Playlist: “The Christmas Song” by the Raveonettes; “Holy Night” by Landon Tewers
Triggers: brief mentions of abuse
I used to hate winter.
I’d dread snow days like other kids would dread test days.
It didn’t matter that the Montgomerys would usually watch me—or hell, even Mason’s mom, or Reggie, if he wasn’t away for work. My dad would still always find a way to be pissed at me on those days, like it was my fault he had to pretend to give a shit about me and figure out what to do with me while he was at work.
It made it impossible to enjoy playing outside with my friends. How could I when I knew how my day would end? It wasn’t every time, sure, but it was often enough. It didn’t matter how well-behaved I was for whoever was watching me, my dad would still somehow find a way to convince me I was bad. Anything to give him reason to punish me and convince himself it was justified. Earned.
Punishments come few and far between these days, though. I’m older now, my dad’s weaker, and his moods are even more unpredictable than the weather. Words are his weapon of choice now, and the snow means shit to nothing when it comes to how he feels about me.
Maybe that’s why I can appreciate it now. The snow. There’s something… I don’t know, reassuring in the fact it doesn’t give a flying fuck about anything but itself. Poking my tongue out, I tip my head back and wait for a fat powdery flake to burst across my tongue. The sky is washed out of any color, growing darker with each passing minute as the sun disappears behind the horizon. In my periphery, I can just make out the shadow of the bridge peeking out above the treeline.
It’s a mile walk from my house to the Montgomerys and I spend most of it following along the faded, dashed yellow-line bisecting the winding back road that connects our streets. By the time I reach theirs, the yellow line has been completely buried by the snow. It’s the thick and wet kind, and it sloshes around my ratty chucks, seeping through the fabric and into my socks, making my toes feel achy and stiff.
Before me, the Montgomery house is lit up like something you’d see in a Hallmark movie, with icicle lights hanging from the gutters, and string-lights boxing in every window. The curtains are pulled away from the big picture window, so I can make out Ray setting the dining room table through the glass.
It looks warm inside—homey. So different from where I grew up, where we’ve never so much as had a Christmas tree.
Not that I ever really needed one or felt like I was missing out. I always had the Montgomerys for that.
My dad’s slurred words from when I was leaving rise to the surface.
“They only put up witcha 'cause-a me.”
Scowling at the memory, I shove it away. That kind of shit might have gotten to me when I was younger, but I know better now. Sure, there’s some truth to his drunken grumblings, but even if I had a good home life, I know I’d still be welcome here with open arms. I’m not sure of much, but I am certain of that.
Plus, in the grand scheme of all the shit he throws my way, essentially calling me a charity case might as well be a compliment. I smirk at the thought.
Fuck you, asshole.
One day I hope I have the balls to say it to his face.
Soon, I think with a nod as I jog up the steps leading me to the front door. Just a little over a year, then you’re free.
Within seconds of knocking, the door flies open to reveal Eva Montgomery. Her brown curly hair looks smoother than usual, coming down to her shoulders, and she’s wearing a red apron that matches her lipstick, with two gingerbreads holding hands embroidered on the front. She takes one look at me and slides her eyes shut, before stepping back and quickly ushering me inside. “I told Izzy to give you your presents early.”
“And like I told her,” I say, turning to face her once I’m inside, “that’s not tradition.”
Like this argument, I can’t help but think fondly.
I’m well aware I’ll have a pair of brand spankin’ new winter boots and a new coat tomorrow. It’s what the Montgomerys have given me almost every year since I was five, and my dad dropped me off for the night in nothing but an old jean jacket that was too small for me, and sneakers that had seen one too many mud puddles.
“You catching your death is not tradition,” Eva says firmly.
Fighting a grin, I let her drag me through the kitchen and to the laundry room. “But then what would I open on Christmas morning?”
She gestures impatiently for me to take off my sweatshirt as I toe off my wet shoes. “As if we wouldn’t save you something for the morning.” Also, true.
Her mouth tightens as my teeth start to chatter once I’m standing there in nothing but a thin white t-shirt and my ripped baggy jeans, pruned toes now bared to the air. The house is a sweltering relief compared to outside, rapidly bringing my frozen limbs back to life, and my feet tingle painfully as I bounce around, trying to hurry the process up.
An olive green chunky knit sweater is suddenly being shoved over my head. My shaggy black hair gets all tossed around, no doubt sticking up every which way from the static. Eva steps back, eyeing me up and down.
I spread my arms out and glance down at myself. The sleeves barely reach my wrists, but the body of it swamps me. Between that and my too-big jeans, I feel ridiculous. “You’re too skinny.”
Rolling my eyes, I try not to bristle. I know she doesn’t mean it—well, she probably means it a little bit, but whatever, I’m not that skinny. Not anymore. I’ve filled out some in the last year, ever since I started working as a grocer at Ray’s market.
This is just another thing we do—another piece of tradition—ever since she started knitting us all sweaters a couple years ago. I know it’s not personal or even rational, mostly. Last year, I was too short and Mason was too fat, apparently. He and Jeremy had to trade. And the year before that, Izzy somehow shrunk two inches.
“It’s perfect, Eva,” I tell her, giving her a genuine smile.
She tugs a Santa Hat over my head then cups one of my cheeks with a soft, warm hand. “Your dad?” I don’t miss the slight edge in her voice.
I shake my head, well-practiced at not breaking eye contact at this point as I lie, “Not feeling it. You know how the holidays are for him.”
Well, not a total lie.
The corners of her mouth briefly tighten. “You know you can always come here. Any time, day or night. If he’s—”
“We’re fine,” I say quickly. My voice comes out harsher than I meant for it and I wince, flicking my gaze down. “Sorry.”
She doesn’t immediately say anything but doesn’t let go of my face as she sweeps her concerned gaze over my features. It’s not the first time she’s made the offer, implying more than just a visit. I’m old enough now to know she’s not stupid, even if she’s got nothing more than a hunch to go on. She knows shit’s not right at home. She knows his drinking’s gotten a lot worse in recent years, ever since—
I slam a steel door on the thought, making sure to keep my composure intact. It’s better now, I tell myself fiercely. Everything is better now.
“He’s a shitty dad,” I reluctantly admit, knowing I have to give her something. Outright denying it would just make her more suspicious. “But it’s not like what you’re thinking. Promise.”
Liar, liar, pants on fire.
She narrows her eyes on me, so I give her a sly grin and quickly change the subject. “Are those gingerbread cookies I smell?”
She bats my hand away as I try to brush past her toward the counter where I eye the cooling racks.
“Not until after dinner,” she scolds me.
It’s like I’m a kid all over again, and it warms something in my chest.
Our earlier talk seemingly forgotten, she tells me, “Isobel’s upstairs with Mason. I told them to keep the door open, but you know how those two are.” She grimaces, tucking a lock of brown hair behind her ears in a move that’s scarily reminiscent of her daughter. Under her breath, she mumbles something about teenagers and not enough wine as she makes her way back toward the stove.
Giving her a small salute she doesn’t see, I back toward the living room. I spot a glass bowl filled to the brim with candy canes, so I grab a handful in passing. I quickly unwrap one and pop it in my mouth before stuffing the rest in my pocket to save for later
Upstairs, I pass Jeremy’s room first. The door’s wide open, so I spot him right away. He’s sitting cross-legged on the floor, back against the bed, sketch pads and comic books surrounding him. A bulky pair of white headphones hang around his neck, tangled with his shoulder-length, wavy blond hair, and I can make out the faint sounds of angry screaming coming through the speakers. So caught up in whatever he’s doing, he doesn’t seem to notice me. The next door is shut, and just beyond I can hear the muffled sound of music playing. Like an idiot, I don’t bother knocking, and just throw it open.
“Merry fuckin’—Jesus!” Slapping a hand across my eyes, I cough when I accidentally bump the candy cane with the heel of my hand, poking the back of my throat.
Izzy’s squeal breaks off into a stream of curses, as Mason growls something under his breath. “The Christmas Song” by the Raveonettes plays from the Bluetooth speakers, not quite loud enough to drown out the sound of a mattress creaking and the rustle of sheets.
The lights are off but the fairy lights and multi-colored Christmas lights strung about the room made sure that nothing was left to the imagination, much to my horror as the scene I just walked into burns a hole in my brain.
They’re both still on the bed when I finally chance a peek through my fingers, but at least they’re no longer horizontal or sucking each other’s faces, and Izzy’s solid black tank-top is no longer bunched above her bra.
A white bra, might I add. Something I should most definitely not know.
“You okay?” Mason murmurs.
I hear Izzy’s quiet, “Yeah.”
“I’m not,” I say loudly, yanking the candy cane out of my mouth with a shudder as I drop my hand to my side. “I’m scarred for life. Do you have bleach? Please tell me you have bleach.”
Mason ruffles his mop of ash brown hair as he scowls up at me. His green and black checkered flannel is all wrinkled, buttons undone to reveal an equally wrinkled gray Three Days Grace shirt. “Ever heard of knocking?”
I flip him off. “Ever heard of suck my dick?” Not waiting for a response, I kick the door shut behind me and turn toward Izzy’s dresser and open the top drawer. Grabbing the first pair of fuzzy socks I can find—hot pink with a white heart stitched at the ankle—I pop the candy cane back in my mouth so I can tug them on.
“Why don’t you just borrow a pair of J’s?” Mason asks in a distracted voice.
Straightening, I pull out the candy cane just long enough to say, “He doesn’t have the fuzzy ones.”
Izzy blows out a long-winded breath, and I turn around to find a scowl plastered to her face as she and Mason wrestle with a knot in her hair. It’s lighter, I realize. Like she’s gotten highlights or some shit in the two days since I last saw her, giving her normally dark brown hair a golden hue.
Making my way toward the bed, I tap Izzy’s jean-clad knee. “Scoot,” I mumble around the candy cane.
Giving up on her hair, she wiggles her butt around so she’s shoulder to shoulder with Mason against the wall. I slide right in next to her on her other side, mirroring their positions.
“Nice sweater,” Mason says dryly.
Tucking the candy cane inside my cheek so it hooks around my lip, I remove my Santa Hat and fit it over Izzy’s head instead. She shoots me an amused look through her dark lashes.
“Jealous?” I say, giving Mason a smirk.
His eyes flicker down to the girl between us as he says, “Nah, mine actually fits this year.” Then he turns those glacier blue eyes back on me and lifts an arm up as if to show off his biceps, wagging his brows.
Izzy snorts and I can’t help but chuckle. The guy’s got, like, ten pounds on me, max.
The song changes up to some acoustic song I never heard of. It’s still Christmassy, but this one is sad, but yet I… I like it. There’s this sort of nostalgic, homesick feeling to it, that makes me ache for something I can’t quite pinpoint.
“Eva lecture you?” Mason asks, pulling me out of my confusing thoughts.
I crunch down on my candy cane and throw an arm around Izzy, tucking her close against my chest. Mason only rolls his eyes, way past used to this. “Of course,” I tell him brightly once I’ve swallowed nearly half the candy cane. “It’s tradition.”
Another quiet chuckle. “Only you would call pissing people off tradition.”
“It’s cute,” Izzy cuts in.
I smush our cheeks together, ignoring her little yelp as I turn our heads to face Mason. “See? She thinks I’m cute.”
Izzy squirms. “Your skin is ice!” I only hold her tighter as she wails into a giggle, “Waylon!”
Mason’s mouth lifts into a smile as he shakes his head at us.
A pinch to my stomach has me retreating and I pout down at my feisty best friend. “That was mean.” I toss what’s left of the candy cane in my mouth and munch down, making her cringe.
She blows a strand of brown hair out of her face as she snuggles back up to Mason, seeking his warmth. He doesn’t hesitate to wrap his arm around her, taking my place.
I narrow my eyes at them just as hers widen in comprehension a beat later.
Her voice peels off into another squeal and Mason grunts as I throw myself on them, wrapping my arms around them both. “But I’m cold! Have pity on me. It’s Christmas.”
Izzy’s cackling like a banshee as I start to tickle her ribs. Mason’s shoving at my face where I try to burrow it in his shoulder, but there’s no masking the laughter rumbling through his chest. Through it all, I can hear a guy singing about believing in something good, and I’m grinning so hard my cheeks hurt.
This. I slide my eyes shut. Right here.
How could I have ever doubted this?
I have a family. Mason and Izzy and me—all for one, and one for all.
You’re wrong, Dad. You’ve always been wrong.
We’re a mess of tangled limbs, errant elbows, and howling laughter when a knock on the door registers.
“Come in!” Izzy shouts breathlessly.
I turn my head just as Jeremy enters the room. His eyes—a warm, amber brown; the same shade as his twin sister’s—widen as they come to land on the bed.
His steps are hesitant as he approaches the center of the room, a small, wary grin teasing the corner of his mouth. He’s wearing a sweater similar to mine, but his is burgundy. It’s just as big and bulky on him as mine is on me, but his sleeves are a lot longer, reaching just above his fingertips.
“What are you doing?” he asks curiously.
I imagine how we look right now, the three of us, piled together on Izzy’s full-sized bed. All rosy cheeked and glassy-eyes; smiles so big as our lungs heave and crackle for air. A brief twinge of something teases the back of my mind, but I’m quick to shove it away.
There’s nothing going on here.
It’s not like it’s just Mason and me. That would be weird, and this… isn’t.
I’m pulled out of my ridiculous train of thought when movement under me draws my attention. Mason shifts out from under us, and before I even realize what he’s doing, he’s reaching forward and grabbing Jeremy by the wrist.
“Get in here, JJ.”
Izzy laughs as her brother stumbles forward and topples down on top of us with an oomph. Groaning when a bony elbow—his or his sister’s, I can’t tell—jabs me in the solar plexus, I roll away and onto my back, leaving my lower half still sandwiched between them.
Panting, I sit up on my elbows, and take in Jeremy’s red face as he glares down at a grinning Mason. His long blonde hair falls around his delicate features. Even scowling, there’s a… gentleness to him that makes you just want to hug him. Protect him.
He’s our age, but he’s always felt so much younger.
“Don’t call me that,” he grouses.
Izzy’s completely pinned beneath the three of us, so she can only tip her head back to look up at me.
“Comfy?” I ask.
She exhales into a breathtaking smile. Her cheeks are still flushed, and her amber eyes are glimmering with happiness. A strand of long, golden brown hair lays across her nose, so I brush it back with my fingers before adjusting the Santa hat on her head.
“You look happy,” she says quietly, just for my ears.
I glance over at Mason messing up Jeremy’s hair, a wide smile plastered across his face. He’s still pressed up along Izzy, and I don’t miss the way he strokes her collarbone with the thumb of his free hand.
A warm hand squeezes mine from somewhere under our dog pile.
I glance down at my best friend, the girl I’ve known since I was in diapers, and I tell her, “I am.”
And for once, it doesn’t feel like a lie.
Mason leaves when dinner is called.
Not that he’s not invited to stay, of course, but he has his own family traditions to get to.
From my spot at the kitchen island, I watch him sneak Izzy a goodbye kiss—or five—while her parents set the food out in the dining room.
I roll my eyes, biting into a cookie I swiped from the cooling rack.
It’d be… cute, I guess, if they weren’t so sickenly sweet all the time. I swear they’ve only gotten clingier with age. You’d think after nearly five years of dating—yep, you heard me right; they’ve been together, officially, since they were twelve—they’d be sick of each other by now.
Once they finally separate, Mason zips up his coat and tucks the presents he got under his arm—the navy blue sweater Eva managed to knit perfectly for his size, a Guitar Center gift card from Ray, a Captain America mug from Jeremy, and tickets to some band I’ve never heard of that Izzy’s taking him to next month.
I didn’t get him anything. We don’t do that sort of thing. Not that I could really afford anything else; getting presents for the others was enough of a fucking challenge, but at least this year I finally managed to get them all something.
Izzy joins me, ripping the half-eaten cookie from my hand to take a big bite of her own.
With a mouthful of cookie, she grins up at me.
In the corner of my eye, I see a distracted Jeremy head our way, brushing past Mason in the doorway. Jeremy’s got his Gameboy in his hands, so he hardly pays Mason a glance when the latter says, “Later, JJ.”
Jeremy doesn’t lift his gaze off the screen. “Night, Mase Face.”
Eva claps her hands from the other room, calling that it’s time to eat. She notices the cookie Izzy’s still nibbling on when we make our way into the dining room and gives her a gentle swat with the cloth napkin rolled in her hand. I laugh as Izzy tries and fails to put the blame on me.
Classical piano music plays from the speakers throughout the meal, but it’s replaced by Izzy and Eva on the baby grand once dinner’s cleaned up and we’ve all moved to the living room. Ray and I’ve got guitars, but we’re just fucking around at this point, having long given up after Eva and Izzy kept changing the song, trying to one-up each other on the piano.
Jeremy’s sitting on the floor by the fireplace, a comic book spread out on his lap. Occasionally he’ll bop his head or tap fingers to a song, but as usual, he seems content existing in his own world.
After a while, Eva and Ray retire to the couch, and I take the empty spot on the piano bench next to Izzy. Jeremy says goodnight and disappears upstairs while his sister and I bump elbows, laughing as we fight for control of the next song.
Finally, I give in and let her begin playing some piece I don’t recognize. It doesn’t take long before I figure it out, and join in, adding harmony where it feels right. In my periphery, I catch her tiny smile.
It’s not perfect—far from it—but it’s fun and easy in the way it always is when it’s just Izzy and me. Not that Mason adds any sort of drama. It’s just…different, reminding me of simpler times, when Izzy would practice and I’d get lost in a book. We’d go hours without talking sometimes. It wasn’t needed. It’s never needed with us.
Eventually we make our way upstairs after Eva makes a cheesy joke about getting to bed so Santa can deliver our presents. Izzy groans while I just laugh.
Despite how lax her parents are about giving Mason and Izzy privacy, they still insist we sleep in Jeremy’s room on the pull-out when we stay over.
“We’ve gotta draw the line somewhere,” her dad has said on multiple occasions.
It’s silly, really, since I’m more likely to get up to no good with Jeremy than—
I freeze at the top of the stairs, choking on my next breath as my brain misfires trying to block out that thought.
No. Nope. Not what I meant at all.
I just meant that Izzy is like a sister and it would absolutely never fucking happen. That’s all.
And Jeremy’s not like your brother?
Blinking, I shove that insidious voice away and glance up at Izzy where she’s paused just outside her room. My fingers ache and I only now realize I’m white-knuckling the banister.
Izzy eyes me with concern. “You okay?”
Mouth dry, all I can do is nod. Dropping my gaze, I flex some life back into my fingers. “I’m fine. Just worried I forgot your presents at home for a sec.”
A beat passes before she says, “Okay. Goodnight.” She doesn’t sound convinced, but at least she doesn’t push the subject.
I mumble back a, “Good night,” even though it’s all for show, and she knows it. Because not even a half-hour later, just as the old grandfather clock downstairs chimes at the midnight hour, and I hear Eva and Ray shut the door to their room, I hear movement from out in the dark hallway.
Above me, Jeremy groans, muttering under his breath.
Izzy tip-toes her way toward me, bumping my calf and nearly tripping over me. I bite down on my knuckles to stop from laughing.
"Shut up,” she hisses, without any heat.
Lifting the blanket, I wait for her to get settled next to me before letting it fall over us once more. I roll on my side so we’re facing each other.
“Hi,” she whispers.
“Hi,” I whisper right back, just like when we’d do this when we were kids.
Distantly, I hear music kick on, but it’s low and muffled, which tells me it’s Jeremy’s headphones. It’s dark but I can just make out the whites of Izzy’s eyes as she rolls them.
“You know,” I say, “one of these days, Mason’s going to find out about this.”
“About what?” I grin.
“Me being your dirty little mistress.”
She snickers. “The dirtiest.”
We turn our faces into the pillow to smother the sounds of our laughter.
It’s a long moment before either of us speak again. Outside Jeremy’s window, the snow continues to come down steadily. It looks brighter out than it should be—blinding almost as it casts the room in soft shades of gray.
“Yeah?” “I forgot to ask you before, but what happened with Millie? Mason told me you broke up.”
We’re on our backs now, staring at the ceiling, so she doesn’t see my frown as I shrug. “Just didn’t work out. You know how it goes.”
She hums, and I get the feeling there’s something she’s not saying.
“What?” I press.
“Doesn’t sound like nothing.”
She sighs, and I feel more than see as she rolls her head my way. “It’s just… I heard a rumor.”
“What kind of rumor?” I say warily, ignoring the way my pulse seems to jump in my throat.
A beat passes, and just when I think it really is as bad as it sounds, she says, “That you’re, well, kind of a dick.”
I choke and start coughing, so I have to roll my face back into the pillow. Tears burn my eyes as I try to get myself under control.
When I’ve mostly recovered, I turn my head to find Izzy watching me with her glittering, brown eyes. She doesn’t look upset, just curious in an amused sort of way.
"Who said that?”
She shrugs. “I heard a couple girls talking—Kasey, Erin, that crew—and they were saying how you… well, use them…” She cringes. “You know, and then you’re done with them.”
My eyes practically bug out at her.
“But… you don’t, right?” Her voice hitches slightly, and she’s quick to add, “Like it’s not intentional. You don’t set out to do that.”
Swallowing hard, I give her a slight nod. “Sounds like you already know the answer.”
Blowing out a breath, she flops back onto her back. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
Chuckling quietly, I flick her on the arm. “It’s cool. I get it, why they would… say that, I guess.” I frown, not sure I really like that fact, but I suppose it could be worse.
She cuts me a sideways look. “So you’ve had sex?”
I suck in my cheek, searching her face and wondering where this is going. “A couple times.”
Her chest rises and falls with a heavy breath. “I haven’t.”
She blinks hard and whips her head toward me.
“You’re an asshole.”
Laughing breathlessly, I roll my eyes. “I kid, I kid.”
“He wants to, though,” she admits once I’ve sobered. Her throat works with a swallow as she flicks her gaze down. “I don’t know if I’m ready yet.”
“If he pressures you, I’ll kick his ass.”
Her mouth twists up to the side. “He wouldn’t do that and you know it.”
I do, but that’s irrelevant. “And it’s my job as your very first, very best friend to threaten your boyfriends, no matter who they are.”
She’s full-on smiling now. “I love you.”
I roll my eyes and mumble, “I love you too,” which has her giggling into her fist.
The pipes creak as the heat kicks on. It’s an old farmhouse, so it’s noisy as shit in the colder months. I’ve always found it comforting here, whereas at my house, the creaking never fails to send my heart racing.
“Do you regret it?” Izzy asks after a moment.
“Not being in love with your first.”
I suck in a slow, shallow breath, then, “Who says I wasn’t?”
“Because I know you,” she says simply.
Throat tight, I nod. Fair enough.
“Have you ever been in love?”
I freeze. We’re sixteen, I want to tell her. What the hell do we know about love? But I know she’s sensitive about that sort of thing, so I swallow it down.
I cut her a glance in the corner of my eye and arch a brow. “Wouldn’t you know that?”
She rolls back onto her side so she’s facing me and searches my gaze. There’s something there I’ve never seen before. A weighty sort of wariness that sets me instantly on edge.
Eying me hesitantly, she says, “Maybe you were never in love, but I do know you weren’t always this closed off to people who weren’t me…”
My pulse slows as she leaves the thought hanging. My brain spins as I try to process what exactly she’s implying.
“That’s what the girls were saying,” she says quietly, not taking her eyes off mine. “That you’re cold and… and heartless.” Her jaw ticks like the thought pisses her off.
Eyes burning while my throat grows impossibly tight, I shake my head slowly, silently begging her to drop whatever this is.
Why? Why the fuck is she bringing this up now?
“But you did thaw once.”
Biting down on the inside of my cheek hard enough to taste blood, I work myself up to a firm, convincing denial. It shouldn’t be hard, not after all this time, not when I can go months at a time without thinking about it. Thinking about… him.
But when I open my mouth, nothing comes out. Just empty air where words I’ve always had at the ready just seem to disperse into nothing. Gone like they were never there. Gone like I didn’t once scream and sob them at my dad.
You were fucking ten years old! a voice full of disgust reminds me. There is literally no reason why I should feel like this—like I could vomit just at the thought of him.
Izzy pushes up onto her elbow, eyes widening in the thin darkness. “Way.”
It’s only then that I register the film of wetness blurring my vision, stinging my unblinking eyes. Because I can’t blink. I can’t blink, or it will all be over.
“It’s not what you think,” I manage, my voice rough like gravel.
And it isn’t. It really, really fucking isn’t.
Slowly she nods. “Okay. Okay, it was just something I was thinking about.”
I work my jaw, looking away before I demand why, or do something worse—like break. I roll onto my back, turning my head so it’s facing the window and away from her.
There’s a shuffle of movement, and then there’s a head fitting over my shoulder and an arm draping across my chest.
It’s a long while before anything more is said. At some point, the muffled music playing from the bed above us cuts out, and the sound of a low snore tells me Jeremy’s asleep. I doubt he heard what was said before, and even if he did, I doubt he’d be able to figure out what it meant. Not only was he homeschooled that year, but he’s always kept more to himself. Especially back then.
“Iz,” I murmur.
“You can’t tell Mason.” The words escape me before I can stop them.
Why the fuck would I say that?
She stiffens only the faintest bit, and just when I’m about to lose my freaking shit, I feel her chin move against my neck as she nods. “I promise.”
I squeeze my eyes shut until I see nothing but stars.
“Cradle to grave,” she whispers.
“Cradle to grave,” I breathe right back to her, turning to press my lips to her hair. I cover her arm with mine, holding her to me.
“Just a little over a year,” she says softly against my skin, her voice warbled like she’s right on the edge of sleep, “then we’ll be graduating and we’ll get out of this stupid backward town. We’ll be in New York City, playing music, eating ramen in a shoebox apartment…”
A sleepy smile lifts my cheeks as I blink heavily.
One more year…
“…be happy… love…” her voice fades into deep, even breaths, as sleep finally consumes her.
The song from earlier—the sad one—trickles through my head on repeat, filling the space her promises just occupied with vows of finding the good.
I will be good.
Tomorrow, this conversation will be forgotten. I will deny remembering it if she brings it up, and I will bury my own memory of it with everything else I’ve pushed away over the years.
I know it can’t last.
I know one day it will be too much to bear, and it will all come crashing down around me.
But I’ll be okay.
I’ll have Izzy and Mason and I’ll be okay.
My thoughts begin to grow sluggish, becoming more and more senseless as sleep drags me under. I find myself lingering in that weird space where my dreams have started to creep into my awareness, slipping through my walls like they’re nothing, and unveiling all the things I keep hidden during the day.
One more year, I promise myself.
The last thing I remember before it all turns to black is a flash of a smile and a hint of blue…
And in my head, a whisper, a glimpse of a memory—
Merry Christmas, Grumpy Bear.