Alex was a pretty normal kid. He did normal things, by kid standards.
Well, so long as those kid standards took into account the fact that he was thirteen and had a very independent creative streak.
He’d gotten a chemistry kit for Christmas and a magnifying glass and a butterfly net for his birthday.
And that was really where the problem started. They probably should have seen it coming, in fact.
He’d been outside for about an hour when his mother – preparing to host a party that evening with a group from church – looked out the window to see him laying flat on his stomach on the back deck, peering at a glass jar.
She continued cutting brownies and counting glasses for another minute or two, but there was something about the way he was lying on the wood of the porch and something about her mother’s instinct that told her that this was a good time to intervene.
Her instinct was about a minute and a half off, but she wasn’t going to figure that out for another ten minutes.
She went out to the porch, hands on her hips, and asked him what he was doing.
She loved Alex like the moon and the sun combined, but he was thirteen and she had a group of ladies from church coming over in less than thirty minutes. You have to walk a fine line between being a champion of creativity and independence and making sure that he isn’t planning on launching mudpies at the ladies as they come up the front walk.
He had been testing remote trigger mechanisms, and honestly, if any of them had little boys of their own, they would have known to watch their feet more carefully. I mean, anyone who has ever lived in a house with Legos knows that for the rest of their lives. But these were younger ladies, and the only children any of them had were precious little girls in pink and gold dresses. Alex’s mother didn’t even try to explain it. They’d get there. Someday.
“I’m looking at my pets,” Alex said. His mother frowned.
“Isn’t that my cookie jar?”
He nodded, his chin never leaving his fists.
She shook her head. She had meat in the crock pot that she needed to get out, and a cheese ball to form for chips. She needed to shut this down now and worry about what was actually going on later.
“Come inside now,” she said.
“But what about my pets?” he asked.
“Bring them,” his mother said, looking for the option that got him inside and up to his room as quickly as possible so that she could get back to preparing for her party. She waited, making sure he’d actually picked up the cookie jar and was bringing it inside before she went back to the kitchen.
At this point, she had four minutes left.
But she didn’t know that.
She pulled a sheet of cookies out of the oven, smelling them with a happy smile. Her grandmother’s recipe. She went digging for a trivet out of a drawer and put it on the table, putting a bowl on it and sliding the cookies into it, then she went to check the crock pot. The meat smelled of barbecue sauce and beef, and she went to get the rolls out of the pantry, pulling them apart and putting them into a wicker basket.
She finished cutting brownies and put them onto a serving tray alongside a row of mixed nuts and cubed cheese, setting that next to the cookies, then she got the cheese ball out of the fridge and went digging through a cabinet looking for the serving tray for chips.
She had one. She’d bought it at an after-Thanksgiving sale the previous year, and she loved it. It had festive colors on it that every time she looked at it she had to remind herself that they weren’t necessarily fall colors, they were just pretty, but the design was one she loved so much, she couldn’t resist.
“How many times are you going to use a chips-and-dip tray?” her husband had asked, but she’d gotten it anyway, and she was going to darned well used it every single time she had people over, just to prove to him that it had been worth it.
She got out ice, putting it into the ice bucket and went digging through the random utensils drawer for tongs, then went to get the stool out of the bathroom so that she could reach the party napkins above the refrigerator. She lay those out in a fan pattern, thinking for a moment about folding one into an origami shape of some kind – she’d taken a class at the home goods store a few years ago, and she still remembered a few of them – but she thought that it would be a little pretentious, and she didn’t want to waste the good napkins like that.
Drinks. Drinks. She’d gotten them at the store, but for a moment she forgot where they were.
The refrigerator in the garage. They’d run out of room in the refrigerator in the kitchen with all of the leftovers from going out the other night, and she’d had to put them all outside. She needed to get those out to the table so that she’d be in the house when Barbara rang the doorbell; her best friend usually came over early to help with the parties, but they usually ended up mostly just talking, because as much as they loved having parties and getting together, they never did, and as soon as more than one of them was in the room, they were talking about this or that, and so Alex’s mother needed to get everything important done before Barbara got there.
She was bringing in the glass bottles of root beer and setting them in a tub of ice by the table, one ear out for the doorbell, when there was an odd noise.
Odd noises turned Alex’s mother’s stomach, because if she didn’t immediately know what caused them, there was every chance that she didn’t want to know what caused them.
She drew a bracing breath and started for the front hallway.
“Alex?” she answered.
The explosion hit her in the face.
Wet, greenish, and full of bits and pieces of something.
“Alex?” she asked again, her tone quite different this time.
“I just wanted to see what would happen,” he whined.
“Alex, what was that?”
She was doing her level best not to let it drip into her mouth.
“Well, I found these really big bugs out back and I caught them with my net, and I was seeing what they liked to eat, and then I started trying things from my chemistry set…”
Her brother had promised her that there wasn’t anything interesting in that set. He swore it.
She looked at the ceiling, feeling something run down her hair and onto her back. She hoped it wasn’t alive.
And then the doorbell rang.