Priyanka fluffed the final throw pillow and stopped to admire her handiwork. The Maheswaran home was officially ready for a guest, even if that guest wasn’t her ideal company.
Connie walked into the room with a stack of movies. ““All set for Steven to get here!”
Priyanka smiled tightly. “Yes, I think we’re ready.”
Medically, Priyanka knew that Connie’s expression of her current developmental stage was completely ordinary. But from a parent’s perspective the change in socialization from family to peers was frustrating. The usual Maheswaran traditions were suddenly filtered through a new rose-colored lens- lots of ‘hang on, I’ve got to text Steven’ and ‘Mom, can I go over to Steven’s house instead?’ and even ‘can Steven come over for movie night?’
She had answered as understandingly as she could muster, with ‘you can text him from the car’ and ‘you can see Steven tomorrow, but right now we’re going to the visit your aunt as a family.’ Today she had even relented with a ‘yes, Steven can come over,’ even if it had pained her slightly; she’d been looking forward to an evening watching movies in a quiet house with just her husband and her daughter.
The doorbell rang announcing Steven’s arrival and Connie rushed to open the door. “Hey Steven!”
“Connie!” Priyanka heard him call as he stepped through the door. She watched them embrace and rolled her eyes at the grin which quickly consumed Connie’s face. If she looked half that pleased playing tennis Priyanka would be thrilled, but it seemed her happiest moments were reserved for fighting monsters and goofing around with Steven.
The truth was that despite Connie’s affection for Steven, and his magic powers and unusual pet, Priyanka found him a bit ordinary . She certainly couldn’t measure his worth using her usual metrics. He didn’t attend school and his cultural tastes were decidedly low-brow, populated with cartoons and comic books. She’d even witnessed him playing an overly sentimental song on a ukulele. Certainly not the kind of person who would be attending Priyanka’s alma mater alongside Connie in just a few short years.
Priyanka sighed. The years were indeed growing shorter, and if spending more time with her daughter meant spending more time with Steven, she could bear it.
“Hello, Dr. and Mr. Maheswaran,” said Steven. “I brought movie night snacks!” He held up a plastic bag.
“Err, thanks,” said Priyanka. She took the bag and peeked inside. A stack of candy and two different types of something called ‘Chaaaaps’ rested snugly atop four cans of ‘Strawberry Sugar Shock.’ “That’s very thoughtful of you, Steven. I’ll take these into the kitchen.”
Priyanka set the treats on the counter and rummaged through a cabinet for the air popper. If those were the sorts of snacks Connie was eating when she was visiting Steven it was more important than ever she offer something with a better fiber-to-sugar ratio. She rose to place the popper on the counter and turned to find Steven in the doorway.
“Hey, need any help? Connie and Mr. Maheswaran are watching what they told me was a festive holiday movie, but there’s a lot of shooting.” He scrunched up his face. “I don’t like it.”
“Die Hard ,” Priyanka muttered. “Year after year.”
“You don’t like it either?”
“No, I don’t care for violent media. It’s barbaric and it sets a poor example.”
“That’s what I tried to say!”
She reached into a drawer for a bag of popcorn kernels. “There’s no convincing them.”
Steven chuckled. “I know. When we play video games Connie’s always like, ‘let’s see what happens if we shoot that guy!’ And I’m like, ‘can’t we just walk around and talk to people?’” He suddenly went red. “Oops, IIIII probably shouldn’t have said that.”
Priyanka waved a hand dismissively. “I lost that battle years ago; Doug plays the same games she does. At least they do it together sometimes, so I rationalize it as a bonding exercise.”
“Like how my dad taught me guitar and ukulele,” said Steven.
“Yes, a little like that.” She placed a bowl beneath the popper. “So, you like music?”
“It’s my favorite thing! I mean aside from Dad, and the Gems, and Connie.”
She nodded. “Family and friends are very important.”
“The most important!” Steven sat down at the table and watched her pour the kernels into the popper. “And popcorn is a great snack for hanging out; whenever I make a together breakfast I always make popcorn.”
That didn’t sound very nutritious. “What’s a together breakfast?”
“Waffles, whipped cream, maple syrup, strawberries, and popcorn, but the most important ingredient is everyone eating it together!”
“Uh-huh.” Priyanka started the popper. “Is that a common breakfast food at your house?”
Steven shook his head. “Nope, I usually just have cereal or something. Or Amethyst makes eggs.”
That didn’t sound as bad as she had thought. “And what about the days Connie comes over for training?”
Steven sat up straighter in his chair. “I always make her a smoothie. Spinach, coconut milk, protein powder, and strawberries, ‘cause we both like them.”
At least he could follow directions. “I’m impressed,” said Priyanka. “Those are all approved ingredients.”
“I know,” said Steven. “Connie gave me your list, and I experimented until I found the combination that tasted the best.” He crinkled his nose. “Lion helped me taste test and boy, he does not like kale. It took me forever to get all that green throw up out of my shoes.”
“Well, I’m relieved to know Connie’s well-taken care of when she’s at your house.”
Steven tilted his head. “Why wouldn’t she be? I just said family’s the most important thing.”
Priyanka froze. When Steven had said Connie was one of his favorite things she hadn’t thought much of it. But coupled with the carefully planned smoothies and the memory of his actions that night at the hospital it dawned on her that she might have gotten him wrong. He thought of Connie as family .
She knelt and buried her head deep in a low cabinet to hunt for the popcorn salt. The notion was absurd, of course. Connie and Steven were scarcely high school age. There were years of growth ahead for both of them. Still, there were worse things for an ambitious kid like Connie to have in her life than a supportive and nurturing friend.
A loud bang from the next room startled her and she jerked upward, straight into a set of drawers. “Oww!” She sat down on the floor and rubbed her head.
Connie and Doug came flying into the room. “What was that!” said Doug.
“Nothing, I was just startled by the noise from the movie.” She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up to see Steven standing next to her.
“You’re bleeding,” said Steven. He bent closer.
“Connie, could you get the first aid kit?” Priyanka asked.
Doug approached and brushed aside her hair. “It’s pretty bad; I think you need more than a Band-Aid,” he said.
“I can fix it,” said Steven.
“I’m the doctor here,” said Priyanka through gritted teeth. “I’ll check it in the bathroom mirror, and if I need sutures I’ll stop into the hospital. Dr. West should be there.”
“Steven can heal it,” said Connie. “You really should let him try.”
“Connie, I-” Priyanka met her daughter’s eyes across the room and suddenly couldn’t find it in her to resist. Connie looked so sure. She turned her head to see Steven smiling above her. “Oh, alright. Do whatever magic thing you did when you healed Connie’s eyes.” She closed her eyes and braced herself.
She felt the slightest sensation of pressure atop her head. “All better,” said Steven.
Doug brushed his hand along her hairline. “Yep. No more cut and all of the blood is gone.”
Priyanka ran a shaky hand across her scalp. “I don’t feel anything… no laceration, no contusion.” She looked up at Steven. “How did you do that?”
He shoved his hands in his pockets and looked away. “Umm. I kinda have healing spit?”
She flinched. “Spit?!”
“Yeah. And tears, but those are harder ‘cause I have to cry to make tears, but I always have spit, you know?” The tips of his ears went red.
“You spit on me?”
“No, no! I, umm… kissed you?” His voice grew steadily higher. “The top of your head, I mean.”
Priyanka’s eyes narrowed. “Healing...kisses?” Maybe she had missed something even bigger than she thought about Connie’s relationship with Steven. She stood and faced him. “So, do you want to explain how your saliva ended up on my daughter?”
“Back- backwash!” Steven stammered.
Connie rushed over. “It isn’t what you’re thinking!” she said. “We were sharing a juice box, and then suddenly I didn’t need my glasses anymore.”
As disgusting as that sounded, it was just as plausible as a healing kiss. And it did mean she could worry far less about sword-related injuries. Priyanka smiled. “I guess I can buy that. And I’ve got to say, it might be nice to have another healer in the family.”
“Yeah?” said Connie.
“Yes. But there’s one thing that’s going to have to change if Steven’s going to be spending more time over here.”
Connie’s eyes went wide. “What?”
“The movie selection.” Priyanka threw her arm around Steven. “ We can equal your vote now. No more Die Hard .”