Audra knocked harder. “Trevor!” she called. “We need to leave in twenty minutes!”
Her brother opened his bedroom door as she was about to knock again. He was wearing pajamas and one eye was still partly closed. “What?” he said.
“Hurry up and get ready.”
His mouth fell slightly open with no words. He looked as though he didn’t even recognize Audra, let along have any idea what she was talking about.
She kind of wanted to scream at him. Most of the time, Trevor was a decent big brother, but getting him to wake up in the mornings was a notorious challenge. “Thanksgiving pies. January Café. A promise to your grandma,” she said. “Do any of those things mean anything to you?”
He still didn’t say anything but stumbled past her towards the bathroom, which she took as a good sign. Amazingly, he was actually dressed and ready to go fifteen minutes later. Though there was still a glassy look in his eyes that said no one should tell him anything important for about an hour. Audra might have worried about being safe with him behind the wheel if they were going more than a mile down a mostly deserted residential street.
Audra didn’t wait for her brother when they got there. She pulled her coat close as she dashed to the door. It was cold enough for snow, but the sky was clear so none was expected. Logan was already inside chatting with her grandfather at the back counter.
Grandpa Paul threw up his hands and said, “About time. Your grandma was about to send out a search party.”
“We’re two minutes late,” Audra said, bristling at the overreaction. “And it’s Trevor’s fault.”
“Where is he?” Logan asked.
Audra shrugged as Trevor appeared outside the front window only a few moments before he entered.
Grandma May popped out of the kitchen at the same time. “Look what the cat dragged in. My two favorite grandchildren.” She waved an arm for everyone to follow. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
Heat crept up Audra’s face as she walked past several staring customers and someone she had to work with snickering at the conversation across the room. Once they were all in the kitchen, the operation went pretty smoothly. They had made pies after school on Monday and Tuesday – some of which had already been picked up – and Wednesday’s instructions were familiar. Most of the talk involved giving or receiving those instructions. Not that they didn’t have fun working. Trevor was teased about his inability to tell ingredients apart so early. Logan dared Audra to eat the pumpkin pie batter raw when she mentioned how good it smelled. Then he threatened to make her. She laughed because the threat was empty. He’d only said it to get a rise out of Grandma May, whose first words to every new employee was a speech about never ever ever letting a big spoon near someone’s mouth.
She told Logan he was going home with only half a pie if he continued the joke. Then she pointedly changed the subject by asking for confirmation that Ryan would be home that evening. She smiled at the answer, gave the spoon back to Logan, and turned more serious eyes to Audra. “Your dad tells me you’re oddly secretive about your art these days. You are still at it, right?”
Audra tensed as a lot of eyes darted to her. Grandpa Paul even stopped what he was doing across the room.
“Of course,” she said.
Trevor was alert enough to comment that their mom had recently been complaining about smudges of paint in the sink. That should have been plenty of evidence, but people were still looking at Audra expectantly. She’d loved art as long as she could remember. The last year or so she’d been trying to settle on a favorite medium so she could concentrate on specific skills. Now that she’d found her niche, she supposed she had become quieter on the subject. She was hoping to reveal some new work as Christmas presents and didn’t want to give anything away.
“I don’t think I’ve heard you mention a project in some time either,” Logan said. A hint of concern flared in his eyes as the thought dawned on him. “What are you working on?”
Well, if Logan was going to ask, she had to say something. Especially if he was going to ask while looking slightly worried and more than slightly cute. She could talk about it without mentioning Christmas. It was still a month away. Surely no one else’s mind would go there. “I think I’ve decided to focus on oil painting. I wanted to practice some before I start showing people.”
“Oil painting?” Grandma May’s expression brightened with interest. “I look forward to seeing some. When you’re ready.”
“Hey, I know what I want for Christmas now,” Logan said. “Remember last week when Trevor thought he was about to get his Tichu, and I bombed his bomb with my more awesome bomb? You should paint that. Be sure to capture the demoralized look on his face and enough details to show that mine had three more cards.”
Trevor elbowed him. “That wasn’t funny.”
“It was,” Logan said, “and it would make a great picture.”
Audra listened to the guys as they dove into trash talk about the next game, which was likely the only reason Logan had brought it up. He wasn’t really suggesting she paint the scene. Audra latched on to the idea though. She was still thinking about it when they boxed up the last pie, still thinking about it when she helped her parents with Thanksgiving prep later in the day. After the big feast, when the guests had left and everyone in her immediate family was napping or thinking about napping, Audra closed herself in her room to try to paint what Logan had described.
She failed. Then she failed again. She loved to paint landscapes and nature. She hadn’t tried people before, and they were terrible. She thought she could objectively say her landscapes were at least okay. But her people… she could objectively say they were terrible. Trevor didn’t look like Trevor and Logan didn’t look like Logan. They both had sad, droopy eyes that were not realistic. She spent a very frustrating week failing to benefit from tips and advice she gleaned from various sources before she gave up. If she wasted any more time, she wouldn’t be able to finish the other presents she had in mind.
Two days before Christmas, she had paintings wrapped for several relatives. They’d turned out well. But she was still disappointed that she hadn’t been able to recreate the image Logan suggested. He’d asked how her painting was coming once or twice – it was twice – since Thanksgiving. She told him she was making Christmas presents. He’d asked discreetly, almost as though he guessed her plan, and hadn’t shown any expectation of getting one. She’d never given him a Christmas present and he didn’t exchange gifts with her brothers either. She picked up a sketch she’d drawn to paint the Tichu moment from. The sketch was nice, but it hadn’t helped.
Logan was downstairs. His family was driving to visit his grandparents Christmas Eve, and they would stay the night. This would be the last time she saw him before Christmas. Ryan was calling her name. He was home from school, and the three guys needed a fourth for Tichu. If she didn’t answer soon, they would settle for asking her dad.
“I’m coming!” she called.
It would be silly to wrap a piece of paper and might build unwarranted anticipation. She ran down the stairs trying not to clutch it tightly enough to wrinkle it. She set it on the table next to Logan before she took the empty chair. “Merry Christmas,” she said.
“A piece of paper!” His eyes danced with exaggerated merriment. “Just what I’ve always wanted!”
She sighed and said, “Turn it over.”
He picked it up. “Wow.”
Both of her brothers leaned over to see as Logan studied it. Trevor sat back first. “That’s not funny.”
Ryan smiled as though he thought it was funny.
“It’s awesome,” Logan said. “I mean, I recognize these people, which is… I’m impressed. Thanks.” He returned it to the table face down so he could collect the cards that had been dealt while they were waiting for Audra.
She kept her eyes down as she picked up her own cards, trying to conceal her confusing emotions. She was disappointed that her sketch didn’t get a more animated reaction, but she hadn’t wanted anyone to make a big deal out of it. It seemed that Logan had forgotten he’d ever requested the picture, yet she would have felt horrible if he’d asked why it wasn’t painted. She tried to ignore the paper and focus on the game.
A few hands in, they paused so Ryan could get some snacks. Logan took advantage of the break to move the paper to the corner by his jacket. Audra noticed a small smile as he took one more peek and set it down carefully. She relaxed and smiled, too. Maybe someday she’d get enough practice to paint the real thing, but her simple drawing was enough for this Christmas.