"Come sit with me, don't be afraid..."
It was Jared whom heeded Grace's words first as he slumped down on the ancient living room, only to immediately groan in discomfort.
"It's so hard. And it smells funny..."
"You can blame Steve for that. He used to toke everywhere with no shame at all."
Michelle sat down beside her brother and found that he hadn't been exaggerating.
"It's a shame you don't look much like him at all. You're definitely Karen's son..."
Grace's expression brightened as she turned her attention towards Michelle.
"But you're another story. You have my eyes and everything."
"Really. It's like I'm looking back in time at myself..."
Michelle felt a swell of pride upon hearing those words and began to wonder why nobody else besides Karen ever appreciated her looks.
She then turned haughtily to Jared with the intention of criticising his inferior appearance, though an unexpected phone call put her on edge as Grace stood up to answer.
The old woman returned a few minutes with an unbelievably wide smile.
"Why didn't you two tell me that Steve sent you here? This is a wonderful day indeed."
"Um..." Michelle replied in confusion before pinching Jared hard to prevent him from spilling the truth.
Steve pulled to a stop outside the house just in time to collect them both before returning to the driver's seat and dropping all pretense of cordiality.
"You should be ashamed of yourselves, both of you. What made you think it was okay to stow away like that?! You're lucky it was Randy who found you and not some...some..."
He paused to catch his breath while clutching the steering wheel tight, upon which Michelle took the opportunity to speak her mind.
"Grandma says she misses you and wants another chance."
"Really. She said that?"
Steve sighed and slowed the car down a little.
"Well, she can take that idea and shove it up her backside. You're both grounded from now on."
"No buts! Karen was right to enrol you in after school activities."
Michelle clenched her fist and slammed it against the front seat with an anguished cry, while a whimper escaped Jared's lips.
The betrayed looks on their faces were enough to pull Steve out of his clouded judgement and see their efforts for what they really were. A sense of guilt overcame him as it became clear what he'd temporarily become.
"I'm sorry. Forget what I said, you were only trying to help..."
Jared began third grade later in the year and to his joy, learned that he was no longer the runt of the class.
The position had been inherited by a shy boy with messy blond hair and despite initial misgivings, he soon gave into herd mentality and also tormented the smaller child whenever possible.
A dramatic change became apparent in Michelle around the same time as she rejected the company of his friends in favor of pretty older girls such as Candice van Houten.
The secure feeling of sleeping near his sister each night sure enough turned into an intolerable nightmare as she became increasingly fond of pink and slowly adopted a prissy way of speaking that tore at his nerves.
It was in early January of the following year that he decided enough was enough and approached Karen to beg desperately for change.
She proved to be surprisingly understanding and supported his wishes by arranging a large yard sale so that he could move into what was once the makeshift store room.
"I hate this room. It's so ugly..." He grumbled in regret on his first night as soon as Karen was out of earshot. "Not even pink heart blankets are this hideous."