Christmas at the Jones house was an event. One that required planning, coordination, and a lot of teamwork. Megan and Stacey were staying with me. My oldest brother, Jacob, his wife, Sofia, and their two boys, Evan and Michael, were staying with my parents, along with my two youngest siblings. My father’s brother and his wife – Uncle Jim and Aunt Pat – were staying with Grandma Jones. They’d crashed with her every Christmas since Grandpa passed away, in an effort to distract her away from his absence during what had been his favorite time of the year.
My other grandparents, Evelyn and Tom Pritchard, had decided to come up from Oklahoma this year, and were staying in their RV in my parents’ driveway. The way my mom had complained about Grandma, they hadn’t been keeping to it as much as she would have liked.
“If she says, “Bless your heart” one more time!”my mother had threatened during our phone call this morning.
It was only going to get more hectic as the day progressed, because our entire family descended upon my parents’ house every Christmas Eve and spent the night so we could wake up together on Christmas morning and open presents first thing. It was tradition. And we couldn’t change a thing about it, even though it meant that this year there would be fourteen adults, two quasi-adults, three rambunctious kids, four dogs, and not nearly enough bedrooms to go around. Most of us would spend the night camped out on the living room floor, which meant we’d be awake late into the evening, followed by a butt-crack-o-dawn wakeup by the kids.
I was going to need to sleep for a week straight when the holidays were over to make up for all the lost shuteye.
I should be at my parents’ already, immersed in the chaos. Instead, I’d spent the morning locked in my room, panic-wrapping, because between preparing for houseguests, closing down my shop, and the mega-distraction of Ben Kakoa, I didn’t get it done in time.
Megan and Stacey left with the dogs well over an hour ago. Mom had asked them to be team players and stop at the store on the way over for her, because she’d run out of vegetable stock and carrots for their favorite vegan stew, as well as a few other items that she claimed Christmas would be ruined without.
To say that Megan had been unimpressed was an understatement. The thought of wading into the carnage of a grocery store on Christmas Eve had made her look physically ill. Thank God for Stacey, who told Megan that she’d be the one to run in and Megan could wait in the car. After all, someone needed to stay with the dogs while the other acted as a sacrificial lamb. Megan had looked only slightly less nauseous at that prospect, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.
She’d tried to get me to relent about taking the boys with them, but for once I’d stayed firm with her. They would slow my wrapping down to a snail’s pace. Fred had never encountered a piece of paper that didn’t need to be sat on and Sam thought running away from me with ribbon in his mouth was one of the best games ever invented. I swore they were part cat.
My phone chimed beside me on the floor with a text notification. I craned my head sideways to see it, because I was in the middle of tying a rather complicated bow and if I let it go now, I’d have to start all over.
It was a picture, sent by Stacey, of the familiar black and white blurs of Fred and Sam running through the snow. Behind them, my parents’ springer spaniel was mid-leap as he chased after them. As I was looking at it, another text came through from her.
Poor wittle floofywoogins wit his stumpy wittle legs.
What the hell?
I looked closer. There, far behind the rest of the dogs, just barely visible over the top of the snow, was a pair of eyes, a forehead covered in caramel-colored fur, and two tall ears, the tips of which were white. It was my parents’ corgi, Corgnelius. He looked like a little snow plow trailing after the others. Poor floofywoogins indeed. Then again, judging by the gleam in his beady little eyes, he was having the time of his life.
I shook my head and went back to work on the bow. Another text followed shortly after, and I half expected to see more corgi pictures – Stacey was kind of obsessed with him – but it wasn’t from her. It was from Stan.
My heart skipped a beat.
Merry Christmas Eve. Jack is here. Just challenged him to another legendary round of double-dutch.
I grinned so wide my cheek muscles pinched. I tied off the bow, leaned over, and picked my phone up. Merry Christmas Eve! Go easy on him. He’s old.
I’m telling him you said that.
Go right ahead.
You sure about that? He finished another batch of oatmeal stout and just gave me a six pack as a Christmas present. You think if I tell him you called him old, he’ll give me yours too?
I TAKE IT BACK. PLEASE DON’T.
You’re lucky. The holiday spirit has me feeling kind and benevolent this eve. Three winking emojis were tacked onto the end of the text.
Dear God. Was he flirting with me? Or was this the kind of run of the mill banter I would expect from him if I knew him better? Damn the lack of intent that text messages conveyed!
Thank you, good sir, I texted back, playing along.
My heart beat obnoxiously fast as I waited for his response. It had been far too long since I’d had a crush. I was out of practice. I had no chill.
Nothing else came through, not even the little bubble that indicated he was typing. My fingers hovered over the screen. I wanted to keep talking to him, but if this was where he wanted to leave it, this is where it stopped.
I waited another minute, then heaved a sigh and set the phone down.
For the most part, I thought I did okay yesterday. Well, aside from when I’d steamrolled that conversation with his parents, which I was still embarrassed about. After that, I did better. I caught myself when I got pushy. I let him make the call about hanging out again tomorrow night. I stuck to self-deprecation and making a fool out of myself, limiting my more advanced teasing to the Trelawney Incident. But, come on, who could blame me for that?
And I did my best not to stare at him. Even when he laughed. Even when he demonstrated the proper use of those battle ropes. Sure, I had to force my face away to tear my eyes from the sight of his flannel shirt pulling taut across his wide chest as his shoulders and biceps bunched and flexed, but I managed to do it, damn it, and that should count for something.
My phone chimed. It was Ben.
Do you have a timeframe for stopping over tomorrow? I can have food ready if it’s around dinner.
This crush I was working on was going to reach monstrous proportions if he didn’t start to show some serious character flaws. It just wasn’t fair that on top of being punch-you-in-the-eyes gorgeous, he was also considerate, polite, passionate about what he did – which I saw firsthand during that house tour yesterday – had a good sense of humor, texted in full sentences with proper punctuation and grammar (be still my nerdy heart), made a mean cup of coffee, shared my taste in beer, and liked my dogs.
Weirdly, the fact that he got kind of pissed at his mom yesterday for her interference made him even more attractive. It made him seem real, attainable. Just like the rest of us, this super famous, super handsome man still got badgered by his overprotective parents.
I don’t have an exact time. Sorry! I texted back. Do you want to try to plan for around 5?
No need to apologize. I know how hectic Christmas can be. Around 5 works. Any dietary restrictions I should know about?
Nope. I’ll text you tomorrow afternoon with a more accurate ETA.
Sounds good. Talk to you then.
Before I set my phone down, I sent Stacey a quick, “He is SUCH an adorable little floof.”, then went back to wrapping presents.
Thirty minutes later, I had the truck warming up in the driveway as I brushed the snow off of it. The good thing about nor’easters was that they stuck to the coast. We only got a few inches, whereas Megan and Stacey’s friends that remained in Boston said they had over a foot at the last count, and it was still coming down.
My hamstring twinged as I reached up to the roof of the cab with my snow brush. I’d decided to snowshoe alongside Megan and Stacey on their skis yesterday afternoon, thinking it would be easier to interact with the dogs. It had been, but in the process, I’d pushed myself too hard to keep up with the girls and was suffering for it today.
Once the truck was clear, I loaded up the presents. My mind went back to Ben as I climbed into the cab. It was good to know that Jack was with him. I’d never tell him this, but I agreed with his mom. No one should spend the holidays alone. Not unless they really wanted to. The radio, TV, storefronts, and just about every form of modern media wouldn’t let anyone forget that it was supposed to be this magical time of year spent with loved ones. The overload was almost cruel to anyone not able to.
For all Ben’s talk about needing to come out here to escape, he had seemed happy to have some company yesterday. The pride he took in showing off his hard work, the easy way he bantered and teased, it made him come off as such an outgoing, social person. So much like myself. It was a marked improvement over our first meeting, where I felt like I’d done all of the legwork. The fact that he invited me over tomorrow only reinforced my belief that he was in need of some positive human interaction.
Again, I put myself in his shoes. How would I balance my desire for a social outlet with trying to work through a monumental pile of emotional baggage? I had absolutely no idea. My life had been a wonderland of bliss and serenity compared to Ben’s. My siblings were all alive and healthy. My family was uncommonly tight knit. People didn’t spew their ignorance and hatred all over me. I didn’t get misjudged by strangers based on my size, ethnicity, or affiliation with a violent sport. I didn’t have to live my life under the microscope of the public eye.
It made me super aware of my privilege. Not that growing up as the only Caucasian child of well-off parents in a town whose inhabitants barely squeaked by over the poverty line hadn’t forced me to look my privilege in the face my entire life. We didn’t have to scrimp and save. I had a passport at the age of ten. My parents bought me my first car. I didn’t get called the names some of my siblings did. I didn’t get judged by the color of my skin. Or my sexuality. Here, in a predominantly white, heteronormative town in the middle of nowhere, I was seen as the status quo.
Still, this was a different kind of privilege – that of privacy, security, safety – I was just now realizing I had, and I wished I had more time to sit here and sort through my feelings about it, and what I could do to be better, to help.
I wasn’t really the religious type, but as I buckled myself into the truck, I paused for a moment and said a prayer to whoever may have been listening asking that Ben would be able to take his time and find what he was looking for up here. Closure, maybe acceptance, whatever it was that he needed. That he could find a healthy balance. That no one leaked where he was. And later, once he was ready to go back to the real world, that he wouldn’t be sidelined by TBI or CTE. That he would be free to lead whatever life he chose to, and that he found peace and happiness and fulfillment in it.
“Amen, or awomen, or aseveralbeings. Whichever it is,” I said when I was done, glancing up at the bright blue sky.
I put the truck into drive and headed toward my family. As soon as things died down, I was going to sort through these feelings and find a way to help, because, like I said, prayer wasn’t typically my thing. In my experience, actually standing up and doing something beat well-wishes and positive thoughts every day of the week. For starters, I could donate to the brain injury research non-profit that Ben and his parents had set up in Zach’s name. Another thing I could do was protect Ben’s privacy and well-being with the sulfuric wrath of a mother dragon.
I clutched my steering wheel and curled my lip in a snarl.
I am Ella, belcher of flame, safeguard of superstars. Woe be to those who pry.
My parents’ house was thirty minutes away, on the south side of the valley. The terrain was more hospitable where they lived, with gently rolling hills covered in broadleaf forests, dotted here and there with farmland. Their house sat on the eastern slope of one of those hills, with expansive views of the surrounding countryside.
It was a bucolic setting in the summer. Their front porch looked out upon a hundred-year-old apple orchard, a tree farm, and one of the northernmost vineyards in the country. My mother was an avid gardener. Her flower beds were extensive, and the smell of them in full bloom was something I still looked forward to every year. The sound of the breeze rustling through the nearby willow, paired with the buzzing of insects and cacophonous birdsong was the soundtrack of my youth.
In the colder months that all faded away. Without many coniferous trees to balance them out, the bare branches of the oaks, hornbeams, maples, and apples that surrounded their house were rendered skeletal against the background of dreary gray winter days. I was thankful that last night’s storm had cleared and the sun was out now. It gave me an unobstructed view of the nearby mountains, coated in white.
There was movement in front of the house as I drove up. The dogs raced after a frisbee. Stacey stood nearby, filming their antics with her phone. In the middle of the yard, a snowman came to life under the careful guidance of Jane and my nephews. Their progress appeared somewhat hampered by Willow, who lobbed snowballs at them from behind a nearby stone fence.
The dogs rushed over to greet me when I climbed out of the truck, Corgnelius bringing up the rear. The cute aggression I felt whenever I looked at him was as strong as ever, and I had to fight the urge to scoop him up and smoosh him. Stacey was likewise having difficulty controlling herself. She walked up right behind him, bent over at the waist as she recorded the way his little nub of a tail blurred back and forth in excitement.
“He is just the cutest,” she said.
Dancer, my parents’ springer spaniel, dropped the frisbee at my feet. I picked it up and chucked it as far as I could, not wanting them all underfoot when I unloaded presents. I could see myself tripping over one of them and breaking something.
They tore off after the neon-green disc. Stacey continued to film, giggling under her breath. She and Megan really needed to get a new apartment. One that allowed dogs.
“Auntie Ella!” Evan, Jacob’s youngest at just four, yelled in his little boy voice as he came flying around the truck. He looked a lot like photos of his dad from this age, only with skin a few shades lighter and a little less curl to his short-cropped locks.
I had just enough time to brace myself before he crashed into my legs and wrapped his arms around my waist in a vicelike grip.
I gave into The Squeezes and leaned down to hug him back. Evan was one of those children whose parents shouldn’t bring him out in public. He said please and thank you to everything. He had a habit of waving hello and goodbye to everyone. He asked the most innocent, adorable questions. Every now and then he would look at one of us and say, “You know what?” When we said “What?” back at him, he answered with “I love you.”
I’d warned Jacob and Sofia that couples probably met him and thought, “My God, what an adorable little boy. Isn’t he so well behaved? We should have one of our own!” And then they went off in their little bubble of hormonal bliss and made a Willow.
I could still hear her on the other side of the truck, her laughter gaining a familiar, troubling edge. A second later, there was a loud splat, followed by an ear-splitting roar of outrage.
Michael, Evan’s eight-year-old brother, hightailed it around the front of the truck and ducked down in the shelter of the wheel well, breathing heavy.
“How you doing, bud?” I asked, straightening as Evan released me.
Michael’s eyes were wide. “She just threw a snowball filled with dog poop at Auntie Jane.”
I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing. It wasn’t funny. Really, it wasn’t.
Stacey made a choking sound from nearby, fighting her own battle.
I couldn’t look at her or I’d lose it.
“You are in so much trouble, young lady!” Jane yelled.
I heard stomping and chanced a look through the windshield of the truck to see her marching up the front walk. Willow, laughing uproariously, was slung over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes. As I watched, she stretched out her small arms and started pinching her mother’s butt. Hard.
Jane yelped and almost dropped her. “Ow, stop that.”
They disappeared inside the house, and I finally looked over at Stacey. We doubled over laughing.
Between us and the boys, we got my truckload of presents safely unloaded. I said a brief hello to Grandma Jones, who was in the living room helping Jane calm Willow down. Charlie was laid out on the couch nearby, sleeping through our niece’s tantrum in a way that only combat vets and college students could.
My parents’ house was large, to accommodate for our sprawling family, the downstairs even more open than my cabin. I could see clear to the kitchen. Dad and Jacob, both doctors, both wearing sweaters over button down shirts, both with thick-framed glasses perched on their noses, sat in the breakfast nook, deep in conversation. I couldn’t hear them, but I could guess from the looks on their faces that they were either talking politics or debating a recent article published in one of the many medical journals they both subscribed to. I made a mental note to talk to them about brain injuries later.
Sofia, Jacob’s wife, was full-blooded Italian. Every holiday season she transformed from clinical psychologist into master chef. She and Grandma Pritchard had already taken command of the kitchen. The center island was dusted with flour, and the two women chatted and laughed together as they rolled out dough for pie shells and bread.
I was tempted to join them, but as I started to take my coat off, Jane gave me a look that froze me in my tracks. She clearly hadn’t forgotten the candy cane incident, and her death glare made it obvious that she hadn’t forgiven me for it either.
I zipped my coat back up and beat a hasty retreat outside, where Stacey, Evan, Michael and I got down to the serious business of building snowmen. We kept at it until the sun started to slant in the sky and my aunt and uncle arrived, their car leaden down with still more presents and baked goods.
Pat and Jim had never had children, and so they spoiled us as only doting relatives could. Both were now retired, Pat having been a lawyer, and Jim the owner of a small contracting firm. They did well during their careers. Our summers growing up were spent crawling over the ruins of ancient Greece, meandering up the Scottish coast, or, when we got older, hiking parts of the Pacific Trail alongside them. This summer vacation, they were taking Charlie and Anabel to Norway for two weeks. The lucky little brats.
Pat turned to me once we were all inside. “Ella, I meant to tell you the last time we talked that I saw one of your calendars in an article in Marie Clare.”
I paused for a second in the middle of taking off my jacket. “Do you remember what month they featured it in?”
“September. It was the calendar with the endangered species theme. They made a point to mention that a large portion of the proceeds go to the World Wildlife Fund.”
I shrugged out of my coat and hung it up, thinking back. This explained the early uptick in calendar sales. Every so often, I’d have a huge spike in online traffic for one line of products or another, and could spend weeks trying to track down where it came from, all to no avail.
“Thank you for telling me,” I said. “I’ll have to add it to the ‘featured in’ section of the website.”
“You’re welcome, sweetie,” Pat said, giving me a quick kiss on the cheek. Her hazel eyes crinkled at the corners when she pulled away.
For someone who had never wanted children, she was one of the most maternal, caring women I’d ever met. It had confounded many of the other women in my family for years, until it finally clicked that just because someone was good with children, it didn’t mean that they had to have some of their own.
Pat hadn’t wanted to sacrifice her career, or her love of travel, or her alone time, or her nightly glass of wine, and she never made any apologies for that. It was wonderful growing up with her as an aunt, because where so much of our society pushed women into motherhood and guilted and harassed those who lacked the desire to have children, here was this happy, successful, regret-free childless woman in my life to counter all of that gendered pressure and show me that I had options.
“Auntie Pat, did you see the decoration I made for the tree?” Evan asked her.
She crouched down to his level. “I didn’t, honey. Do you want to show me?”
Evan nodded, took her hand in his much smaller one, and led her away.
Ack. The cuteness was so strong with that child.
I looked away just in time to see Charlie roll over on the couch and blink his eyes open. He was growing his hair out, and it was shaggy enough that he had some serious bedhead going on. In the summer, his skin tanned to a deep brown, but now, in the dead of winter, it was several shades lighter. The bags under his eyes were an uncomplimentary puce. I’d never seen him with bags under his eyes, and the sight set off all of my protective older sister instincts. Our gazes met, and I weaved my way over to him.
“Hi,” I said.
He squinted up at me, half-blind without his glasses, which were folded on the end table near his head. “Hi,” he croaked.
“How were your finals?”
“Literally the worst.”
I grinned. “You’re the one who chose such a heavy course load.”
“Mhm,” he murmured, exhaustion dragging his eyelids back down. “No regrets. Just…so…tired.”
“You want to go upstairs and sleep in your bed? It’ll be quieter.”
Willow, now free from time-out, raced past us, squealing in delight. Michael was hot on her heels, firing a nerf gun at her back. Sofia and both grandmas had music going in the kitchen as they worked. Dad and Jacob sat nearby, watching the news and arguing about foreign policy. It was borderline raucous in here.
Charlie shook his head, mussing his hair even more on the couch cushion, and snuggled back down. “No. This is nice.”
I looked around us, at our loud, boisterous family. At our usual semi-organized chaos. “Yeah, it really is,” I said.
I left him to his nap and went in search of our missing family members. I found Anabel in her room. It had been painted lilac this time last year. Now it was a deep, charcoal gray, with posters of her favorite rock bands plastered on the walls. She was dressed in all black, with her back to me in her computer chair. By looking at her, you’d think that she was deep into her teenage rebellious phase, that her moods were as dark and broody as her choices in clothing and decor. You’d be dead wrong.
“Psst,” I said from the doorway.
She swiveled around, saw me, and leapt out of her chair, shoving a phone in my face. “Oh, thank God you’re here.” Much like myself at sixteen, she spoke at mach speed. “What do you think this text message means? It’s from Tucker. That boy I told you about? The senior? On the soccer team? With the eyes? And the hair?” She grabbed my arm. “The hair, Ella.”
I did my best to remain serious. “Oh, yes. The hair. I remember the picture. Let’s see the text,” I said, holding out my hand. Not that I was the authority on text messages. Clearly, I needed as much help with them as she did. But she still saw me as her cooler older sister, and I’d be damned if I did anything to spoil that.
She plopped the phone in my palm, and I dutifully looked at the screen. The text read: We should hang out during break, with a smiley face emoji after it.
Oh, I so had this.
“I think he likes you,” I told her.
“Really?” She made a high-pitched noise that nearly popped my eardrums.
I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and yell something stupid like, “Of course he does! What’s not to like?”
She was easily our most attractive family member, and this was a family filled with good-looking people. She was several inches shorter than me, thin, but athletic, with a curtain of dark hair that fell nearly to her waist, the kind of flawless skin I would have killed for at her age, and a heart-shaped face with a pert nose, a cupid’s bow mouth and deep brown, hooded eyes. She was also maintaining one of the highest GPAs in her class, was a star athlete, and had a circle of friends that included jocks, punks, stoners, and outcasts, so she was, like, perfect? Okay, maybe there was some sisterly bias in there, but if this Tucker kid rejected her…
I would find him.
Anabel stopped squeeing. “What happened? Your face just got weird.”
“Nothing,” I said, wiping all thoughts of murder from my expression. “You seen Mom?”
She rolled her eyes. “She’s probably out on her and Dad’s balcony smoking pot with Meg, Dave, and Grandpa.”
So that explained where they all were. “Thanks. I’m going to say hi and then help Sofia and the grandmas in the kitchen if you want to come down.”
“Sure,” she said, looking at her phone. “I’ll be there in a bit.”
“Anabel, he likes you. Trust me. That’s a pretty straightforward text from a teenage boy.”
She grinned at me.
This boy better deserve her.
I slipped into the hallway before my expression gave away what I’d do to him if he didn’t. As Anabel predicted, I found our last four family members on the back porch, bundled up in heavy winter jackets, smoking dope. Grandpa imbibed because of his glaucoma, Dave for inspiration – he was a staff writer for one of Maine’s larger newspapers, Megan because it calmed her down, and Mom because it soothed her hippy soul.
“Hi, guys,” I said, trying not to breathe too deeply as I joined them. It smelled like Woodstock out here.
Grandpa held a joint toward me. “Want a hit?” he asked in his drawling Okie accent.
I waved it away. “No thanks. There’s a beer or two downstairs with my name on them, and if I smoke, I’ll just pass out.”
Mom stepped next to me and slipped an arm around my waist. She was short enough that she could rest her head on my shoulder. I kissed her on the top of it and wrapped my arm around her upper back. Like Anabel, she wore her hair long and loose. The difference was that hers was a medium brown shot through with gray that cascaded down to her elbows in a riot of coarse curls.
“Long week? Lots of orders keeping you busy?” she asked me.
Megan shot me a sly look from beside the railing as she exhaled a plume of smoke. “That and her boyfriend, Stan.”
My newfound inner dragon reared her scaly head. I would incinerate her.
“Oh, yeah?” Dave asked.
“Oh, no,” I told him. No, no, no. The last thing I needed was a journalist interested in the new guy in town. The best course of action here was to keep completely quiet about this.
“Is he handsome?” Mom asked, her voice dreamy.
“Okay, I think that’s enough for Mom,” I said, turning her toward the door. “We still have to get through dinner.”
“But I want to hear about my soon-to-be-grandson-in-law,” Grandpa said.
I pointed at him. “Don’t you start.”
He grinned, unrepentant, and took the joint from Megan.
I came from a family of smart-asses.
“Everyone calm your tits, I was just trying to get a rise out of her,” Megan said. “Her friend is hard up and she’s being her typical, I-must-rescue-all-things self.”
Thank you, I thought, leading Mom inside. Though that seemed slightly insulting there at the end.
“Yeah, but is he handsome?” Mom asked, booping the tip of my nose with her index finger.
She was definitely cut off.
“Grandma really got to you, huh?” I asked her once we were safely inside.
Mom straightened, her expression sobering. “Bless her heart,” she said, deadpan.
Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.