Christmas at the Jones house is an event. One that requires planning, coordination, and a lot of teamwork. Megan and Stacey are staying with me. My oldest brother, Jacob, his wife, Sofia, and their two boys, Evan and Michael, are staying with my parents, along with my two youngest siblings. My father’s brother and his wife – Uncle Jim and Aunt Pat – are staying with Grandma Jones. They’ve crashed with her every Christmas since Grandpa passed away, in an effort to distract her away from his absence during what was his favorite time of the year.
My other grandparents, Evelyn and Tom O’Leary, decided to come up from Oklahoma this year, and are staying in their RV in my parents’ driveway. The way my mom has already been complaining about Grandma, they haven’t been keeping to it as much as she would like. “If she says, “Bless your heart” one more time!” my mother had threatened during our phone call this morning.
It’s only going to get more hectic as the day progresses, because our entire family descends upon my parents’ house every Christmas Eve and spends the night so we can wake up together on Christmas morning and open presents first thing. It’s tradition. And we can’t change a thing about it, even though it means that this year there will be fourteen adults, two quasi-adults, three rambunctious kids, four dogs, and not nearly enough bedrooms to go around. Most of us will spend the night camped out on the living room floor, which means we’ll be awake late into the evening, followed by a butt-crack-o-dawn wakeup by the kids.
When the holidays are over, I’m going to need to sleep for a week straight to make up for all the lost shuteye.
I should be at my parents’ already, immersed in the chaos. Instead, I’ve spent the whole morning locked in my room, panic-wrapping, because in the pre-holiday madness of preparing for houseguests, closing out all my open orders, 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 now. Mom asked them to be team players and stop at the store on the way over for her, because she ran 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 was unimpressed is an understatement. The thought of having to wade into the carnage of a grocery store on Christmas Eve 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 sacrificial lamb. Megan had looked only slightly less nauseous at that prospect, but beggars can’t be choosers.
She’d tried to get me to relent about taking the boys with them, but for once I stayed firm with her. They would slow my wrapping down to a snail’s pace. Fred has never encountered a piece of paper that didn’t need to be laid on, and Sam thinks running away from me with ribbon in his mouth is one of the best games ever invented. Sometimes I swear they’re part cat.
My phone chimes from beside me on the floor. It’s a text alert. I have to crane my head sideways to see it, because I’m in the middle of tying a rather complicated bow and if I let go now, I’ll have to start all over.
It’s 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 is mid-leap as he chases after them. As I’m looking at it, another text comes through from her.
Poor wittle floofywoogins wit his stumpy wittle legs.
What the hell?
I look closer at the picture, and when I realize what I’m seeing, I nearly fall over laughing. There, far behind the rest of the dogs, just barely visible over the top of the snow, is a pair of eyes, a forehead covered in caramel-colored fur, and two tall ears, the tips of which are white. It’s my parents’ corgi, Corgnelius. He looks like a little snow plow trailing after the others. Poor floofywoogins indeed. Then again, judging by the gleam in his beady little eyes, he’s having the time of his life.
Another text follows right after that one, and I’m half expecting to look back down and see more corgi pictures – Stacey is kind of obsessed with him – but it’s not from her. It’s from Stan.
My heart skips a beat.
Merry Christmas Eve. Jack is here. Just challenged him to another legendary round of double-dutch.
I grin so wide my cheek muscles pinch. As soon as I tie off the bow, I lean over and pick my phone up.
Merry Christmas Eve! Go easy on him. He’s old.
I’m telling him you said that.
I snort. 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 are tacked onto the end of the text.
Is he…is he flirting with me? Or is this just 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 convey!
I thank you, good sir, I text back, playing along.
My heart beats obnoxiously fast as I wait for his response. It’s been far too long since I’ve had a crush. I’m out of practice; I have no chill.
Nothing else comes through, not even the little bubble that indicates he’s typing. My fingers hover over the screen. I long to say more, but if this is where he wants to leave it, this is where it stops.
I wait another minute, then heave a sigh and set the phone down.
For the most part, I think I did okay yesterday. Well, aside from when I steamrolled that conversation with his parents, which I’m 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 just 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’d had to force my face away to tear my eyes from the sight of his flannel shirt pulling taunt across his wide chest as his shoulders and biceps bunched and flexed, but I’d managed to do it, damn it, and that should count for something.
My phone chimes. It’s Ben again.
Do you have a timeframe for stopping over tomorrow? I can have food ready if it’s around dinner.
This crush I’m working on is going to reach epic levels soon if he doesn’t start to show some serious character flaws. It’s just not fair that on top of being punch-you-in-the-eyes gorgeous, he’s also considerate, polite, passionate about what he does – which I saw firsthand during that house tour yesterday – has a good sense of humor, texts in full sentences, with proper punctuation and grammar (be still my nerdy heart), makes a mean cup of coffee, shares my taste in beer, and likes my dogs. And, weirdly, the fact that he got kind of pissed at his mom yesterday for her interference makes him even more attractive. It made him seem real, attainable. Just like the rest of us, this super famous, super handsome man still gets badgered by his over-protective parents.
I don’t have an exact time. Sorry! I text 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 send Stacey a quick, “He is SUCH an adorable little floof.”, then go back to wrapping presents.
Thirty minutes later, I have the truck warming up in the driveway as I brush the snow off of it. The good thing about nor’easters is that they tend to stick 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’s still coming down.
My hamstring twinges as I reach up to the roof of the cab with my snow brush. For some stupid reason, 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 am suffering for it today.
Once the truck is clear, I start loading up the presents, my mind wandering to Ben. I’m happy he’s hanging out with Jack. I’d never tell him this, but I agree with his mom. No one should spend the holidays alone. Unless they really, really want to. Because the radio, the television, storefronts, they just won’t let anyone forget that it’s supposed to be this magical time of year spent with loved ones. The overload is almost cruel to anyone not able to.
For all of Ben’s talk about needing to come out here to escape, he 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 reinforces my belief that he’s in need of human interaction.
Again, I put myself in his shoes. How would I balance my need for a social outlet with trying to work through a monumental pile of emotional baggage? I have absolutely no idea. My life has been a wonderland of bliss and serenity compared to Ben’s. My siblings are all still alive and healthy. My family is uncommonly tight knit. People don’t spew their ignorance and hatred all over me. I don’t get misjudged by strangers based on my size and affiliation with a violent sport. I don’t have to live my life under the microscope of the public eye.
It makes 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 squeak by over the poverty line didn’t force 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 five. 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 is a different kind of privilege – that of privacy, security, safety – I’m just now realizing I have, and I wish I had more time to sit here and sort through my feelings about it, and what I can do to be better, to help.
I’m not really the religious type, but as I buckle myself into the truck, I pause for a moment and say a prayer to whoever may be listening that Ben is able to take his time and find what he’s looking for up here, closure, maybe acceptance, whatever it is he needs. That he can find a healthy balance. That no one leaks where he is. And later, once he’s ready to go back to the real world, that he won’t be sidelined by brain injury. That he can lead whatever life he chooses to, and that he finds peace and happiness and fulfillment in it.
“Amen, or awomen, or aseveralbeings. Whichever it is,” I say when I’m done, glancing up at the bright blue sky.
I put the truck into drive and head toward my family. As soon as things die down, I’m going to sort through these feelings and find a way to help, because, like I said, prayer isn’t typically my thing. In my experience, actually standing up and doing something beats well-wishes and positive thoughts every day of the week. For starters, I can donate to the brain injury research non-profit that Ben and his parents set up in Zach’s name. Another thing I can do is protect Ben’s privacy and well-being with the sulfuric wrath of a mother dragon.
I clutch my steering wheel and curl my lip in a snarl. I am Ella, belcher of flame, safeguard of superstars. Woe be to those who pry.
My parents’ house is thirty minutes away, on the south side of the valley. The terrain is more hospitable where they live, with gently rolling hills covered in broadleaf forests, dotted here and there with farmland. Their house sits near the top of one of those hills, with expansive views of the surrounding countryside.
It’s a bucolic setting in the summer. Their front porch looks out upon a hundred-year-old apple orchard, a tree farm, and one of the northernmost vineyards in the country.
In the winter, it can be a bit stark because of the lack of conifers, the bare branches of the oaks, hornbeams, maple, and apple rendered skeletal against the background of a dreary gray sky. I’m thankful that the storm cleared and the sun is out today, because when I pull onto their road, I’m distracted from the bleak surroundings by the sight of the mountains that ring the rest of the valley.
I see movement in the front of the house when I get close, and soon make out shapes playing in the yard. The dogs are running riot, racing each other as they chase a frisbee that skitters across the hard crust of snow. Stacey stands nearby, filming their antics with her phone. In the middle of the yard, a snowman is beginning to come to life under the careful guidance of my nephews. Their progress appears somewhat hampered by Willow, who every now and then pops up from behind the stone fence to lob snowballs at them. Jane, who is helping the boys, is wearing an exasperated expression when I pull into the driveway.
The dogs immediately rush over to greet me, Corgnelius bringing up the rear. The cute aggression I feel whenever I look at him is as strong as ever, and I have to fight the urge to scoop him up and smoosh him. Stacey doesn’t seem to be as good at controlling herself. She bends over at the waist, just behind him, filming the way his little nub of a tail blurs back and forth in excitement.
“He is just the cutest,” she squeaks, clearly overwhelmed.
Dancer, my parents’ spaniel, drops the frisbee at my feet. I pick it up and whing it as far as I can, not wanting them all underfoot when I unload these presents. I can already see myself tripping over one of them and breaking something. They tear off after the neon-green disc, Stacey filming and giggling under her breath. She and Megan really need to get a new apartment. One that allows dogs.
“Auntie Ella!” Evan, Jacob’s youngest at just four, yells in his little boy voice as he comes flying around the truck. He looks just like his dad did at this age, only with skin a few shades lighter and a little less curl to his short-cropped locks.
I have just enough time to brace myself before he crashes into my legs, cushioned from the impact by his snowsuit, and wraps his arms around my waist in a vicelike grip. I give into The Squeezes and lean down to hug him back.
Evan is one of those children whose parents shouldn’t bring him out in public. He says please and thank you to everything. Yes, ma’ams, and no, sirs. Waves hello and goodbye to everyone. He asks the most innocent, adorable questions, all while looking up at you with large, inquisitive brown eyes. He is never annoying. He never throws fits.
I’ve warned his parents that couples probably meet him and think, “My God, what an adorable little boy. Isn’t he so well behaved? We should have one of our own!” And then they go off in their little bubble of hormonal bliss and make a Willow. I can still hear her on the other side of the truck, her laughter gaining a familiar, troublesome edge.
A second later, there’s a loud splat, followed by an ear-splitting roar of outrage from Jane.
Michael, Evan’s eight-year-old brother, comes hightailing it around the front of the truck and ducks down by the shelter of the wheel well, breathing heavy.
“How you doing, bud?” I ask, straightening as Evan releases me.
Michael’s eyes are wide. “She just threw a snowball filled with dog poop at Auntie Jane. She called it a poopsicle.”
I have to bite the inside of my cheek, hard, to keep from laughing. It’s not funny. Really, it isn’t.
Stacey makes a choking sound from nearby, telling me she’s fighting her own battle. I can’t look at her or I’ll lose it.
“You are in so much trouble, young lady,” Jane growls.
I hear stomping and chance a look through the windshield of the truck to see her marching up the front walk, Willow – who is still laughing uproariously – slung over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes. As I watch, Willow stretches out her small arms and starts pinching her mother’s butt. Hard.
“Ow, stop that,” Jane yelps, before the front door slams shut.
I look over at Stacey, and we both double over laughing.
“Oh my God. Her poor parents,” Stacey wheezes.
Between us and the boys, we get my truckload of presents safely inside.
I say a brief hello to Grandma Jones, who is in the living room helping Jane get Willow calmed down. Charlie is laid out on the couch nearby, sleeping through our niece’s tantrum in a way only military vets and college students could.
My parents’ house is large, to accommodate for our sprawling family, the downstairs even more open than my cabin. I can see clear to the kitchen. Dad and Jacob, both doctors, both wearing sweaters over button downs, both with thick-framed glasses perched on their noses, sit in the breakfast nook, deep in conversation. Though I can’t hear them, I can guess from the looks on their faces that they’re likely debating a recent article published by one of the many medical journals they both subscribe to. I make a mental note to talk to them about brain injuries later.
Sofia, Jacob’s wife, is full-blooded Italian, and every holiday season she transforms from clinical psychologist into master chef. She and Grandma Pritchard have already taken command of the kitchen. The center island is cleared and flour-dusted, and the two women chat and laugh together as they roll out dough for pie shells and bread.
I’m tempted to join them, but when I start to take my coat off, the look Jane gives me freezes me in my tracks. She clearly hasn’t forgotten the candy cane incident, and her death glare makes it obvious that she wants me nowhere near Willow while she’s mid-tantrum.
I zip my coat back up and beat a hasty retreat outside, where Stacey, Evan, Michael and I get down to the serious business of building snowmen. We keep at it until the sun starts to slant in the sky and my aunt and uncle arrive, their car leaden down with still more presents and baked goods.
Pat and Jim never had children of their own, and so they spoil us as only doting relatives can. Both are 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’re taking Charlie and Anabel to Norway for two weeks. The lucky little brats.
Pat turns to me once we’re 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 pause for a second in the middle of taking off my jacket. “Did you? Which month?”
“November. 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 shrug out of my coat and hang it up, thinking back. So this explains the early uptick in calendar sales. This happens to me every so often. I’ll have a huge spike in traffic for one line of products or another, and spend weeks trying to track down where it came from, all to no avail.
“Thank you for telling me,” I say. “I’ll have to add it to the ‘featured on’ section of the website.”
“You’re welcome, sweetie,” Pat says, giving me a quick kiss on the cheek. Her hazel eyes crinkle at the corners when she pulls away, her hand brushing back her cropped, graying locks.
For someone who never wanted children, she’s one of the most maternal, caring women I’ve ever met. It confounded many of the other women in my family for years, until it finally clicked that just because someone is good with children, it doesn’t mean they have to, or even should, have them. Pat didn’t want 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 pushes women into motherhood and guilts and harasses those who lack 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 this year?” Evan asks.
We both look down at him.
“I didn’t, honey,” she says, crouching down to his level. “Did you want to show me it?”
Evan nods, takes her hand in his much smaller one, and leads her away.
Argh. The cuteness is so strong with that child.
I look away just in time to see Charlie roll over on the couch and blink his eyes open. He’s growing his black hair out, and it’s shaggy enough now that he has some epic bedhead going on. In the summer, his skin tans to a deep brown, but now, in the dead of winter, it’s several shades lighter. The bags under his eyes are an uncomplimentary puce. I’ve never seen him with bags under his eyes, and the sight sets off all of my protective older sister instincts. Our gazes meet, and I weave my way over to him.
“Hi,” I say.
He squints up at me, half-blind without his glasses, which are folded on the end table near his head. “Hi,” he croaks.
“How were your finals?”
“Literally the worst.”
I grin. “You’re the one who chose molecular biology.”
“Mhm,” he murmurs, exhaustion trying to drag 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 out of time-out, races past us, squealing in delight, Michael hot on her heels, firing a nerf gun at her back. Sofia and both grandmas have the music going in the kitchen as they work. Dad and Jacob sit nearby, watching the news and arguing about foreign policy. It’s borderline cacophonic in here.
Charlie shakes his head, mussing his hair even more on the couch cushion, and snuggles back down. “No. This is nice.”
I look around us, at our loud, boisterous family. At our usual semi-organized chaos.
“Yeah, it really is,” I say.
I leave him to his nap and go in search of our missing members. I find Anabel in her room. It was painted lilac this time last year. Now it’s a deep, charcoal gray, almost black, with posters of her favorite rock bands plastering the walls. She’s dressed in all black, with her back to me in her computer chair. You would think that she’s deep into her teenage rebellious phase, that her moods are as dark and broody as her choice in clothing. You’d be dead wrong.
“Psst,” I say from the doorway.
She swivels around, sees me, and leaps out of her chair. “Oh, thank God you’re here.” Like myself at sixteen, she speaks at mach-speed. “What do you think this text message means? It’s from Tucker. That boy I was telling you about? The senior? On the soccer team? With the eyes? And the hair? The hair, Ella.”
I do my best not to chuckle. “Oh, yes. The hair. I remember the picture. Let’s see the text,” I say, holding out my hand. Not that I’m the authority on text messages. Clearly, I need as much help with them as she does. But she still sees me as her cooler older sister, and I’ll be damned if I do anything to spoil that prematurely.
She plops the phone in my palm, and I dutifully look at the screen. The text reads: We should hang out during break, with a smiley face emoji after it.
Oh, I so got this.
“I think he likes you,” I tell her.
“Really?” She makes a high-pitched noise that nearly pops my eardrums and starts bouncing up and down beside me.
I want to grab her by the shoulders and yell something stupid like, “Of course he does! What’s not to like?” She’s easily our prettiest family member, and this is a family filled with good-looking people, if I do say so myself. Several inches shorter than me, thin, but athletic thanks to her own soccer playing, with a curtain of dark hair that falls nearly to her waist, the kind of flawless skin that I would have killed for at her age, with a heart-shaped face and deep brown, hooded eyes. She’s also maintaining one of the highest GPAs in her class, is a star athlete, and has a circle of friends that includes jocks, punks, stoners, and outcasts, so, she’s, like, perfect? Okay, maybe there’s some sisterly bias in there, but if this Tucker kid rejects her…
I will find him.
Anabel stops bouncing and looks at me. “What happened? Your face just got weird.”
“Nothing,” I say, wiping all thoughts of murder from my expression. “You seen Mom?”
She rolls her eyes. “She’s probably out on her and dad’s balcony smoking pot with Meg, Dave, and Grandpa.”
So that explains where they are.
“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 says, looking at her phone. “I’ll be down in a bit.”
“Anabel, he likes you. Trust me. That’s a straightforward text from a teenage boy.”
She grins up at me, the joy on her face unmistakable.
This boy better deserve her.
I slip into the hallway before my expression gives away what I’ll do to him if he doesn’t. As Anabel predicted, I find the last four family members on the back porch, bundled up in heavy winter jackets, smoking dope. Grandpa imbibes because of his glaucoma, Dave for inspiration – he’s a staff writer for one of Maine’s larger newspapers, Megan because it calms her down, and Mom because it soothes her hippy soul.
“Hi, guys,” I say, trying not to breathe too deeply as I join them. It smells like Woodstock out here.
Grandpa holds a joint toward me. “Want a hit?”
I wave 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.”
My mom steps up next to me and slips an arm around my waist. She’s short enough that she can rest her head on my shoulder, and so she does. I kiss her on the top of it and wrap my arm around her upper back. Like Anabel, she wears her hair long and loose. The difference is that hers is a medium brown shot through with gray, and it cascades down to her elbows in a riot of coarse curls.
“Long week? Lots of orders?” she asks me.
Megan shoots me a sly look from beside the railing as she exhales a plume of smoke. “That and her new boyfriend.”
My newfound inner dragon rears her scaly head. I will incinerate her.
“Oh, yeah?” Dave asks, one brow arched in curiosity.
“Oh, no,” I tell them. No, no, no. The last thing I need is a journalist interested in the new guy in town. The best course of action is to keep completely quiet about this.
“Is he handsome?” my mother asks from beside me, her voice dreamy.
“Okay, I think that’s enough for Mom,” I say, 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 whines.
I shoot him a look, and he grins, unrepentant, and takes another hit.
I come from a family of smart-asses.
“Everyone calm your tits, I was just trying to get a rise out of her,” Megan says. “Her friend is hard up and she’s being her typical, I-must-rescue-all-things self.”
Thank you, Megan, I think, leading Mom inside. Even though that seemed slightly insulting there at the end.
“Yeah, but is he handsome?” my mother whispers up at me, booping the tip of my nose with her index finger.
She’s definitely cut off.
“Grandma really got to you, huh?” I ask her.
My mother straightens, her expression sobering. “Bless her heart,” she deadpans.
Copyright © 2018 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.