"What are you doing? I thought you said your Mom was making dinner."
Rearden smirked as he handed the cashier his Snickers bar. Sarai picked one up for herself and reached into her pocket to pay. After placing a dollar bill on the counter, she sifted through her change and looked at Rearden.
"Do you have a quarter?"
"No, but you do," he said, reaching behind her ear and producing a quarter between his fingers. Sarai rolled her eyes and added it to the small pile of money.
"You've got quite a talent," remarked the cashier dryly.
"Yeah, he's a real charmer," Sarai accepted her Snickers bar and made her escape toward the door. Rearden stared after her with a gleam in his eye.
"I agree," he called.
A couple minutes later, the two were riding up a road sloshing with rainwater and passed a cemetery. Sarai stared out the window at scenery packed densely with tall pine trees. Somewhere down the road, she shifted both eyes to her hands on her lap.
"So, what happened with Jarah and Charlotte?"
"Charlotte said she felt like she may be going into labor, and asked to go to the hospital, but it sounds like it was a false alarm. Jarah said they were on their way home so she can sleep," she sounded almost apologetic. "I'm sorry I made you pick me up, especially after you already got your brothers."
"Psh, I got a candy bar and a mate at dinner out of it."
Sarai smiled, wrapping her arms around herself for warmth.
"Go crank up the heat; I don't mind."
She reached forward and did exactly that, refreshed as a blast of heat hit her cheeks. Rearden pressed a button and turned up the country radio station that streamed through. The road grew more narrow and windy as he steered through the woods.
"Are you driving all the way to Oregon, or something?"
He grinned. "Seems like it. Da is a private man."
"So's mine." Sarai stared again as she lost herself in her own mind. The smile slipped from Rearden's lips, and he threw a glance her way.
"Do you suppose he could interfere with your adoption?"
Sarai shook her head, studying the pine trees flashing by through the window as the van turned onto a narrow gravel road. "All paternal rights were severed when I became available for adoption."
He pursed his lips as he considered his next words. "Would you choose to go back?"
Sarai released her breath at once. "We never had a good relationship, but I miss my Dad."
"A lot of people wouldn't let you do that, me included," he threw another serious glance her way. "You know that, right?"
Sarai considered her response, but before she could reply, the van pulled up the crunchy gravel road and into a similar driveway. There stood a small white house surrounded by a grove of trees. A blue tarp covered its leaking roof, and duct tape patched one window.
"Well," Rearden said promptly, swinging open his door, "prepare to enter the asylum."
As Sarai crunched up the gravel path, she could hear a woman speaking Gaelic within the house. A man replied in a stern low voice. Anxiousness prodded at her stomach—she had never been in the company of people who were still unfamiliar with her culture.
"Don't worry. You've already seen the worst we have to offer."
Rearden pushed the screen door open and ushered Sarai through. A man with almost ebony hair and ice blue eyes hesitated in his journey across the living room like a deer caught in headlights. As he regained his composure to make a pleasant introduction, Abigeál stepped out of the kitchen calling something in Gaelic to someone across the house.
"Sarai, this is Callum and my Ma. Remember to speak English, Ma."
"I apologize," Abigeál smiled with flushed cheeks as Callum excused himself. She was a pretty woman, but simple as well, with strawberry tendrils to her elbows and expressive aquamarine eyes. "Me name is Abigeál, and the stew is almost prepared—a wee bit early. Ah, here are more sons."
"Sarai, this is Liam," Rearden added as a similarly but smaller framed kid with golden hair and sparkling jade eyes approached.
"So you are the girl from the ranch," Liam said melodiously as he extended an oil paint stained hand to shake hers. "Pleased to meet you, Sarai."
"And you already know Gavin," Rearden continued. She stepped aside, hoping to make herself as inconspicuous as possible as she studied the living area. There was a small television sitting on a wooden bookshelf, an overstuffed red sofa, denim blue walls, and wooden floors. Rearden craned his neck toward one of many open doors and called, "Da, come in here! I want you to meet someone."
"He will come out when we sit down to eat," Abigeál assured as she whisked back to the kitchen to check on their meal. A moment later, she called "Actually everything seems to be ready. Come in!"
The cramped kitchen was an oven squeezed into a slot within the square border of counters surrounding a small linoleum patch, and a rectangular wooden table and chairs close by. The setting sun sprayed light through the opposing window as Sarai entered and seated herself in such a manner that she would not be squinting to see.
"I will pull the curtains across," Abigeál rushed across the kitchen and started to do as she promised, but started with surprise and reached to shove open the door. "Calder! You've made it in time to eat."
The young man who entered remained solemn as a stone as he picked up a bowl from the table and ladled himself stew, unphased when another rushed spryly into the kitchen by the hall and slid across to the table in his socks.
"Ma, Eagan said he was coming in a minute," he stopped himself by clamping his hands on the back of one chair and drawing it back to sit. He smiled with turquoise eyes at Sarai and waved. "Howya?"
"Sarai, Alasdair," Rearden gestured to each through a mouthful of stew.
"Hello," she raised her hand in greeting as the man she presumed to be their father emerged into the kitchen and seated himself in complete silence at the table. Abigeál retrieved a serving of stew, which she set on the mat before him as he met the eyes of Sarai.
"Pleased to meet you," he said with a nod. "Sarai?"
The man shoveled a spoonful of stew into his mouth without another word, and his sons did the same. Abigeál seated herself after and started on her meal as the last son entered the room. Sarai realized this man with the strawberry blond hair and brown eyes must be Eagan. His structure resembled Rearden and Liam, but he was a bit more muscular in the arms. The analytical stare Sarai aimed toward him penetrated the apprehension that accompanied his presence. He acknowledged her scrutiny with a smirk and embers burning in his eyes as he ladled himself some stew.
"Cairbre and I will be meeting at the theater with one of his business partners after supper, so mind yourselves and be sure Sarai gets home on time. And please do not do anything that warrants a visit from the police again."
"That was because of Rearden, or Rearend as I call him. Because he's a pain in my—"
"Well, to be honest, you are an—"
"Lads," Cairbre snapped as he raised his spoon to his mouth and received its contents.
Rearden sneaked a glance to Sarai. "My apologies."
"Sarai," Abigeál asked suddenly, "What do you enjoy most about school?"
"Math, I guess," Sarai swallowed some stew and shrugged. "That's the thing I understand the most."
"That's quite admirable," Calder met her eyes with an approving nod as he reached for the pepper across the table. "The science and deduction of the subject is often underestimated and vastly underappreciated in modern societies."
Eagan snorted with laughter. "Calder is what you would call a geek."
Calder replaced the pepper coldly. "And Eagan is what you would call a good-for-naught drunkard."
His brother glared at him with fiery eyes. "Dún do bhéal."
"Ah," Calder simpered and eased back against his chair. "Mar sin, bhí mé ceart?"
Eagan stood and pitched his cider glass against wood beneath him to shatter, the glass glinting in the late afternoon sunlight, and stormed out the door. Cairbre rose as well, threw down his cloth napkin, and griped in Irish as he strode away
The moment Eagan reached the room he shared with Calder, he turned to start closing the door. But Cairbre shouldered through it and shoved his son against the wall. "What has gotten into you?"
"Why should you care?" Eagan snarled close to his nose. "Calder is the one who cast the first stone."
"Because you are ruining me family!"
"You say that as if I'm not part of your family," Eagan sneered as he reached for his coat hanging on the corner of the door. "One morning, I may be gone and you will never have to see me again."
"That might be best at this point!"
The rest of the family and Sarai were still and shifting their eyes awkwardly when Rearden cleared his throat to break the silence.
"Actually, now you have seen the worst of us. And Calder, here they just call them alcoholics."
"Yer brother is not an alcoholic," Abigeál retorted fiercely across the table. "He is no addict!"
"I heard a girl whistling at school today," Liam pulled both hands down his face. "I should have realized something awful would take place."
"Liam, stop," Rearden snapped as he slammed his own napkin to the table.
"You have a row with him, but not the brother who actually shattered a glass!" Gavin hollered in return, but Abigeál herself stood long enough to regain the eyes of everyone in the room.
"We have a guest this evening, and I can assure you she has had enough of all ya!"
Sarai smiled briefly at her. "Your arguments are actually pretty mild compared to some of the stuff in my own households."
"That's right," she spoke softly as she sat. "Rearden mentioned you being in a variety of households."
"Only three, actually."
"At any rate, we apologize for all that has gone on tonight," Callum sent a smile toward her before dropping his ice blue eyes again.
"Well, I think this has all gone on long enough," Rearden announced suddenly, rising with his bowl and reaching for Sarai's. "I say we all unwind until Sarai goes home again."
"I'll get the glass cleaned up, Ma," Callum assured her gently. "And then I'm going to sleep a bit."
"Well, Sarai," Abigeál smiled pleasantly. "It was a pleasure to meet you. Me husband and I are due to be at the theater soon, so until we meet again. Have a good day."
"Thank you," she smiled and shook the woman's hand. Rearden craned his neck around the door frame to watch them leave and close the door.
"Come with me," he said the moment they did so, rushing down the hall to give each door a knock. As he reached the last one, he stopped. "Eagan, time to get ready, man."
Silence answered him. He pounded on the door with his palm, but to no avail. He rolled his eyes and made his way back down the hall and into the kitchen.
"What are you doing?" Sarai asked as she chased after him. Another door closed and Liam appeared in the hall, then sneaked into the living room.
"You'll see," Rearden said over one shoulder. "I am the Commander in Chief in Eagan's absence."
"Commander in Chief of what?"
Rearden smiled. "All mischief and mayhem."
"Do you know what mayhem legally is?"
"Probably something I have nothing to do with."
"Intentionally maiming or crippling someone."
"Definitely something I have nothing to do with. But you miss me point," Rearden reached into the cabinet to retrieve a small package, which he approved and stashed in his jeans pocket. "All right, that is all we need in the house. Go ahead out the back door. I promise, you will have fun."
Another door slammed and Eagan strode past Rearden to the side door with an adamant "If you start that without me, I will have to kill you."
"Aye aye, Captain."
Sarai stepped into the waning sunshine after him, staring up at the cornflower sky and down at the lengthy grass that comprised the small square yard around the backside of the house. Dirt paths disappeared in the dense woods that surrounded the property. Alasdair appeared with around the corner with a camcorder.
"You have everything, Rearden?"
"I planned ahead," Rearden answered, striding toward a patch of long grass. He knelt down and raised several bottles of diet Coke upright. "You know, the only reason you're allowed to use this soda is because it's diet."
"Dare I ask?" Sarai asked.
"Dare away," Rearden straightened and passed a bottle to his brother. "Alasdair, give this to Liam."
"Are you planning something?" Sarai asked. Rearden turned another bottle over in his hands and grinned. He extended it toward her as Calder appeared in trepidation at the door with crossed arms.
"Would you like to find out?"
"I imagine I'll find out no matter what."
"Good point," he chuckled as Liam and Gavin passed through the same side door and closed it behind them. Alasdair gave each a bottle of Coke and Rearden extracted the package from his pocket. "Calder, you want the first shot?"
"Mine was the most powerful last time," Eagan reached out his hand toward Alasdair.
Rearden nodded toward his elder brother. "Alasdair, give him that one."
Eagan accepted the bottle and Rearden tossed him the package in his pocket. Alasdair raised the camcorder as the second born opened the package and slid out a string with a Mento tied at one end. After opening the bottle, he dropped the mint in and screwed the cap back on. Rearden signaled Sarai to stand closer to him as Eagan eased back.
"Three, two, one!" he charged toward the woods and slammed the bottle nose-first against the ground. With a frothy spray, it catapult back up and soared above the oaks and pines. Rearden crowed with delight and Alasdair shaded his eyes against the sun with an impressed whistle.
"All right, Sarai, you get this one," he reached down and tossed one in her direction. She caught it, and the packet of Mentos.
"What, do you want to implicate me in case you get caught?"
"This is only something we do for entertainment," Liam assured her with an encouraging smile.
"A sort of family bonding," Gavin added.
"Or a physics experiment, if you're Calder and refuse to admit anything besides school is amusing," Rearden mused, earning a striking glare from the aforementioned.
"All right, then," Sarai allowed herself to leak a small smile and began to imitate what she observed Eagan doing. "Should I know anything before I do this?"
"Do not aim it to the right, or you're going to fire it into Wilson's pool," Rearden warned.
Sarai yanked the string free of the Mento and withdrew a couple of steps. She started forward, hastening into a jog, and launched the bottle toward the ground. At the moment of impact, it reversed and soared over the trees and into the sky.
Eagan snickered. "Well, Rearden, I like this one."
She shot him an expression of contempt.
"Beautiful!" Liam praised.
"Commendable," Calder agreed. "Have you ever done this?"
"Are you kidding? I've never even see anyone attempt the crap you guys seem to do on a daily basis."
Rearden released a hearty laugh. "Go raibh maith agat. Appreciate the compliment."
Gavin shook his head in dismay. "I knew we must be mad. This will probably end badly, too."
"Shut up or leave," Eagan snapped. "Liam, get ready."
Liam secured the bottle in his grip with his tongue poked out the side of his mouth, dropped a stringed Mento down the neck and screwed on the cap, broke into a run, and slammed the bottle's nose into the ground. Spewing froth and fizz, it soared toward the sun, sideways, and made a splash.
"Tell me that did not land in his pool," Calder murmured.
"Abort the operation!" Rearden shouted.
"Rearden, grab the bottles," Eagan snapped, directing them with a pointed finger. "Alasdair, get the camera. Calder, grab the Mentos. Get through windows, around corners!"
"I knew I never should have gotten involved with you morons," Calder whispered irritably as he caught the package of Mentos and darted into the kitchen.
Rearden rushed to the back of the house, yanked the screen out of the open window in the corner room and tossed it aside.
"What are you doing?" Sarai asked as she hastened after him.
"Exiting without a scene. Ladies first," he said urgently to Sarai, who quickly reached one long leg through the window and slipped into the house, noticing that Alasdair did likewise through another window. She glanced around to see one low bed with a mahogany desk covered with scattered books and a brass lamp. Rearden scrambled through after her and slammed it shut, then dropped the blinds.
"Is this how you sneak all the girls in?" she asked with an impish grin.
Rearden straightened with mock indignance. "As a gentleman, I refuse to answer that. And besides, this is where Eagan and Calder sleep."
Within that moment, Gavin threw open the door and leaned his shoulder against the frame, gasping for breath. "We've lowered all the blinds so that he'll suspect no one's home. And next time, I'm letting you all foil yourselves."
"Suit yourself," said his brother calmly, crouching down to roll the remaining soda bottles beneath the bed. "I'll assume we'll resume this on Monday."
"That's what Eagan said."
"This had better not end up on YouTube or something," Sarai admonished.
Rearden chuckled. "Relax. YouTube gets us into trouble."
"You're lucky if he doesn't call the police."
"Yes, that hasn't happened since a month after we moved in here."
"What have you done?" Callum asked as he rushed into and glanced around the room. "Eagan is pinned against the back door and hasn't moved a muscle in over a minute."
"Do you really want to know?"
"No, but that does not mean you should not tell me. Have you gotten Sarai into any trouble?"
The alarm in his soft eyes warmed her. "No, they have only gotten into it themselves."
"I suppose there is nothing new in that," he smiled a moment and disappeared.
"I'm sorry so much went awry today," Rearden gave Sarai a wry smile and peered out into the darkening evening. "But I imagine it was good for me family to have you here tonight, and I hope we didn't do any damage to you."
She returned his smile with a small shrug. "Don't worry about it. I appreciate everything, but I suppose I should get back home."
"All right. Let me get a coat and I'll get you home as soon as soon as… well, actually, let me make sure Wilson's not waiting for us through the bushes. Then I'll get you home."