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“What is it?” she asked, sounding concerned.
“It’s nothing,” I replied. “Vader just walked in. He’s sitting at the bar.”
“Did you know he was coming?”
“Yeah,” I said, wadding up my napkin and tossing it onto my emptied plate. “I sent him a text before we left. He was already in Orlando with Edith to see the grandkids, and I figured since we’re not going to get to the Red Lobster down near Clearwater, he’d be game for a quick get-together here.”
“Don’t tell me you brought a flask.”
“It’s just a little something I don’t think he’s ever had.”
“You two,” Jen said, rolling her eyes and shooing me from the table.
I made my way through the restaurant waiting area, past the lobster tank, to the bar. Vader was sitting at the furthest stool nearest to the windows that overlooked a man-made pond adorned with a grand fountain and surrounded by signs warning of the possible presence of alligators.
“Reverend,” the Sith Lord acknowledged as I approached. “You made it.”
“I was already here,” I replied. “Jen and the kids are just around the corner finishing dinner.”
“Honestly, Reverend,” Vader said, motioning toward the bartender to get his attention. “I don’t know how the two of you manage a trip like this with four kids. I can barely stand a two-hour trip and a half hour with Edith’s grandchildren. You guys travel nine hundred miles and spend every waking moment of ten straight days with the little Jawas.”
“That won’t be necessary,” I called to the bartender mid-travel. “I brought something of my own.”
“I’m afraid you can’t do that,” the bartender said firmly. “You can’t bring your own drinks into the bar. It’s against the law.”
Without hesitating, Vader gave another motion with his hand. The bottles on the shelves behind the bartender began to rattle.
“It’s perfectly fine for the Reverend to bring his own booze into Red Lobster,” Vader said calmly.
“It’s perfectly fine for the Reverend to bring his own booze into Red Lobster,” the bartender repeated numbly.
“And the Thoma’s dinner bill is to be covered by the gentleman at table fourteen,” Vader added.
The man at the table directly behind us protested, “I’m not paying for anyone’s din—” But before he could finish, Vader already had his other hand in the air and the man in full agreement.
“So what did you bring to share this time, Reverend?” Vader asked, swiveling slightly on his stool.
“I brought a sample of the Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. Small Batch edition,” I said, placing the flask on the bar and reaching over its edge to retrieve two rock glasses. “Have you tried it, yet?”
“Not yet,” he replied. “I’ve seen it at my step-son-in-law’s house,” he continued, “but he never offered and I didn’t ask.”
“You mean he didn’t even let you try a little?” I asked and poured two fingers worth of the whiskey into his glass.
“Nope,” he said and pulled the dram close. “I get it, though. It’s not that he doesn’t like me. It’s just that Edith’s daughter doesn’t,” he continued. “And so I think Carl tries not to get in the middle.”
“Tough call on his part, I guess. He has to live with her.”
“True,” Vader said and sniffed the dram. “In the end, it’s probably because I force-choked her and threw her down a flight of stairs near the Lime parking garage at Disney Springs. It was ungodly hot that day so I took my helmet off as soon as we got out of the van, and when I did, she wouldn’t stop staring at me. Carl is probably just worried I might do the same thing to him, too, if he ever steps out of line. It’s better just to stay on the sidelines.”
“Well, it certainly was rude for her to stare at you,” I said, giving a sniff of my own glass. “You getting anything from this one?”
“Overly salted caramel,” he said. “And maybe some cherries—like something you’d scoop from pie filler.”
“I get the caramel and the cherries,” I said, holding the glass up to the light and examining its contents. “But I’m also sensing something sour.”
“I think you’re right,” he replied and went for a sip. I sipped, too. A quiet moment of savoring passed between two friends followed by an affirmation that sounded more like a microwave buzzing than a human voice. “Mmm,” he hummed. “This isn’t too bad.”
“I’m getting some of the barrel spice,” I said, lifting my glass into the light and swirling once more.
Vader nodded and swallowed. “Me, too. And the caramel and the cherries from the nose have returned. But now the finish is giving the sour you mentioned before.” He sipped and swallowed again. “And the burn takes a while to fade with this one, doesn’t it?”
“It does seem a little unbalanced at the end. Although, overall, it is very drinkable.”
“Hey, guys,” Jen said, cruising around the corner with the kids in tow and surprising us both. “Hi, Darth. It’s good to see you.”
“You, too, Jen.”
“And her daughter? It’s Becky, right? And the grandkids?”
“They’re fine. Becky and Carl are fine, too. Although Becky had a pretty nasty fall a few days ago at Disney Springs.”
“Oh, my! I hope she’s okay.”
“She’s fine. She landed in a fountain,” he said, taking another sip of the whiskey. “But she did brake one of her clavicles. Oh, yeah, and her pelvis.”
“Um,” Jen said somewhat stunned. “I’m… glad… she’s okay. So… are you guys in Orlando for long?”
“Just for today, and then we’re heading back to Clearwater. I’ve gotta be at the gator farm in the morning.”
“Well, I know Chris was really looking forward to meeting up with you. I’m glad you were so close by.”
“Yeah,” the Sith Lord said and itched his side, cuing his disdain for casual conversation. “Me, too.”
“Oh, before I forget—you guys will never guess what just happened,” Jen said excitedly. “When the waitress brought out the bill for our meal, some man just walked over in a blank stare and laid $80 on the tray and then walked away. I tried to get his name and to say thank-you, but he didn’t answer. Isn’t that weird?!”