Chapter Thirty-One: The Center Cannot Hold
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Party girl Cate's dad uses her to flirt with potential investors, while her mom takes Christian fundamentalism to a whole new level. Cate's sleeping with Jack, whose nephew Jude is the black sheep of his family and who, in a desperate attempt to forget his feelings for his cousin Caroline, made out with her best friend Alison. Alison had previously rejected her golden boy stepbrother Xander.
"O render thanks to God above, the fountain of eternal love, whose mercy firm through ages past hath stood, and shall forever last." Ruth Sherman's loud, clear voice rang out through the house, as she encouraged her family to sing along with her.
The family in question exhibited varying degrees of enthusiasm. Nathaniel, age one, was trapped in Ruth's arms and thus couldn't get away, whether he liked it or not. Susie, age 10, was cheerfully singing along as though her birthday had come early. Susie's twin, Mercy, was singing along but secretly stuffing raw turkey into a hole she'd cut in the sofa cushion, for some nefarious prank she'd cooked up.
Cate had escaped. Normally she sat through her mother's drawn-out excuses to turn every possible occasion into a religious event very patiently, in her opinion, but today her big brother Mike was home from college, and she wasn't going to pass up a rare opportunity to hang out with him.
Now she ran breathlessly up the stairs and into Mike's usually vacant bedroom. "Did you bring it?" she asked.
Mike smirked. "In your honor, little sis… I proudly present half the contents of the liquor store on campus." He swung open his closet doors dramatically to reveal an impressive arrangement of vodka, gin, multiple six-packs, tequila, and God knew what else.
Cate grinned. "Nice work. I approve."
Her brother shrugged modestly. "Well, how else are we expected to get through yet another Sherman family holiday without jumping off the roof?"
"You were close last Christmas," she said. "Not gonna lie, I was worried about you." She gingerly stepped over the mess on the bedroom floor to sit on Mike's bed.
"Did we really have to act out the Nativity with such disturbing lifelike accuracy?" he asked. "I mean, making Nathaniel sleep in a literal manger was going too far. Way too far."
"Nothing is too far to show the Lord how much we love him," Cate replied in a sing-song voice, mocking their mother.
They both laughed.
"She really is a goddamn piece of work," Mike shook his head.
"I'll drink to that," said Cate. She held out her hand, and her brother rummaged through the upturned contents of his duffel bag on his floor.
"Voila!" exclaimed Mike. He presented her with an empty Nalgene bottle. When Cate eyed it dubiously, he told her, "Don't worry, I've only used it to sneak leftover jungle juice into class like three, maybe four times."
"Oh, that's reassuring," Cate laughed.
"Pick your poison….what'll it be?"
She leaned forward to peer over at the floor of Mike's closet. "Do you have any scotch?"
Her brother raised his eyebrows, impressed. "How old are you anyway? No, unfortunately I don't have any scotch. Not exactly a frat party staple."
Cate shrugged. "Tequila is fine, then."
"Tequila it is! The drink upon which this great nation is based. An all-American Thanksgiving tradition." As he poured her drink, Mike began recounting an absolute bullshit story of how the Pilgrims and the Native Americans had come together over tequila shots at the first Thanksgiving, and Cate was laughing even as she shook her head at his ridiculous behavior.
Finally Mike settled on his chair with his own drink, a rum and Coke. "So scotch, huh? Are high school kids really so precocious these days that they're taking you to fancy bars and ordering Laphroaig instead of doing the usual dinner date at Abernathys?"
Cate smirked. "Not exactly."
"Didn't think so." He stared at her through narrowed eyes, waiting for her to go on.
She sighed. "So greasy-haired children still going through puberty aren't my type, sue me. I've always been mature for my age."
Mike was frowning. "I can't argue that. You've always been smarter and more responsible than me, after all. But just remember this, Cate – if he's older than I am, he's too old for you."
Mike was 21. Cate rearranged her features into a blank gaze.
"Hell, even my age is too old for you. If any of my friends were dating a girl still in high school I'd bust their balls for it." A thought seemed to occur to Mike. "On that note, you're expressly forbidden from dating any of my friends," he said, pointing at Cate.
She grinned. "Duly noted."
Clearly, he had no idea that their father, Brian, had been using Cate to butter up with potential investors for the past couple years. Mike had already been away at college. Cate was glad of her brother's blissful ignorance.
"Seriously, are you listening to me?" asked Mike. "Because if there's someone I gotta beat up, I'd like to know sooner rather than later. I'm only in town for a few days."
Cate rolled her eyes. "All right, settle down. You have nothing to worry about. I'm being a good girl."
He was eyeing her suspiciously, so Cate strategically chose that moment to challenge him to a tequila drink-off. Mike could never say no to a drinking contest.
Cate told herself that what Mike didn't know wouldn't hurt him. She was protecting him, really. The thought of her well-meaning but too-eager brother going to beat up Jack made her stomach twist into knots. Jack was an Arlington. Mike wouldn't know what he was getting himself into. Cate certainly hadn't, all that time ago, when she'd first shared drinks with Jack at that hotel bar.
Who really knew what the Arlingtons were capable of?
It was a question Cate had started to ask herself. With all that money and all that power, they could do pretty much anything they damn well wanted. It meant that Cate had begun to think twice before she said anything especially provoking to Jack. It meant that she had to be careful, because with an Arlington you could never be sure if you had a powerful friend or a ruthless enemy.
The extended Arlington family was currently seated around the dining room table in Jude's house, so of course he was on edge. This particular dinner was worse than usual, because now he was surer than ever that Caroline hated him.
He had suspected it for years, been quite sure of it after he found out she'd gotten him expelled, and now after he'd fucked up completely and kissed her best friend, Jude knew beyond a doubt.
When he was supposed to be acting like a good cousin and helping organize Caroline's surprise birthday party, Jude had acted instead like the fuck-up he was and made out with Alison. Caroline's horrified reaction had served as proof of her low opinion of Jude. Of course she wouldn't want him anywhere near her best friend, who in all fairness did deserve better. Then Jude had, as per usual, made matters infinitely worse for himself by getting piss-drunk on Monday night so that Caroline had to drive him home. His memories of that night were hazy – he remembered getting in a bar fight and Caroline pouring cold water over his head. He also remembered a dream he'd had later that night that involved Caroline in his arms in his bed, a remarkably vivid dream that was the only bright spot in an otherwise shit week.
Thank fucking God that the Arlington family subscribed to European drinking ages, which meant that the kids (the older ones, anyway) could help themselves to the wine and champagne just as their parents and grandparents could. Jude now took a large gulp of the red wine his stepmother Anna had served with dinner.
"It feels strange without the van Voorens here to join us for Thanksgiving this year," said Jude's aunt Jessica. "I wonder what they're doing instead." She looked down the table at Caroline, who shrugged.
The reminder that Caroline was no longer dating the moronic Anders van Vooren put a smile on Jude's face, despite everything. He grinned suddenly across the table at his little sister Lyddie, who wrinkled her nose in confusion at his uncharacteristic happiness.
The conversation turned to the upcoming Christmas show at Lyddie and Teddy's school, and Jude almost instantly tuned out, as there were few topics that could interest him less. He preoccupied himself with seeing how much turkey he could fit into his mouth at once. He also tried not to sneak too many looks at Caroline. As usual, she looked radiant.
Jude's mouth was particularly full of turkey when he felt everyone looking at him. He tuned back into the conversation.
"Jude," his father was saying. "Would you sit up straight and act like a man for once? The disrespect you're showing your grandparents is unbelievable."
Jude rolled his eyes and maintained his slouch.
"Anyone would think you were a classless nobody, born into some blue-collar family with no standards and no manners. I suppose after dinner you'd like to watch reality television and drink Miller Lites." The sardonic disdain dripped from Ted's voice.
Jude clenched his fists under the table. "Wow, would you look at that. Great display of anthropological knowledge there. What, have you been studying poor people lately so you can impress us with your knowledge of their habits?"
Ted sighed and shook his head in disappointment.
"I mean, Jesus, the way you say 'blue-collar' it's like you're talking about an entirely different species! You do realize that poor people are indeed human beings too? Just like us?" The supercilious expression on his father's face was pissing Jude off. He leaned forward in his chair. "Well, maybe not like you, I guess… I mean, when's the last time Ted Arlington did anything to indicate that he has something resembling a human heart? The entire reason for your being is money. You don't give a shit about anything else."
"Watch your language!" bellowed Ted.
"Jude," Anna tried in a soothing voice.
"Your elitism makes me sick," Jude spat at his father. "You didn't do anything to deserve all of your money except happening to be born into this family, which is a piece of rotten luck that all the rest of us here share."
"That's enough!" said Ted. "How dare you insult this family? This family has given you everything!"
"Nothing I want," Jude said.
"Please, let's not do this here," begged Anna, but they ignored her. Next to her, Jude's uncle Jack looked like he found the whole situation hilarious.
"I won't sit here and hear this kind of talk." It was Theodore, Jude's grandfather, jumping into the ring.
Jude groaned. Now he was caught in between his father and grandfather, both yelling at him from either end of the table.
"Everyone at this table has the colossal honor of bearing the Arlington name," continued Theodore severely. "It's a name that will open untold doors for you and that deserves the utmost respect. I worked for years to ensure our family's reputation and now there is no one who is a greater dishonor to this family than you, Jude."
Next to him, Jude's grandmother Lily was nodding her agreement.
"You know, I wasn't going to say anything so as not to ruin our Thanksgiving dinner, but Ted told me about your reckless driving charge," said Theodore. "I must tell you how disappointed I am in your utter buffoonery. Never has an Arlington acted in such a disgraceful manner, not even Jack." Here he threw in a scowl at his younger son for good measure.
From down the table, Jack snorted.
"And now you are eighteen years old," Theodore went on, looking at Jude once more. "We had all hoped that your flouting of authority and embarrassing misbehavior might die down as you got older, but I can see now that's not the case. I've said it before and I'll say it again, Ted would have done well to send you to military school years ago."
"You're right, Father," said Ted. "I really should have. Maybe that would have saved me from having an oldest son who I'm ashamed to acknowledge as my own." He shook his head. "There's no way now that he'll get into Wharton, even though I'm pulling every string imaginable. If any of you haven't seen his grades," he announced to the table at large, "I advise you not to look. It's really appalling. And that's nothing compared to his record. What university on Earth would want a delinquent like him on their campus?"
Theodore grimaced. "The first Arlington man not to go to Wharton in generations. It's a disgrace!"
Ted nodded. "And look at him just sitting there with that insolent expression on his face." Everyone stared at Jude. "He has no regard for the amount of pain and embarrassment he's caused us. Have you ever seen a more disrespectful, ungrateful, shameless troublemaker? I can only apologize on his behalf to the rest of you, that you have to be associated with the likes of him."
Everyone at the table turned to look at the source of the noise, which turned out to be Caroline, looking very surprised indeed at her own outburst.
Caroline's pale cheeks flushed with color, but she continued. "I for one am not embarrassed to be associated with him, and the rest of you shouldn't be either." She glanced down at her plate for a moment, then looked again at their grandfather and at Ted. "Jude's not a bad person – in fact, he's a better person than most. Better than me," she murmured. "And it's true that he's gotten into trouble but have you ever stopped to think that maybe not everything was his fault? You both talk about him as if he doesn't have any good qualities, when I could name a hundred of them right now. He's honest and loyal and funny and intelligent and passionate and –" Suddenly she broke off, looking shocked at herself. She blushed again and cleared her throat. "Anyway. There's no need to argue, that's all I meant, really. After all, it's Thanksgiving. We should be spending our time complimenting Aunt Anna on this delicious meal."
Anna smiled. "Thank you, Caroline." She looked around the table. "Now who would like some more wine?"
Miraculously, the conversation turned to less explosive topics. Jude kept a low profile for the rest of the meal. He wouldn't have been able to cause a scene even if he'd wanted to, for he couldn't stop staring in wonder at his always-unpredictable cousin. He'd been more surprised by Caroline's outburst than anyone. It hardly made any sense, considering her low opinion of him.
After dinner, the family dispersed throughout the house for drinks and more intimate conversations. Jude couldn't give a fuck about the rest of them; he wanted to talk only to one person. He had to say something to her, to thank her.
But Caroline glued herself to other family members for the rest of the evening. First she was playing dolls with Lyddie, then she was engrossed in conversation with Theodore, then she was ensconced between Belle and Lily on the sofa. It was completely impossible to get her alone, and by the end of the night Jude could only conclude that she'd done it on purpose – she didn't want to talk to him.
When her family left Jude's house, Caroline barely even said goodbye to him. Jude looked longingly out the window as their car pulled out of the driveway.
Once everyone had left, Ted laid into Jude for what felt like hours, but Jude hardly noticed. He hadn't felt quite so happy, or hopeful, in a long time.
Xander had successfully found ways to be out of the house all week in order to avoid Alison. He had never had so many "lacrosse practices" or "study groups" in his life. What's more, his mile time had never been better, as he had taken to going on very long runs at any time of day when Alison was likely to be home.
This strategy had been effective right up until Wednesday, when the Thompsetts had to fly to Virginia. They were traveling to spend Thanksgiving with Peter's cousins who lived outside of Richmond. Of course, being the day before Thanksgiving, the airport was packed, and a blizzard in Chicago meant that flights all over the country were being delayed or flat-out canceled. This chain of delayed flights had evidently carried over to the Thompsetts' flight to Richmond, which meant that the family of four had settled in for a long wait at the airport.
"I saw they have a Swarovski shop in the other terminal, sweetie," Stacy, Xander's stepmother, was saying now to her husband. She opened her big blue eyes wide and smiled sweetly at Peter. "Let's go look."
Peter laughed. "I see what this is, don't think I don't. Are you sure you didn't ask the airline to delay our flight just so you would have time to shop?"
Stacy giggled. "Oh, you silly. Come on, pretty please!" She tugged on Peter's arm and began pulling him away.
"Well, I seem to have no say in the matter," he grinned. He looked down at Xander and Alison, who were still seated in the leather chairs near the gate. "You two will stay here and watch our bags, right?"
Alison nodded before Xander could protest. With that, their parents disappeared into the enormous crowd, and Xander was stuck with four carry-ons, one protein smoothie, and the girl he was in love with, with no escape in sight.
Things had rarely been bleaker for Xander. He quickly put on his headphones to listen to music, but of course his phone died after only about ten minutes, and there were no outlets in sight. Xander shook his head. Could his life be any grimmer?
He took out his physics textbook to start getting ahead on reading the next chapter. It had been weighing down his backpack all day, so he figured he might as well actually put it to some use. But he soon realized that it would be impossible to study, because Alison was sitting next to him and staring at him with that utterly unnerving gaze of hers.
He made what he considered to be a valiant effort of reading three paragraphs before he slammed the book shut and turned to his stepsister. "Hello," he said.
Her eyebrows flew up in surprise. "Hi," she replied. She couldn't seem to believe he was finally acknowledging her. Now that her moment had come, Xander watched Alison search for something to say.
Xander held a hand up. "Listen, I'm not mad at you."
She blinked. Of all the things she'd been expecting him to say, it certainly hadn't been that. "What do you… How did you know –?"
"I know you, Alison. You've been worrying all week about what happened on Saturday night, and you're beating yourself up over hurting my and Caroline's feelings."
She gaped at him, then nodded. "Well…yes!"
"Because you're a good person," he went on. "Too good, really. We don't deserve you, any of us. And I know you can't help but worry, but I want you to know that I'm not mad at you. So that's one less thing you have to worry about." Xander stared hard at her, trying to make her see the truth. And it was the truth – well, of a sort. He wasn't angry with Alison because he truly believed that she hadn't meant to hurt anyone. Yes, her timing was fucking appalling, but it wasn't her fault that Xander had come on to her just days before she kissed Jude. "Do you understand?"
Alison stared just as hard back at him, her blue eyes searching his, trying to see if he was bullshitting her. After a minute, she sat back, seemingly satisfied with his candor. "Okay," she said. "But I'm still sorry," she went on. "I'm –" she held up a hand when Xander tried to interrupt her, "- please, just let me say this. I'm so sorry, Xander. I shouldn't have kissed him back, especially not there where you could see us. It was really dumb of me."
"It's not a big deal. Just forget it. And you have nothing to be sorry for, anyway."
She opened her mouth to continue, and Xander shook his head. "I'd really rather not talk about it anymore, okay?"
She hesitated, then nodded.
Xander sighed. He really would like to just stop the conversation there, but he knew he had to say this next part, even though it was going to kill him. "Just…just one more thing. About Jude – if you like him, you should go for it." He felt a sharp pain in his abdomen.
He was in acute physical pain, so acute that he struggled to get the next words out. "I want you to be happy. And if that means Jude Arlington for you…" Xander swallowed. "Just be careful."
No part of Xander agreed with what he was currently saying. He thought Jude was a terrible person, and he'd rather his stepsister date literally anyone else than Jude. He could think of no torture more excruciating than watching Jude with his tongue down her throat. But he couldn't say that to Alison. He couldn't tell her what to do, or what not to do.
"But Alison, I think it could end up hurting Caroline," he finished. "Do what you want, of course, but be careful what you do to her." And now he could be completely honest and not regret it for an instant. He wouldn't allow himself to let his jealousy override his respect for his stepsister's autonomy, but he would do what he could to protect the surprisingly vulnerable mean girl. He had promised Caroline that he would take care of her, and he aimed to keep that promise. "Jude isn't very nice to her, and I think it really upsets her."
"Of course!" exclaimed Alison. "I mean of course I would never date Jude! I never even want to talk to him again!" She leaned closer to Xander to drive home her point. "He wouldn't make me happy. And I would never want to hurt anyone, least of all Caroline. You know she's my best friend in the world. Both of you – I love both of you more than anyone," she said passionately. Then she seemed to realize what she'd said, and she flinched. "Well, I mean, I love you both, but not like that…" She quickly looked away, over at the crowded concourse.
Xander cursed himself internally for probably the thousandth time in the past two weeks. His confession to Alison had forever spoiled things between the two of them. He, too, turned around in silence.
The awkward chasm between the two of them persisted over the course of the holiday break. It persisted on the plane, in the car, and all the night spent at his cousins', Scott and Margaret's, house.
It wasn't until the family dinner on Thursday evening that the awkwardness between the stepsiblings was forgotten, because it was superseded by an even more uneasy situation.
Everyone was seated around the table in Peter's cousins' beautiful 19th-century home, all taking turns complimenting Margaret's cooking. Scott and Margaret were possibly the blandest people Xander had ever met, even if they were his cousins. They were middle-aged, childless, and both had jobs that Xander always forgot. They liked to talk about weather patterns and gardening, and they had a dog named Bogart who they both seemed to inexplicably hate.
"Really, Margaret, this might be the best sweet potato casserole I've ever had," Xander smiled over at her now.
Margaret grinned. "Oh, stop it. Oh, do you really mean it?"
Xander nodded emphatically. "I sure do. I might have to ask you to mail me up a serving every week."
His cousin laughed. "Oh, Xander, you sure do know how to flatter a lady." She turned to glance around the table to make sure everyone else was enjoying their food. "Stacy, why don't you eat more of the cranberry sauce?"
"Thank you, Margaret, it's all very tasty, but I guess I'm just not a cranberry sauce kind of girl," said Stacy, smiling.
Margaret frowned. "But you tried some. You don't like it? Is it too sweet? Too sour?"
Stacy shook her head. "No, no, it's fine, it's just…not for me."
"Hmm," Margaret said sadly. "Well, Robin always loved my cranberry sauce. She always asked for seconds and even thirds."
Peter made a strange noise and turned to glare at his cousin.
"Margaret," hissed her husband Scott.
It took her a moment, but then she realized what she had said. Her face colored. "Oh, um, sorry, Peter," she said. "I didn't mean to… And sorry, Stacy."
Peter looked upset and Stacy just looked uncomfortable.
Xander shifted in his seat. Robin was his mother, and no one ever spoke about her. Peter hadn't said her name in years. Robin was currently in a rehab facility in upstate New York, and she was not at all a part of Xander's life.
"Let me try the sauce again," Stacy said, in a voice that was too loud and too falsely cheerful. She spooned a big spoonful of the cranberry sauce into her mouth and clearly forced herself to get it down. "Mmm!"
But her attempt to smooth the moment over was unsuccessful. Now Peter was sitting with his arms crossed, glowering at Margaret, who for her part looked miserable.
Now even Alison seemed upset, but Xander knew her well enough to know that this was because she was worried everyone else's feelings. She kept sneaking concerned glances over at him.
Xander stared down and counted the stitches in the seasonal tablecloth. Normally he was the one to step in and defuse a tense situation and fix everything, but anything involving his mother had the unfortunate effect of reducing him to a little boy again. He didn't know what to do. He felt like he never would.
Notes: Everyone hates their family on Thanksgiving, right?
Next chapter: Caroline learns something surprising; Alison meets someone she shouldn't.