Morticia fits me better than my given one of Phoebe.

Me (staring blearily up at four out of five of my cousins crowding around the bed): “Yes. What are you guys doing here? And why is Dylan on his way?”

Jesse (continuing to snap pictures of me): “Mom texted everyone that the Black-and-Blue-Becker-Betting-Pool was paying out today!” 

Fantastic.

The Black And Blue Becker Betting Pool is one of our clan’s seriously cracked institutions, inspired by Aunt Pearl and observed by my cousins, their spouses, and me. 

On Thanksgiving Day six years ago, while arranging us in that year’s woodland-inspired family photo, Aunt Pearl let out a gusty sigh and thanked us for finally giving her her-heart’s-desire. We were baffled. None of us had any announcements pertaining to grandkids, promotions, or winning a marathon. So what did we give her? Besides each of us wearing (with minimal grousing) a sweater sporting a cuddly woodland creature on its chest? (At least she’d given up making us dress up as the woodland creatures. I feel sorry for my nieces and nephews.) 

The Answer: A group photo unmarred by bruises, gauze, or plaster-encased limbs.

(Personally, I don’t believe the addition of crutches, slings, or the occasional brace really detracts from these tableaus of mortification she insists on and includes in her annual Christmas letters – but I digress.)

My cousins and I thought her claim pure exaggeration. During dinner, we went round and round with Aunt Pearl, until in a fit of exasperation, she pulled out every photo album in the house (there were a dauntingly large number of them) and challenged us to find single unblemished holiday, any holiday would due, photo. Which, much to my Aunt’s disgust (and due to her excellent pie, Uncle’s smooth bourbon and the overall level of tryptophan), evolved into a bout of reminiscing over all the stupid shirt we did which unintentionally mucked up Aunt Pearl’s carefully planned and themed snapshots. 

Idle speculation from Jesse’s partner Tad compounded her indignation when he wondered who’d be the next one to mess up a family photo. The question caused instantaneous Bedlam when we all pointed at each other and loudly declared why our chosen-one would be “The One” to complete the deed. 

Then Dwight came up with a brilliant idea. 

To prove who guessed correctly and therefore won – we’d write our predictions down, put them in an envelope, seal it up and wait until one of us showed for a holiday sporting a cane, band-aid, or splint. To make things interesting, each of us stuck in a hundred bucks in, thus establishing the Black And Blue Becker Betting Pool (in case you’re curious, Dylan triggered the first payout by showing up the following Easter with his left arm encased in a cast).

The crucial detail here? You must be present to win.

It doesn’t seem like Aunt Pearl totally bought whatever Wood’s explanation was last night – so she called in the cavalry. 

Me (struggling to untangle myself from the blankets): “But Chinese New Year isn’t until next week.”

Uncle refuses to celebrate New Year’s Eve or Day, claiming seven days isn’t enough time to recover from his Christmas hangover. (I think he got tired of the squabbling over who had to don Baby New Years’ diaper for the photo.) So we now celebrate Chinese New Year with our neighbors, the Lu’s, instead (much to everyone’s satisfaction). 

Ian (drily): “You think that shiner will be gone by then?” 

Me (mumbling): “Maybe if I put a steak on it?”

Finally prevailing over the blankets and stiff muscles I sat up, the collective hiss from the four boys cut off the rest of my reply. Jesse even stopped snapping pictures (we record every injury responsible for a payout, it’s not as weird as it sounds). Looking down, I realized the scoop neck tank I wore to bed last night gave them a fair idea of the sheer square footage my bruise covered.

Dwight (recovering first): “You’re going to need an entire cow to cover that sucker.”

Robbie (sarcasm dripping off his words): “What happened? Purple hair too passé now? Decided to dye your skin instead?” 

Me (rolling my eyes): “No. A colossal land squid engineered on the Island of Doctor Cousteau attacked me! The Doctor set the enormous invertebrate on my trail after I uncovered his dastardly plan to steal Rye’s entire water reservoir to create an aquatic inland base. Of course, I foiled Cousteau’s evil agenda, but not before he told Squiddy to ink me! Fighting him is how I got banged up and dyed.”

Several beats past while my cousins considered the merits of my explanation.

Jesse (laughing): “The use of a historical figure, a cephalopod, and transforming a classic science fiction story to suit was inspired! Nine out of ten stars!”

Aunt Pearl may have called in the calvary – but we’ve hurt ourselves enough over the years that we don’t fess up to how it actually happened – because it’s usually really dull. Walked into a bulldozer while texting. Tripped on our own shoelace, dog, or second base. Got punched in the eye by a three-year-old. None of these make good stories. So unless we lose consciousness or hospitalization occurs, we don’t fess up to how a payout worthy injury actually occurs.

That being said, I was pushing the limits of the acceptable non-disclosure range of injuries. 

Which explains my cousin’s current close quarters hovering.

Me (smiling): “Only nine? Well, then I’m not going to lift up my shirt so you can record the magnificence of Squiddy’s inking!”

This was met with a chorus of boos and laughter.