Suddenly, Michael glanced up at a faintly heard knock. He frowned, staring through the entry into the living room at the foyer. Instinctually, he turned off the gas stove, alerting his sister that something was off. The father said nothing as he walked around the island, heading toward the living room. Kristen watched him go, confused. When Michael opened the front door, his blank face stared back at two, tired-looking adults standing on his porch.
One was a woman of light brown complexion and thin, black eyes. Her attractive visage was the first thing Michael’s eyes homed in on, even and smooth from her natural colored makeup. Like the man beside her, she was dressed in Sunday best: a deep blue, sheath dress covered in matching lace with a black cut-off sweater and black heels. The bulky, black, stone bracelet and necklace set stood out dramatically with the paired earrings clinging to her earlobes. Her obsidian updo bun on top of her head had some stylized strains falling along the sides of her weary face.
The tall man was in a three-piece, dark gray suit, staring down at Michael with annoyance in his chocolate orbs. His slender tie matched the woman’s dress from behind the four-button vest. With his left hand tucked in his pocket, an oval, silver and black cufflink peeked out from his jacket sleeve at his wrist. The crisply starched, white shirt solidified his rigid presence, making his darker complexion stand out even more. His black hair was half-shaved into oiled coils. Michael refused to look at him.
“You’re early, Marie,” Michael said with forced calm.
“Some people value their time, Michael,” the man spoke in a passive tone, “and plan their day accordingly.”
Marie Hughelot lifted her left hand to her husband’s chest. He nodded, acknowledging her request to stop instigating her ex. However, that didn’t stop Michael from glaring back at the pompous jerk.
“We’re not here to fight, Mike,” Marie answered, exhausted from the tension at the threshold. “Since we’re leaving on our trip tomorrow, we wanted Lindsay to have some time with them beforehand. Leon thought it would make up for Spring Break. It’s not like we stepped over a line or anything...”
She trailed off when Michael’s expression didn’t soften. He looked ready to slam the door in their faces. When his gaze drifted to the shiny black, luxury sedan in his driveway, the father closed his eyes to run a hand over his face.
“Did you seriously bring him all this way just to leave him in a running car?”
“That’s none of your concern,” Leon Hughelot replied solemnly. His already irritable gaze hardened in warning to drop the line of questioning.
“Whatever,” Michael grunted. Squeezing his eyes shut, he took a deep breath before continuing. “You know Sunday is important to them, Marie. I have the right to refuse.”
“And I have the right to see my children on my time,” Marie said in a low growl. Her voice suddenly turned cheery as she called into her old house. “Jaime! Steven! Mom’s here!”
“Mom?” Steven called back from the kitchen curiously.
As the boy dropped from his chair to investigate, Jaime gawked at the bowls of ingredients on the island counter. Kristen glanced after Steven with surprise. As much as she wanted to back her brother, the woman reached to hold Jaime’s hand as the teen’s shoulders hunched with anxiety. The youth accepted the comfort, gripping desperately for security.
Seeing Steven hurrying their way, Marie gave Michael a smug look, making him back away from the entry. She crossed the threshold, at last, kneeling to meet her son just beyond the foyer arch for a hug. Leon took the opportunity to enter as well, looking away from Michael as if he had somehow won. Instead of following immediately, Michael glanced toward the running car sadly with a heavy sigh.
“Why are you here, Mom?” Steven asked with a wide smile. “Did you come for Sunday pancakes?”
“More like Leon didn’t want to miss church,” Jaime spoke coldly from her place in the kitchen, “so they came early to pick us up.”
The weariness returned to Marie’s eyes as she looked into the kitchen. Steven backed up with a sad gaze. The disappointment in his body language revealed his blissful joy had been overshadowed by reality. His black orbs trembled back at his mother with the last of his innocence.
“Is that true, Mom?”
“Well...” Marie answered with a guilty pause, “We were going once we got back, but I was hoping we could spend the day together afterward. Lindsay is waiting in the car, so why don’t you get dressed and grab your things, sweetie?”
“But,” the boy took another step back from her, “Dad’s still making pancakes. We’ve only had two rounds so far, and Aunt Kristen always waits to eat with him.”
Kristen finally broke away from Jaime to leave the island. Furrowing her brow sadly, she walked to the entry to join the scene. She wanted to try reeling in Michael's awkward position, and maybe turn things around before they escalated further.
“This is a little earlier than usual to pick Steven up-”
“We’re here for Steven and Jaime,” Marie cut the pleasant woman off quickly. Standing from the floor, she glared at Kristen harshly, still wearing her matching, satin robe and nightgown.
“Mom, please,” Steven pleaded from where he stood, clasping his hands together at his chest, “don’t yell. Jaime doesn’t like raised voices.”
“We’ve been over this, Marie,” Michael finally spoke up from where he was leaning against the foyer arch. “She’s not at your beck and call, and she’s old enough to decide for herself.”
“Actually,” Leon said without looking at Michael, “her independence is still a matter of debate.”
“Shut your damn mouth, lion,” the father snarled quietly, whipping his head up at the other.
“When are you going to bother using my name, ingrate?” Leon sighed as he closed his eyes, exasperated by the old routine.
“Please,” Kristen spoke up cautiously, “this is hardly the place for that conversation. I understand that Lindsay is in the car. Why don’t we invite him inside, and we can all eat breakfast together?”
“I won’t have my son step foot inside the house of a witch.”
Leon’s disgusted tone gave the suddenly gaping eyes a dramatic flare. Kristen merely looked back at his anger with patience. She knew how he felt about her, so the insensitive comment was hardly shocking. Even Michael left the thoughtless words alone.
“Out of my way, Kris,” Marie growled before started toward the kitchen.
“You’re angry, Marie,” Kristen replied calmly as she continued to block the doorway. “Please calm yourself before speaking with her.”
Marie didn’t offer a response, shoving Kristen aside hard. Jaime whipped her head around at the sound of her aunt striking the kitchen wall. She stared fearfully at Kristen slumping to the tile floor, wincing in pain. When her mother appeared, the teenager’s gaze remained fixated on her stunned aunt, frozen.
“Jaime, get your things,” Marie said in an authoritative voice and stance. “We’re leaving as soon as you’re dressed for church.”
“Mom,” Steven cried from the living room, “please... don’t do this. This isn’t you.”
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Marie yelled viciously at her daughter, who was still ignoring her presence.
Michael brushed past Marie to kneel next to his sister. Kristen glanced up at him, blinking away her daze. Jaime watched them stiffly. Despite being suddenly thrown, the woman remained calm, reassuring her brother with a smile. The expression eased the tension in Jaime’s body, and she finally managed to look back at her angry mother.
“Do as I said,” Marie continued her raised voice, pointing back toward the living room. “Your brother is waiting on you in the car.”
“I don’t want to go with you.”
Marie gawked back at Jaime’s quiet voice. Michael and Kristen looked up with surprise at the youth’s calm in the face of her mother’s anger. Steven peeked around the wall with a hopeful gaze. Leon walked up behind Marie, narrowing his eyes as he observed.
“What did you just say to me...?” Marie asked as she balled her fists.
“I said that I don’t want to go with you for Summer vacation,” Jaime reiterated her statement. “Dad told you already when you mention you wanted to plan your trip, so you didn’t waste money.”
The woman started to tremble as tears welled up in her black orbs. Jaime finally leaned away from the rage, staring back nervously. She glanced at her father and aunt for help, setting Marie off.
“I knew it!” She screamed at the youth, “You don’t love me enough to think how much your selfishness kills me! You just want to punish me! Your father poisoned you against me!”
“That’s enough, Marie!” Michael jumped up to get in his ex-wife’s face. “Jaime had the courage to tell you how she feels! You can't attack her honesty just because it’s not what you want!”
Using the sudden fight to move further into the kitchen, Leon approached Jaime. His tall form blocked her view of the family. Her breath caught in her throat as cold sweat seeped through her pores. Leon’s cold gaze pinned her down before his voice silenced the room.
“I warned you about this, Marie. She’s emotionally unstable and detached, as her diluted guardians refuse to provide her the medication she needs.”
Michael broke away from Marie to grab Leon by the jacket collar. The brute gesture drew the cold man’s attention away from Jaime, allowing her to exhale for a quick breath. Her father’s enraged face made her nervous as well, leaving the teen confused with how to feel, let alone react.
“My daughter isn’t broken,” Mike snarled up at Leon. “I won’t let you silence another woman by conditioning them to your idea of acceptable behavior!”
“Your negligence only worsens her condition. I don’t care how many experts back your claims. My education trumps your alternative treatment. It’s only a matter of time before her episodes spiral beyond your control.”
“Leon, please!” Kristen cried suddenly, “Not in front of them!”
“No!” Marie snapped back, looking down at Kristen. “They deserve to know the truth.”
Jaime saw her mother walked around Leon and Michael. Why was her aunt so frightened? Marie had confidence in her stride and posture that felt misplaced, as if she weren’t as happy as she should be. The youth furrowed her brow, waiting for what her mother had to say.
"The fact that you haven't treated her properly is grounds for child neglect, and since that hysteria back in January, we've been working on getting Jaime the help she needs."
"What does that mean...?" Jaime whimpered softly, staring at her mother anxiously.
"With legal control of your healthcare," Leon picked up after Marie, looking blankly back at the teen, "we will ensure you are no threat to yourself or others. Once your father's custody has been revoked, his witch sister can't experiment on you, inducing your bedlam."
"LIAR!" Jaime's eyes flooded red as she gripped the back of her chair in one hand and the edge of the counter in the other. "LIAR! LIAR!"
Leon blinked at the ferocity in Jaime's expression, surprised. Her voice held strength in it he had never heard before. This wasn't like one of her usual episodes. Jaime almost seemed to be in control of her emotions, albeit rage.
Steven rushed forward to grab his stunned mother's arm, dragging her out of the room. Michael wasn't far behind him, pulling Leon along. Kristen stumbled to her feet, hurrying for her distraught niece. Wrapping the girl in an embrace, she held Jaime close to her chest as tears finally began to form in the youth's eyes.
"You're safe, sweetheart," she whispered to the crying youth, now clinging to her trunk. "I promise you are safe in this house."
As Michael continued for the door with Leon, Steven let go of Marie. She gaped at his wounded expression before he turned to go back to the kitchen to comfort his sister. Hearing her husband gasp, she turned to see Michael shove him out the open door. The passionate, brown orbs glared back at his ex as he pointed outside.
"Get out of my house! I'll bring Steven later, but if you think Jaime is ever coming near either of you again, you better have a lawyer!"