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As the van pulled up to the house, Charlie could smell steak barbecuing on a grill. Lawn chairs covered the front yard, while people sat and talked, a cool lemonade in one hand. Even though it was September, the weather was warm, with only a mild breeze coming off from the Pacific. In all, it was the perfect weather for a meal outdoors. Adam led Charlie to a woman wearing an apron, that read, "Wife of the cook."

"Sis, this is Chuck's daughter, Charlie. Charlie, this is my sister, Shirley Garner," introduced Adam. "Chuck couldn't make it."

"It's nice to finally meet you, Charlie," said Shirley, shaking hands with her young guest. "I'm sorry your father couldn't come. Adam tells me you're going to be living in Twin Yucca. I hope you're not too homesick for Montana."

"It's nice here, also," said Charlie.

"Can't beat the weather, eh, Adam?" asked a man standing beside Mrs. Garner. "Why, I heard on the news that New York received three inches of snow, yesterday!"

"You have a nice home, Mr. Garner," said Charlie, courteously. The man laughed.

"That's not Mr. Garner," pointed out Adam, smilingly.

"I should say not!" exclaimed Shirley, swatting a fly away from her face. "Harry, this is Chuck's little girl, you know, the one from up North?"

"Oh, yeah, the one with the sick dad," remarked Harry. "Shirley, those steaks are smelling really good! When do we eat?"

"I think we're almost ready," replied Shirley.

"Harry is a next door neighbor," apologized Adam, in a whisper, "and is not known for his tactfulness."

"That's all right," shrugged Charlie.

Everyone filed past the large picnic table and helped themselves to Jello salad, potato chips, mash potatoes, Caesar salad, and biscuits.

Shirley called out each person's name as the steaks finished cooking. When she called Charlie's name, the teenager came forward and accepted the steak graciously from her hostess. When Charlie returned to her seat, she eyed the two inch slab of red meat with skepticism. She glanced over at Adam and saw him happily eating away at his portion of "bloody flesh." She shuddered. Charlie felt like leaping to her feet and crying out loud, "Do the words 'Mad Cow Disease' mean nothing to you people?"

However, she managed to keep her repulsion to herself. Charlie wanted to be polite. When it was at all possible, she was a vegetarian. The times when she was unable, she would eat what was set before her without any derogatory remarks. But bloody meat really was asking a lot from her! Charlie got up from her seat and casually edged her way to the back of the yard. When no one was looking she dumped the meat into an open aluminum trash can, and covered it with some loose newspapers. Charlie looked around. No one had seen her do the deed. Discreetly, she finished her meal away from the crowd, so as not to raise suspicion.

After the meal, Shirley and Chad disappeared into the house and returned with a birthday cake. Everyone sang the birthday song and Mike blew out his twenty-six candles. Next, Mike opened presents. To Charlie's relief, more than one person had given him a tie. He thanked everyone for their gifts and cut the cake.

"I told Mom last year," Mike was saying as he served the cake, "that just because I was still living at home, didn't mean I expected birthdays, anymore. But-- you know my Mom," he laughed.

"She only hates to admit that one of her babies is old enough to stop celebrating birthdays!" laughed Shirley. Everyone chuckled, and complimented her on the cake, (even though it did have a bitter after taste).

"The mashed potatoes were much too salty," wondered Charlie silently, "the gelatin salad had not been left in the refrigerator long enough, and the biscuits were burnt. And yet, Mike had thanked his Mom for making the meal, so she was the one responsible. I feel so sorry for them!" she thought. "But, I guess after all these years they have become used to it."

After desert, everyone took turns at pitching horseshoes. Mike and Shirley were the best at it, but someone whom Shirley had only just met today, a Miss Sandra Weston, came in a decent third.
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