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     Small snowflakes fluttered against the car's windshield, illuminating briefly in the headlights and streetlights before falling back to the ground to melt. Though it had been coming down since early this morning, nothing had stuck and the roads were still clear. From behind the wheel, Daniel guided the vehicle down the long stretch of the dark highway that was only occasionally interrupted by a lone driveway. They were right on the outskirts of Pleasantview.


 

     "I hope this stops soon," Daniel complained, gesturing to the window. "We're already staying at my parents' overnight and the last thing I want is for us to get snowed in."


 

     Seated comfortably in the passenger seat, Mary-Sue demonstrated her displeasure with a frown. "Come on, Daniel, it'll be fun. It's been years since I've seen your family." Gently, she placed her had on his resting atop the gear shift. "And the forecast didn't say anything about snowstorms. I'm guessing it'll clear up by morning."




      "God, I hope so."
     Daniel's fingers wrapped around hers, squeezing gently. Mary-Sue applied equal pressure in return. "I know you think this trip is going to be awful, but remember what I said right before we left: if this visit gets too bad, just say the word and we'll go. I'll 'get an alert' on my pager from one of my grad school friends asking me to cover her class tomorrow at the University and can head out. How does that sound?"


 

     Daniel chuckled, bringing the car into the driveway of the Pleasant family home. "Yeah, it's good. Though I don't know why you couldn't have picked a better code word. I still laugh every time I think of saying freezer bunny."
     Knowing how much Daniel would regret missing his sister's birthday, Mary-Sue had spent weeks coaxing and convincing him to agree to make the hour-long journey south to Pleasantview. He had finally agreed, but a sudden change of heart left their bags packed and the tank full, but the truck empty. It was then that Mary-Sue brought up the code word. They would go to his parents' house, she said, and give it a try. If it got to be too much, they would go the second he let slip the phrase freezer bunny. It wasn't a perfect system but it got him in the car and, as an added bonus, it made him laugh.


 
 
     "You like my idea, admit it," Mary-Sue countered with a smile. "What would you do without me?"
     "I do like your idea," he said, turning off the engine, "almost as much as I like you. Thanks for tagging along."
     They came together in the middle of the seats for a kiss.


 

     "Danny!"


  

     Jennifer, foregoing a coat for her quick jaunt outside, dashed into the snow with a large smile on her face. "You're finally here! I thought you'd never come!"
     Mary-Sue gave a little wave as she hopped from the truck. She and Jennifer had never been particularly close, but then they had never really spent much time together either. When she and Daniel had graduated high school and left for college, Jennifer had been only four years old. But here they were now, years later, standing in the snow on the eve of her thirteenth birthday. Maybe thought Mary-Sue it's time that I get to know her a little better.




     Pocketing the keys, Daniel rounded the fender and pulled his sister into a hug. He briefly and anxiously noted the increasing snowfall, but pushed his concerns to the back of his mind. There were more urgent matters to deal with first, considering that his parents were waiting inside.
     "Good to see you, too," he said, realizing quite suddenly that  hadn't seen her since Thanksgiving over a year ago. In the time since she had managed to shoot up at least another six inches. "Happy Birthday, Jenny!"
     "Happy birthday, hon!" Mary-Sue echoed. 
     "Thanks, Danny! And thank you, too, Mary-Sue!"




     Jennifer pulled back from the hug and shivered. "I'm going back in!" she shrieked joyfully, dashing back over the frozen concrete.
     Daniel slipped his arm through Mary-Sue's and they started towards the front door as well.
     "Freezer bunny?" Mary-Sue asked.
     "No," Daniel answered, " I can do this. For Jenny's sake. I hadn't realized how much I missed her."




     "Jennifer, I told you to shut the door when you went out! It's freezing out there and now the rug is damp and now I'll have to take it to the cleaners and you know how hard it is to find a decent-"
     "Ah, how good it is to be back," Daniel remarked under his breath. "It's like I never left."
     Mary-Sue chuckled softly. How true it was. The formidable Diane Pleasant stood before them, delivering upon her daughter the lecture that Daniel had been on the receiving end of last Thanksgiving. Whereas Daniel had taken her words to heart and had left the house quite grumpy, Jennifer was letting it all roll off her back, flinging a flippant 'whatever' over her shoulder in response.




     Diane quickly gave up on her diatribe and turned her attention to her son."Daniel, how good to see you." She gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "Finally!"
     "And you, mother."
     "How was the traffic?"
     "Fine."
     "Oh, so you just left late, then."




     "Jeff," Diane said, turning her attention now to her husband on the couch, "Daniel's here; say hello."
     Jeff, hidden behind his newspaper, didn't take his eyes off the page when he grunted, "Hello, son."
     "And Mary-Sue's here too, dear."
     "Hey, Mary-Sue."




     Diane shook her head at her husband's taciturnity. "I swear he says less and less as the years go by. But it's good to see you, dear!"
     "You too, Mrs. Pleasant." Mary-Sue accepted the hug that Diane offered. A few awkward pats on the back were exchanged before they both pulled back.
     "Supper's ready to go to the table, if you'll just come help me for a moment, dear."
     "Sure."




     Taking a seat on the couch, Daniel watched with slight unease as Mary-Sue disappear into the kitchen with his mother. Their rapport was wintry at best and he hoped desperately that Mary-Sue's assistance wouldn't end with a tirade on the proper way to dish pork chops.
     "So, son, the Llamas ask you to play in any more games recently?" Jeff asked, peering around the edge of his newspaper.
     "I told you, dad, that was a one-time thing. One of their players was injured and it was an emergency; professional soccer teams don't usually recruit mascots to play."
     "Hmm," Jeff grunted, disappearing back behind the paper. "My son: the mascot."
     The living room fell quiet after that. The only noise was the rhythmic turning of pages accompanied by the ticking of a clock and plates being set on the table. Daniel quite literally twiddled his thumbs, waiting in the tension.




     Ten minutes later, Mary-Sue and Diane had the plates dished and the drinks poured and Jennifer, Jeff, and Daniel were called out to take their seats around the table. Conversation was stilted, with brief questions about soccer teams and grades and Jeff descrbing in vague detail his latest assignment at work. Mostly the room was filled with the sound of knives scraping against the plates.
     Halfway through the meal, Diane turned suddenly towards Mary-Sue and said, "Oh, dear, I've something to ask you!"
     Mary-Sue, along with everyone else, put down their forks and angled themselves towards the end of the table.




     "Jeff and I hosted a Bridge party the weekend before last and we had Karen and Hank GilsCarbo over. They said that their son has started seeing that girl who graduated with you. What was her name, again? She's tall, black...blue eyes. Iris? Irene?"
     "Ivy," Jeff supplied. "Ivy Copur."
     "Ah, yes. Ivy. Anyways, you all know that usually I don't approve of that sort of match, but they just looked so nice together in the picture I saw, so I figured I could make an exception."
     The chairs squeaked against the linoleum as Jennifer and Daniel shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Mary-Sue sat still with an unyielding expression. "Oh really? I wasn't aware that exceptions were necessary."
     "You know what I'm talking about, dear. Ivy really has turned out to be quite pretty, but that's beside the point. When I told the GilsCarbos that my son was in a relationship...like Goopy's...it struck me that I know nothing of your history. Where do you come from? Originally, I mean."




     "Mom!" Daniel dropped his fork. It hit the plate with a loud clatter. "I don't that's appropriate for you to ask." He'd fielded his mother's questions for years, hinting at the well of bad emotions that was buried beneath the details of her closed adoption. "And furthermore, I don't like how you just assume-"




     "Daniel, it's okay," Mary-Sue said quickly, cutting him off.
     He sputtered a few more angry syllables at his mother before trailing off into silence.
     "Now isn't the time," Mary-Sue mouthed.
     "Freezer bunny?" he mouthed back. She shook her head 'no.'




     "Mrs. Pleasant," she began in a saccharine tone. "My parents are Herb and Coral Oldie; you've met them. I grew up right down the street from here. I moved to the Sim State University campus when I was eighteen and I will be completing my PhD program in the spring. I may have been adopted when I was three, but, as far as I am concerned, I am from Pleasantview. I hope that satisfies you, Diane."




     A hush came over the room. Offended, daring, and slightly confused glances were exchanged in turn.
     Jennifer, knowing she was treading on thin ice, spoke softly. "I got my science test back today...I got a 98."
     And the conversation resumed as if nothing had happened at all.


                                                                                      ***




     The traditional after-dinner pot of decaff percolated alone in the kitchen while the family retired to the living room. Diane monopolized the conversation, droning on about her house plants and book club and managing to slip in subtle digs against her son's career choices as the minutes ticked slowly by. Daniel ignored her to the best of his ability, instead watching outside as the snow tapered off into clear skies. When the coffee maker beeped, announcing a full pot, he was the first one in the kitchen.
     Taking a mug down from the cupboard, he poured himself some of the hot, aromatic liquid. 




     "How's the coffee tonight, son?"
     Daniel was startled, knocking his mug against the counter top. Some coffee sloshed over the rim which he quickly mopped up with his sleeve. "Uh, pretty good. You want some?"
     "Sure."




     They stood together, sipping their scalding drinks to the hum of the fridge. Daniel racked his brain for an acceptable topic. The weather was unremarkable; Jennifer's party had been hacked to death over dinner; school hadn't been a viable topic for going on five years now; and work-
     "Mary-Sue let it slip that you've been asked to join the minor league soccer team."
     Work it is, then.




     "I was going to tell you, dad, as soon as the deal went through. Honestly!"
     "I'm not mad, son, just disappointed." Jeff took a long sip of his drink. "I don't know why you didn't say anything when I asked you about it earlier."
     "I'm still in negotiations with the Llama's manager! I didn't want to get anybody's hopes up in case the deal falls through."
     "That's not the way Mary-Sue put it. She seems to think it's a done-deal; says you're due to start practice right after the New Year."
     "Nah, she's just optimistic, dad."




     "She's a good girl, you know," Jeff observed in a none-too-casual tone. "She's funny...nice...and she's certainly stuck around longer than any of us ever thought."
     "Gee, thanks."
     "I'm serious, Daniel. A girl like that won't wait around forever. Have you bought a ring yet?"
     "Come on, dad!" Daniel scoffed. "This is between me and her."
     "I know, I know," Jeff said. "But at least think about taking my advice: propose to her before it's too late. You're going to be 29 next year. Time's not slowing down and you can take my word for it."




     Daniel shook his head in disbelief. "I'll think about it, dad," he said sarcastically, turning to go back into the living room. Jeff stayed rooted to the linoleum.
     This was certainly the first time they'd had this talk. Both his mother and his father had hinted at marriage before, but never had he been told to propose before. It was like he was back in middle school and had procrastinated on his book report for too long and now his father had to step in to get him to actually get some work done. It was ridiculous, really.




     But as he stepped out of the dark kitchen and back into the well-lit room, Daniel was struck by the image of Mary-Sue chatting amiably with his little sister. Seeing him, she smiled. His heart squeezed in his chest. She looked beautiful tonight.
     He shook his head to clear his thoughts. What his dad had said was of no importance. She'd never hinted at marriage before. In fact, it was she who had insisted that no license was needed to prove their love. She was happy and content living with him in their little apartment downtown.
     Wasn't she?

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