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The Slated Ship

By Fuchsia.grasshopper All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Drama

Chapter 1

The snow had come like everyone had expected it to, yet the cluster of groans made it less than well received by the people living in North Dakota. While the winter season usually began in late November, they had been blessed by Old Man Winter a whole month early, his beard covering the state in thick blankets of white that had festered for already two months, and likely another three. The snowplows were steaming, the snow tires were spinning, and plastic shovels were coming off the shelves at every hardware store within a five mile radius of Jamestown. James River had frozen over not long after the first icy breath, throwing children into skating season headfirst, leaving their parents to grumble in the wake of that while they would be forced to endure harsh winds with nothing but down-filled coats and cups of steaming liquids to stand between them.

Andie had already departed from Jamestown early that December morning with her mother and Bert, though more like soon to be stepfather. It was the holidays, and they were taking the two hour trek out to stay with his family in the small town of Creek Wood Église. Andie had never been, but from Bert's word alone it was supposedly a real one-horse town. It must have been too, because it rarely ever showed up on maps of North Dakota, as her friend Kelly had pointed out to her in an atlas in the middle of the library. She didn't mind the idea of it though; better in company than alone, better than Jamestown.

It was close to nine and she was stretched out in the back of Bert's 1984 Honda Civic, by his permission of course. He insisted, saying he was determined to look for a new vehicle come spring anyway, and that the old upholstery would forgive her for it. She had slipped her boots off regardless, even though her toes were now starting to pick up a chill during the stretch of the drive. The car was badly insulated now, and the heating system ran faulty. It looked much worse from the outside mind, with rust on the underside and the red paint chipping away in each winter storm. Not a vehicle for this weather, and Andie was thankful that they hadn't gotten stuck and stranded in a snow pile on the highway. There hadn't been a great many number of cars driving along with them, and the last gas station had been back twenty miles in the passing.

"Thank God for your Christmas bonus," Andie's mother, Patricia, said. "You should look for a new car when we get back in January. I don't like the idea of you driving in this to work every day."

"It can wait," Bert replied with a smile, taking his eyes off the road for only a moment to smile at his fiancée. "I want to put a deposit down on the hall when we get back."

The wedding. Talks of that had been popular around their house, like a gossip article in the paper, and though for a while when it seemed like finances wouldn't allow for it to happen, a stroke of luck had come in the form of Bert's raise and bonus. He was a middle management, working class hero type, but nowadays who wasn't?

"What do you think Andie?" Her mother asked pleasantly, looking over the shoulder of her seat in the front.

"Sorry mom, but I agree with Bert," She set the book she was reading down (A Catcher in The Rye, by her own choice) giving her mother a tired smile in return. "You guys have waited so long to get married now, and I would hate to see another plan fall through too. The invitations you picked out have been sitting in a box in our pantry for six months; they're only good for the dust bunnies at this point, and that's because we never clean in there."

Her mother's blue eyes twinkled with a pleasant laugh as she threw her head back against her seat. "Heavens Andie, you don't have to say it like that. It's one of those habits you picked up from me."

Besides the bad habit of never dusting and procrastinating on a handful of other household chores, Andie had also taken much of her appearance from her mother. Not a spitting image exactly, but they shared the same powder blue eyes and dark honey hair. Andie's was clipped short, an abysmal choice from her mother's perspective, but she had come to accept it through her opposing. She couldn't remember a time when her mother had hair any shorter than to her shoulder blades. It was long and flowing, never graying even when the skin around her eyes had begun to tighten and wrinkle with age. Her smile lines; that was what she called them. Andie would consider herself fortunate if she inherited at least half of her mother's grace when she reached her age. At nineteen, she felt she was well on her way.

"Thank you Andie," Bert said as he looked through the rear view mirror to her with his mocha brown eyes. They were never angry, even when he had put up with long hours and pitiful pay. "For siding with me on that matter, and for coming with us. I'm sure you could have just as easily elected to stay with a friend."

She didn't speak on it, but she had been looking for any excuse to get out of Jamestown for a while, and Bert's invited stay for two weeks with his family came as reprieve to her at a critical time. His extended invite had come with a warning for her to heed about his family. Spoken with a deadly straight face, he had warned her of the dysfunction of his family, but Andie had agreed almost before he could finish speaking. Dysfunctional family; a term overused, and it made her wonder what true dysfunction really was. Needless to say she had not been filled with any amount of dread, and had packed a small bag just as soon as he had got done with his advisory.

Bert came from a family where he was the middle child. When her mother had first introduced him to her, she had gotten a sense of drab and unimpressive from him that had nothing to do with his clothes or appearance. At thirty-nine his mahogany hair was already starting to whiten in places, from his straight hairline and curling right over his mastoid process. He was shorter than her mother too, and already Andie was at eye-level with him in flat shoes. His round face was boyish, and behind the metal framed glasses perched on his nose could be seen a smile, always meant for her or her mother. He had gone to the same college with her mom, in different classes though, and they had not known each other then. Whatever forces had made them gravitate towards each other had been a blessing, for Andie liked him a great deal, and he had fulfilled a gracious spot in their lives for the better of two years.

On the matter of his family, Andie could say little. Even once he had moved into their split-level home after fourteen months into his relationship with her mother, no family pictures of the Barnes' had been brought with him to display. Andie had heard him speak once or twice of his siblings, and even his father had come and gone in the mentioning, but never his mother. It bothered her mother, and they had occasionally discussed it together on some of their Saturday mornings at the store when Bert had been away for overtime. When the matter had suddenly sprung up upon them just before the Christmas holiday, they had shared a surprised look behind his back just as he had hung up the phone. There was no indication of who had extended the invite, only that they were both welcomed to come to the little town that was situated just thirty minutes away from Devil's Lake.

The last two days he had opened up a little more, just about his siblings at least because of the hassle of shopping. The gifts they had packed into the tiny trunk of the car gave some evidence of the people he had described to them in profile. His older sister Leslie was apparently bringing home her new boyfriend to meet the family—a common occurrence—after traveling all the way from her home in Minneapolis. They had purchased her a ridiculous handbag, leopard printed and ugly, filling it with make-up Andie and her mother had worked on picking out together. According to Bert, that was the perfect gift for his sister, going on to say little else. They had first thought of clothing, but he had assured them she would take back anything that didn't have a brand name label, and so her mother had gingerly returned a tulip pink sweater the next day that had been purchased from Kohl's.

Bert's younger brother still lived at home with his parents in Creek Wood Église. At the age of thirty-five he could hardly be called youthful anymore, but for health reasons that Bert didn't go into, his younger brother Julian was not deemed fit to live out on his own. Bert had made it his job to purchase Julian's gift himself, which consisted of a set of oil paints and a brush set. He had worked all night on trying to wrap it, with Andie and her mother standing in the hallway watching him under the low light of their living room. After two tubes of Christmas paper and a roll of tape, he had succeeded in the task, albeit rather heinously with bits of paper and tape stuck to everything. All the hair from the carpet had either been picked up by the tape or Bert's clothes, and he had red wrap with tiny pictures of holly in his hair. The pride of his smile as he signed it for his brother had been filled with heart, and neither she nor her mother would have taken that away from him, so they had silently returned to their respective rooms, leaving him none the wiser.

"Almost there now." Bert piped up as they drove past a small white church covered in snow to its steeple. Buildings were popping up frequently through the frost and wind as the mist of the morning dissipated. Their car drove through the center road in the town, acting like a sword as it pierced its way through the morning chill. A handful of people were out amongst the buildings and vehicles, eyeing the strangers rolling up through their market and town hall. If Andie had to venture a guess, she'd say there were just over a few hundred citizens residing there, and they all knew each other's business too. "I see the Piggly Wiggly is still here." Bert said while pointing to the small store with the friendly hog logo.

"There are homes on the same streets as the stores," Her mother pointed out as they drove by a father shoveling his driveway with his children playing in the nearby snowbank. "Did you used to walk to school?"

"Every day until my junior year. Leslie had taken off for Minnesota when she turned twenty-one, so I inherited her truck. It was me and Julian every day after that, and I continued to drive him, even when I was finished with school." His expression faded grimly, as if a gloomy thought had passed in his mind.

They made a sharp turn left, the trees growing thick on either side of the road as they pulled into a neighborhood lined with large old homes. Plastic Christmas decorations sat on the front lawns, with the odd snowman greeting them with a waving twig arm. Andie sat herself up in the car, folding the last place in her book while she slid her socked feet back into her boots. She stretched her arms up to the low ceiling of the car just as they turned into a driveway of a home that had no Christmas decorations, and already occupied another parked vehicle. It was sleek black and brand new, with winter tires and a fresh coat of polish to prove it.

"Leslie's here already," Bert said as he put the car into park, taking the key from the ignition. "I guess we can unload the gifts from the back."

He didn't immediately move to leave the vehicle, and nor did Andie or her mother when they noticed his stationary form. Bert was still gripping the steering wheel in a white knuckled grip, the lines around his mouth disappearing from a smile into a sagging frown. Patricia pulled her cloth glove from her hand before reaching over to place it on his forearm tenderly in a display of affection. "We don't have to go in if you don't want to. We could always turn back, blame it on Andie."

"Hey!" She exclaimed, even when she knew her mother had been teasing her as a way to diffuse any lingering tension.

"No," Bert chuckled dryly with a head shake. "No turning back now. I want everyone to meet my new family. Besides, what would we do with all of those presents in the back?"

"I'll take them." Andie said jokingly. Not that odious handbag though; that was for Leslie, as Andie was sure she had a good enough impression in her mind of the woman from Bert's illustration of her.

"Come on honey," Patricia encouraged again. "It's the holidays, and I know you want to see your brother."

The mentioning of Julian was enough to get Bert out from the car, with Andie and Patricia following. The driveway was already cleared of snow, and someone had laid a fresh layer of salt down over the ice that kept them from slipping. Bert popped opened the trunk, carefully distributing the bags of wrapped gifts to both hers and her mother's awaiting arms. Andie thought she spied movement in the large window off the porch, and the shifting of a curtain, but when she looked head-on everything was still, all except for the wind that tussled her short hair.

"How's your back doing sweetie?" Her mother asked her with an armful of presents.

"It's alright," She replied, wiggling her nose from the chilly air that caused a blush to rise on her ears and cheeks. "I can manage the gifts if that's what you're asking."

"Did stretching out in the car help? I know the seats aren't that comfortable anymore, especially for a two hour drive." Bert said while he shut the trunk, it closing with a dull 'thud'. The sound echoed through the needles in the spruce trees in the front yard, and this time a face did appear peeking through the curtains. Feminine, with a flash of blonde hair.

"Er—I'm okay . . . was that your sister?" She asked, distracted off the topic as the front door flew opened.

"That would be her."

The woman came bounding down and off the front porch as Andie stood with Bert and her mother, arms filled with Christmas gifts while her nose burned from the cold. Leslie, who was as thin as a rail, dressed in a one-piece leopard spotted pant suit, threw her arms around her brother in a boisterous display of over affection. A puff of air escaped Bert, and he nearly dropped the bag in his hand as he brought an arm slowly around her back to return the embrace. Andie shared an amused look with her mother who was smiling thinly to stave off her laughter.

"Robbie, I didn't think you'd show," Leslie cried, leaping back from his arms to assess him with her coal painted eyes. "Mother didn't either, but now you get to prove her wrong. I'm sure Julian's been looking forward to you visiting too."

Bert brightened slightly from the news as he adjusted the glasses on his face. "When did you get here?"

"Twenty minutes ago. We drove all the way here in Stuart's car." She indicated to the flashy BMW in the driveway with a long vermillion nail. Her hazel eyes darted away from Bert, flitting back and forth between Patricia and Andie with question while her fuchsia pink lips bloomed like a rose into a wicked smile that would have wilted any flower. Andie suddenly felt uncomfortable under such scrutiny, and her mother shifted from one foot to the other, feeling the similar pressure. "This must be the family. Aren't you going to introduce me?"

"In a moment Leslie," Bert said impatiently. "But I want to get this stuff inside first. It's cold, and we're tired." He lifted his arms up again, displaying the bags he was loaded down with.

Leslie let out a huff of indignation, and she turned her back to them to prance her way up the wooden steps without lending a hand. "Alright, but I hope there's something for me in there."

"Come on guys." He rolled his eyes at his sister's behavior while following after her up the porch.

Andie noticed the falter in her mother's step, the cheerfulness dying away slowly from her face like an extinguished candle, and Andie would do anything to bring the spark back. "Don't be nervous mom, we'll do fine." She said that while not fully believing it herself."

I know . . ." Patricia's sentence trailed off, lost to the winter air as she followed her fiancé.

Maybe I was too quick to leave Jamestown. Andie had jumped at the opportunity, but apprehension was clinging onto her tightly, like the icicles dangling down from the gutters on the house. The home was on a larger scale, all white panelling expect for the brick layered chimney stack that ascended on the right side of the house, queerly out of place. Up close Andie could see the paint was chipping away to the darkened wood beneath, old and rotting. All of the light fixtures were of opulent brass and bronze, and the front door was painted bright red like a mouth, opened to allow them inside the monster. She half expected an onslaught of teeth or a bad case of halitosis to come at them should they cross the threshold, but she was welcomed into a warm mudroom with a carpet laid down atop the hardwood to collect the moisture from their boots.

"Shoes off everyone. I'll go get Stuart to help you bring these in," Leslie said while kicking off the slippers she had put on her feet to step outside for that little interval. "Dad, Robbie's here!"

Patricia cringed from Leslie's shrieking tone, and Bert offered out his arm to her to lean on so she could toe off her shoes. Well, either that or he picked up on her anxiety and did so to keep her from falling. Andie sat herself down on the wooden bench to slip her boots off, eyes observing everything they could to help prepare herself for the next two weeks, looking now to be quite the daunting battlefield.

"Leslie said you guys need some help bringing gifts inside." A male figured appeared at the double doors to the mudroom, dressed in tan khaki's and a navy blue dinner jacket with a sun crest on the left breast. Andie knew Leslie to be in her forties, so she was surprised to see that her boyfriend Stuart was easily ten to fifteen years younger than that. His dark auburn hair was styled short, slicked back on his head while it curled at the nape. He had a beard he kept trimmed short on his angular cheeks, with a nose slightly bulbous at the end that made it look larger on his narrow face. A spindly hand stretched forward towards Andie, and she almost flinched back when her imagination mistook it for a tree branch. "Do you want me to take those?" He asked, nodding his head towards the bag at her feet.

"Right, here you go." She moved quickly after staring unabashedly at him for a moment, mouth agape as if he was an amusing zoo animal. It was early, and she wasn't on her A-game, though that likely wouldn't be a great excuse when dealing with the rest of Bert's actual blood relatives.

"Here Andie, why don't you help Stuart take these back. I want to break you guys in slowly, and its better I start with your mother." Bert said as he passed off the rest of the boxes to her.

She nodded along with the numb feeling brewing inside of her, "Sure thing," She turned to the expectant Stuart who had remained stoically reserved during their exchange. "These are going under the tree I expect?"

"Oh no, there's no tree," Stuart refuted with a head shake. "Apparently Gladys only ever buy's a fresh one a week before Christmas day."

Andie heard Bert make an exasperated sound in the back of his throat. "I see nothing has changed around here."

"Thank you for helping her Stuart," Her mother piped up while she ran a soothing hand over Bert's shoulders. "Her back is stiff from the drive up."

"It's not a problem," Stuart assured, and Andie would say he even appeared relieved to be doing something. "Come on, gifts are being stored upstairs."

With one last sidelong glance to Bert and her mother, she hastily scuttled after Stuart to the wooden stairwell that was hidden in the back of the home. Her ears picked up on voices erupting amicably from the main floor they had just departed from, and she only hoped that it was all open arms for her and her mother. She nearly slipped once or twice on the hardwood steps because of her socked feet, gripping onto the shaky railing with force as she steadied herself.

"Yeah, careful on those steps kid. I nearly went for a header myself when I took mine and Leslie's gifts up here. They should lay a carpet down, or something." He shook his head in a disbelieving manner, and she got a great deal of his personality from just gazing at his back alone.

"So I'm Andie, in case you missed it," She said as it seemed like the normal thing to do. Meeting new people was a difficult challenge for her and not because she was shy, but rather she was unwelcoming. She recalled the phrase 'curt by kind' as a way used of describing her many times in the past.

"I'm Stuart, but I suppose you already know that." They walked down the dim hallway, the walls layered in pine green paint that swallowed all of the light pouring in from the window at the end of the stretch. It was like the long walk to death row, and the brightness of the snow outside caused an illuminated illusion through the window at the end of the tunnel. The doors to all of the rooms were shut, and every second step she took seemed to lead to a creaking floorboard under her weight. She stuck by her original assessment of the house; it was certainly better on the outside than within, and she would be hard pressed to finish the rest of the tour later. "Everything is being stored in the spare room here."

She followed Stuart inside as he pushed on the door with his weight. It stuck for a moment before giving, foundation problems causing the frame to be unaligned with the door. Once Andie got a look at the spare room, she felt like it was more of a junk keeper than actual storage. Nonsensical items of the obscure variety were in abundance, from old kitchen stools stacked to the roof, to a table with three legs being propped up by an old umbrella. A pile of colorful bags and boxes were set beside it, and Stuart took to placing the new arrivals there as well.

"Normally I would have set these off the ground to be safe, but I have no confidence in that table leg—obviously." He chuckled dryly at the threadbare umbrella holding the brunt of the weight of the oak piece of furniture.

She laughed with him, albeit forcefully. "The rest of the house isn't like that I hope."

"No it's alright. Leslie's father just likes to store old things up here, sentimental pieces he refuses to throw away." Without anything to occupy her hands now that they had delivered the gifts, Andie stood awkwardly while Stuart's face grew serious once more in the crushing silence. "Listen Andie, you and your mother seem like kind people, so I want to warn you ahead of time for what you're getting yourselves into."

She tried to swallow, but her mouth had dried like a desert cavern, and all she managed down was a hard lump that sank with its stone way to the depths of her stomach. "What do you mean?"

"I think you have some idea of what I mean already. Bert must have mentioned something about the complexities of this household." Her blank look prompted him to continue with a furrowed brow; and here she thought he might have been pulling her leg. "Look at it this way; I've been here under an hour, and I already predict that there's no way I survive a full two weeks here, not with Gladys."

"And Gladys is who?" She had a suspicion, but denial kept her hopes afloat.

"The matriarch of the house. I'm trying to spare you a few minutes away from her. I thought Leslie was exaggerating with her stories when she first told me we were going to her home for the holidays; you expect something so unnatural in stories to be falsities when it's told by bitter children." It was the first time his composure broke, and the purple bags beneath his eyes were suddenly more prominent as he ran a hand back through his perfectly groomed hair. She thought it might start to spontaneously turn gray, or that his hand would come back with clumps of it between his fingers. "Oh hell, what do I know; maybe it's the jetlag talking?"

"Jetlag, I thought you drove here?" Or that was what Leslie had told them, and Andie had no reason not to believe her.

"We drove here from Bismarck. That's our rent-a-car in the driveway." He pointed his thumb in direction of the window where that pretty BMW sat like a back hiding a knife, and suddenly Stuart's appearance was as false as Leslie's nails.

"So what, since we're the outsiders of the family, you think we should look out for one another?" She accused, fighting to keep her gaze from narrowing on him.

"Something like that." He shrugged while rubbing the back of his neck with his hand, and Andie suspected he was sweating in that jacket Leslie had likely forced him to wear. "Have to get through the holidays somehow."

"Most people would drink alcohol," She remarked bluntly.

Stuart snorted a laugh while looking over her shoulder. The groaning of the floor in the hallway alerted them to a presence that flounced its way in the room, and Andie pitied Stuart a little more as he was swooped into Leslie's chicken arms. "You can't hide up here forever you know."

"Worth a shot," He said while pecking her back on the mouth. "I was just preparing Andie here."

Leslie looked over to her, flashing her white teeth that were almost as blinding as her big blonde hair, coiffed high like a hovering halo on her head. Maybe they could use her on top of the Christmas tree that hadn't yet been picked out. "Your mom and Robbie are waiting for you. I suppose the rest of the family is too. They know there's a kid around here somewhere, but I don't think they realize how old you are."

"I'm nineteen," Andie said, affronted that Leslie was hinting otherwise. Supposedly her short hair had her looking like an old lady now.

"Really?!" Leslie exclaimed too loudly for her boyfriend's ears, because he winced back beside her. "Well, I know what I'm getting someone for Christmas now."

Andie didn't want anything from her, especially after all that effort she had put in with her mother to select that horrid handbag. Seeing what she was wearing now, she understood what Bert had said about his sister's style. "You don't have to buy me anything."

"Oh but I will," Leslie refuted. "Now come on, let's find you a seat downstairs for your introduction."

"More like interrogation." She heard Stuart mumble under his breath as they brushed past her to leave the room.

Andie sighed in dismay, and despite how much clutter was in the junk room, she would have rather stayed put amongst the junk than join whatever that apparent disaster was going on downstairs. Bert and her mother were the two things in her mind that prompted her to trudge behind after the odd couple, even as she already began to despise the home and the treacle foundation it stood on. The door gave her some trouble, as it was as difficult to close as it had looked to open, but she managed by holding back with all of her strength until it snapped back into place with a sharp 'click'. The skin on her palms burned from the twisting and force she had applied on the knob, and she tried to sooth them by rubbing them down on her pant legs to no avail. She found no alleviation, and she tried to hide her discomfort as she rejoined the party on the main floor.

The last step moaned as her feet touched the hardwood, and groups of eyes circled to her as she stood between the entrance to the sitting room and the foyer. Bert descended on her right away, and she spotted her mother looking relieved with her return. "Andie, come meet everyone."

She allowed herself to be led in deeper into the holiday as Bert walked her into the sitting room. It was faintly lit by the fire in the hearth, with the thin white gossamer curtain drawn shut in the large bay window. The matching furniture looked as if it belonged in the junk room upstairs with its blue hues and floral printed patterns. The centerpiece on the coffee table was a glass vase with a vibrant poinsettia, surrounded by glasses of water with a cork coaster under each one. With the exception of the curlicue rug on the floor, everything else was old and antique, down to the lampshades that were more yellow than white from age.

An older man with silvery long hair and beard sat in the armchair beside the fire, his soft brown eyes cautious but pleasant, and she figured him for Bert's father. Leslie was already cuddled into Stuart's side on the plush sofa, causing her mother to look uneasy beside them as she huddled into the armrest like it was a raft to keep her afloat. Andie wanted to go to her, but there was little she could say or do in the company of strangers. "Dad, this is Patricia's daughter Andie." Bert said as he introduced her.

She figured him to be a tall man, even when he had been seated, but she had to tilt her head up quite a degree as he stood up before her. His large presence casted a shadow from the fire, and she feared he would engulf her in some bone-crushing embrace until he surrendered a hand forward for her to shake. An odd gesture between a man and a young woman, but Andie grasped his long palm in hers to complete the action. His grip was astoundingly light, the barest hint of pressure as they moved their arms in sync in an up and down motion. "It's lovely to welcome you and your mother to our home. You can call me Charlie."

"Hello," She pulled her hand back to her side just as soon as his hold retracted, and he returned to his seat. "Thank you for inviting us for the holidays."

Charlie cleared his throat and nodded, taking a generous sip from his glass of water before putting it back in place on the coaster, as if it had never been moved. Bert's anxiousness was tangible beside her, and he fought to keep the silence at bay as he signaled towards the last member in the room she hadn't yet been introduced to. He was a narrow man in a green checkered tweed jacket, the cushions of the love-seat engulfing him as he sat staring at his own folded hands in his lap. The phantom paleness of his face was whiter than all the snows of the Peace Garden, and he had a silly mop of dark curls that she imagined Bert would have if he didn't keep his clipped so short to his head. "That's my brother, Julian. He . . . doesn't speak much, but that doesn't mean he isn't welcoming of you and your mother."

"Oh," Andie remarked while not knowing what else to say. "It's nice to meet you Julian."

He didn't answer her, nor was she acknowledged with a glance of his eyes. The light from the fire created dancing shadows on his face, and she wondered if all the heat was passing through him like the voices in the room. Bert smiled thinly, a poor attempt at veiling his grief over his brother's condition, and Andie wanted to reassure him that it was no bother. An illness should never be considered as such. "Here, why don't you take a seat Andie. Mother should be out to join us from the kitchen soon."

"Sure." She moved stiffly between the coffee table and sofa before taking a seat down beside Julian. His indifference was remarkable, for she thought he would have made some sign of discomfort when their arms came within an inch of touching.

"So Andie," Charlie asked warmly as he crossed his leg at the knee. "What do you do?"

"Well, right now I'm taking part-time open studies in college while working part-time at our local library. I still don't know what I want to do for a career, so I'm keeping my options opened."

Charlie appeared pleased by that answer, but was robbed of the chance to comment when Leslie piped in. "Do you have a boyfriend?"

"No," Leslie pulled a face, something that said she thought her answer was completely ridiculous. Andie felt her confidence waver before she caught her mother's encouraging look. "It's not really something I'm looking for right now."

Leslie made a guttural noise of disbelief while her eyes twinkled with purpose. "If you need tips on fashion or make-up, I'm here."

"Thank you." Never going to happen. Just the thought of herself trying to wear one of those animal printed pant suits had her laughing in her head, and it brightened her mood considerably since she had first entered the house.

It seemed no good mood was to last, because the living room fell into silence as the swinging door to the kitchen was shoved opened. Andie had to look over her shoulder and past the long length of the dining table to see the head of the house enter. Her first impression of Gladys, from Stuart's words, was she would be robust and stocky. Instead a short, thin wisp of a woman approached, with hair all white and likely long if it wasn't already wound back in a secured bun at the base of her neck. The end of her nose was thin, as if permanently pinched at the nostrils like a bird's beak, and Andie wondered how she was able to breathe through it. She had an apron tied around her waist, wrapped over the floral printed frock she was wearing, and there beneath her talons were traces of flour from her vigorous task of baking. Her ghost blue eyes were startling, and they found Andie straight away, her sights set with no gap left to escape.

"Mother, this is Andie, Patricia's daughter," Bert said, moving from his leaning pose against the mantle to stand beside the love-seat.

"I could figure that out for myself, you didn't need to tell me Robert. Haven't had a teenager running around here in sixteen years," Gladys retorted sourly, her mouth twisting unpleasantly before she looked down on Andie. "What are you gaping at?"

"Nothing ma'am," Andie said while trying her best not to sputter. "I'm happy to meet you."

"Oh save it. Greetings are for Christmas cards dear, I won't have you flapping your lips about with such nonsense in my house." Suddenly, sinking into the cushions of the love-seat along with Julian didn't seem like such a crazy idea. Andie caught Stuart's gaze beside Leslie, a look in his eyes that was all I-told-you-so. How mature of a thirty year old man. "What good are you in a kitchen girl?" Gladys asked with crossed arms.

"Ma'am?" Andie inquired.

"Can you cook, and I'm talking about putting your fists in the dough, making gravy from the drippings, keeping the consistency of a white roux; none of that instant package and just add water blarney they all talk about."

"I'm a fair baker I suppose," Andie said, afraid to commit to anything else should there be a test along with it. Sometimes she would help her mother with some of that so called 'just add water blarney', but she wouldn't let All-mother Barnes know that.

"Wonderful," Gladys said thinly, and it sounded as if she meant the exact opposite. "I'd ask that the women join me in the kitchen. I like to start supper early, and there's plenty of work that needs doing."

"Mother, it's ten in the morning," Leslie pointed out, her earlier cheer now spent, as if a cold breath of outdoors had snatched it away.

"Exactly, which should give the men enough time to set the lights up outside the house. Don't let this one anywhere near the ladder though." She made a cold hand gesture towards Julian as an afterthought, before turning sharply on her heel to go back to the kitchen. If her feet hadn't been covered in stockings and slippers, Andie wondered if she would have had hooks at the ends of her toes.

Leslie broke apart from Stuart's arms, standing up off the sofa as she looked at Andie and Patricia expectantly. "Come on, we've been summoned." She made sure to tack on an eye-roll loaded with attitude as she spoke, while fluffing her hair for good measure. Not someone who looked like she was ready to go into a kitchen for an afternoon of cooking by any means, but she seemed to understand the seriousness of the request more than Andie or her mother did.

"C'mon mom," Andie said with as much heart as she could muster. "Maybe we can make your shortbread cookies that we had at Thanksgiving."

Leslie tossed them a glance back as if she meant to say, 'like that's going to happen', but she kept her painted lips sealed in a straight line. Patricia looked to Bert one last time, maybe for help or guidance, but his shoulders had already sagged in dejection along with Charlie's as they went to get their coats for outside, Stuart trudging along somewhere behind them. If the holidays were meant to be a series of given tasks in the Barnes household, then Andie wasn't looking forward to it, but somehow she knew there was something more than that going on. The somber mood and the walking on egg shells gave strong hints to that.

Bert came back into the living room with a comforting word to his fiancée, before he knelt down before the love-seat to speak in hushed words to his brother. The three women were already passed the dining room table when Andie decided to look back over her shoulder once more, coming across something she had not expected that turned her bones to lead. Julian had shifted to face Bert, listening but never speaking as his older brother talked at him. His head was inclined at a slight angle, and his ghost eyes made brief contact with hers, a flutter so fast that Andie was hardly certain if it had occurred at all. They flitted back down to his lap so suddenly that it ruined any chance of him gazing at her again, even peripherally. Julian's muted look stuck with her, but she did not dwell on the extraneous detail of it long. Once after the swinging door to the kitchen stilled, she was locked in for an afternoon of playing prisoner with her mother and Leslie, taking commands from the hawk whose gaze was unyielding in rule.

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1. Chapter 1
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