Down a long winding country road, behind a split rail fence covered in the dried tangled remains of last autumn’s trailing vines, peeking out from a small postage stamp orchard of fruit trees to one side and paper birch to the other, all surrounded by rolling pastures dotted with cattle, nestled a large Victorian home. Pale periwinkle siding, a lengthy wrap around porch, three story tall tower, carved wooden scroll work, and even a widow's walk to top it off, the home seemed perfectly content in its surroundings. Deep within this picturesque countryside hand-painted letters on the side of the oversized metal mailbox simply stated:
This chill early February day was filled with overcast and brooding grey winter clouds made no attempt to hide the equally dull toned landscape under a blanket of thick frost. Barren trees waited for spring in the front yard, as the rose bushes stuck out of the ground like deformed skeletal hands. Remains of a vegetable garden peeked out from behind the home as well as a large weeping willow dusted frosty white. The stillness and quiet only broken by the occasional call of farm animals somewhere in the distance. Stillness lay over the surrounding fields. If by chance someone had the inclination to wander about, they briskly made their way to their destination to escape the sharp bite lingering in the cold air. Even the few scant cars driving down the road seemed to be burdened by the cheerless weather, slowly dragging the passengers to wherever they needed to be. From the very look of things the day was shaping up to be unremarkable.
Inside the home was far from calm and peaceful. At least for one of the residents. Little note was taken of the weather even if a pair of eyes looked out the front window more than a dozen times in the last hour. The morning had been a flurry of activity, nervousness and impatience.
Anxiously a woman went over the last minute details once again as she stood in the comfortable living room muttering to herself.
“Did I remember to make all the beds? Maybe I should check that all the bathrooms have hand towels? There is something I’m forgetting… I just know there is!”
“Yes sweetheart, the beds and bathrooms are fine. If they weren’t you’ve already checked them fifteen times this morning anyway.” The man sat leisurely on the couch, book in hand, calm as could be.
Looking at her unfazed husband just made her feel even more like a nervous wreck. More than one argument had been sparked that morning by the two personalities clashing. Husband taking for granted that everything that was important enough would get done, never quite seeing that the wife was the one making sure they got there. Stress made her usually patient nature morph into explosives with painfully short fuses. It had taken her over a decade to learn how to calm her firecracker personality down so those around her would not be hit with the emotional shrapnel. Still too frequently she had to regularly check herself before speaking to avoid making snap judgements that would be unintentionally hurtful. It was a constant fight managing her OCD.
Her high school sweetheart and husband for over a decade was exactly the opposite. Despite being an avid coffee drinker he was not the type to zip through life. He was kind, patient, rarely phased and seemed to take every last thing in stride. Life was not for hurrying. If things weren’t perfect, it was fine. The world wouldn’t end. He would rarely raise his voice and even more rarer still would he get angry. Perhaps growing up with hippies for parents had much to do with his mellow outlook on life. Watching his wife fuss about the house was like watching a busy hummingbird. Enjoyable to watch but stay clear of the flight path to avoid a collision. Those hurt and were best avoided at all costs. Especially when she was in a mood like today.
Hearing a car nearing their home, the woman hurried to the window to see if anyone was coming. Dejectedly her shoulders slumped as the car passed slowly by. Screeching sounds of a kitchen timer pulled her back from the window once more. Loudly muttering her annoyance at the shrill screech, she hurried her way into the kitchen. Fingers fumbled to press the buttons, attempting to cease the ruckus from the electronic banshee. Old stubborn timer finally silenced after multiple tries. An irritated hand roughly slammed the device onto the counter top, a final beep crying out at the mistreatment.
The aroma of baked cookies would have been more pleasant except for the smell of the previously burnt batch clinging in the air. Lightly browned chocolate chip cookies pulled from the oven, perfectly golden. Deftly transferred to a cooling rack to cool, the remaining dough scraped from the bowl. Seeing that there wasn't enough for another full sheet, the woman impatiently made four oversized cookies. Placing the pan back in the oven, timer set, kitchen swiftly tidied, she returned to the living room to plop down on the couch. Gently she leaned against her easygoing husband, baffled by the fact that hardly anything ever phased him.
“I really hate waiting like this. It's just pure torture and I get so stressed out that I don't even know what to do with myself. Sitting here just waiting until some undetermined point in time. It wouldn't be so bad if I didn't think about every possible little thing that could go wrong and obsessing over it.”
She clenched her hands wishing she had something to punch to dispel the stress. Well, as long as it didn't leave her in pain. But she knew she would get hurt more than the thing getting hit. Her husband still didn't let her forget the time when she tripped over a clump of grass back in high school as they walked to his house together. Her husband's mild teasing about it never ceased.
“Don't worry so much. They'll be here soon.” His deep voice soothing in its mellowness.
The look she gave the man didn't even remotely appear as if the ball of anxiety would dissipate so easily. Silence descended as the clock ticked away. In an idyllic world this would be the time where the snow would begin to gently fall, dusting the landscape in winter's wonder. Instead the weather acted more like a grumpy and bitter old man who could care less about anyone's view of how things aught to be.
Once more the digital timer hollered like an alley cat. Grudgingly the woman heeded to the ruckus and returned to the kitchen. With a sigh she stared at the oversized sweets that were much too large to fit neatly on the plate with the rest of the batch. Irritatedly she took a large bite out of a warm cookie snatched from the cooling rack. Right on queue, rambunctious knocking resounded from the front door. The sudden noise startled the woman making her nearly choke. Quickly she swallowed what she could before hurrying to the ruckus.
Already the man was poised to let the visitors in. Hand hovering near the doorknob as he looked back over his shoulder waiting for his wife. Dark figures wiggled on the other side of the oval stained glass window in the door. The butterflies suddenly springing up in her stomach made her feel nervous and sick. Before another heartbeat could sound, the front door was opened. Screeching tires peeling out on the road went virtually unnoticed as the children descended loudly on the home.
“That yard isn't too bad but I'm gonna need more space. We might need to put up a solid wood fence or something because I can't have strangers spying on my troops.” A small girl in long red braids loudly stated as she walked in, as if she had done that very thing for years. Outfitted in secondhand clothing that didn’t suit the chill weather, the girl seemed to have no concern that her short sleeve shirt, tattered jean skirt didn’t even reach her knees, bare legs and thin windbreaker would have left her chilled to the bone if she had been outside for very long. A lack of socks with her oversized shoes did not improve her attire, especially since her footwear was practically falling apart.
“I smell cookies! I am kinda hungry. If no one would mind parting with a few of them I could help make sure they won't go stale.” The older curly red-haired girl batted her eyes as she smiled sweetly. To be honest, she looked old enough to be the children's caretaker even if her manners reflected someone much younger. Wearing a white puffed sleeve shirt haphazardly tucked into her simple blue and white patchwork skirt, the pale skinned girl looked positively frozen. The newest thing in her outfit seemed to be her scuffed up blue canvas shoes yet even those were far from new. She seemed not to notice the small boy clinging to her as she blissfully smelled the warm sugary air.
“You already ate two hot fudge Sundays before we got here.” The shy little boy looked startled as he realized his new mother was looking at him while he quietly mumbled. Immediately he hid behind the arm he was clinging to, pale colored hair poking out from his hiding place. His attire fared only slightly better than what his sisters were wearing. At least his white and pale gray striped shirt had long sleeves. Olive green pants surely did not fit him and looked like they were made for someone twice his size from how they were bunched at the waist. Even so, the pant leg only reached just below his knees. At least he had socks poking out from his high-top shoes.
Hurriedly the small group was welcomed into the home as the door was promptly closed to keep the winter's biting chill at bay.
“I'm gonna take a grand tour of this place to see if it’s good enough for my troops. I need space, lots of space!” The young girl quickly scanned the entry hall before wandering around, opening nearby doors looking at the unfamiliar surroundings. Nervously the woman spoke up before the fireball of a child wandered off, stomping her way up the stairs.
“Ah, Rainie? How about Daddy can show you around?” It was obvious that the woman was not used to having such a boisterous child in her home.
“Who?” Swiftly the girl turned around, braids swinging behind her with her face screwed up in confusion. “Oh, that guy. Hey Dad, I'm gonna need a hose, duct tape, peanut butter, and ten feet of dry spaghetti.”
The man laughed heartily.
“What? No parachute or jello too?” cheekily Ravendruid grinned as his wife gave him an alarmed look.
The outspoken girl shivered as disgust spread across her face.
“Jello just isn't natural. It wiggles on it's own as it watches you. One day all the blobs of jello might band together and have a hostile takeover. The only way you know they were coming was from the *splat!* *splat!* *splat!* noise coming for you in the dark.” Once more the girl shivered attempting to dislodge the thoroughly unpleasant thought.
“Rainie knock it off! You're going to scare Tama.” Crossing her arms, Yuriko gave Rainie a dirty look.
“Jello is evil Yuriko! Its like land walking jellyfish, sneaking in with pretty colors to make everyone think there is nothing harmful about it!” wildly Rainie's hands flailed about as she spoke.
“I'm not scared of jello. I just don't like it.” Tamayuki muttered to no one in particular.
“Alright my good man, lead on!” Boisterously the girl grabbed her new father's sleeve, dragging him further into the house. Clearly the intricacies of the word ‘lead’ was lost on the young girl.
“Would you like some cookies?” The woman asked the remaining children.
“Oh yes please, we are positively starving!” At the mention of sweets, Yuriko's face lit up and her smile blossomed.
Through the living room and into the brightly lit kitchen, the newcomers looked at their new home in amazement. It wasn’t new. It wasn’t fancy. But it looked well loved. Multiple windows in the kitchen and dining area looked out into the countryside. Once the treats were retrieved, glasses of milk poured, their new mother finally had the chance for a chat seated around the large dinner table. Admittedly Sister Kyoya would get a bit nervous thinking of the mischief her husband and her new younger daughter were likely finding for themselves.
“Cookies and milk! Can't go wrong with a classic!” Greedily Yuriko snatched a big cookie, taking a substantial sized bite. Belatedly grabbing another, much smaller cookie, swiftly putting it on Tamayuki's napkin.
“Are you alright with drinking almond milk?” Sister Kyoya hadn't thought beforehand if the children might have food allergies.
“How does someone even milk an almond? You'd have to squeeze pretty hard but what's the point? Almonds don't taste like anything. Maybe they just come from almond colored cows. All that matters is that it tastes good with cookies.” Without hesitation Yuriko started on her second helping. The treat was split in half, shoving one part into her mouth as the other part received a quick dunk in the milk. Without a moment of hesitation the cookie was conquered. Another was soon to follow.
“I do have to say that your adoption picture made you look much younger.” To the best of her ability the woman tried to be tactful.
“Yeah, that was taken about five years ago.” Happily the girl continued to eat.
“Yuriko, ah...” it was clear that Sister Kyoya was uncomfortable with what she was trying to ask.
“Isn't that just the most adorable and cutest name? I thought of it myself.”
“Why did you use an old picture?” A look of concern showed on the woman's face. Her new daughter’s smile faded as she grew quiet, eyes downcast. It was obviously the one question she didn't want to answer. Intently looking at the cookie she fidgeted with as if it had some solution. Unhappily she answered.
“Nobody wants to adopt a barely eighteen year old girl. They think that just because of a number that I wouldn't want to have parents of my own. I try to be a good girl. I really do. I'm super cute too. But the adoption agency said no one wants to adopt girls after they get too old. If I didn't get adopted this time, I never would.” She didn't want to look up and see the woman's face since she already knew what was coming. Even the silent Tamayuki looked deeply upset on her behalf.
“I'll be honest with you. The moment your daddy saw your picture he knew you were his girl. When he makes his mind up on something, it would be easier to pick up and move an ocean than to have him decide on something else. Trust me on this. Someday I'll tell you the story about how we met. Your daddy has a pretty strong stubborn streak.” Cheerfully their mother smiled.
“You mean I can stay?” The girl looked like she was nearly going to cry, eyes as big as the cookies she was snarfing.
Standing up and walking behind the girl, her mother gave he a warm hug.
“Of course you can dearheart. Your daddy and I wouldn't have it any other way.”
“Thank you.” The words were so soft that the woman almost didn’t hear them.
“However, there is one other question I do have...”
Suddenly Yuriko looked worried.
“Where is Naiomi?” Concern wrinkled their mother's forehead as she sat back down.
“Oh! I meant to tell you about that. The day before we left, Naiomi got a scholarship from her school to go to England with her drama club. The girl that had it got sick and suddenly couldn't go so it was given to Naiomi. She said she really wanted to meet you guys but then she started going off and talking about some old guy who wrote some stuff. He might be an actor too. I don't know because she didn't make any sense since it wasn't about sweets, video games, or anime. All I can remember is something like she wanted to eat a MacBeth burger with a ham omelet, and get some merchandise in Venice. She's supposed to be a really good student, but even I don't think Venice is in England. I dunno. Maybe it is.”
Sister Kyoya just shook her head and smirked.
“Do you know how long she is intended to be gone?”
Yuriko had to stop and think.
“Three months? Six months? Something like that. I dunno, It’s an exchange student thingie. Something like that. I told her that she needs to make me more clothes when she gets back. She should have plenty of time since she won't be making all those costumes for the other kids in the orphanage.”
“Why would she make costumes?” More than a little surprised, Sister Kyoya was curious to know the answer.
“Oh, because she was always making us do plays and stuff.” Happily she went back to eating more cookies.
Suddenly loud running footsteps interrupted the conversation as Rainie thundered up the stairs near the kitchen, clenching something blue in her hands.
“Yuriko! They have Pokémon!” Exuberantly she waved the DS in front of the older girl's shocked face. Yuriko’s eyes grew wide as if the heavens had just opened up on her.
“Video games? Do they have more? Show me where they are!!” Abandoning the conversation as if it were a hat on fire, Yuriko popped out of her chair so the young girl could lead the way. Of course not without a cookie in each hand. Completely infatuated with the prospect of indulging in video games, the girls left Tamayuki without a second thought. Two pairs of footsteps loudly made their way down into the basement.
An unmistakable squeal of delight from Yuriko carried through the house as she discovered the shelf of console games.
Ever so shyly the small boy looked at the woman sitting across the table, his deep blue eyes slowly growing larger after his sisters bailed on him. It was apparent that he was going to be expected to say something. Frozen with the impending doom, he pinched his lips together as if they were glued shut. Watching as his new mother sighed over her shoulder, slightly shaking her head at the rambunctious girls.
Tamayuki tried to slide down in the chair, hoping to blend in like a chameleon.
“Are you very hungry Tama?” She looked at the cookie that still sat on his napkin with only a couple of bites missing. The glass of milk however sat completely empty.
Slowly he nodded his head in agreement while staying supremely quiet.
“Do you like sweets?”
He shook his head negatively.
“What kind of things do you like to eat?”
The boy chewed on his lower lip as his eyes looked at anything that wasn't the person who was trying to talk to him. There was a hope if he didn't say something for long enough that the question would go away or that his companions would come back and save him.
It didn't happen.
The longer the question loomed the more awkward he became. Finally his lips opened up and a tiny mumbled sound came out.
“What was that?” his mommy replied sweetly.
“Ah, so you like rice? Do you have a favorite way to eat it?”
The boy nodded. She could see the herculean effort he was achieving to talk as the words had to force themselves out.
“Onigiri... with... little nori faces.”
“I might know a thing or two about making those.” she winked at the boy as his amazement became obvious. “How about we get the rice cooking then figure out what else to eat. It’s getting close to lunch anyway. You are 12 years old aren't you Tama?”
“Yeah. But I'm just short and little.” Timidly he got out of the chair and followed the woman, still keeping his distance. His feet would only take him as far as the end of the island in the center of the kitchen where he silently stood. Sister Kyoya pulled out a pan, rice, and a strainer, efficiently rinsing the grains before setting it to begin cooking.
“Little but adorable. If you ask me, that's the best kind.” Gently his mother smiled at him. Bashfully he blushed as he looked down at his toes. Out of the corner of her eye, Sister Kyoya could see his delighted smile.
Intently the small boy watched his mother as she hurried about the kitchen preparing lunch.
Checking once more that everything was ready, the woman asked her little boy to help set the table. Carefully he placed the dishes of food on the table that he was handed, stopping and smelling each one before placing it down. His tummy growled very softly.
“I think that should do it for now. The bigger challenge is getting everyone away from the video games and upstairs to eat.” The woman chuckled. Regretfully Tama pulled his hungry stare from the table of food. Wordlessly he followed behind as they headed towards the ruckus in the basement rec room. A cacophony of noise from the trio of gamers overwhelmed the sound of footsteps down the stairs.
“Alright everyone, time to eat lunch.” Sister Kyoya announced.
“Hey! Who hit me with that turtle shell? I was winning!” Rainie complained over the injustice.
“You snooze, you lose!” A wide smile spread across Yuriko's face.
A fierce battle of Mario Kart was clearly underway as the widescreen TV mesmerized the drivers.
“Ha! I did it!” Raven cheered as the two girls moaned in defeat. He was obviously enjoying the challenge as much as his daughters were.
“Lunch anyone? I'd like to eat before it gets cold.”
“Not yet Mama. We still have one more course in the tournament.” Yuriko’s red curls bounced as she waggled her head.
“Just try and beat me this time!!” Raven laughed triumphantly before the race had even started.
“Why do you always get the big porky guy? You should play the big gorilla!”
Raven took a moment to look at Rainie, his face starkly serious.
“Nope. You could never pull off being Wario. Your mustache isn't big enough.” He didn't even crack a smile as he stroked his bushy mustache.
“Mustache? I'll show you a mustache! Just you wait!” It was clear that Rainie did not intend to lose, even if it wasn't a fight she could win.
“Ewww... Girls don't grow mustaches! Only stinky boys do. Girls are better anyway. Especially Princess Peach.” Popping the remaining bite of cookie into her mouth, Yuriko replied as if it was an obvious fact.
Raven arched an eyebrow.
“So I'm stinky?”
“You're not a boy, you're my Daddy. That's not the same thing. I think a daddy should have a mustache and glasses.” Yuriko had yet to pry her gaze away from the television.
“Really?” Raven grinned in amusement.
“Of course. Because that's what my Daddy looks like.” her opinion was stated in such a matter-of-fact manner that it was clear that she didn't assume it could be any other way.
“This turtle dinosaur guy looks like a Pokemon. I'm gonna play him so enough yacking! I'm here to race!” Energetically the young girl bounced her tush on the couch.
“We were waiting for you to pick your car slowpoke.” Yuriko stuck her tongue out at her little sister.
“If I’m a Slowpoke then you are a Muk!”
“Bah! Even those can’t compare the the majesty of the Magikarp!” Raven laughed.
“What?? Are you crazy? That thing is totally useless!” Rainie stood up and faced her father, ready to debate the merits of the usefulness of various Pokémon. Behind her, multiple sets of tires screeched into action as the last race started. Swiftly turning around the young girl protested.
“HEY! That’s not fair!” Frantically she mashed buttons to catch up.
The banter continued as the trio raced for bragging rights as they flailed with the Wiimotes. Good-natured teasing flew between the competitors as laughter filled the room.
Sister Kyoya leaned against the stair railing as she waited for the game to finish. Ever so gently she felt a small hand rest inside her own. Timidly the boy looked up at her, seeing the corner of her mouth turn up as she smiled. Even though she didn't move to look at him she gently squeezed his hand affectionately.
“Ahhh! I fell off the mushroom again! Stupid car!” Rainie was clearly disgusted at the injustice.
“Then don't use your mushroom boosts before you jump on them!” blurted Yuriko.
“Who threw the banana peel right in front of me?!?” the surprise attack had clearly caught Raven off-guard.
“Oopsie!” Yuriko's unapologetic giggle made it clear who the culprit was.
“Come on, come on!!” Madly Raven mashed the button on the Wiimote to launch his remaining arsenal.
“I win!!” The older girl clapped and cheered for herself as she snatched the victory away from her competitors.
“I was almost there too! Next time I won't let you off so easy!” the man obviously didn't want to admit defeat.
“I hate that track! It's worse than the one with all the lava!” Rainie kicked her heels against the couch.
“I think my prize should be two extra cookies.” Looking down, Yuriko seemed to be surprised that she had eaten all her treats.
“No more cookies. It’s time to eat lunch.” by her tone, the mother's word was final.