"All right, all right... here we go. 3, 2, 1 - smile!"
Even now, in their teenage years, Mac and Roxy were as close as they had ever been. Still the very best of friends, they hung around together in their school classes, their lunch break, and during almost every waking moment in the day.
Roxy visited the Miskin house so often, she practically lived there - even, on occasion, staying the night in Montague's old room. However, no-one in the family minded. On the contrary - they welcomed her. After all, their house was full of laughter and love. It would have been hard for Roxy to spend each evening by herself in a big, lonely mansion, with her aunt closely monitoring her every move, and the memory of her parents' passing forever haunting her.
Mac showed Roxy the photo he had just taken, seeking her approval.
"It's all right, I guess," she told him. "Usually, photos of me look like a police mugshot."
"Well, I need to practise taking those," Mac replied, "since I'll be joining the force as soon as I graduate."
"So am I, aren't I?"
"You don't have to copy me, you know."
"I'm not! I've wanted to sign up ever since I was little. Besides, it'll be good to have me working with you. If some scumbag ever tries to put a bullet in you, I'll be there to save your ass."
Chuckling, she looked him up and down.
"Then again, with the way you've been eating, it'll be hard for them to miss it."
Mac groaned, but smiled. He knew Roxy was only teasing. And to be fair, she had a point. Lately, he'd been gaining quite a bit of weight. As he'd grown older, he'd developed a rather ravenous appetite - sometimes exhibiting behaviours that could only be described as "gluttonous." The previous week, his mother had even caught him diving into the bin looking for leftovers.
They headed into the kitchen together to get some coffee. As Roxy took a seat at the table, Mac poured two cups from the cafetiere, and brought them over.
"Right then," he said, shifting the subject back. "So we'll become police officers together. Sounds good to me. And hey - maybe they will pair us up. Who knows?"
"That'd be so cool. We'd be, like... partners in crime."
Roxy stopped, and re-ran over the sentence in her head.
"Wait, no - the opposite of that."
"A crimefighting duo," he said, grinning. "Heroes, like we always wanted to be. Doing those old classic routines... you know, like 'good cop, bad cop'?"
"Dibs on bad cop."
They were interrupted by a shuffling, trembling figure slowly entering the kitchen, looking around frantically and with much confusion. She was a tired-looking woman, very advanced in age, clutching a woolen blanket around herself for warmth: her long grey hair flowing down her shoulders, loose and untamed.
"Mordecai?" she called. "Mordecai, where are you?"
Mac sighed. Sadly, this had become a familiar sight to both of the teens, as well as the other residents of the house. Rising from the table, he approached the figure, taking hold of her shoulders gently and kindly.
"Come on, Grandma Lily," he told her, softly. "Let's get you back to bed."
Lily looked up at him.
"Milo?" she asked.
Mac shook his head.
"No, Grandma. It's Mackenzie. Come on, I'll help you upstairs."
"Where's Mordecai?" Lily asked timidly - her voice like that of a frightened child. "I can't find him anywhere. Where has he gone?"
There was no way Mac could tell her the truth. It would destroy her. Her memory was failing her... she would be re-living the loss all over again.
"He's... he's just popped out," he answered, carefully leading her towards the stairs. "He'll be back soon. How about we get you to bed, and you can wait for him there, hmm?"
"OK," Lily replied. "OK ... I'll wait there."
Roxy got to her feet.
"Do you need help, Mac?"
"No, no - I'll be fine," he replied. "I'll just stay with her a while - make sure she goes to sleep. Make some more coffee if you want... I might be some time."
In the first few months after Mordecai's death, Lily had devoted herself to protecting the legacy he had left behind. As well as caring for her children and grandchildren, this also meant managing and looking after his gorgeous garden. Although she lacked the skills her late husband had developed, she put a lot of effort into the activity, and, like Mordecai before her, found it brought her great comfort - an outlet for her anguish and grief.
It was Milo who first noticed that something was wrong - about two years after his father had passed. One day, as he sat in the garden watching Lily work, he spotted her doing some rather strange things. After watering one crop, she would wander around for a little while, and then stop and water it again - as though she'd forgotten what she had just done. Other times, she'd forget the watering can completely... or pull up blooms and seeds that she had just planted. A few months later, when Louisa had found her grandmother wandering around the garden at 3am, calling Mordecai's name, they had realised something was seriously wrong.
After hiring a professional gardener to preserve and continued Mordecai's work, the Miskin family turned their attention to Lily's wellbeing: doing their best to always keep her safe and in their sights. She was, of course, still permitted to go into the garden - seeing fine flowers grow had always made her happy - but they made sure that there was always someone on hand nearby to look after her.
After Mackenzie took her back to bed, Lily did go to sleep... but she didn't stay that way for long. Within the hour, she was up again - wandering around the house, looking for a husband who was no longer there.
As she made her way into the triplet's former nursery, she was momentarily distracted by the toy box in the corner. She'd played with those toys once... with two little children. Now they had gone too. Everything around her was different - strange and frightening. She didn't know why everything had changed.
Mordecai would know. He would help her. Where was he?
Hearing her name, Lily looked up - searching for the person who was calling her. The answer, quite literally, appeared before her eyes.
And indeed, it was he - his spirit temporarily released from the Netherworld, and back in the presence of the woman he loved. Lowering his hovering form to the ground slowly, he stood before his wife, and smiled.
"Oh, darling..." he said, "how I've missed you."
"Where did you go?" Lily asked. "Why did you leave me?"
"I had no choice, my love," Mordecai told her. "I had to go. But don't worry. I have been to the most beauitful place... with flowers and blossoms that would rival Eden itself. I am surrounded by those who care about me and love me. And soon, I will return there."
"No!" Lily cried, shaking her head wildly. "No, you can't!"
Tears welled up in her eyes. Seeing her torment, Mordecai rushed forward, desperate to comfort her - but he knew his spiritual form had limitations.
Still... perhaps... if he really tried...
The result wasn't exactly an embrace - but it did the job just as well. Mordecai wrapped his ethereal arms around Lily, passing through her body ever so slightly, and placed his mouth against her own in something that wasn't quite a kiss, but which allowed her to feel a cool softness, and him a comforting warmth.
"Don't go," Lily pleaded in anguished whispers. "Please... don't leave me again."
"No, Lily," Mordecai replied. "I won't. Never again. Not for a moment."
Pulling away, he hovered towards the door, reaching out his hand to Lily in a gesture that she should follow.
"Come, darling," he told her, softly. "Let's go to sleep."
Upon reaching the bedroom, Lily and Mordecai both stood at their respective bedsides, gazing at each other. Neither could think of words to say, but these were not needed: the love between them was still clearly conveyed.
As Lily began to pull the covers back and climbed into bed, Mordecai did likewise - settling down beside her. Lily turned to him, laying on her side, and smiled.
"Tell me more about the pretty garden," she begged, enthralled. "What grows there?"
"Everything you can imagine, and more besides," Mordecai replied. "There are wonders too great to describe. All is peaceful and happy there - no pain, and no loneliness."
"Will you take me there one day?"
Mordecai paused for a moment, he alone realising what Lily was actually asking - but then smiled, and nodded.
"Yes, Lily," he told her. "I will, one day. I swear it."
Content, Lily settled her head down upon her pillow, drew her covers closer around her, and fell asleep.
She never woke up.
The following morning, when Zara went into Lily's room to rouse her for breakfast, she found her lying still - her body cold to the touch, but a tender smile upon her lips. After calling for Milo, her suspicions were confirmed.
Mordecai had kept his promise. He would never leave Lily again. When he had returned to that wondrous place beyond the mortal coil, his wife had travelled there alongside him - to remain with him forevermore, and to enjoy all the wonders of Paradise with the man who had given her a slice of it on Earth.
Lily's death, naturally, was a great loss to the Miskin family, and her passing was much mourned.. but nethertheless, a strong sense remained that this particular black cloud carried a silver lining. In the final months of her life, Lily had agonisingly spent her days and nights looking desperately for the man she had lost. Surely, if the universe had any justice, she would now have found him - free from her nightmarish, confused existence at last.
Love was a powerful thing. Mac was beginning to realise that. It entwined lives and connected souls. To have it was one of the greatest pleasures life could bestow. Not to have it would be a marvellous opportunity missed, but an absence that was perhaps not fully understood or hard-hitting. The worst possibility of all - to have it, and then to lose it - could destroy a person, and change them forever, leaving them a shadow of their former self.
Such a cruel trick of fate, then, for him to have fallen in love.
It was bound to have happened. She had been there for him since their childhood, helping him through all manner of trials and grief. She was his confidanté, his constant companion.
His best friend.
God help him... he loved Roxy Rhodes.
He couldn't just go up to her and tell her. It would be too brash - too sudden. No... the moment had to be special. To mean something.
Mac soon realised he needed some advice. Not from his parents, though... that would be too embarrassing. Luckily, he wasn't the only teenager in the house whose heart had been struck by Cupid's arrow - and in both other cases, the outcome had been a great success.
Louisa, the great schmoozer and socialiser, spent most of her time getting to know the right people and building up her charismatic character. By her final year of school, she was Head Girl, president of the student council, and was looking likely to be voted Most Likely to Succeed by her classmates.
At her first ever council meeting, Louisa was introduced to the Treasurer - an equally charming wannabe artist by the name of Cheyenne Whittaker. After initially getting to know each other better during discussions about school social events and motion votes, they began to spend time with each other outside of council gatherings, and soon enough, they had become an item.
Laura, on the other hand, having always been a bundle of energy, was quickly drawn into more athletic pursuits. Now captain of the football team and a star of track and field events, her regular victories and breaking of records made her the talk of the cafeteria, and a major player - no pun intended - in the social hierarchy.
Strangely, however, she hadn't found love on the sports field. Her beau was a geeky computer whiz by the name of Vincent O'Connell, who had been dared by some bullies to ask her out on a date. Laura, having never enjoyed seeing others put down, decided to put Vincent's tormentors to shame, and accepted his offer gratefully. As they went out for milkshakes together after class one afternoon, the pair hit it off remarkably well, and decided to try out being a couple, just to see how things went. It was a case of so far, so good.
One Monday evening, Roxy decided it was best if she headed home for a while... primarily to make sure that her aunt knew she was still alive and not involved in drugs, gangs, or any other horrific thing she'd be having nightmares about. Mac seized his chance, and, after riding the school bus home with his sisters, approached them for a heart-to-heart.
"Girls," he said solemnly, "don't laugh at me, but I'm thinking about doing something big, and I want your advice before I do."
"You're getting a gastric band?" Laura replied in a teasing voice... leading to Louisa desperately stifling giggles.
"No," Mac snapped back, trying his best not to be offended. "In fact, it's about Roxy. I'm going to ask her to be my girlfriend."
The laughter stopped. Laura and Louisa looked at one another, then turned to their brother as one.
"Mac, are you sure about this?" Louisa asked. "Do you think that... well, this is something she'll want?"
"I don't see why not," Mac replied. "We've been best friends forever, and I care about her ever so much. I love her. All we'd be doing is... moving things on a little, that's all."
Louisa sighed. She still had doubts about Mac's relationship hopes, but decided to bite her tongue - instead giving her brother a big smile, and putting a supportive hand on his shoulder.
"All right, Mac," she said, resigned. "If this is something you want, then go ahead and ask her. I... I'm sure she'll be thrilled. Just be sure to put some effort into it."
"Don't worry," Mac told her. "I've already got a few ideas. Wish me luck!"
As he headed off into the house, his sisters stayed behind for a while, watching him pityingly.
"Dead man walking," Laura whispered.
Laura, regretfully but honestly, nodded in agreement.
One week later, Mac asked Roxy if she wanted to head over to the park with him - just to get out of the house for a while, have a bit of fun. Roxy, always interested in a change of scenery, took him up on the offer right away.
After their arrival, the two spent some quality time together playing games of chess (although neither of them was Grand Master material) and checking out the flower gardens.
At one point, they passed a fountain, and Mac asked if they could stop there for a moment. As Roxy looked on, she was stunned to see her best friend take a coin from his pocket, whisper a few unheard words to it, and then toss it into the water.
"You still believe in wishes?" she asked, her voice taking on a pseudo-mocking tone.
"Sure I do," Mac replied. "And if this one gets granted, I'll be a very happy man."
They carried on walking for a few minutes more. Suddenly, Mac began wheezing and gasping for breath. As Roxy turned towards him, she noticed her friend wildly indicating that he'd like to sit down on a nearby bench. Roxy, concerned for his well-being, immediately obliged.
It was only after she'd settled down that she took in the view around her. Blossoming bushes. Monkey bars. A playground. Smiling, she tapped Mac on the shoulder, and waved her hand around the area.
"Look," she said to him. "This is where we first met."
Mac nodded in response, still making out he was too breathless to speak. He knew perfectly well where they were... as he had chosen this spot deliberately. After drawing in a few deep breaths, he reached over and took hold of Roxy's hand.
"Roxy," he began, begging himself to find the right words, "we've known each other for a long time. You're the best friend a guy could have, and I -"
"You're my best friend too, Mac," Roxy replied, suddenly and unexpectedly. "Not a lot of people have what we have. A friendship like ours is something to be treasured, don't you think?"
"Well, yes, but -"
"I hope things stay like this forever," Roxy added. "I want us to always be best friends, no matter what. Always equal, always the same. I hope things never change between us."
She turned to him, smiling.
"That's what you want too, right?" she asked.
Deep down inside, Mac felt as if the very world was falling out from underneath him. Roxy, without any malice whatsoever, had unintentionally broken his heart into a million pieces. Clearly, she saw him as a dear, beloved friend - but nothing more, and never to be anything more.
"Mac?" Roxy asked again, concerned by her companion's failure to answer.
At that moment, even the depths of his despair, Mac realised something. All was not lost. True, Roxy might not like him in a romantic way, as he did her, but at the end of the day, he still had a very special friend who wanted to be in his life. She was hardly ripping him apart and tossing him out to the dogs. Roxy was right. What they had already was a blessing in itself - and he'd be a fool to throw it away.
Looking up at Roxy, he managed a meek smile, and nodded.
"Yes," he replied. "That's what I want. Best friends forever."
Happy to hear this, Roxy shuffled up along the bench towards him. Mac wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close. As he watched her looking out at the beautiful view before her, it brought Mac great comfort to know that she would be too distracted to notice his tears.
THUS ENDS GENERATION FOUR