The radish struck Tony on his forehead as soon as he opened the front door.
"What the ..."
He stumbled backward one step, somehow managed to catch the door frame with his left hand, and unsuccessfully flailed at another incoming red missile, this time aimed at chest level, with his right. His assailant, a teenaged girl wearing a maniacal grin, dipped her hand into a bag at her waist, and produced yet another radish. He noticed, while struggling to regain his balance, that it was speckled with dirt.
"Good morning, Kellie," his mother's voice said from behind him, "you're up early."
"Sorry Mrs. McKinley," Kellie said, although she didn't look the least bit apologetic to Tony, "my family's leaving in a few hours, and I figured I'd better come by and straighten your son out."
"Ah," replied his mother, resting a hand on his shoulder and applying gentle pressure until he was no longer leaning against the door, "a challenge."
"I don't," Tony began, but trailed off when Kellie dropped her unthrown missile back in the bag, and held it out towards him.
"Since we're leaving, my Mom thought you might enjoy these," she said, smiling up at him innocently.
"You can keep ..."
"Oh, that's so sweet," his mother enthused, and stepping passed him, accepted the bag.
"Mom, she was throwing them at me!" Tony burst out petulantly.
Glancing over her shoulder at him resignedly, his mother sighed, and asked Kellie, "You going to be all right talking to him?"
A conspiracy. It'd be just like his and Kellie's parents to get together on something like this.
Kellie's eyes sought his out, and when he finally consented to look back at her, he was caught. Her eyes were the most expressive he had ever seen, reflecting his frustration back at him in that teasing way she had, while holding deeper messages underneath. There was regret, and sadness too, but both emotions were overlaid with an undeniable strength.
This was it, Tony realized. Like it or not, she was leaving, and if he kept screwing around the way he had been for the past few weeks, he might never even get to say good-bye. He might not like what she was doing, couldn't even begin to understand it, truth be told, but he owed her some kind of farewell at least.
"I think we'll be okay," Kellie said, breaking eye contact with him to smile reassuringly at his mother. "I might even bring him back to you in one piece."
Because both Kellie and he had younger siblings, the Brat Pack as they sarcastically referred to them, going out together for long walks around their subdivision was the only semi-successful way they'd ever found of gaining a bit of privacy from their families. So, when they left Tony's house that morning, their feet, long accustomed to the routine, took them towards the tennis courts at the neighborhood park. It was early enough that they should still be able to find a picnic table without any problem.
"You stopped answering my text messages," Kellie said.
There was almost no accusation in her voice, which was impressive, since he'd done a Hell of a lot more than just ignored one or two of her texts. After their last conversation a month ago, he'd been adrift, confused and unhappy over what she'd told him, and had closed her out altogether. He'd hoped, in a weird and disjointed sort of pseudo-logic, that if he ignored the problem completely, it might simply go away.
"I didn't think there was anything else to say."
Even now, with her leaving so soon, he couldn't keep the resentment out of his voice.
"Dammit, Tony, they're my parents. What am I supposed to do, divorce them and live with your family?"
Pulling free from his encircling arm, she stepped in front of him, and pushed at his chest with both her hands.
"Please, please tell me you're not dreaming of some idiotic fantasy like that."
Stung, he stepped back, and dropped his eyes to the sidewalk. They hadn't even made it to the end of the block. So much for privacy, the whole fucking street was probably watching them now.
"It isn't idiotic," he mumbled, scuffing his feet against the pavement, "if you told them, if you convinced them you wanted to stay, they might let you."
"Tony!" Her voice was pleading, "Stop!"
Together, they had told each other they could change the world. Lifting his eyes from the sidewalk, Tony searched for hers, hoping to find the empathy they had shared before, but she was facing away from him. Why did it have to be different now? What could he say to convince her?
"You don't even believe in that religious bullshit," he growled at her back.
Even as he said the words, he knew they were a mistake. Surrounded by the pain of losing her, unable to reach out, he lashed out at her instead. Still, how could she disagree? He wasn't saying anything they hadn't told each other a hundred times before.
"They're dragging you and your sisters overseas with them so they can do missionary work." He scoffed. "That isn't anything you believe in!"
"They want to give something back." Her voice was tired, defeated. "Mom's a doctor, and Dad's a teacher. I don't even think the religious aspect is what's really important to them, it's just," she shrugged, "the easiest way for them to get it done I guess."
"Yeah, right. Okay, so God has nothing to do with it?"
Kellie turned slowly back towards him, her expression mirroring the defeat he had heard in her voice. Her eyes were still the most expressive he had ever gazed into, but the teasing playfulness he had found there earlier was gone.
"Their belief in God is part of who they are," she said calmly. "I've made fun of them in front of you and my other friends, and I was wrong for doing that!" She took a deep breath, and stared into his eyes with her most determined look ever. "I love them because they're my parents, but I also respect what they're trying to accomplish. I don't have to believe in God to do either one of those things."
He considered pointing out that there was plenty of self-sacrificing work that both doctors and teachers could do for churches right here in the United States, but he discarded the idea. He wasn't going to win that argument. Besides, there was a more important question he wanted the answer to.
"And us?" he asked, dreading the answer.
She sighed. "Tony, you quit talking to me for a month because you thought you could get me to cave on going with my parents overseas. As if!" She shook her head at him in disgust. "I gotta tell you, I'm still pretty pissed at you for that."
Pissed or not though, she had sought him out this morning. Did that mean that after--his mind veered away from the thought of not seeing her for months, possibly years. Shit, no, he couldn't think of that right now. Maybe it meant that they would see each other again?
"Yeah," he said, and then laughed, unable to stop himself. "I sorta got that message when you pegged me in the head with one of your Mom's radishes."
Kellie stared at him for a second, then her head lowered, and her entire body started shaking. For one irrational moment, he was afraid she was crying.
"You should've seen your face," she choked out, and then fell against him laughing.
Holding her close, Tony breathed in the scent of her hair, and wondered if he'd ever see her again after today.
I owe a debt of thanks to my wife for the inspiration of radishes in this story. Had she not purchased me this vegetable as a snack, and had I not then forgotten to bring them with me on my out-of-town trip, this story might never have been written. *grin* When Gary posted Topic One to LJ Idol, all I could think of was, "Okay, but I've gotta get radishes in there somewhere."