Nothing said failure like the smell of burnt turkey on Thanksgiving. The smoky, charred-flesh odor clung to Lisbon's clothes and hair, following her around like an ominous shadow. Even the sweet scent of the HoneyBaked Ham, which now sat in the back seat of her SUV, couldn't mask the stench of the night's disastrous events.
Lisbon didn't care about the ruined bird. She didn't care about the wasted money, or the wasted hours on the Internet, searching for a stuffing recipe that exactly matched the kind her mother used to make, or even the whole afternoon spent in a hot kitchen, slathering a dead turkey with melted butter and herbs, when she could have been watching the Lions take on the Texans. Lisbon didn't care about any of that. All she cared about was how the bird had gotten ruined in the first place:
Lisbon's youngest brother. Also known as her pride, her joy, and, on days like today, the reason she was seriously considering driving across the border into Mexico and spending the rest of the holiday sitting poolside, by herself, at a nice hotel in Tijuana.
The day actually hadn't started off too badly – Tommy and James both showed up, which was something of a miracle in itself. Their initial handshake was cold and cordial, more like rival businessmen than brothers, but as the kids all piled inside, needing to pee and asking about cookies, things started to warm up. Lisbon got out the SpongeBob coloring books she'd bought for James' boys, set Annabeth up with an iPad, and tuned the TV in to the only thing Lisbon knew of that could possibly bring her estranged brothers back together: pro football.
At first, it seemed to work. Tommy and James both settled in on the couch to watch, and, even though there was an entire empty cushion between them, they were both scooping handfuls of Chex Mix from the same bowl. Lisbon snuck regular peeks through the kitchen door to monitor the situation, and when an hour passed without anyone sustaining an arterial wound, she started to feel like it was safe to breathe.
Lisbon was leaning against the counter, eyes closed, sipping a glass of red wine, when the easy chatter in the next room suddenly shifted. Tommy's voice rose above the hum, sounding sharp and angry. James said something back – not quite as angry, but getting there fast – and by the time Lisbon got out there, both men were full-shouting, right in each other's faces, and the bowl of Chex Mix was overturned on the floor.
Lisbon quickly herded Annabeth and the two wide-eyed boys upstairs with a "Madagascar 3" DVD, and then just barely managed to get between Tommy and James before they came to blows. Putting a hand on each of their chests, Lisbon held the men at bay while she pleaded with them, the whole scene playing out like a bad remake of her childhood.
Saint Teresa. Always the peacekeeper. Only back then, it was usually her father and Tommy she was trying to keep apart, and the whiskey stink on her dad's breath was typically the culprit.
Today, there was no alcohol involved, just red-hot rage. Lisbon had no idea what had set her brothers off – they were both yelling over each other too much to be understood. After a few minutes, she managed to get the basic gist: Annabeth had said something cheeky, James told her off, Tommy got all "you don't talk to my kid like that," and it escalated from there.
Lisbon pointed out that Tommy's "kid" was right upstairs, fully able to hear every shouted word. Annabeth and the boys were probably scared. This was their holiday, too, and right now, their dads were ruining it.
As usual, James was the first to back down, the first to respond to Lisbon's calm reasoning. He and Tommy both huffed to separate corners, their feet smashing broken Chex Mix into Lisbon's warranty-expired carpet. Tommy instantly grabbed his coat and Annabeth's, insisting that they were leaving. Lisbon had just talked him into staying when the squeal of a smoke detector suddenly pierced their eardrums. Lisbon's gaze jumped to the kitchen door, where she immediately spotted thin wisps of grey smoke oozing under the crack. At the exact same moment, the smell of scorched meat hit her nostrils. Lisbon's heart lurched.
With Tommy and James on her heels, she ran into the haze-filled kitchen and grabbed the bright red fire extinguisher from under the sink. Behind the oven's glass door, yellow flames danced and played, greedily swallowing up her perfectly-basted turkey. Lisbon shrieked and yanked the oven open. The fire roared even higher, and a big black cloud belched out right in her face, making her eyes water as she raised the canister and started spraying everything in sight. The oxygen-excited flames quickly died under a blanket of white foam, and for a moment Lisbon just stood there, heart racing, adrenaline pumping, feeling like Sigourney Weaver after she had conquered the creature in Alien.
James came up beside her and peered into the maw of the still-billowing oven. "Holy shit…"
Waving the smoke away, Lisbon reached in with bulky oven mitts to remove the charcoal remains of Thanksgiving dinner. She set it on the stovetop, and all three of them stared at what was left of the bird: a blackened skeleton with desiccated skin stretched between its bones. Completely inedible.
James said some of the butter had probably dripped down into the bottom of the oven, causing the fire. Tommy argued that she might just have a faulty, craptastic oven. As their bickering flared up again, a heavy gloom settled over Lisbon's heart like thick, black smoke. She didn't know why the oven fire had started. What she did know was that if she'd been keeping an eye on things in the kitchen instead of playing referee to two grown men, then maybe the fire wouldn't have gotten so out-of-control. And maybe, just maybe, they would be looking at a golden brown Thanksgiving turkey right now, rather than a charred briquette speckled with fire foam.
Fifteen minutes later, after the kids had calmed down and most of the smoke had dissipated, Lisbon's hopes for a family holiday were looking as unsalvageable as the bird itself: the boys were starting to complain about being hungry, Annabeth was busy "autopsying" the turkey, and Tommy was talking about leaving again.
"The bird's ruined anyway, Reese. Annie and I can just grab some McDonald's or something on the drive home..."
But Lisbon wasn't giving up that easily. She'd made eight phone calls – three to James, five to Tommy – just to get two of her three brothers in the same room. As long as no one was suffering from smoke inhalation – and she checked them all, just to make sure – then they were having this Thanksgiving, damn it.
Now, Lisbon was on her way home with "Plan B." Honey-glazed and lovingly covered in crinkled gold foil, the ham that was buckled into the back seat remained her only hope of reminding her brothers that Thanksgiving hadn't always been yelling and shoving and broken bits of Chex Mix. That there had been laughter and clinking forks and Tommy making armpit farts at the table. That they had been a family once, and could be again.
It was a lot to ask of an eighteen-pound hunk of meat.
Lisbon glanced over her shoulder at the ham, wishing she had something just a little bit more special – something that would really bring back the good memories. She'd been hoping her mother's stuffing would do the trick, but now all that remained of it was a dried mound inside the scorched cavern of the turkey.
Snow would be the next best thing – a thick blanket of the heavy-wet kind. There was nothing like a good, old-fashioned Lisbon-family snowball fight. But seeing as Lisbon's car thermometer was currently reading sixty-seven degrees, and the Sacramento skyline was cloudless, she didn't expect to see falling white flakes anytime soon. And even if there was some miracle – even if California and Illinois magically swapped climates for a day – Lisbon wondered if it would be enough.
She wondered if anything would ever be enough.
Just as this bitter thought swelled inside of her, something caught Lisbon's eye – a dusty old red-and-white advertisement, hanging inside the display window of a Mom and Pop convenience store called "Lenny's Market." Lisbon hit the brakes and heard the car behind her screech.
"Sorry!" she called, holding up her right hand between the seats, "Sorry…"
Lisbon quickly flicked her turn signal on and pulled up next to the store, which was still lit and had an "OPEN" sign in the door, even though the shops on either side of it were dark and shuttered. Shifting the SUV into park, Lisbon climbed out and hurried across the sidewalk, hoping they actually still carried the item she wanted.
A friendly bell jingled overhead as Lisbon stepped inside the store. The pretty redhead working the cash register smiled at Lisbon from behind the counter, and Lisbon smiled back briefly before aiming for the snack aisle. She had to keep this quick – every second she spent away from home was another second Tommy and James were left alone together. The thought made her shudder.
On the way to the row marked "CHIPS/CRACKERS," Lisbon passed a tall, dark-haired man, looking rather helpless as he perused several shelves of seasonings and spices. Just before she turned the corner, Lisbon saw him reluctantly take out his cell phone.
"Hey, Sarah…No, no, don't put him to bed – I'm still coming, I just couldn't remember which kind of oregano you wanted me to pick up for the stuffing…"
Walking by the next aisle, Lisbon couldn't help but raise her eyebrows at the sight of a very serious-looking Asian man standing in the cosmetics section, his arms laden with about fifteen different shades of sparkly nail polish. He stiffened slightly at her look, and she quickly averted her eyes, leaving the man to his business…whatever that was.
She'd just made it onto the row lined with Pringles cans and bright red bags of Nacho Cheese Doritos, when a third man brushed past her. Lisbon caught a fleeting glimpse of messy blond curls, sad eyes, a five-o-clock shadow and a rumpled suit, before the man shuffled away, the smell of whiskey trailing after him. No mystery where he was headed – little stores like these always had an extensive selection of cheap booze.
Lisbon sighed and turned her focus to the shelves in front of her, scanning past Fritos and Tostitos until at last she spied that red-and-white logo. Sitting by itself on the bottom-most shelf, the Cracker Jack box looked as lonely and forgotten as a brown, needle-less Christmas tree in a lot full of bushy green ones. Lisbon picked up the box and blew off a thin layer of dust to make out the expiration date: November 19, 2012.
Three days ago. Still, so what if they were a little bit stale? She'd certainly seen her brothers eat things that were far more questionable – if Tommy would swallow half a worm on a dare, then he shouldn't mind a few too-soft pieces of caramel corn. And besides, it wasn't so much about the snack as it was about what would be left in the bottom of the box once everything was eaten.
Lisbon swiped the rest of the dust away with her sleeve and headed for the register up front. The red-haired cashier flashed a warm smile as Lisbon set the box on the counter. Two bright diamond studs rainbow-twinkled in the young woman's earlobes.
"Cash, check or charge?" the redhead asked.
"Cash," Lisbon said, reaching for her wallet. Her fingers scrounged around inside her right jacket pocket, coming up empty. Lisbon frowned. She tried her left pocket instead – even though she never put her money in that side – and then started patting at her jeans pockets, too.
Car keys, check. Cell phone, check. Wallet? That would be a big, fat "no."
Lisbon could feel the sick knot forming in her stomach that always came with situations like this: lost keys, lost credit card, locked out of the condo…
As she continued to search, avoiding the cashier's eye, another customer came up to stand in line – a young Hispanic boy who was snapping gum and holding a rolled-up copy of The Enquirer. He started to fidget, shifting from side to side, as Lisbon re-checked all of her pockets, only to come up with the exact same wallet-less results.
Finally, face burning, Lisbon looked up at the cashier. "Um, I think I left my wallet somewhere…do you mind if I make a quick phone call?"
"Sure, no problem," the young woman replied kindly, and Lisbon quickly retreated off to the side.
While the boy made his purchases – the tabloid he was holding and a pack of grape Bubble Yum – Lisbon pressed the cell phone to her ear, hoping against hope that an employee of the HoneyBaked Ham Company was about to pick up. It was the last place Lisbon knew for sure she'd had the wallet – she could even remember setting it on the counter as she paid for the ham.
"Hello, you've reached HoneyBaked Ham, the home for all of your holiday needs! The store you're trying to reach is not currently open. To find another HoneyBaked store near you, please visit HoneyBaked Ham dot com. To find out more about our holiday hours of operation, please press one. To learn about our products and selection—"
Lisbon hung up on the recording. Of course they would be closed by now – it was after six o' clock on Thanksgiving. Most people were at home with their families…
Feeling defeated, she returned to the checkout counter. The boy was still there, apparently waiting for his change – the red-haired cashier seemed to be having a problem getting the drawer on the register to open. Lisbon ducked in between them to pick up the Cracker Jack box.
"I couldn't find it," Lisbon said. "So I'm just going to put these back…"
The redhead nodded distractedly. The boy leaned over the counter, giving suggestions in Spanish as he tried to help her coax open the drawer. Lisbon turned away and began her walk of shame – the head-bowed, shoulder-hunched shuffle of one forced to return a product to its shelf due to a shortage of funds. She'd only made it about five steps before the little bell over the door jingled, and a cold, clear voice from behind said,
"This is a hold-up – everybody on the floor."