Chef walked down the hall toward the kitchen, loosening his tie and slipping out of his jacket. He slung the jacket across the back of a chair and leaned on it with his eyes closed. Sobs rose in his chest, but he swallowed them back. Life had to go on, but without Lily, Chef wasn’t sure he wanted it to.
He wanted desperately to believe that finding the man that had destroyed his family would make everything better, that it would make anything better. But he knew it wouldn’t. He wanted to believe that killing that man would prevent it from ever happening again, but what did it matter? What actual difference would it make?
“It wouldn’t make a fucking bit of difference,” he muttered. His grip on the back of the chair tightened. The wood beneath his jacket began to creak.
Chef’s eyes snapped open. He fought to compose himself, and released the chair. “What’s up?” He turned to face his daughter with a fake smile on his face.
“Do we really have to go tonight?” Miranda made herself as small as she could, seeming to cower. Even slouching, she stood nearly as tall as Chef, on heels too high for a funeral, in a dress too short to wear in public. “Couldn’t we just … stay home tonight?”
“Life goes on, Mandy,” Chef said, and sighed. “We can’t just put it on hold.”
“You don’t even care, do you?” Tears appeared in her eyes and ran down her cheeks. “You’re never here when we need you. I hate you.” Miranda turned away and stomped up the stairs, the fourth creaking beneath her feet.
Chef staggered back and collapsed into a chair turned away from the table. I hate you. Her door slammed shut , and a heavy bass line began vibrating dishes in the cupboards. I hate you. He tried to convince himself that he’d heard her incorrectly, but couldn’t.
Amberly appeared, dressed in jeans and a plain black blouse. Her eyes met Chef’s for the briefest of moments before she averted her gaze toward the floor.
“We’ve got to roll out in about twenty minutes,” he said. Amberly nodded, but didn’t reply. “I’m going to get a quick shower in. Would you talk to Mandy? She won’t listen to me, says she hates me.” He almost couldn’t believe the words were coming out of his mouth. Again, their eyes met briefly. She gave him a curt nod, and her eyes flashed him a hint of sympathy before deadening and returning to the floor. Like her daughter, Amberly turned away from Chef and ascended the stairs. The fourth stair creaked.
* * *
“Miranda is a bright young lady,” Mrs. Burns droned. It was no doubt a speech she’d delivered to hundreds of other parents over the thirty years that she’d been teaching. “With a bright future ahead of her, if she applies herself.”
Chef and Amberly nodded and smiled, it was what they were supposed to do when told such things. Miranda sat slumped in her chair, looking out the window.
“Though her behavior, lately, is somewhat …” she tapper her chins with a pencil, “aberrant.”
“Aberrant,” Chef said, his eyebrows rising. “How so?”
“Well, when she actually shows up for class,” Mrs. Burns traced circles in the air with the eraser, “she’s very often rude and disruptive, making snide comments and speaking out of turn. Or she is completely unresponsive, outright refusing to participate in class activities. Of course, she is seemingly unwilling to so much as – ”
“Miranda, leave the room,” Amberly said. They were the first words she’d said in front of Chef in nine days.
“What? Why do I have to go?”
Amberly fixed her eyes on her daughter, who withered under her glare. The temperature of the room seemed suddenly to drop significantly. Miranda’s eyes found the floor. She stood and shuffled out the door. Once the door had shut firmly, Amberly turned her eyes to Mrs. Burns, with no less intensity.
“Now, who the hell do you think you are?” Mrs. Burns opened her mouth to answer, or to protest, but Amberly spoke over her. “You will never speak to, or about my daughter in such a way, ever again, do you understand?”
Again, Mrs. Burns opened her mouth to speak, but wasn’t given the opportunity.
“You have no idea what this family has been through, and it is none of your business, whatsoever. Any idiot with a high school diploma can do your job, so my feeling is that if she deigns to attend your malformed joke of a class you should consider yourself lucky.”
Mrs. Burns’ pencil fell to her desk, followed closely by her jaw.
“If I hear a single word of any problem with you I’ll have your job, and I’ll make sure you never work in this state again.” Amberly looked at her husband. “I think we’re done here.” She bent and picked her purse up from the floor and strode from the room, leaving Chef behind.
He waited until the door closed behind his wife before attempting to speak. He half stood and held out his hand to Mrs. Burns. She flinched away from him at first, but seeing his smile, reached out and clasped his hand. “It was lovely seeing you again. Mandy quite enjoyed your class during her freshman year; I’m sure you remember.” He released her hand and looked toward the door. From the other side he heard only bits and pieces of the one-sided conversation, directed at Miranda. Chef looked back at Mrs. Burns, again smiling. “We’re not normally like this, it’s been a … a difficult couple of weeks. For all of us.”
Mrs. Burns nodded, her drooping jowls shaking. “Yes, I can see that. I’ll make sure and give Miranda a little more slack. She’s really very bright.”
“We’ll all appreciate that very much.” Chef gave her one last reassuring smile. “I’m going to go rescue her now. I’m sure we’ll see you in the spring.”