Saturday, January 21, 2017

Episodes 2 and 3 Leading to Ashes by Steven Manchester

Episode 2:

The Spiral (set in the world of Ashes)

Tom Prendergast dialed his daughter, Caroline. The call went straight to voicemail. He hung up and rang his son. Caleb’s cell phone also went to voicemail. These kids don’t go anywhere without their phones, he thought, a mix of anger and sadness filling his chest.
Sue Nedar, his assistant, stepped into his office. “Professor,” she said, “you have class in ten minutes. ”
“Ten minutes,” he repeated before flicking his tongue at the back of his mouth to test the pain level. Ahhh... The gentle touch made him flinch.
“You should get that tooth fixed,” Sue suggested.
He nodded. “If I could only find the time,” he said, looking at his watch. “Poetry 101, right?”
She nodded.
He could feel his face wince; this time, it wasn’t due to his toothache.
“Not your favorite, huh?”
Grabbing his leather satchel from the floor, he slid a stack of papers into it. “It used to be,” he said, sighing heavily. “There was a time when I loved nothing more than teaching poetry to first-timers.” Then, without volunteering to take the trip, his mind immediately warped back thirty years.
At the conclusion of his senior project—before receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature—Tom stood behind a narrow lectern. Two dozen apathetic sixth graders stared back at him. 
“My name’s Tom Prendergast,” he announced, the words feeling like they’d been sifted through cotton, making him squirm to get comfortable. The anxiety rocked him; for years, that very same sensation had been inspired by his cruel father. He cleared his throat again. 
“Sitting under the dim light of a desk lamp, the artist gazes down at a blank white-lined canvas. Searching his vocabulary for the exact phrase, the perfect opener, he begins to reveal his soul for all. With a loving hand, each word is delicately brushed into sequence, one after the next. After immeasurable hours of meticulous effort, the vivid details of the picture come to life. At last, he can smile, knowing his portrait is complete. Although it will take more than a mere glance, the masterpiece must be appreciated through the mind’s eye where the reader will be swept away by their unlimited imaginations, fond memories of the past and the journey which the artist has chosen to guide.”
He looked up. The class obviously didn’t expect the quick recital and were taken aback. He smiled. “I’ve been writing for a few years now. In fact, I wrote my first poem in the fourth grade. And now I’m working on a collection of poetry that I hope to share with the world someday.” He scanned his young audience.
“Who cares,” one of the boys in the rear of the room mumbled under his breath, drawing a few laughs.
“Obviously not you,” Tom answered the disruptive kid, making everyone sit up straight. “If you don’t want to be here, then please don’t waste your time—or mine. Feel free to leave,” he added, making Ms. Willis—their teacher—shift uneasily in her chair.
While the red-faced boy shook his head, Tom smiled to himself, knowing that he’d handled the rude boy exactly as he should have. Maybe I do have the chops to be an effective teacher, he thought.
“I’m...I’m sorry,” the boy stuttered.
“Apology accepted,” Tom said, softening his tone. “Now let’s get on with it, shall we?”
Everyone nodded.
Tom jumped right into the lesson. “Okay, what is poetry?” When there was no response, he answered, “It’s a type of communication. In many literary circles it’s considered the purest form of expression. For me, it’s a place where I can take one idea, one feeling, and describe it in detail.” He paused. “Do you guys know why most people don’t like poetry?”
“Because it’s hard to understand,” a timid female voice called from the front of the room.
Tom nodded gratefully. “That’s right. It’s not easily understood and, in many cases, must be dissected and analyzed. This is true because the poet conceals or hides the poem’s meaning in a web of woven words.” He grinned wide. “But I have good news—that’s not every poet’s style.”
Again, there was little reaction.
“Does poetry make money, bring fame or fortune?” he asked. When no one volunteered, he answered, “Hardly! Very few poets make money. But that’s not what matters. As you guys get older, you'll find that there are more important things in life. Trust me, you'll look back and value your accomplishments and achievements so much more.” As the words left his lips, he was more surprised than the kids. “For me, it’ll be my writing and, of hopefully, the family I plan to have.”
Keeping to his promise, Tom never broke stride. “Most poets who make money do so posthumously, which means after they’re dead.”
Everyone laughed.
Tom shrugged. “Then why write it?” Before they even had a chance, he said, “There are thousands of reasons: To share ideas, to give back, to make somebody happy, to live on forever, to feel better yourself—to let people know that no one is ever alone. Many people wish to live on forever by becoming a voice of their generation.” He paused. “Mostly, it connects the writer to other people. By taking the pictures he has in his head and placing them into the minds of others, there is a magical connection.”
They looked confused.
“It’s exciting to some people that their thoughts and ideas will live on long after they do. Ironically, most poetry is personal. It’s based on feelings, where the poet is inspired to write his or her feelings down and capture them; feelings that may change from one moment to the next. Knowing that, I’m not sure how much immortal value is placed on most pieces that are written.”
They were now completely lost.
Tom grinned at the truth of it. Dumb it down, he told himself. “The reason I write poetry is to make a difference in the world, an impact, so when I complain about the world I can also say I'm trying to do something about it. I write it to give back what others have given me. Writing poetry allows me to stand up and speak out. And even if only one person listens and finds that their life is better because of my writing, it was worth my time and effort.” He took a moment, allowing his words a fair chance at being received. “There are four major purposes for poetry: It tells a story. It presents a picture. It expresses an emotional experience. And it reflects on life.” Searching their faces, he inquired, “Where can poetry be found?”
A freckled face girl wearing pig tails raised her hand. Tom called on her. “In Hallmark cards?”
“Excellent! And in the Bible, and in music, and pretty much everywhere else you can imagine.” He reached beneath the podium and pressed play on the portable CD player. Accompanied by a techno beat, the musical group Boyz II Men sang their melodic rap, rhyming nicely as they sang.
The kids were ecstatic. Tom sighed heavily. The teacher, however, didn’t look as thrilled. Tom waited a few minutes before replacing Boyz II Men with Don McClain, and served Ms. Willis a healthy slice of American Pie. 
The teacher nodded her approval. I have them all now, Tom thought.
He pressed stop, asking, “Who can tell me the difference between good writing and great writing?”
Still, there was no response. But something’s different, he thought. This time, the reason the kids didn’t answer was because they didn’t know the answer, not because they didn’t care. Most of them were now leaning in toward him.
He cut to the chase. “Good writers make people think, but great writers make their readers feel. Poetry should stimulate the imagination, touch the heart, bring strength, inspiration, laughter, and even tears.” He shrugged. “So how do you get started?”
“At the beginning,” the class clown in the rear answered, trying to redeem some of his dignity.
While the other students laughed, Tom agreed. “You’re absolutely right. Everything starts with an idea. I know a little more about poetry than you do, but not much, believe me. The difference is—I practice, which is the only way to get good at anything.” He scanned the room. “There are two major types of poetry. What are they?”
“Rhyming,” an anxious voice called out.
Tom went with the momentum. “Right, or what we call verse. And there’s also non-rhyming, also referred to as prose.”
They nodded.
He passed out a set of handouts. It was his poetry. He intended to read each and ask their meanings. He needed to prove that poetry didn’t have to be mind-numbing. “I wrote a poem that was inspired by an experience I had when I was a little younger than you are right now. Do you guys want to hear it?”
“Yes,” the class sang in chorus.
He recited the first poem.
“Roller Coaster
We stood in line afraid as hell
and heard those riding scream and yell. 
The line grew long, no turning back. 
We took off down the twisted track. 
Holding on with all our might
we climbed a hill, no earth in sight
and at the top we held our breath,
then took a plunge that met with death.
Hairs on end and knuckles white,
we screamed like children with delight. 
Accepting that without control,
we placed our faith: We’d come back whole. 
So up and down, through loops and screws, 
our hands reached for a sky so blue
and in our hearts the truth beat clear...
trust releases joy from fear.”
Several students exchanged surprised glances, making Tom smile.
“Recently, I wrote this next poem, Beauty, about a girl named Carmen. It’s in prose.” He cleared his throat.
“She radiates with the light of a thousand candles,
while her movements have the energy of a lightning storm. 
The sweetest aroma lures even the strong,
though it is the scent of confidence which takes the kill. 
With the giggle of an innocent child,
her tone is soft and gentle, almost heavenly.
She expects nothing,
but her silence demands the best.
Her forgiving heart beats in the ears of all men,
yet it is her untamed spirit which screams out loudest. 
Like a beacon in the darkest night, 
her comfort is safety. Rarely revealing her deepest thoughts,
her words remain simple, for she is a mystery.
Her tender touch can be soothing or sensual,
as she is unconditional love—
both maternal and passionate.
In a word, she is beauty...
and you should see her on the outside.”
The applause shocked him. They’re hooked, he thought, so he alternated a few more between verse and prose. When he was done, he looked up to find the loud-mouthed boy in the back of the room smiling at him. He felt like leaping. Even the smallest victories were cause for celebration. This one’s huge, he thought and grinned back before shutting off the lights. 
“Get comfortable, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths,” he said, stifling a giggle that tickled at the back of his throat. “This is supposed to be fun, not work.”
Once the excited chatter subsided, they did as they were told.
“Now picture your favorite, safest, most comfortable place in the whole world. Take your time, but once you have it open your eyes.”
All eyes gradually returned to him, most filled with a growing interest.
“Now using what you’ve just experienced with all five senses, write this place down, describing it in prose and take your reader where you want them to go.”
“What if I can’t?” a young boy asked.
“Can’t?” Tom asked. “Now there’s a word that should either be stricken from your vocabulary, or used as nothing more than a challenge. You can do anything you put your mind to— anything!” He drew in a deep breath. “As long as you can speak, you can write. Rather than opening your mouth, use a pen. The words won't just drift off with the wind and become lost forever. Instead, you can write them down and stick them in a book where they’ll live on.”
The students were given fifteen minutes to play with their vocabularies and paint their vivid pictures. Tom strolled through the classroom, checking on their progress, inspiring each with genuine compliments as he passed their desks.
“Okay,” he said, “next, I want you to close your eyes again and imagine an event that you’ve attended; a circus, an amusement park—whatever—and describe how it makes you feel. And I want you to do it in free verse, or rhyming form.”
After this assignment was complete, he asked for a topic he could tackle. The kids agreed. “Write a poem about something that should change in the world.”
There’s plenty to write about there, he thought. “Great,” he said, “so while you’re finishing the same assignment at home, I’ll be doing mine. And once we’ve all finished, perhaps your teacher, Ms. Willis, wouldn’t mind compiling them into a bound collection to create an anthology?”
The impressed woman nodded, exciting the kids even more. They were now working on their first collection of poetry. They were going to have their own book.
As Tom gathered his things, he decided to leave them with one last nugget of wisdom. “Poetry cannot be taught,” he said, “only inspired. And remember this: Talent can be cultivated, but discipline is rare.” He knew this final statement would only click with those who cared to give it some extra thought.
“Thank you, Mr. Prendergast,” they sang in chorus.
“No,” he replied. “Thank you—for inspiring me. You’ve reminded me of the many reasons I write and I’ll never forget you for it.”
One week later, Tom sent his contribution to Ms. Willis’ anthology:
A Walk in the Clouds by Thomas Prendergast
I walked amongst the clouds today and then I took a seat
to try to understand the world
that spun beneath my feet.
It was the grandest picture my eyes had ever seen.
I couldn’t make out colors except for blue and green.
And yet I could see people,
a whole race on the run.
To tell the truth, from where I sat they clearly moved as one.
With fear, they searched for answers
they thought were on the ground.
And though they spoke in different tongues they made the sweetest sound.
They had the wrong perspective, with no way they could know:
There are no individuals, but just parts of a whole.
And so I made a wish for them that someday they would see: 
Only when they really love
is when they’re really free.
I’ll dance amongst the stars tonight, while others search in vain.
For just above their point of view there’s no such thing as pain.
“Professor,” Sue said, infiltrating Tom’s vivid memory and pulling him back into the present.
“I know,” he said, “I know. I’m going to be late.” As Sue turned and left the room, he stood—his aching molar shoving a hot spike into his brain. I need to get this damned tooth fixed soon! he thought.
As Tom started for his office door, he caught his passing reflection in the mirror. He stopped for a moment. Still physically fit, his hair was now salt-and-pepper while his round eye glasses contributed to his intellectual appearance. He took a deep breath and exhaled. There was a time when I loved to teach, he thought, thinking it would be so wasteful not to pass on my passion and knowledge to people who cared enough to listen. He shook his head. Instead, I ended up becoming a college professor.
As he walked toward his classroom, he grabbed his cell phone and dialed both of his kids again—experiencing the same hurtful avoidance. This is bullshit, he thought, his rising heart rate throbbing in his rotten tooth. I’m so sick and tired of being disrespected by these entitled brats.
A moment later, he swung open the classroom door, bringing a dozen separate conversations to silence. Let’s get this over with, he thought, trying to ignore the blinding pain that pulsated in the back of his mouth.

Episode 3: Serving Time (set in the world of Ashes)

Jason phoned Miranda. The call went straight to voicemail. “Hi babe, it’s Dad. Sorry I had to cut the call short earlier today. It was a busy day at the office. When you get a chance, call me back. I’m curious about what you have in mind for the weekend.” He ended the call and smiled, God, do I love that kid, he thought.
Still in hand, his cell phone rang. “Hello?”
“Hi sexy,” Josie said.
“I’m sorry,” he joked, “but you must have the wrong number.”
“Just make sure you pick me up at four o’clock. I don’t want to be late.”
“Late for what?” he asked, smiling.
“I told you, it’s a surprise.”
“Oh, that’s right,” he said, his smile widening. Weeks before, Josie had made dinner reservations at Los Andes Restaurant in Providence. Although she’d claimed it was a surprise, she never once tried to conceal her plans. In fact, she’d hinted about the big night for weeks. For as long as he could remember, Jason had heard about Los Andes, everyone going on and on about how good the food was and how the service was even better. But it wasn’t easy to travel through Federal Hill—with one amazing pasta joint better than the next; Camille’s, Pan E Vino, Cassarino’s, the Old Canteen—and not stop for some incredible dinner.
“Four o’clock, okay?” Josie said.
“I’ll be there,” Jason confirmed. “What should I wear?”
“Business casual.”
“So no prison uniform?”
“Khakis and a button down shirt will be perfect,” she said.
“Fine,” he said, “but I’m not tucking the shirt in.”
“You won’t be in it for long anyway,” she purred. “See you in a bit.” She hung up.
Jason looked at his cell phone and smiled—thinking about his playful dinner date. Josie was more than ten years his junior but acted even younger than that. She was an attractive brunette, with matching dimples that worked like lethal lures when she smiled. She was on the short side, with the body of a mature gymnast—both in curves and flexibility. Whatever their conversations lacked in depth, their physical relationship made up for it—and then some, he thought. And although Josie was considered no more than the latest in a long line of failed relationships, Jason liked her. Even when her African gray parrot spouted the most foul sentiments like “Bite me” and “Eat my ass”—echoing the dirty words of the filthy woman who’d taught it—Jason enjoyed being in her company. She’s a crazy broad, he thought, but I dig crazy.
After leaving the rain-soaked highway, the GPS’s non-whimsical voice called for so many rights and lefts that Jason knew they’d been sent in a back way. Up one street and down the next, they traveled through a tough-looking neighborhood, filled with three tenement houses with tiny yards behind chained link fences; corner stores and ethnic eateries protected by bars on their front windows—an all too familiar sight for Jason.
Fifteen minutes later, they arrived at Los Andes.
“Surprise!” Josie called out, smiling.
“This is it?” he asked, returning her grin. 
She nodded. “I know you don’t like to try anything new, babe, but I want you to keep an open mind, okay?” She glanced back at the building. “Everyone says we’re going to love it.”
The restaurant was located on the bottom floor of a tenement house, with a brick façade and blue awning, giving it the appearance of a storefront. Exterior signs boasted of Fine Peruvian and Bolivian Dining; South American delicacies. The silhouette of some foreign animal was prominently displayed on the awning. A yak or llama? Jason considered before finally deciding, It’s a llama. “Okay,” he agreed, adding a wink. 
Two young valet attendants waited in the rain. Jason considered their services before shaking his head. No way, he thought. “Get out here,” he told Josie. “I’ll find on-street parking.”
“You’re such a cheap...” she said.
“You’re welcome,” he interrupted, reaching over her lap to open the door for her.
She sighed heavily. 
“I have no problem tipping these kids,” he explained. “I just don’t want them scratching my...” 
But Josie had already slammed the door shut and was heading for the restaurant, past a group of patrons huddled outside—standing flush against the building, while the blue awning protected them from the pelting rain. 
This place must be good, Jason figured before finding a safe parking spot two streets away.
After an awkward and tiresome sprint in the rain, Jason took one step inside the place to discover that its outward appearance was only camouflage, concealing a real gem within. A huge, blue coral salt water tank sat above the bar, separating them from the main dining room. The tank was teeming with several dozen fish. After a narrow walk down the length of the bar, bouncing off of the packed crowd as he went, Jason met Josie at the hostess station.
“How long’s the wait?” he asked, wiping his wet hands on his khakis.
“Another half hour,” she said.
“You didn’t make a reservation?” he asked, surprised.
“I did,” she said without any further explanation.
While they waited, one of the owners—brothers who could never deny each other—came over and offered his sincere apology. “Some of the larger parties have taken longer than we anticipated,” he said, offering them each a drink on the house.
Class joint, Jason thought, happy to pass the time with a free drink, but the food had better be worth it. If he was being honest with himself, though, it had been a long time since he’d experienced such a positive first impression.
When they were finally escorted into the dimly-lit restaurant, Jason noticed that lots of people were drinking martinis. Not for me, he thought. The crowd was thick and happy, a cacophony of conversations filling the packed room. It was incredibly busy with wait staff flying around the room in some choreographed dance of chaos. They do a good business here, Jason thought.
He and Josie were led past the large dining room into an outside area covered by large tents. Jason craned his neck to survey the outdoor environment: A large Koi pond took up the center; surrounded by stone columns fire pits. Must be nice out there when it’s not pouring out, he decided, picturing some costumed man playing a Spanish guitar.
They were seated at a high top table and handed leather-bound menus.
“Want to try the pico sour?” Josie asked, quickly scanning the tall menu.
“Hell no.”
“You don’t even know what it is?”
“That’s right, but I do know what beer is and that’s exactly what I want.”The waiter approached, grinning. “Our bartender makes the best caipirinhas.”
“What’s that?” Jason asked.
“It’s made with cachaça, sugar and lime. Very delicious.”
“Not for me,” Jason said, unsure—and unwilling—to learn what cachaça is.
“Then why even ask, if you’re not going to try it?” Josie said, perturbed. 
Jason grinned and looked back at the waiter. “I’ll have a beer. You pick the flavor,” he said. “Thanks.” The owner swung by, apologizing again for the wait. “Pick an appetizer on the house,” he told them.
They’d never had Peruvian or Bolivian cuisine before, so there were many questions about the menu. The waiter was extremely knowledgeable, answering each question in patient detail. From cevice and paella to sea bass and short ribs, there were so many unusual choices to pick from. 
“And perhaps you’d like to share a pitcher of sangria?” he suggested.Jason shook his head. “I’ll stick with the beer.”
Josie was still shaking her disappointed head when two appetizers arrived at their table: The calamari they’d ordered and the other was a surprise that the owner had chosen—cold mashed potatoes filled with avocadoes and topped with chicken salad and some Peruvian sauce. Odd, Jason thought before devouring three out of the four on the plate. “Amazing,” he admitted, surprised.
Sitting outside by that waterfall must be real nice in the summer, Jason thought again, as the rain dripped onto the corner of the table, creating a small puddle. 
Not long after finishing the appetizers, the smiling waiter delivered lobster paella for Josie, and steak with two eggs over easy, yuka fries and white rice—with a few fried plantains on the side—for him. Although the portions were huge, Jason had no delusions that there would be any left—from either plate—before they were done. “Let’s get at it,” he said, starting in on one of the best steaks he’d ever eaten.
Not only was the food out of this world, it was equally matched by the doting service. I’ve never experienced anything like this place, Jason thought, grateful for Josie’s surprise plans.
As they ate, Jason scanned the room. A woman, seated off in the corner, began coughing. Josie spun in her seat to see what the problem was. 
“Relax,” Jason said, chewing a few fries, “she’s still breathing. No need for the Heimlich just yet.” 
As Josie shook her head, the woman regained her composure.
In a different corner, a larger party—four middle-aged couples—debated politics with more fervor and volume than seemed appropriate. Normally, the raucous would have bothered Jason. For whatever reason, he found it entertaining. The table of empty margarita glasses probably isn’t helping, he thought.
While Jason continued to survey the room, one of the dark-haired waitresses hurried by the table and shot Jason a big smile. He smiled back.
“Nice,” Josie hissed.
“What?” Jason asked, taking a sip of beer. 
“I saw that.” 
“You saw nothing,” he said, slightly amused.
“I saw her flirting with you,” Josie said, her voice getting louder and angry. “And I saw you...”
He lifted his hand to halt her inebriated rant. 
“You’re beautiful and sexy, Josie...a real wildcat in the sack. But you’re also as crazy as a shit house rat.” 
“Excuse me!”
“Bottom line,” he said. “I’m getting way too old and tired to deal with this type of nonsense. If I wanted to be with someone else, I’d be with someone else...and I wouldn’t be hiding it.”
“But you...”
“But I’m here,” he interrupted, “with you...which is where I want to be.” Nodding, he added. “Please don’t change that.” 
Josie opened her mouth again, but said nothing. Instead, she grabbed for her glass and took a long drink. 
“Thanks for taking me here,” Jason said, smiling. “It’s top notch...the best surprise I’ve had in a long time.”
“You’re welcome,” she managed.
He smiled, thinking, It’s the perfect place to share our final meal together.
Miranda called on Saturday morning. “Dad, are you free this afternoon?” 
“Sure, babe,” Jason said, feeling as excited as he was hung over. “Where are you taking me?”
“Nowhere, actually,” she said, pausing. “It’s just that...Mario needs to talk to you about something.”
“Talk to me about what?” Jason asked before a certain possibility dawned on him and his heart did a free fall into his socks. “About what?” he repeated, his tone sounding a bit frantic.
“You’ll know soon enough,” she said, and Jason could tell that the young man was standing beside her, waiting for the green light. “He’s on his way now.”
“Ummm...okay,” Jason stammered, his mind racing for a way to avoid this talk.
“And Dad,” she added, almost at a whisper.
“Please be nice to him.”
Jason swallowed hard. “I’m always nice,” he managed, “but it would be even nicer if you told me...”
“You’ll know soon enough,” she repeated. “I’ll call you later.” 
With that, there was nothing but a dial tone. Jason looked at his cell phone in disbelief. Holy shit, he thought. I always figured this day would come but I didn’t expect it to be today. He headed for the fridge to grab a beer. Maybe he wants to talk to be about something else? Jason considered, but no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t come up with an alternate—and much more welcomed—reason.
Twenty minutes had elapsed—twice the time it should have taken Mario to drive over to his place—before there was a light knock on the front door. Holy shit, Jason repeated in his head, all those muscles and he can’t even... Shaking his head, he downed the rest of his beer and took a deep breath. “Here we go,” he muttered and swung open the front door.
Wearing a smile as broad as his chest, Mario stood on the stoop looking younger than Jason had ever seen him. And he was nervous—no, petrified—contagiously rubbing off on Jason. “Hi, Mr. Prendergast,” he said, his Adam’s apple bobbing like some small fish had taken the hook in his guts. “Can I talk to you for a few minutes?”
Jason couldn’t help it; he was frozen in the threshold—unable to move or speak. “Come in,” he finally said, “come in.” 
Mario Arruda stood six feet tall on a bulging frame that spent hours in the gym, pumping iron. From appearances, Mario was a man. One look at his face, however, told Jason a different story. Kids grow up so much slower today than we did back in my day, he thought. Still, Jason couldn’t help but to like him; after only spending a few minutes with the baby-faced boy, his eyes and words both betrayed that he was a good guy—kind and considerate. Still, it wasn’t enough for Jason. If he was going to be with his daughter, Miranda, he needed to be a man. 
Mario took a half dozen steps into the living room and spun on his heels.
“Take a seat,” Jason told him, gesturing toward the blanket-laden couch, “make yourself comfortable.” 
This time, it was Mario who stood paralyzed. “Mr. Prendergast,” he said, his words dry and scratchy, “I love Miranda very much.”
“And so do I,” Jason instinctively countered. Without meaning to, he realized he’s squared his feet into a fighting posture—as if he were going to trade punches with the nervous kid. Just hear him out, he told himself. Mario’s a good kid.
“And I’m here to ask your permission to marry her,” he said, the words spilling out and lifting his shoulders a full two inches in relief. 
As if he’s been pushed, Jason collapsed into his recliner—his eyes never leaving Mario’s. What the hell, he thought. You guys are so young. You have your whole lives ahead of you. There’s plenty of time to... He looked up to find Mario sitting on the edge of the couch, anxiously awaiting a reply; the boy’s eyes were swollen with equal amounts of fear and hope. Mario’s a good guy, Jason reminded himself and cleared his throat. “So you want to marry my daughter?” Jason started. 
Mario nodded hard. “I do,” he said, the two simple words sending chills down Jason’s spine.
“And you think you can be a good husband to Miranda...a good provider?”
“I know I can, Mr. Prendergast.” He paused for a moment, while his eyes filled. “I’ve loved Miranda since the first day I met her and nothing’s ever going to change that.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” Jason said, his heart flooding with the depth of love he felt for his little girl.
Mario smiled—for the first time sincerely.
“Will you provide for her...everything she needs?”
“You have my word.”
“And protect her?”
“With my life,” Mario answered. 
Jason searched his eyes to discover it was the truth—moving him and sending the shiver back down his spine. “As the years pass by, marriage can feel like serving time for some men.”
“Never!” Mario blurted, “not with Miranda. I love her with everything inside me, Mr. Prendergast, and I’ll always be there for her no matter what happens.”
“I believe you,” Jason said, surprising himself as much as his future son-in-law.
“And you should,” Mario said sincerely. “Her happiness means more to me than my own.”
Okay, son, Jason thought, but if you ever abuse her in any way, I’ll punish you in ways you can’t even imagine. He never posed the threat, but he could tell by Mario’s face that it was already understood. Sighing heavily—in surrender—he extended his hand. Mario grabbed it and gave it the firm shake he was counting on. “You have my blessing, son,” he said. “But although Miranda will become your wife—for which I’ll respect and never interfere—understand that she’ll always be my little girl.” Jason choked on the last two words and his eyes immediately filled. Yet, he never tried to hide it. It was good that his daughter’s future husband understand the depth of love. “Always,” he repeated.
“I understand, sir,” Mario said, his own eyes filling. He tightened his grip.
Jason nodded. “And there’s no need to call me sir. We’re going to be family, for God’s sake.” He pulled his hand free and patted Mario on the back. “Just call me Mr. Prendergast.”
Mario’s brow rose in confusion. 
That’ll keep him on his toes for a while, Jason thought, trying to beat back a laugh. “What do you say we have a beer and celebrate?”
Mario nodded. “That sound great.”
Jason headed for the kitchen. “You are old enough to drink a beer, right?’ he called over his shoulder. 
“I am, Mr. Prendergast,” Mario answered.
With his back to the boy, Jason smiled.

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