Veronica presents a pristine, white folder, neatly organized by colorful dividers.
"Here's everything we need for your wedding," she says, placing the heavy folder onto Mia's lap carefully.
"Oh..." Mia blinks in surprise. She flicks through the folder, scanning through the glossy brochures, vibrant pictures, and highlighted information.
"I've decided on the venue. You wanted an outdoor wedding, right?" Veronica says, as she grabs a brochure out of a plastic pocket. "Well, Chapel Garden is a magical setting that I've specifically chosen. Have a look at these images. Isn't the place wonderful? Look, they have a splendid romantic gazebo, where you and Josh can exchange your vows in front of everyone. They have an elegant enclosed tent, perfect for the reception. Above all, they have the most luxurious gardens I've ever seen!"
Mia bites her lip anxiously. "Um... it's lovely, but... I wanted to book the venue at Russell Hovier Estate."
Sandra, Josh's youngest sister, laughs as she pats her dyed purple hair. "Judging from the fact that no one's heard of that place, you've probably got a cheap deal, haven't you?"
"It's a nice little place..." Mia replies in a quiet voice. She strokes the brochure, "whereas the Chapel Garden looks too big..."
"Of course it's big. Your family is large enough as it already is!" Veronica says exasperatingly, as if it pains her to explain this. "Combine both our families together and we have a circus. That's not including friends that will attend and their plus ones, of course. The venue must be spacious and grand to hold such a huge capacity."
"Exactly," Sandra murmurs. She opens her compact mirror and applies another layer of pink lipstick.
"Erm... didn't you see the guest list?" Mia asks timidly, stress lines forming on her forehead.
"Yes, and it's ridiculously small," Veronica retorts with an eye roll. "It just won't do. We want to include everyone on my- I mean, your and my son's special day. I revamped the guest list. Here-"
Towards the back of the folder, attached onto the cover with a plastic seal, is a clipboard containing several sheets. She pulls out the clipboard, handing it to Mia.
"This is a new and improved version of it."
Mia's green eyes almost budge out of their sockets, her heart galloping at the sight of the endless list of names.
"How did you find all my relatives and distant relatives too? From both sides of my parents!?"
"I've called the contacts from the original guest list that you provided and I discovered more people through them," Veronica answers. She smirks in satisfaction seeing Mia's bug-eyed and open-mouthed expression.
The woman shakes her head, trying to snap out of her shocked state.
"I haven't spoken to some of these people in years..." she groans.
"Which is exactly why your wedding is a good opportunity to meet and talk to them again," Veronica responds firmly. She taps Sandra's arm, who is still busy admiring herself in her compact mirror.
The purple-haired girl looks up and nods. "Yeah, what she said," she agrees mindlessly.
Mia rests her chin in her palm, still seeming unsure. Veronica senses her hesitation.
"How do you think they'd feel if they heard about your wedding and wondered why you didn't invite them? It's very insulting, Mia," the older woman says sternly.
"Yeah, it's rude," Sandra says. "Plus, Mom gave up a lot of her time talking to these people, so you didn't have to. You can't let her effort go to waste like that."
Mia feels her palms getting sweaty.
"I just want a small wedding," she says feebly. She hunches up her shoulders when both Veronica and Sandra glare at her furiously. "On second thought, it'll be nice to catch up with them..."
"Good," Veronica says sharply. She retrieves a stack of customized wedding invitations from the folder and presents them to Mia.
"Since you haven't chosen a wedding date, I went ahead and sorted that out for you."
"What!?" Mia exclaims. Her body trembles with undeniable nerves, as she stares at the date imprinted onto letter. "That's in three months! Oh my god! I can't believe it..."
"Don't worry, I called up the most important guests and made sure there weren't any clashes on the day," Veronica says, trying to reassure the frantic woman. "I decided the earlier, the better. There's no point in prolonging such a special event, especially if we've got... most things sorted. Don't you agree?"
"Um... I... oh god..." Mia croaks out, her voice fading away with her growing anxiety.
"Yeah, don't worry. We've got everything sorted," Sandra chips in. She tosses her hair over her shoulder, smirking. "Like the bands and florists and caterers. We chose the finest quality over your garbage picks. No offense."
"And I've researched about the photographers we'll need," Veronica says, as she gets out her calculator. "I'm going to hire a film crew to come and record your wedding, since I want this moment to be documented."
"What!?" Mia clutches her chest, her heart hammering too heavily for her own good.
"Yeah, isn't it awesome?" Sandra says, examining her hair in the little mirror. "Way better than the cheap and tiny wedding you had in mind."
"Exactly. I've calculated everything together and here's the estimated total budget," Veronica responds, holding up the calculator in Mia's view.
The woman feels her stomach tying up. "Uhm... that's a lot of money..."
"Money won't be an issue," Veronica says, waving a hand in the air dismissively. "When my husband died, he left a generous amount to his only son."
"Josh was his favorite for some reason," Sandra spits out, her face glowering in clear envy. "I don't know why though. He was such an annoying dipstick back then."
"Mmh, needless to say, his inheritance should cover most of the expenses," Veronica says. She grabs Mia's sweaty hand and holds it, squeezing it for reassurance.
"This is the moment that I've been eagerly anticipating for my son. These arrangements might seem sudden to you, but believe me, I've given this enough thought. I have the perfect wedding visualized in my mind to the last detail. If you leave it to me, you'll have nothing to fear on the big day. Do you trust me, Mia?"
Mia gazes at her future mother-in-law. She can see how much this event means to her. She also understands this is probably the main reason the woman decided to move in with her, disguised under feigned concern of her pregnancy.
She nods meekly. "I trust you."
"Wow, they took control over your wedding plans!?" Aiko screeches over the phone. "Gosh, that's terrible. If I were you, I'd boot them out of my house. Seriously. Who do they think they are? It's your wedding! You're the one who gets to make the call! The nerve of some people."
"Actually, I'm a bit relieved," Mia says, the phone resting on her shoulder. "I mean, at first, I was shocked... and kind of scared. But thinking about it now, I'm glad they've sorted it out. Planning a wedding is so stressful, especially when I'm pregnant. I just can't be bothered."
"You should've hired a wedding planner," Aiko sighs.
"They haven't done a bad job," Mia says, scrubbing the small, white t-shirt with soap and water. "The only issue I have is how big and expensive the whole thing is."
"Really?" Aiko tuts on the other end. "You spent fifty pounds on a silly storybook for Max. You didn't even think twice when you did it. What's stopping you from splurging on the most important day of your life?"
There is a moment of silence, before Mia speaks.
"You have a point."
Max is playing on the computer. Another first-person shooter game. Mia is standing at the back of the study room, resting against the wall, observing her son with worried eyes.
The door creaks open and a finger pokes through, gesturing for Mia to follow her into the living-room.
"What's going on?" Mia asks, as she obeys the nonverbal command.
Veronica removes her straw hat and sets the watering can down onto the ground.
"Well, I've been out in the back garden. The hedges were overgrown, so I tried to trim them down. Then I noticed something wedged in between them. It was a lifeless squirrel that appeared to be freshly bleeding. Its neck was twisted at an off angle."
"That's not all," Veronica continues. "I decided to bury the poor creature, when I noticed something near the flowerbeds. Sticking out of the soil was half of its body. A dead pigeon. It was so flat, like something had ironed it to death. Clearly, that something was in a hurry to bury it, but didn't have time to finish the process."
"Mmh... that's awful," Mia comments.
"It is," Veronica says, drilling her dark, serious eyes into her. "Then I noticed something on the patio on my way back here - near the table and chairs. Tucked under one of the chairs is another dead pigeon. This one had a wing missing."
Mia feels a chill running through her, as she hugs herself in an attempt to keep warm.
"It's nothing to worry about," she says. Then she quickly bites her tongue, seeing the older woman's concerned expression. "I mean... it's... um... just the usual. There's a red fox that lurks here, I've seen it before. That's probably why." She forces a smile. "I wouldn't worry too much about it. I'll clean up the garden later."
Veronica raises an eyebrow in suspicion. "You seem rather flustered," she points out.
Then her eyes swivel past Mia and they land on study room door. Noises of gun shooting and screaming are blasting from the gruesome video game.
Mia rubs the back of her neck uneasily. "Oh, um, it's hot here... so-"
"It's him, isn't it?" Veronica blurts out. She removes her rubber gloves nonchalantly. "That wasn't ketchup stain on his t-shirt earlier, was it?"
Mia's blood freezes. "I don't know what you mean."
Veronica narrows her dirt-brown eyes, challenging Mia. "How stupid do you think I am?"
"Erm... I n-never said y-you were..." Mia stutters.
Veronica leans forward, and she lowers her voice, as if she's sharing confidential information.
"My late husband was a psychotherapist. He used to work with a range of people with different ages and backgrounds, diagnosed with personality disorders. I found his work interesting and, through him, I learned there was a link between those who abuse and kill animals and sociopathic behavior."
Mia shifts her gaze around, finding it difficult to hold the older woman's unfaltering stare.
"I was interested by this concept, so I decided to learn more about it myself," Veronica says coolly. "Keep in mind, there are limited diagnostic sources to confirm the correlation between animal cruelty and sociopathic tendencies. Nonetheless, I've come across numerous studies where many serial killers have admitted to killing animals when they were younger, before they harmed humans."
Mia gawks at her, stunned by the words that were coming out of her mouth.
"There could be various reasons Max may be harming animals. I don't know for sure, I can't diagnose him. Perhaps he's just curious and there is no malicious intent, although you've hinted this is repetitive behavior - which I find peculiar. Or maybe he's witnessed violence, and he's re-enacting what he's learnt."
Veronica shrugs, as she strokes her chin thoughtfully. "Maybe there are reasons I haven't mentioned. I'm not necessarily suggesting that he'll grow up to be a serial killer, nor do I think he's a sociopath. But we shouldn't ignore these red flags, just in case. Don't you agree?"
Mia gulps down the lump in her throat.
"I agree," she squeaks, appearing to shrink in size. "I tried to teach him right from wrong... I really did... but it's so hard when he doesn't listen to me..."
"Hmm... I've only stayed here for a week and I've noticed something very obvious."
Mia furrows her eyebrows in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"I've noticed how he ignores you with ease, when you tell him to do his homework and those tasks sent by his SENCO. I've noticed when you tell him to eat his food, and he pushes his plate away, that you heat it up for him later. Let's not forget the incidences from those previous nights - when he stayed up late, watching telly and playing his absurd video games. What did you do about it?"
Mia scratches her neck self-consciously, as she feels her face heat up.
"In every single scenario, you let him have his way," Veronica says, answering her own rhetorical question. "You've given him orders that are executed in such a poorly, pathetic way. It's clear that your heart isn't in it. That's why you can't blame him when he ignores you. Until you grow a spine and teach your son discipline, he'll keep walking all over you."
"Discipline?" Mia echoes. "I don't know... I mean, whenever I disciplined my brothers in the past, it just motivated them to be more rebellious. Not to mention, Max is so young... he doesn't know what he's doing..."
"Exactly. He doesn't know any better. That's why discipline is needed to ensure he learns from his mistakes," Veronica asserts firmly.
Mia's green eyes are wide and she bites her thumb, resembling a child. She looks at the older woman with eyes that are silently pleading for her to have mercy. Veronica has her usual stern look across her face, unfazed by this.
"There are times when I've tried to tell him off in the past but..." Mia sighs, as she looks down at her feet. "It hurts me inside when I do."
Veronica raises an eyebrow skeptically. "What?"
"Like, I used to have a puppy," Mia says, surprising her. "And he'd make a huge mess because he didn't know any better. Whenever I yelled at him, he'd look at me with his black beady eyes, whimpering in a way that would tug at my heartstrings."
A little smile is tugging on her face, she recalls this memory. "In that moment, my anger would fizzle out and I felt like such a mean bully. I'd immediately cuddle my pup, not wanting him to be upset for any longer. That's how I feel towards Max. Every time I look into his eyes, I'm reminded of my little Biscuit... It just makes me feel..."
Mia moves her hand in a circular motion, trying to conjure the appropriate word. She sighs in discontent and bows her head down. "I don't know. I always feel guilty whenever I raise my voice at him."
"Well, lucky for you, I'm an expert when it comes to discipline," Veronica says, as she pushes open the study room door. She walks forward confidently, as Mia follows after her like a lost puppy.
Max is still playing his computer game, seeming oblivious to his environment.
"Watch and learn," Veronica says with determination.
Butterfly: Thanks for sharing your thought! We'll see if your intuition is right.
Anonymous: I didn't realize this was the longest story I've worked on until you mentioned it, haha. Thanks for reading!