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While You Were Pretending

Updated: Feb 18



© Rosalie Thorne


While You Were Pretending


This is my love letter to all of those involved in creating one of my favorite films

While You Were Sleeping. Inspired by the 1995 classic, written by Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric Lebow, directed by Jon Turteltaub, starring Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman, this story is a sort of sequel. Hope you enjoy it!


“When you fall in love, it’s temporary madness.”

- Louis de Bernieres


Okay, there are three things I remember about my childhood, I just don’t remember it being so important.


First, I would be with my parents, and my mom would get this far-off look and say: “Life doesn’t always turn out as you planned.” (I wished I realized she was talking about my life.)


But that wouldn’t stop the three of us from going on adventures. We’d pack up the van or buy train tickets, only a handful of times did we fly. All the while, my parents would tell me of all the great and exotic places they’d been over the years, instilling upon me a deep-seated wanderlust.

Some of my favorite memories, though, were when I had one-on-one time with my mom and she would tell me love stories of her and my father. The hopeless romantic in me would ask: “When did you really, truly know you were in love?” And she would answer, “When he gave me the world.” (At first just a Snowglobe, then their honeymoon gave her the first stamp in her passport.)


The last piece of the puzzle was my best friend, Peyton. Only a couple houses down in our Chicago suburb, we’d been best friends our whole lives. Practically siblings, I really have two sets of parents. Any memory worth keeping had her as my partner in crime.


Well… the first time I saw Her, she didn’t exactly give me the world. It was actually a Christmas cookie, even if it was two weeks until December 25th. I instantly looked forward to the rest of winter break. She had come into town to see her family, (Peyton and her mother), and every time I got to see her was just perfect. It wasn’t exactly a fairytale meeting, but this is how things didn’t go as planned.


Chapter One


“I love how this is supposed to be a family affair and we always get stuck decorating the whole tree by ourselves,” Peyton laughs.

On a tiny, wooden stepladder, I’m curled around her family’s tree, trying to finish stringing the last of the lights. “It’s a bit of tradition now, don’t you think?”

Knees sinking into the ancient carpet, she peels the plastic lid off a tub of random ornaments, and she shrugs, “I just thought this year might be different.”

After plugging in the last strand, I look at her before climbing down. “Why? Because we’re in college now?”

Though she wouldn’t admit it, she’s looking for a very particular ornament to put on the tree first, believing it would bring luck. Opening the second bin, she still can’t find it. “Well, yeah! We went off the college this year and we’re back for the holidays. Surely that would mean our time home is more valuable.”

I tousle her dirty blonde hair before sitting on the brand-new sofa. Missing the squish of the old one, it takes me a moment to get comfortable. “You’d hate if your family was up your ass, twenty-four-seven.”

But she laughs, her shoulders easing. “You’re not wrong.”

Sunshine is still streaming through the bay windows, even though we’re getting into the afternoon; a lucky day of blue skies and slightly warmer weather. The weeks’ worth of snow is mostly melted, but it’s still cold enough to enjoy a fire. It seems like we might have a white Christmas this year, after all.

“Still want to order Mister Wong’s?” I ask after looking at my watch.

Peyton still hasn’t found the ornament. “Uh, yeah, sure.”

Slowly scrolling through my contacts, I figure we’re going to order our usual. “Why don’t you pick a different ornament?”

Suddenly there’s a small gasp and I look down at her. She holds shattered pieces of ceramic in her palm, “Fuck.”

Examining the tragedy, I can tell it’s not super-glue-able. “Damn….”

In typical Peyton fashion, where showing emotions is a crime, she simply shakes her head. “Guess we’ll have to pick a new ornament after all,” but the way she says it sounds like it’s a curse on both our houses.


*


Misses Pullman, who I will never call Midge no matter how much she asks, leans against the counter while picking at leftover chow mein. Even though over the years, her blonde hair has turned white, her smile wrinkles have deepened, her clothes have filled out a little more, she is still the same second-mom she’s always been. Treating me like the son she’s never had, Peyton and I can tell she still hopes we’ll get together.

“One of these days you’ll be getting your own place and you’ll have to decorate it all on your own.”

Opening another can of Coke, Peyton shoots me a look, “Shouldn’t be too bad, we’re practically pros.”

I chuckle and crack open a fortune cookie. “Between here and my house, we’ve got ten years' worth of experience.”

Peyton slips into the chair across from me, “At least.”

Neither of us looks up when her step-brother asks, “Can I finished the Chinese food?”

Knowing well enough by now I’ve already wrapped my leftovers and have them sitting in front of me on the table. Peyton, knowing better than to argue with her mom around, replies, “All yours.”

Varsity football captain, Joey is a huge dude, hence all the eating. And he is one of the negatives of coming home for Christmas. We joke that he’s going to do something stupid on his eighteenth birthday and spend the rest of adulthood on probation, but that reality of that isn’t actually that funny. I try to be the voice of reason, having no siblings of my own, but Peyton doesn’t care.

Coming around to the table with whatever scraps he could get, he does an up-nod to me, “Hey, Luke.”

“Hey, Joey.”

“Didn’t realize you’d be coming home with Pey.”

“Same school, same winter break, was easy enough to catch the same train.”

Mouth full, he speaks anyway, “How is it? Are college girls really that awesome? I can’t wait until next year.”

I purposefully get preoccupied with memes, “Wouldn’t know, haven’t dated anyone.”

He snorts and shakes his head. “Tragic.”

But then I can’t stop myself, “My education is more important, Joey. I kept straight A’s this semester, that’s a four-point-oh. If I had gotten one B that would have dropped my GPA down and would have taken two semesters of straight A’s to get back. There are significantly more important things to worry about than parties and girls and whatever else stupid shit you’re so fascinated by.”

I lift from my chair and give an apologetic look to Misses Pullman. Peyton stands with me, both physically and metaphorically, “He’s right, Joey; you need to get your priorities straight.” She kisses her mom on the cheek, “I’ll be back in a few hours.”


Chapter Two


Standing in line at the AMC concessions, we still have plenty of time before we need to be in our assigned seats for the six o’clock showing of Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker. A tradition shared between Peyton and me, we’ve gotten to the opening day of all the Star Wars films since The Phantom Menace, from getting out of school on Friday to midnight showings, and now Thursday showings. It’s hard to believe this could be it for a long while.

“There’s still baby Yoda,” she comments, meaning The Mandalorian on Disney Plus.

“True, but,” I gesture around us, “next time we’ll be doing this is twenty-twenty-two with the next Fantastic Beasts.”

We finally get up to the counter, ordering our medium sodas, cheese sticks and chicken fingers, and sweets. As we carefully maneuver through the crowd and get down the stairs, “It’s just another childhood experience that’s getting harder and harder to make happen.”

She laughs and bumps my hip, “You’re so nostalgic, huh?”

Being born at the beginning of Gen Z, I feel closer to being a Millennial. Technically a nineties kid, I wish I’d been born just a few years earlier. The rapid change of technology in my developmental years leaves me yearning for simplicity and structure. Like most people my age – give or take a few years – there’s something utterly appealing about the years before The Age Of Information. A time without hand-held computers, a time without constant distractions, a time before social media… the world wasn’t so big and the world wasn’t so complicated.

“I’m a little bit hipster, you know that.”

She bursts laughing, “Ohh, I know. Believe me, I know. You have this whole literature-loving, soft boy, plant-dad thing going on, with a car that has roll-up windows yet an aux cord, and a massive CD collection for your Walkman.”

I hold the theater door open with my foot, “You love it.”

Though she shakes her head, she’s smiling. “Of course, I do.”

Dead center in the theater, we find our seats aligned under the projector. Our conversation quickly goes away from my aesthetic and into the leaked plot we’d read for the movie. I fully believe Disney did that on purpose, trying to gauge the public’s reaction, but Peyton doesn’t seem to think so. She totally thinks what we’re going to watch will be a surprise, while I’m having doubts.

Just before the movie’s about to start, the theater lights dimming, she leans into me, “Oh, by the way, Jackie’s coming for Christmas.”


*


Leaning back against the back cushion, I fold my arms tight across my chest. After two-plus hours of being in the dark, the too-bright Steak ‘N’ Shake is making me squint. “Why the Hell is she coming home this year?”

Peyton points an onion ring at me, “Not ‘home’. She made that choice to live with Dad when she was ten, that’s her home. I have no fucking idea why she wants to visit Mom this Christmas.”

I scratch at my brow, “I can’t even remember the last time she visited your mom at all. What… the Thanksgiving she was in eighth grade?”

She nods, “Yeah, because that next year she was a Freshman; high school was the final straw on the camel’s back….”

“Then why now?”

She digs a huge spoonful of shake. Taking her time with the whipped cream and cherry, she leans then back against the booth. “I don’t know. I really don’t. I wish I could say I don’t care, either, but you know how she makes me feel.”

Which is true. The word inadequate summing it all up. When her parents divorced, everything had gotten turned upside down. Not to say they had been rich, but they had been very comfortable for many years, and then Mister Gallagher left Midge for another woman, choosing another family over his own.

Jackie, who now very purposefully goes by her full name Jaqueline, followed her dad. In doing so, they avoided all the struggling and hardships Midge and Peyton had to go through. On top of that, any time Jackie had come to see her mom or messaged Peyton or posts anything on social media, it just oozes a better-than-thou attitude. Like she didn’t want to be associated with her original family, leaning into the life and style of her step-mom. Her hair always done just so, fake nails, perfect makeup, buying clothing from stores where a pair of jeans are roughly seventy dollars and a sweater is almost a hundred… she lacks authenticity, she lacks a personality.

I lean forward on the table, lowering my voice to comfort her, “Com’on Peyton, don’t let her get to you. You’re doing amazing! Your family is awesome, you’re kicking ass in school, and you’ve got me!”

She empties her Coca-Cola glass then gives me a hard nod. “That’s actually something I wanted to talk to you about?”

I cock a brow, “What?”

She taps her thumb on the table, then her fingers flex my direction. “You – me having you. I’m wondering if you’ll be my boyfriend while she’s here.” After she sees my change of expression, she throws her hands up and laughs “Fake boyfriend! Fake boyfriend until she leaves.”

My brows come together and my mouth opens. Unsure what to say, I close it. I tilt my head, looking around the busy restaurant, not sure what to make of such an odd request. How could that possibly help?

“She doesn’t have a boyfriend right now,” she tries to explain. “I guess she and her high school sweetheart finally broke up before the start of class this year. She says she’s loving single life on Facebook and Instagram, but she also posts on her Tumblr how hard it’s been and how much happier she is in a relationship.

“Now that I can prove my grades are comparable to hers and she’ll be able to see how great Mom and Eric are doing, I don’t know… it just seemed like the last perfect step to put her in her place.”

I look into her brown eyes, usually so soft and warm like hot cocoa. She can tell me every which way how this whole situation with her dad and Jackie messes her up, but I’ll never truly understand.

Jackie had proven she didn’t want to be a part of this family, my extended family. What harm could it do, anyway? “Okay… sure, I guess? As long as we don’t go overboard, it should be fine?”

She recognizes my hesitance, “I already talked it over with my mom. She didn’t exactly like it, but she says if that would make me feel better, so be it. So, my family will play along.”

I nod, already unable to believe I’m agreeing to this. “Right… and it’s just for Christmas.”

“Maybe New Year’s.”

“Maybe New Year’s.”


Chapter Three


Flames crackling in the fireplace, heat still on throughout the house, I actually have to open the living room windows. Mom laughs a little, pushing up the thick sleeves over her oversized sweater. “It is a bit toasty, huh?”

Dad walks in with one of his hand-crafted favorites, a wood tray, holding a pitcher of lemonade and extra glasses. “This should help.”

She kisses him on the cheek, then goes back to fanning out the silver tinsel in her hand. “How was the Pullman’s this afternoon? Is Peyton happy to be home?”

I reach into her hand for a few strands of silver, “Not as happy as I am.”

Which is true. We are one of those still-together parents and only-child families where we’re like The Three Musketeers, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. As much as I love school, and getting a scholarship to a university was phenomenal, I’m a little bummed I didn’t get to do the first two years at the local community college. And as much as I can’t wait to travel the world, I understand the value and sanctity of home.

Mom gives me a look from under her wispy black bangs. Having been an only child herself, having been family-less until she met Dad, she totally understands how powerful the sense of belonging can be. She used to tell me she fell in love with Dad’s family just as much as him.

Dad hands mom a glass of lemonade, then asks, “What’s going on with Peyton? Is Joey causing problems?”

I chuckle, “Always. But, actually… it’s Jackie.”

Mom hovers by the tree with a pallet of ornaments, “What does Jacqueline have to do with anything?”

Sitting on the bench in front of the bay window, I hold my sweating glass in my lap. “She’s coming to town, apparently.”

My parents look between themselves. Dad, like always, chooses not to comment in a gossiping manner. Mom, on the other hand, is slow and thoughtful before responding, “And how is Peyton feeling about this?”

“Not great. Sometimes it seems like all the work she’s done, all that time spent in therapy, hasn’t done shit.”

Mom sighs, “Well… all we can do is try and support her.”

I turn to look into the dark street, watching the falling snow glide through the air. “I know, I am.” Mary jumps into my lap and loudly purrs as soon as I start petting through her long fur. “It just seems like Peyton is going to use me as a buffer while Jackie’s around.”

“I know she’s your best friend,” Dad comments softly while decorating the higher parts of the tree. “But you can say ‘no’ to her.”

Mom reaches into the bin on the coffee table, pulling out the stain-glass star. “Holidays can be stressful… just make sure you’re not being too selfless.”

But then subject is dropped quickly. Continuing tradition, the three of us gather around the finished Christmas tree. Dad has turned off all the lights and Mom holds the tree light’s switch in her hand. There’s a “one, two, three” and our tree is lit! The soft yellow glow filling the room, bringing a calmness and serenity.

This time of year – this tradition is probably where my love of string lights comes from. When I couldn’t sleep, I would stealthily make my way downstairs to find the tree still lit. Sitting in the armchair, in the comforting glow, I would find that my busy mind would actually quiet. Whether it’s the ones strung around my room or the Edison Bulb in my glass lamp, I much rather live in the dim, golden illumination. It’s easier on my eyes, it’s easier on my mind, it resonates the winter vibe of pure hearts and quiet nights. Something seemingly so insignificant has become a fundamental part of who I am.


Chapter Four


“Dad put her up in a hotel, can you believe it? She’s not even staying here for Christmas! What, the pull-out couch in the den isn’t good enough?” Peyton is already steaming with everything to do with Jackie and she isn’t even here yet. “And it’s that fancy place down on Seventh. The pictures from her Instagram looks like she’s got a fucking suite. King bed, marble bathroom, her fancy fucking dresses hanging in the closet.” She gestures, twitching her wrist. “Whatever, it’s like her life has to be Insta-worthy or she’ll lose her mind.”

Having been listening to this rant all afternoon, I let out a Geralt Of Rivia type grunt.

Swaying back and forth on her computer chair, I just watch her aggressively make her bed. “So… why are you so worried about deep-cleaning your room, now, all of a sudden?”

She doesn’t look at me, fluffing her pillows instead. “I always do a Marie Kondo thing before the new year.”

I eye her bedroom carefully, even the pale grey walls looked scrubbed. The black bookcases and cubed shelves are thoroughly dusted and the rose and thorn tapestry that reads ‘I Can’t Be Good All The Time’ above her bed looks freshly laundered (as does her navy bedding). Her ebony wood side tables look waxed; and instead of being covered with junk, are organized in a minimal fashion with candles, fake succulents, her lamp on one, and her catch-all dish on the other. The matching ebony dressers don’t have peeked open drawers with wads of fabrics on the carpet, and I had to help Peyton do the ‘spark joy’ test with every single item of thrifted and hand-made clothing she has.

“Usually after Christmas, usually on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day,” driving my point.

She takes her Juul off the charger and hits it. Finally stopping with all the flighty movement, she sits on the edge of her bed. “So, I’m doing a little bit early, no big deal.”

“You’ve also changed your outfit three times already.”

She tugs at the hem of her black turtleneck, looking down at her dark skinny jeans. Her fingers then brush over the pendent of the silver necklace her dad had given her, (the same time he’d given Jackie an identical one in gold). “It’s a girl thing.”

This is not an untrue stereotype, but very unlike Peyton. Peyton was always able to make her second-hand clothes look like million bucks and carried herself with such confidence, no one questioned it. This is the first time in a long time I’ve seen her so nervous, and the first time that it’s not boy-related.

“She’s just coming over for dinner, it’s not a big deal.”

She stands up, eyes searching for something new to clean or rearrange. “Mom’s freaking out about that, too. She’s getting all the stuff to make fresh Caesar salad, spaghetti from scratch, picked up name-brand Texas Toast, and even got an apple pie from the bakery. I didn’t even get such a homecoming.”

I stand and bring my hands to her biceps. Getting her to look me in the eye, I coach her into breathing with me. Then, I softly explain, “That’s because you don’t need all that crap. You love your family for who they are, you love spending time with your mom – that’s enough for you. You could live off chow mein and pizza and be the happiest person alive.

“Sure, Jackie is your sister by blood, but she hasn’t been around in five years. She isn’t really a part of this family, really she’s a stranger. And you don’t care about stranger’s opinions, remember?”

She takes another deep breath with me then nods, “You’re right… you’re right.”


*


“Hey, Misses P!” I kiss her cheek. “Smells wonderful in here.”

“Oh, Luke! Thank you so much, dear. I’ve made sure to make lots so you can take some home to your folks.”

“That would be much appreciated, thanks.” I slip into a chair by the kitchen table, “Dad also said he should have that you-know-what done before Christmas and Mom wanted me to ask if there’s anything she needs to bring to the Christmas Eve party?”

After sliding the cookie sheet of Texas Toast in the oven, she straightens and looks over the counter to me. “Well, maybe some drinks? Peyton said she’s going to bake again this year, and Joey and Eric decided on ordering pizzas.”

Peyton had slid into the chair across from me and was now painting her nails matte emerald. “Pizza? For a Christmas party? What about for Christmas?”

Checking on the meatballs finishing in the sauce, Misses Pullman rolls her eyes. “We’re still having ham and all the fixin’s for Christmas dinner, don’t worry.”

“I just didn’t want anything to change ‘cause….”

Misses Pullman shoots her mom look at her daughter, “‘Cause what?”

I look at Peyton and pray she doesn’t start something when Jackie is supposed to be here in ten minutes. She notices my gaze, “‘Cause I went to college. I love our traditions, that’s all.”

Her mom is a smart woman, though, and asks “Peyton, would you please go set the table? Six total tonight.”

I get up to assist but then Misses Pullman catches my eye, “Actually, Luke, would you mind running home and grabbing your mom’s salad bowl?”

“Sure thing! I’ll be back in a few minutes.”


*

Coming through the back door into the kitchen, I slip my boots quickly off before giving the bowl to Misses Pullman. From the look of it, she’s already moved the toast to the dining table, and she already has all the other table settings on the counter for everyone to serve themselves. Now that she can quickly toss the salad, we’re just about ready for dinner.

I hear laughter and music coming from the living room but ask “Do you need any help?”

She waves me away, “Go have fun! It’ll be another ten minutes or so.”

Turning the corner into the entryway, I run into someone. Taking a step back, I comment, “Shit, I’m sorry.”

I see a mass of honey hair falling forward and delicate hands collecting a cookie tin off the floor. When she stands up, Jackie smiles, “Oh, gosh, it’s okay.” She holds the Christmas cookies in the air between us. “Want one?”

After I take one, her grey-blue eyes look up at me with a softness, a sincerity in her expression that I don’t recognize. “How’ve you been, Luke?”

“Well, thanks, and yourself?”

She slides on the wood floor with her socks, moving out of the walkway. “Well enough, I –”

But then Peyton pokes her head in, “Luke! Hey you, took you long enough.” She stands by me, wrapping her arm around my waist, “Let’s go grab our seats, yeah?”

But my eyes haven’t left Jackie’s face. Her clear, pale skin; her natural lips a soft pink; the way the thin gold chain of her necklace falls on her collar bones, and the pearl sits just above the center of her bosom. The light pink sweater she’s wearing hugs her perfectly and brings out the natural rosy-ness of her cheeks. And when she walks by us into the kitchen, I catch the wonderful floral, sweet, and slightly musky scent of her perfume.

This is not the same girl from when I was in seventh grade. This doesn’t even seem like the same girl Peyton and I have blindly hated for years.


Chapter Five


Everyone with warm apple pie and melting vanilla ice cream, we chat across the dining room table. Mister Pullman had asked Alexa to play some Christmas music, song after song whispering in the background. Peyton grabbed the chair to the right of me and keeps being moderately affectionate. That left Jackie to sit across from me, keeping me very distracted.

“So, Luke, are we going to need to make up the pull-out bed for you tonight?” Misses P asks while slicing the last bit of her pie with a fork.

“Oh, no, I have to help my dad tomorrow morning, we have a truck full of orders to deliver.”

She smiles, “A bunch of people getting ready for the holidays, I take it?”

With a nod, I confirm, “Seems like it.”

Jackie speaks up, “Your dad still does all the woodworking then?”

I look at her a little too quickly. “Yeah – yes. He still has that little storefront on Washington, but he’s mostly been taking custom orders.”

Peyton’s hand curls around mine that’s laying against the table. “I always get so proud when I get to show off Luke’s or his father’s work.”

Jackie’s grey eyes involuntarily flick to our clasped hands, then back to my face, “You still do it, too? I remember one of your very first projects – that jewelry box for your mom.”

Man, that was so many years ago. “I actually haven’t had the time, or the supplies, while at school. But I was thinking about doing something small over the next couple of weeks.”

“A Christmas gift?” Misses P asks.

“Or a Valentine’s Day gift,” Peyton leans into me.

I look at her and have to instantly change my expression from confused to endearing. “Maybe.”

“Your first Valentine’s Day together?” Jackie asks, leaning back into her chair.

I shake my head but Peyton is quick to answer, “Technically our first Valentine’s Day was when we were in first grade! You made that heart-shaped card for me and I gave you that Hershey’s bar.”

Suddenly uncomfortable, I push back from the table. Grabbing my plate, I grab Peyton’s empty one as well. “How about I go ahead and clean up, then?” and I offer an empty hand to Misses Pullman.

Joey’s up now, too, “I was just about to get seconds, I can take it.”

“Nah, it’s fine,” and I quickly exit the room with him.


*


My arms wrap around Peyton’s torso as she leans her head against my chest. “You really have to go now? It’s only nine o’clock.”

I give her one more squeeze then back up towards her bedroom door. “Yeahhh, I do. Dad wants to head out around eight.”

She falls onto her bed, “Fine, fine.”

“I’ll send you baby Yoda memes.”

She laughs, “Good!”

“Good night, Peyton,” and I close her bedroom door behind me.

My boots are easy enough to slip on and tie and I don’t bundle my scarf before slipping on my coat. Eyeing the snow through the window, I decide the front path would be better. Through the kitchen, I see Jackie waiting by the door.

“You okay?”

Leaning against the wall, she looks up from her phone. “Oh, yes, thank you. I’m waiting for my Uber.”

“They close?”

“Ten minutes or so.”

I lean back on my heels, pushing my hands forward in my coat pockets. “Want company?”

She locks her iPhone then slides it into her purse. “I’m alright.” But then her gaze shifts to the darkened ground floor. “I just didn’t realize everyone would be going to go to bed so early.”

I try not to be judgmental but, “Well, your mom has to do all baking of the morning pastries for the local coffee shop on Washington and Fifth… and your step-dad has weird hours as a paramedic.”

Her expressive brows furrow ever so slightly, and she offers a breathy laugh, “I sorta should have known that huh?”

I shrug. In the silence that falls, I start fiddling with the loose strings on my scarf. “So… how long are you going to be in town?”

“Until after New Year’s.”

My head bobs, “Very cool.”

“Yeah… I’m actually –” but then she’s cut off by her phone. “Oh, looks like my Uber’s here.”

I open the door for her. After we’re on the front step and I’ve locked the front door, I turn to find her really close to me. Looking down, I push a hand through my hair. “Going to be around tomorrow?”

“Yes, I think so. You?”

“Probably.”

She gestures with a now gloved hand, “After working with your dad.”

“Right.”

She looks to the car on the street when it beeps. “Well, see you tomorrow, then?”

“Yep. See you,” and I wait until the car drives away before making my way home.


Chapter Six


Sunshine seeps through the slatted blinds, behind where I’d forgotten to close the curtains. I roll away from it, all the way against the far edge of my queen bed. That’s not enough, though, and I find I can’t fall back asleep.

Groggy, grumpy, groaning, I question why the fuck did I stay up so late last night? Instead of getting to bed around ten and falling asleep before eleven, midnight had come and gone, and I finally took some Zzzquil around two. In all that time I caught the Marie Kondo bug from Peyton but had left it all half-done.

A little worse for wear, I shift my legs off the bed, rubbing my face slowly. The emerald paint on my walls catches the sunlight boldly, looking a few shades lighter. I can see the layers of dust on my cherry wood built-ins, having left my least favorite chore for today. The same goes for laundry, of my cream bedding and curtains, having done all my clothes first. (That of which, I thought I’d made great progress putting away, but in the light of day I’m terribly wrong.)

Realizing the time, I jump up and run to my door. Throwing it open I call, “Dad?”

Rushing to pull jeans on, clean shirt in hand, I skip steps on my way down to the kitchen. “Dad?”

Mom’s sitting at the table, a cup of tea in one hand, a paperback book in the other. “Mornin’, Luke.”

“Where’s Dad? Why didn’t he wake me up?” I shove a hand through my unkempt, too-thick hair. “Fuck.”

Mom raises her eyebrows at the f-word. “Your alarm didn’t go off and when he tried to wake you, you didn’t even move. He called Jimmy instead.” After looking at me, her expression softens. “Luke, it’s okay. You’re on winter break! You’re not in trouble or anything, Dad wanted to let you sleep.” Her hand pushed the Dunkin’ Donuts box across the table, “Have some breakfast.”

After sitting down, I pull apart a glazed donut. “You’re up kind of early.”

“I have plans to go into the city to do some Christmas shopping. Wanted to get through my tea first.” She lowers her book, flat onto the table, “What about you? You going to go back to bed?”

Mouth full, I shake my head. After a hard swallow, I mutter, “Probably going to see Peyton today.”

Her head tilts ever so slightly. “That’s every day since you’ve been back home. Didn’t get enough of her at school?”

“Actually… we didn’t see much of each other over the past few months. One, maybe twice a week… she really got into hanging with her roommate and her classmates from her psych class.”

Her concerned-Mom-face appears. “And you?”

“Had Matt and Ross, plus a study-group for people actually pursuing a bachelor’s in literature.”

Relief spreads across her face, “Well, that’s good! Nothing wrong with meeting new people.”

I nod and reach for a chocolate-covered donut, “Yeah, definitely. But yeah, so Peyton and I have been catching up.”

There’s a long pause. “And how’s… the whole Jaqueline thing, going?”

Before I think, I speak, “Oh! Great. She’s been really nice. She’s all alone in that hotel though and Peyton isn’t warming up just yet, so I was thinking about asking her to a movie or something.”

Fuck.

Mom gives me that I-wish-your-father-was-here looks and nods thoughtfully, trying to buy time. “That would be very nice of you… maybe you can make it a group thing, introduce her to some people. Three weeks is a long time to be stuck in a hotel.”

Donut stuck in my throat; I cough a little. “Right, right – exactly.”


*


“All you do is read for school. All you will be doing is reading for school, for four years! How can you possibly want to find something to read – for ‘fun’ – while on winter break?”

Entering Barnes And Noble, I try to ignore her. Peyton has never understood my love for reading, my love for storytelling. She’s a #NetflixAndChill kind of person. All throughout high school, it was ‘is there a movie of this’ and if there wasn’t ‘is there an audio book’ and if there wasn’t ‘fuck it, I’ll just Google the summary’. I’ve tried almost our whole lives to get her on board with me but about a year ago I realized I would never win.

“I want to read something fun! Don’t get me wrong, some lines from The Things They Carried got to me, and some cases from So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed were really interesting… but, I could really use something mindless.”

She nudges me with her elbow, “TV can be pretty mindless. You can be watching TV and be scrolling on your phone! Hard to do that with a book, huh?”

I think back to my sleeplessness. “Reading is better for you in the middle of the night.” Going down the fiction aisle, I turn to her and walk backwards. “Com’on, this is me we’re talking about, I’m basically in a relationship with literature.”

“I’m just saying… your to-read pile is huge. Why not pick one of those?”

I shrug and face the shelves, “I’m not in the mood for any of those.”

“What are you in the mood for, then?”

Romance. “Maybe a classic.” Self-help? “Maybe something to motivate me.”

Peyton’s hand is light on my arm. “Hey, what’s going on?”

I shrug. “Quarter-life crisis?” I try to chuckle. “I don’t know… maybe it’s just college – maybe this is how all Freshman feel. But… it’s like, okay! Finally made it to college! Something I’ve been working towards my whole life and I’m finally doing The Thing.”

Rubbing my face, I shake my head. “Don’t get me wrong, school has been such a positive experience. Having something to constantly work on, work towards, manage, and be successful at has really helped. Being proactive, being productive, being efficient – all the good stuff.”

“But?”

“But… okay, now I know what the next four years are going to look like. Or six, or however long. And… is this it?”

Her brows are together, “Is what it?”

“The routine I had in school. Is that it? And then have holidays off with nothing to do.”

Looking sincerely worried, she asks “What else would you want? What else would make you feel better?”

A relationship. To care for someone. To have someone who I talk to or see regularly that I like and makes me happy. To belong to someone. To belong with someone. “I don’t know.”

“What about a job? Maybe… maybe you could work at the campus bookstore! You’d get to talk to people all the time.”

Even though I say, “That would make sense…,” it’s not quite the solution. Because this is a different kind of loneliness. This is the kind of loneliness where it’s so crippling, all I can do is turn to literature – turn to fictional characters… live their lives, live their love stories.

“And… and! When we get a place together? We can get more plants and a cat! Unconditional love from a fur baby is always a wise choice.”

I do smile at this. “That’s true. I have missed Mary while we’ve been gone.”

Triumphant, she pats me on the arm. “Well! There you go! Next year, when we can get an apartment, we’ll get a cat.”

Letting her have her moment, I just hug her. “Sounds great.”


*


“Luke! We didn’t know you would be here,” Misses Pullman comments as soon as she comes in the back door.

“Those orders must have been easy to move, then, huh?” her husband asks.

“Actually, he gave me the day off.”

Peyton pulls another pizza slice from the box on the counter, “We did a little shopping, instead.”

“Now, Peyton! You know you’re not supposed to buy anything this close to Christmas.”

“I know, Ma, that’s why I got presents for you guys.”

Her step-dad finally gets his boots off and coat up, “You didn’t have to. We know things are tight now that you’re in college.”

Mouth full, she waves her hand. After a moment, then she can say, “I budgeted it out when I got financial aid. I can’t not get you guys gifts.”

Misses P gives her daughter a one-armed hug but looks at me across the counter. “What about you, Luke? Get something for your folks?”

Pretty excited, I nod quickly. “Yeah! We stopped into an antique shop and I found this book called The Furniture Doctor by George Grotz from nineteen-sixty-two. The first page has the breakdown of all these styles of furniture, describing, like, Tudor or Elizabethan or Colonial United States or French Renaissance – all over the place. When I looked at the chapters, there were things about restoration and repairs, how to stain different woods from different eras, ways to spot faked aging for fake antiques. He’s going to love it!”

“And for your mom?”

“I picked up an updated travel guide to Italy and an Italian to English dictionary.”

“Oh! That’s right,” Misses P looks to her husband. “They’re going back to Florence for their twenty-fifth anniversary.”

Mister P looks between Peyton and me as he pours himself a glass of Coke. “Are you two still planning that trip?”

At the table, Peyton curls her legs under herself. “What? To England?”

“To the U.K.,” I correct.

“Eh. It seemed like such a cool idea for when we graduated high school….”

In response, her parents look to me; they know I am my parents’ son.

This had been one of the very few fights Peyton and I had ever had. I want to travel – everywhere I possibly can, but she’s such a homebody. She treats Chicago like a small town and has no drive to go anywhere else. And then, with a whole college full of people, I still couldn’t find anyone to go with me. Everyone was so focused on getting a new phone or car or taking trips to places like Las Vegas. It’s like everyone either wants to party or go somewhere Instagram-able.

I side-step the Peyton issue, “I’m thinking a month, one of these summers…. Going to take time to save up and plan.”

The awkwardness seems to be getting to Mister Pullman because his voice is booming and fast, “So, Luke, you staying for dinner? Jackie should be here soon; we could play some board games!”


*


Blockbuster ‘parking lot’ board in the middle of the table, there are two cards up with one card left for Mister and Misses Pullman and Joey’s team, one card up with one card failed and one card left for my team with Peyton and Jackie. Once the buzzer sounds, Joey stops charades and yells “Com’on!”

His parents look at him, his father saying, “What? What was it?”

Carrie! The end of Carrie!” He does the same couple steps towards the table, waving his hand, then mimics the blood falling on her head. “See? And I’ve never even seen that movie.”

Peyton, laughing, points a finger. “That was good though! I totally got it.”

Joey flops down into his chair, folding his arms over his chest. “Okay, your turn.”

It had been my turn for the Head-To-Head, so I have to do the last card – The Lion King – that I placed in the Quote It slot. Thinking about the ‘everything the light touches’ line, I scoot my chair back so that both Peyton and Jackie can see me. “Alright, here we go.” Misses P starts the timer. After two clicks, I realize an easier quote to know. “‘Hakuna matata’!”

Peyton gives me a look. “… The Lion King?”

“Yep!” and I flip the card over.

Jackie starts laughing, “That felt like such a trick question.”

Peyton smiles, “Right?”

We collect our cards and discard those we didn’t win. Next will be Jackie and her mom for the Head-To-Head. Mister P is ready to start the buzzer and I pick the prompt. I look to everyone, “Ready?” They nod. I read: “Movies that start with w.”

Wall Street,” from Misses P.

Wolf Of Wall Street.”

War Of the Worlds.”

Jackie throws her hand forward. “Willy Wonka!”

“Uh… Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

“Mm.. oh! Oh! Wall-E.”

When Harry Met Sally!”

And the buzzer sounds. “Damn!” but Jackie’s smiling.

While Misses P picks the six cards and divides them, three easiest for her team, three hardest for ours, I lean towards Peyton, “You did really good!”

She giggles. “If this was a book trivia game, I’d do much better.”

Our eyes meet and gaze holds, I smile softly, “Me, too.”

“Hey babe,” Peyton calls pointedly from the kitchen. It takes me a moment to register, but then I look. “Do you want some more Sprite?”

I shake my head even though I am thirsty. “No, no. I’m good.”

She comes back, scoots her chair up against mine, and places her hand on my knee. Looking across the table, she asks, “So, which ones are you guys doing? Quote It, Act It, or One Word?”


*


Tugging at her sweatshirt sleeves, Peyton moves across her room to her bed. I’ll never understand the girl thing of a sweatshirt with shorts, but to each their own. Back in the computer chair, I twist back and forth. “So… tonight went well.”

“It was bearable.”

If I hadn’t known any better, I would have said she was getting on with her sister. Something reminiscent of their childhood, when they were rather inseparable, actually. With the laughing and being able to hold a conversation… the whole thing had humanized Jackie, and I thought, softened Peyton.

“It would have been better,” she continued, “if we’d been on opposite teams. That way I could have beaten her.” She slips the hairband past the edge of her hair then starts massaging her scalp. “I think it’s working though; she seems to be slipping off that high horse.”

Leaning against her mountain of pillows she smiles, “Every time she looks at us, she totally seems upset. It’s perfect!”

I go side-to-side a few times before slowly asking, “Did you really have to kiss me, though? I thought we said we weren’t going to go over the top.”

She rolls her eyes and reaches for her nail file, “It was just a peck, com’on. Remember that kiss when we were in Drama? Now that was over the top,” she laughs.

I study Peyton from across the room. It’s funny that she would bring up that particular instance because that was another time she was trying to make someone jealous. She was using our Romeo and Juliet scene to try and make her crush at the time notice her, all the while she was pretending she didn’t even like him. So, what now? Is she doing all this stuff to make her sister feel bad, all the while pretending she doesn’t want there to be a relationship between them?

Her father wasn’t the only one that picked another family, so had Jackie. And even though that brings out such anger in Peyton, it brings out hurt, too…. Hurt that she wasn’t picked, hurt that she was abandoned. She wouldn’t say it so clearly, but Peyton wishes she hadn’t lost her sister just as much as she wishes she hadn’t lost her father. Had she been jealous all these years? Is that why she’s trying so hard to make Jackie jealous now?

“Maybe….” But I don’t even know how to say it.

“Maybe what?”

Maybe she isn’t so bad. Maybe you want to hate her because that’s easier than being sad or feeling betrayed. Maybe if you just spent time with her, or better yet, talked to her, you guys could work this out. Sure, it’s been almost ten years, but you’re still sisters. You’re both really cool people. “It’s getting kind of late…. Maybe I should head home.”


Chapter Seven


With it only being the three of us, our presents-under-the-tree situation has never been over-flowing. After our quiet morning here, we go to Dad’s parents for the big family gathering, then I visit with Peyton and her family after dinner. It’s compartmentalized, it’s clean, it’s easy, and I can’t imagine it ever-changing. So, I slip my gifts under the tree with plenty of room left on the skirt.

New book in hand, I shuffle in my wool socks to the armchair next to the fire. I had lied and told Peyton this book was for my mom, but I actually love Jennifer E. Smith after reading The Geography of Me And You, and read reviews that said that The Statistical Probability Of Love At First Sight is her best work. There’s a value in new adult or young adult romance… it’s easy.

Unlike adult romance books, which end up being more like ‘girl porn’ than literature, new or young adult romance is simpler. There are well-rounded characters that have reasonable story arches, there’s an adorable meet-cute, tension, and the slow burn. It’s realistic, it’s safe, and almost always the happy ending is done within one novel.

I don’t need some Hulk of a dude, who is half-vampire and half-werewolf, following some girl around in the name of protecting her, and they have some hot and steamy scene that doesn’t connect to the plot at all. Or some historical romance that is completely unrealistic, where the man is always rich and the woman is always gorgeous. Where are there always good romantic comedy movies, but never good romantic comedy books?

A few pages in, I hear my phone dig. A few pages later, I pull myself away to look at it.


Hey, Luke? This is Jackie.

Hey! Get back to the hotel okay?

Yep! Same Uber driver and everything.

Had a lot of fun tonight.

You were great at Blockbuster.

Thanks! You too.

Read any good books lately?

I’m thinking of going to Barnes And Noble tomorrow.

Actually, I just picked up a few today.

What kind of things are you looking for?

Not sure lol

Maybe you should come with me?


I stare at my screen.

Peyton is hanging with Charlotte all day, doing a whole #SelfCareSunday thing. Dad’s going over to Granddad’s to help finish the downstairs bathroom renovation before Christmas. Mom has to go to work…. So… yeah.


Yeah? I bet I could be of some help.

Awesome!

Meet me here?


Her hotel is the opposite direction.


Or you could meet me here?

At my place, I mean.

I can drive.

Sure! Noon alright?

Perfect.


*


Waking up to the sound of rain was extremely relaxing but very confusing. Not wanting to misuse the term, but how could the weather be so Bipolar? Was this going to last over the next few days? What about a white Christmas?

Without my permission, my sleepy mind goes to kissing Jackie under the golden blanket of a streetlamp, little wisps of snowflakes floating around us whimsically. Or under the mistletoe, my arms wrapped around her tiny frame, Christmas lights twinkling in her eyes. Or us kissing while she sits on my lap in the armchair next to the fireplace, her delicate hand pressing against my chest.

“Fuck,” I groan and rub my face. Maybe romance books had been a bad idea.

Then I grab my phone with a big sigh. The weather says high in the fifties until Thursday. Great. I notice a new text from Jackie and sit up quickly.


Just finished with breakfast.


Sent thirty minutes ago.

At eleven.

This means I have thirty fucking minutes to get ready.

Just woke up.

Rain made me sleep in.

Noon still okay?

Yep!

Yep, yes, definitely yes.

I so don’t want to leave her waiting. She probably slept great, slept in. Took a shower, took her time getting ready. Ate some breakfast and is now sitting in her hotel room….

Just like being late for class, com’on! Shower, Mordor hot water, sporadic shampoo, then random scrubbing of body wash. Towel to hair, if enough time, blow dry it. Clothes… clothes! Clothes? Fifty degrees… dark jeans, wool socks, Timberland boots are by the front door, mossy green tee, L. L. Bean forest green and brown flannel – not too shabby, not too shabby. Brown leather watch and I’m good to go with enough time to blow dry my hair! Long-ish, thick mop of brown hair messy in a good way, sort of doing that floppy 90’s thing I like.

I had just enough time to eat an apple before the doorbell rings. Core still in hand, I swallow hard and open the door. “Hey!”

Gilded hair in a wide and loose top-knot, strategic wisps fall around her gorgeous face. The no-makeup makeup look is stunning on her, just enough to emphasize her natural beauty. Her eyes are kind, her smile soft, “Hi!”

I step back, “Com’on in.”

She only takes a step in though and looks down, “Shoes off?”

How considerate. All I can see are ties peeking out from under her skinny jeans. “No, no – it’s fine. We have all wood floors.”

Her hand finds the closest wall, “I have heels, it’s alright.” Her boots, which look sort of old-timey like Oxfords, have a hidden zipper. Pink socks with little roses on them slip out, how cute.

The door closed; we stand in the entryway. She has her hands cups in front of her waist, looking around curiously. “I haven’t been here in ages… gosh, what was it? Your thirteenth birthday?”

I nod. “Ah, do you want anything to drink? To eat?” But she already had breakfast, way to go.

She wanders into the living room instead. “I always loved the way your mother decorated for Christmas….” She looks over her shoulder, chin brushing her fuzzy, lavender sweater. “It’s always so… personal, so homey.” Looking back to the tree, she reaches to delicately cup a childhood ornament. “Misses Helen always has everything just so. Artificial tree, white string lights, every ornament in a particular color scheme – would be perfect for a magazine.”

Standing next to her, I brush my arm against hers. “Not your style?”

The ornament slips from her fingers, the same hand reaching to her necklace. “Oh gosh, no! You should see my room at home – or room at school, I have so much junk,” she giggles, “my friend, Julie, calls my taste eclectic. I spend way too much money on Polaroid film or developing disposable cameras… plus plants and vintage or antique books.”

I try to imagine her room before the divorce. Probably typical of any girl’s room… beginners books and stuffed animals from when she was little, then series books and mementos of friendships and favorite activities as she got older. Then I remembered how she got obsessed with pressing flowers and leaves in her biggest, heaviest books she had. “Do you still press flowers?”

She turns to me, looking utterly surprised. “You remember that?”

I still have summer leaves she’d pressed and framed for me, “Yes, of course.”

Jackie has her rose gold iPhone in her hand, her fingers gliding quickly. “I do! I do still press flowers and leaves, look!” She shows me an Etsy, “I actually sell them now.”

I take her phone carefully and scroll a little. Double-sided glass with gold or silver frames, some with chains. Lots of flowers or petals and leaves from trees or plants. I look into her excited eyes, “These are beautiful.”

Her smile is a bit coy. “Thank you!” After I hand the phone back to her, she asks “So… bookstore?”


*


Passed the double doors, a wave of heat hits our faces. Not that it was particularly cold out, but the rain had been unpleasant. Jackie is one of those girls with everything she could possibly need in her purse, but the umbrella was rather small.

“Want anything from the café?” she asks, already heading towards the Starbucks.

“Not sure,” which is true, seeing as I never go to Starbucks because of being a #PoorCollegeStudent.

Just before the counter, she pulls out a glass bottle. She unscrews the silver lid and puts the bottle on the counter, and I can see the Starbucks logo. “Good afternoon.”

“Hi, what can I get ya?”

“Strawberry refresher, please.” Then she looks over to me, “Think of anything?”

“S-same, uh… medium, I guess.”

The cashier looks between us. “Do you have a membership card?”

“I have the phone number,” and then she rattles off a phone number that I don’t recognize.

After the transaction is over, we are directed to the end of the counter. There’s a collection of different Starbucks cups and mugs and glasses. “So, it’s refillable, then?”

“Mhm! I have a weird thing about plastic – not just the whole sustainability thing, but with water or soda I can taste the plastic. And,” she holds the word, “they do a discount if you have a cup from them.”

“Let me guess, you hate Dasani?”

She laughs, “Oh gosh, yeah! That thick, blue plastic? Gross. Have you ever had Voss water?”

We pick up our drinks and meander into the history and religion sections. “I haven’t, good stuff?”

“Best water I’ve ever tasted. It’s Norwegian and the big bottles are glass. If there’s a World Market around here, we can totally get some.” After a long drink, she asks, “So, where’s the young adult section?”

I point ahead, “On the other side of this wall.”

“It’s totally a guilty pleasure, but I love teen romances. Or early college.”

“New adult.”

“Right!”

“Realistic?” I guess because she said ‘college’.

“Yes. In high school, I was obsessed with the fantasy worlds or supernatural characters, but more recently I’ve been into teen romance.” She makes a face, as if embarrassed. “They’re actually so good!”

I lead her to where I’d picked out my books. They still have another copy of The Statistical Probability Of Love At First Sight. I slide it out and hand it to her, “I finished this last night, it’s really cute.”

Her brows raise. “Really?”

I look back to the shelves and pull out The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson and P. S. I Like You by Kasie West, “These are great, too.”

She holds the three books in her hands, “Yeah? You’ve read them all?”

“Yep. Now,” I point to the Morgan Matson book, “Technically her books have a chronological order, but it’s an expanded universe so it doesn’t matter too much. That’s just my favorite out of all of them.”

Her eyes drift to the shelves, “How many are there?”

“Five I think… starting with Amy And Roger’s Epic Detour that brings the readers to the one town they all take place in. And Save The Date is the last one, that came out last year.”

She nods thoughtfully, “Any other books you suggest?”

“Not sure… we could walk around.”

And we do, heading out of the young adult into mangas, comic books, video games lore, and the Star Wars expanded universe. I eye the Disney cannon Star Wars books, making sure I already have them all. I notice Jackie by World of Warcraft, “You play?”

“My ex did. When you’re together for so long… I played a little bit but jumping into such a big game was a little overwhelming. He suggested I read the books, understand the lore better….”

“Did it help?”

“Oh… yeah,” but she continues down the aisle, “Do you play?”

“No, but my best friend does.”

She peeks over her shoulder. “Peyton does?”

I can’t help but chuckle. “No… I don’t know that she’s ever elected to play video games. I meant, my best friend Charlie.”

Now facing me, she continues around the end of the bookcases, heading into westerns and romance. “Right, the girlfriend title out-ranking best friend.”

I purposefully don’t comment.

She notices and looks at me. But when I stare at her blankly, she lifts a shoulder. “So, how’s your break been so far? Happy to see your family?”

“So far, so good. Yeah, I’d gotten a little homesick at school. What about you…? Kind of a big deal you’re here this year.”

She slows, taking a deep breath. “Family’s important. It’s impossible to make everyone happy. Since it’s my second year at school… it’s given me some much-needed distance, it’s helped me have a more accurate perspective. It’s difficult with such a large family so far apart.”

“Physically and emotionally,” I comment.

Her laugh is breathy, almost sarcastic, “Yes.” She shifts her weight from one foot to the other. “I’m doing my best.”

Something in her tone of voice makes my heart hurt. It reminds me of my mom when she'd said the same phrase when talking about holidays without her folks. A sort of inflection that says ‘I’m not sure where I belong’ or ‘if I belong’. “I don’t know if you remember, but my grandma died when my mom was little. Then my granddad died before my parents met….

“My mom and granddad had moved to Chicago for the research hospital but then, after long enough, he said he was done. Soon after he passed away. Leaving my mom alone. When my parents got together, Mom says she fell in love with his family just as much as she’d fallen in love with him.

“So, I get it… I get how important family can be this time of yeah Sure, my dad’s side is big and loud and welcoming, but I’m still half my mom. It can still be really quiet around the house. It can still be hard to figure out where I fit – where I belong.”

She holds the books against her chest, her gaze evading mine. “Conflicting sides, pulling us in different directions. I’m…” she sighs, “I’m doing my best.”

I hold my palm on her shoulder, rubbing it slightly. “I know you are.”

Her eyes the color of a winter sky look into mine. A connection is made in this empty aisle of the bookstore. The sense of belonging is so powerful, so wanted, we find it in each other. If things were so complicated, I might have even kissed her.


Chapter Eight


Gaily they ring, while people sing, songs of good cheer, Christmas is here. Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas!

Christmas playlist on, fireplace burning, different snacks spread across the coffee table, the Pullman’s Christmas Eve party is off to a great start. Peyton’s family, my parents, some of our neighbors, some co-workers I recognize from years past… even some of Peyton’s and my friends made it. People filled the decent-sized living room, spilling into the dining room, and some wandered off into the kitchen. The Christmas tree and other décor weren’t the only things making it festive, some of the ladies dressed up and some of the guys in Santa hats.

Everyone off mixing and mingling, snacking, or playing Clue, I’m free to stand just inside the living room. Eye on the door, I’m unabashedly waiting for Jackie to arrive. Her Instagram showed her getting ready for tonight, picking out one of the ‘fancy dresses’ Peyton had commented on.

“Yo, Luke!”

I turn to see Charlie waving me over. “Come over here, would ya?”

Weaving through the crowd, I find him next to the fire, phone out, talking to David. “What’s up?”

“David had a couple of questions about Witcher.”

“I watched the show,” he clarifies, “which was badass. I’m wondering if it would be better to read the books or play the games first?”

“Well, the Netflix show is mostly following the books – not exactly but mostly, but Geralt is portrayed almost identically to the in-game character. The thing with the books is that they’re all by the same author, who had nothing to do with the games. But everything that happened in the books, are cannon in the game. The first game is five years after the end of the books.”

Charlie points with his phone, “I just read that there was some sort of agreement with the author and CD Project where they’ve got the okay to make more games.”

I nod, “Which might reflect in the show. Way before they even started filming, the show lead said she already has seven seasons planned. Now with this, who knows.”

“So basically, new Game of Thrones?”

Charlie chuckles, “Without the shit ending.”

I hear the doorbell ring and my head whips around. By the time I get across the room, Jackie is already hanging her fur-trimmed coat. The ringlets of her long, fair hair sways as she turns around and greets me with a wide smile. In a long, emerald velvet dress, I have to try very hard not to look at the plunging neckline. Overall looking extremely elegant, don’t get me wrong, (but the chest that’d been hiding under thick sweaters and shallow necklines is, well, very noticeable now).

I notice a package in her hand, “What’s all this? More cookies?”

“Oh!” she looks down, “No. I can’t exactly bake in a hotel room,” she giggles. “It’s just a gift for my mom.” She lifts it with a weird jiggle, “Never go anywhere empty-handed.”

Her mom appears from the kitchen. “Jaqueline! Ride from the hotel okay? This whole Uber thing isn’t getting too expensive, is it? I could always send Eric or Peyton to come to get you.”

“Or I could,” I offer without thinking.

Misses Pullman smiles at me, “Always so nice, Luke.” She cups my cheek momentarily, “Such a good man you’ve grown into.”

Jackie holds the gift to her mom. “I brought this for you. Maybe for dinner, as a centerpiece.”

I follow the ladies into the kitchen, Misses P gently puts the box on the counter. With scissors, she carefully opens the seams, then lifts the lid. “Oh! Oh goodness, these are beautiful!”

Jackie helps her unbox the gift. “They’re infinity roses. When I visited California last summer, in San Fran we found this shop – the Grand Fleurs company. They have a natural preservation process that helps the roses last for a year or longer! I have a few different ones at home and so far, so good.”

After getting the white, square box free from the packing, Misses P smells the bouquet of red roses. “They even smell wonderful!”

I nudge Jackie, “Of course you would know of something like this.”

But in her quick look at me, her expression falls. “Why?”

I can imagine Peyton’s comment ‘because you’re so fucking fancy.’ “Because of your flowers – your Etsy? Preserving nature beautifully, and all.”

“Oh,” she brightens up. “Right.”

We don’t notice when her mom wanders into the other room with the roses, Jackie and I leaning against the kitchen counter. “They can do a dying process, too!” she comments excitedly. “You should see the color options online, pretty much the rainbow. They even paint metallics! I have a single gold one next to my jewelry box; a white circle box with a dome bouquet of pink roses in the bathroom; then a what they call their ‘signature square’ – the same size I gave Mom – in a white box with lavender roses on my nightstand.”

“Do all the boxes look the same?”

“For Grand Fleurs?”

“Yeah.”

“Pretty much. I either order the classic white or black. They have fancier ones, etched metal or velvet, but I worry they wouldn’t match anything I have.”

“Well, if you ever want a sleeve, I bet it would be pretty easy to build a box it would slip right into.”

She smiles but before she can say her thought, Peyton calls for me. Hand hard on the edge of the wall, she peers into the kitchen. “Com’on,” but then she eyes her sister and when she looks back to me says “babe,” slowly. “We’re doing another round of Clue.”

Jackie lifts from the counter the same time I do, “Oh, I love Clue.”

Her sister glares, “All the characters are taken,” and she exits the room.


*


Sometime after the pizza was devoured and there wasn’t a single sweet treat left in the house, the idea of getting pictures in front of the tree spread like wildfire. Friends, families, silly, serious, that’s the glory of digital pictures. Holding Misses Pullman’s phone, I center them. “Alright, you guys ready?”

She waves for her other daughter, “Com’on.”

Standing next to me, she’s hesitant. “You sure?”

Her mom waves again, a huge smile on her face. “Com’on, Jacqueline, right next to me, then.”

Her steps are small, “‘Jackie’ is okay, too.”

Peyton makes a face. “Really, since when?”

But her mom swats her arms. “Alright, Luke, we’re all set.”


*


Peyton groans and she shoves herself through another sleep sweatshirt. “What is with her?”

I don’t look up from my phone, “Hm?”

“She made a whole big stink about going by her full name, posted some melodramatic ‘it’s more mature’ post on her Tumblr, and changed all her profiles to it – and now it’s ‘okay,’” she used finger quotes. Then, sitting on the edge of her bed, she takes her socks off. “And did you see those roses? I looked them up, you know, and they cost, like, two hundred dollars. She’s trying to fucking buy our love.”

Still with my head down, I roll my eyes.

I hear her unmaking her bed. “It’s just….” But she doesn’t continue. Instead, she asks, “Are you sure you have to go home? I know Eric has his brother in the den, but my bed’s big enough.”

I check the time on my phone, fifteen minutes till midnight. I stand, running a hand through my hair. “Yeah, and I should probably head out. I didn’t realize it was so late.”

She looks to her watch, “Fifteen minutes – oh! Com’on, at least stay until midnight!” She smiles wide and pats the bed next to her, “We can start Christmas off right.”

I kiss her hair and hug her against my side. “I’ll see you tomorrow after dinner.” I get to the door before she can protest too much. “Don’t cause too much trouble.”

The house is completely silent as I move through it and I try to keep it that way. I’m quick to buddle up and pull on my boots, quick to get outside and lock the door behind me. Frosty air cuts against my lungs, so much for it being warm this week. The street has a fresh blanket of snow, little flakes falling from nowhere, but somehow disappearing before they get to me.

I check my watch, eleven-fifty-nine. I stop in the middle of the street, my weight sinking my feet into the snow. Eyes closed, my body still, I welcome the moment of peace.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Let my heart slow, let my mind go.

Slowly I open my eyes back up, admiring this stolen moment. A part of me wants to take a picture with my phone… but a bigger part says to leave it. Just enjoy it, just remember it. Having this moment for myself…. Black skies with a handful of twinkling stars. Golden light barely reaching from the lamps periodically placed down the street. Glorious, fluffy snow absorbing all sound.

Maybe seconds have passed, maybe minutes, and I tug my boots up to finish my walk home. From the front door, I can see the above-the-stove light on and when I close the door, I hear a “shhh.” My mom peeks over from the kitchen, “Jackie’s sleeping.”

My brows furrow and as I take my boots off, I ask, “What?” as softly as I can.

She points into the living room. “She’s on the couch.”

I look, indeed seeing a lump of blanket on the couch and a waterfall of golden hair. In the kitchen, I turn back to Mom. “Why?”

“Eric’s brother and sister-in-law took the den, their son took the couch,” she explained though I still didn’t follow. She turned to me at the foot of the stairs, “Jackie’s expected in the morning and I figured it is easier for her to be down the street instead of across town.” Plus, it would probably be impossible to get an Uber. “Anyway, just don’t wake her, okay? She seems exhausted.”

I nod and wait for my mother to get all the way upstairs before looking into the living room again. Jackie is curled into the couch, probably away from the light of the still-lit Christmas tree. Just far enough into the room, I click the switch off.

The light from the kitchen is just enough for me to get to the stairs. Halfway up the stairs, I hear a soft, “Good night, Luke.”

I pause, “Good night, Jackie,” before rushing up to my room.


Chapter Nine


Even after all these years, even being a nineteen-year-old college student, I am wide awake Christmas morning. If I did sleep eight hours, it sure as Hell didn’t feel like it; the knowledge that Jackie was downstairs making me toss and turn all night. Excitement? Worry? Probably a mixture.

Body itching to get out of bed, around nine o’clock I figure it’s safe. Both my parents have always been early risers and are probably having tea in the kitchen. Sweatpants on, hair pushed back, I rub my face as I walk into the hall. Walk into the hall and right smack dab into someone.

A small someone, “Oh, sorry, M -” but then I see her, “Uh, Jackie. Sorry,” and I take a huge step back.

Hair gorgeous – thick and mane-like. Her face is fresh and clear, and that no-makeup makeup again. In another thick sweater, this one is a deep red, matching the burgundy in her plaid skirt. Pale, tight legs for days…. She pulls out her necklace from under the crew neck, “Hi! Sorry, I just needed to change before I go over to Mom’s.”

I notice her giving shirtless me once over. I notice her giving a rather fit me a twice over, her cheeks flushing. Her eyes quickly find a place next to my ear. “Merry Christmas, by the way.”

“Did you want to eat something before you go over? My mom always makes cinnamon rolls. A whole two packs – way too many just for the three of us.”

Nervously, she tucks hair behind her ear. Her head is straight, her eyes looking up at me from under her lashes – the way girls do when they like someone. I can even see her pupils dilate. “S-sure. That would be lovely.”

She quickly steps towards the stairs. “I think your mom said something about tea. See you down there.”

In the bathroom, I’m pleased to see I’m not a mess. I freshen up, grab a shirt, then head downstairs. Mom and Dad are sitting in the usual seats on the far end, Jackie sitting the opposite of my mom. When they all look up and greet me, I realize this is something I not only could see but want to see in my future.


*


So many people, such a little living room. Grandparents, parents, Uncle Jimmy and his family, Aunt Lynn and her husband, and then me. Two couches, two armchairs, chairs pulled from the kitchen, and still, I sit on the floor. We each try to keep a little pile of presents by our feet, but there are so many items and wrappings everywhere.

Minding my own business, I’m reading the back cover of a new paperback. Suddenly, cousin Lindsey couches by me. “I didn’t know you and Peyton are finally dating.”

I don’t look up; this subject comes up every year. “We’re not.”

“They why did she say so on Instagram?”

Looking at her now, my brows furrow. “What?”

She shows me her phone, “It’s a picture of you two from the party and she captioned it ‘couple’s first Christmas’ with all these coupley hashtags.”

Jesus Christ. I try to smile, “Just an inside joke.”

Lindsey squints, “Uh-huh, sure,” but gets up anyway.

As quickly as I can, I text Peyton.


What the fuck Peyton?

What?

The Instagram post?

I never agreed to lie on social media.

Oh, that.

It’s NBD.

Peyton, com’on.

What?

Lindsey is showing my whole family your post.

So what?

I don’t want to lie to them.

It’s only for another week.

Just tell them it’s a joke or something.

I don’t understand how this is helpful.

Why would Jackie care?

She cares.

Please?


But right when I’m about to call it all off, Peyton texts again.


I’m finally not comparing myself to her.

I finally feel good about my life.

I haven’t had a single panic attack this whole time.

Please, Luke, this is helping so much.

Not on social media, okay?

Just change the description.


*


All my Christmas gifts unpacked, I sit on the edge of my bed, twirling my phone in my hand. If I’m honest with myself, I’m mad at Peyton. If I’m honest with myself, I don’t want to see her tonight. But it’s Christmas… it’s tradition.

Falling back against my fluffy comforter, I try not to think about this whole mess. I haven’t even hung out with Jackie enough to really know if I have romantic, ‘let’s go on a date’ feelings for her. But at this rate, I might not have that kind of time. The more Peyton pushes the faux relationship, the more Peyton pushes her sister away, the more I become a bad guy by proxy.

How would that make Peyton, feel, anyway? If I pursued her sister. Probably like shit, and irrationally like someone else is picking Jacking over her. This isn’t the case because Peyton doesn’t have feelings for me and I don’t have feelings for her… other than brotherly-sisterly, best friend love.

And what about when Jackie goes home, huh? Goes back to her university across the state? Long-distance isn’t fair. … So, I guess it isn’t fair all around. I guess there’s no point. Guess I better head over to see Peyton for Christmas.


*


Slipping in through the back door, I’m not at all surprised to find the Pullman’s kitchen empty. Boots off, coat up, my fidgety hands sought after something to hold. A fresh glass of Coke with ice, I slowly meander to the edge of the living room.

My second family is smiling, joking, laughing… sharing stories, sharing gifts. These people I’ve come to love almost as much as my own flesh and blood, people I can’t imagine my life without. Leaning against the far wall, I appreciate all that this is and realize I shouldn’t do anything impulsive to jeopardize it.

It takes them a while to notice I’m here, Peyton finally saying, “Luke! Hi! Come look!” at her pile of goodies.

I sit between her and the tree, “Get anything good this year?”

“Oh yeah! Look at this! A Netflix gift card for about six months; a legit Ravenclaw scarf, from the Universal parks store; this gorgeous black, faux leather laptop bag for school; and how cool are these black and white Gomez and Morticia Addams Pop Funkos? Oh! And! Look at these headphones!” she unfolds a matte black pair of 90’s looking headphones, “They’re Bluetooth to my phone, so I can listen to Spotify whenever.”

I see one last thing she very specifically didn’t point on. I gesture to it and ask with a low voice, “And that.”

She gives me a look but then drops her shoulders. “It’s from Jackie. They’re the same infinity roses she got Mom.” She hand’s me the round, white box and I can tell she hates what she’s about to say, “How fucking cool?”

I look down at the all-black roses. “Really fucking cool and perfect for your desk.”

She leans towards me, her chin over my shoulder, “Don’t worry, I thanked her profusely. And,” she lets out a long breath, “I really am going to try and be nicer to her.”

What a Christmas miracle. I squeeze her knee, “Good.”

The conversation soon got away from us when Misses Pullman asked how my day went. I told them of all the new books I received, minus the U.K. Travel guide (to avoid any tension with Peyton). I also didn’t tell them about my parents paying for six months of my car insurance but did show them my new phone.

Standing now, glass empty, I explain the gifts from my extended family, some much-needed sweaters and flannels, plus a new pair of running shoes. “Oh, and my little cousin, Terry? He picked out a candle, of all things,” I chuckle. “He’s such a sweet kid.”

I duck out of the room and find Jackie in the kitchen, shaking her Starbucks glass. When I give her a curious look, she giggles, “I have Crystal Light.”

Looking down to my own glass that I was about to fill with more soda, I ask, “Have any more?”

She nods and pulls an individual packet out of the box. “It’s strawberry, that okay?”

“Perfect.”

I clean out my glass and make the Crystal Light. Stirring the mix slowly, I lean against the counter. “So, how was your Christmas haul?”

She slides her hand through the front of her hair and flips the part from one side to the other, the golden layers falling gracefully. “Good… good. Mom and Eric spent way too much and picked out an actual Polaroid camera, with film and a case. Peyton gave me a movie she said I should watch. Joey actually got me something, a candle that smells really nice….

“The gifts from my – I mean, from the rest of my family – my dad and step-mom and step-brother – are still unopened back at the hotel.”

I study her face, “Which you did on purpose.”

Her head bobs and she looks around quickly. “Yep… I just didn’t want Mom to feel bad or Peyton to insult me.” There’s a silence that’s neither here nor there. I think she expects me to defend Peyton. “So yeah,” she comments quickly, “I’ll get to go open those when I get back.”

“Want any company?”

She looks towards the living room, “I don’t think…” ‘that would be appropriate’ going unsaid. She looks back at me “I’m just really tired.”

“I could at least drive you,” I offer. “I bet getting an Uber would be impossible tonight.”

Her face saddens and she clears her throat. “Eric’s going to take me on his way to work.” She starts backing up, “Thank you, though.”

I nod as she heads into the living room. Looking at my coat by the door, I don’t know when, or if I should give her the gift that sits in the pocket.


Chapter Ten


Lounging on the couch, eyes closed, it really has been such a long day. As many hours are left in the night, is how many people are left awake in the house. Finally some quiet, finally some peace.

Something nudges my foot and I hear a “Hey, Luke?”

I peek up, surprised to see Jackie. “Hey.”

She pulls at her sweater sleeves, “So, Eric got called in early, some sort of emergency…. Is the offer still on the table? For you to drive me back to the hotel?”

“Yeah – yes, of course. No problem. Did you want to leave now?”

“If that’s okay? It’s already eleven o’clock.”

I push a hand through my hair then brace myself to get up. “Sure thing.”


*


“Are you sure you don’t need help? I can walk you to your room,” I eye Jackie with her overnight bag, purse, and gift bags from the morning.

After her purse falls down her arm to her elbow, yet again, she sighs, “Yeah, alright. Thank you.”

Luckily, I’d parked because the drive-in for the lobby was full. As I take the gift bags and she re-adjusts her purse. “It’s a bit of a walk though, I’m all the way at the back – a garden view.”

I chuckle a little, “A pretty view with all this snow?”

She laughs a little, too, as we have to be careful of sliding on ice. “Yes, actually. They have a little pond that’s frozen over and they put a Christmas tree in the gazebo.”

I try to go for the door, but she beats me to it, getting it open then holding it with her foot.

“Thanks.”

She smiles, “It’s a habit from hostessing.”

I hold the next door open for her, “That right?”

“Didn’t think I had a job, huh?”

Looking around at the marble and shimmering chandeliers, I quickly change the subject, “I’ve only ever been in this hotel once…. Senior prom night, seven guys in one room, one guy actually had passed out in the bathtub, and we slept way past check-out.”

“Oh, they must have hated that.”

Noticing how quiet and empty the lobby and elevator out cove is, I nod. “It’s probably their least favorite time of year.”

On the fifth floor, I follow Jackie out. “Have you been liking it okay?”

She peeks over her shoulder, “What, living in a hotel?”

“Yeah.”

She gives a little shrug, “It’s nice, I guess. I always thought if I was going to have an extended stay in a hotel it would be somewhere like London or Paris.”

Quickly, I close the gap between us. “You want to travel?”

She laughs, “Oh yeah! Big time. All over the U.K., France, Italy… you name it. I have this sort of wanderlust heartache for places I’ve never been.”

She just put my feelings into words. “My mom just got me a U.K. travel guide! I’m thinking of Spring – May, probably, just after school ends.”

Her whole expression brightens, the light in her eyes twinkling. “Yeah? How long?”

“Three weeks, maybe? Originally the idea was a few days in London –”

“Right.”

“Then go up into Scotland, at least as far north as Edinburgh.”

“Of course.”

“Then down to Liverpool –”

“Where you’d have to hop the ferry to Dublin, I’m sure?”

My smile widens, “Exactly. Then back to Liverpool, back to London, then take the train from London to Paris.”

She does that swoon girls do when they hear something they are geeking out about. “That’s the dream though.”

“It is, isn’t it?”

“Then a couple of days in Paris, and then head home?” she asks as if confirming a plan with me.

“Right.”

She shakes her head and looks back to the walls to check room numbers. She slows and then points to the last room in the hall, “That’s me.”

After opening the door, she continues in and I don’t know what else to do but follow. There’s a nice little antique-replicant writing desk that she puts her purse by. I put the gift bags on top, then turn to see her unloading the overnight bag on the king bed. “So, if that was the original idea, what’s the new idea?”

“Sorry?”

She glances at me quickly, “For the trip.”

While she’s distracted, I pull the gift out of my coat and hold it in my palm. “Oh, well, Peyton doesn’t want to go.”

She straightens and looks at me with an expression of confusion. “What?”

I slide the gift into my sleeve while I cross my arms over my chest. “It was supposed to be to celebrate graduation, but then I got into a car crash and had to get a new car. Over the summer I had a decent job and now that I know what to expect after my first semester, I’m going to get another job. So, at least for me, the plans are back on… hopefully,” I stress, “for this May.”

“But Peyton doesn’t want to go?”

“Right.”

“Are you still going to go, then? Alone?”

“I might have to. I’m not going to miss out on such a great opportunity – on something I’ve wanted for years, just because I may be by myself.”

“That’s how I feel. Maybe I should go with you, then.”

Not thinking, I’m already nodding and smiling, “That would be awesome.”

But she does have a moment to think and hesitates. “Well, thank you for helping me.”

I bob my head, “Yep, of course.” I lift from the desk and pull the gift out of my sleeve. “Merry Christmas.”

We meet in the middle and she takes the little, poorly wrapped gift. Easily opened, she looks at the small box, that mimics a case of cigarettes’ size, even with a hinged lid. I shift my weight from one foot to the other, “I saw the deck of cards in your purse, wrapped with that rubber band….” And I thought it was adorable that you still carry a pack of cards with you wherever you go. “I thought this might be nicer.”

I turn over her hand, showing the bottom where I wood-burned her initials. She lets out a small gasp and runs her fingers over it, “Oh, Lucas….”

Rather close now, I can see all the faded freckles across her nose. “Jaqueline….

In my moments of hesitation to kiss her and then tell the truth, she hugs me instead. Her head sliding just under her chin, the smell of her strawberry shampoo filling my nose. She is just sweet… inside and out.


*


Hey, Charlie, you up?

Barely.

What’s up?

It’s Jackie

Oh? What’d she do now?

Is Peyton bitching again?

No.

I like her…

Peyton’s cool.

No.

I like Jackie.

Like like-like?

Yeah.

So, tell her?

I can’t.

‘Cause of this whole fake relationship thing with Peyton.

And if I tell Jackie we’ve been lying to her?

She’ll probably hate me.

Or maybe she’ll be relieved.

Or maybe she’ll never talk to me again.

What should I do?

Don’t cheat on your girlfriend with her sister.

Ha ha, very fucking funny.


*


Sitting in the local coffee shop, I hold my chilled hands against my hot mug of cocoa. Peyton is still waiting for her drink, some complicated coffee order I could never enjoy. My foot is bouncing, causing the whole table to shake… I just need her to get over here so we can talk.

The thought is: we come clean about not being together, and Peyton tells Jackie it was a joke. That way the blame sort of falls on her and I was just trying to be supportive. That made sense, right? Hell, she could say it was some social experiment that she had to write a paper on, I don’t care. As long as Jackie knows that I have never been with Peyton and don’t ever want to be, it’s all good.

Finally, she slips into her seat. “So, what’s up? Why’d you drag us all the way out here?”

“‘Cause I wanted to talk.”

After a sip of coffee, a brow cocks, “And my house wasn’t good enough?”

“Everyone was there.”

“And your house wasn’t good enough?”

“Everyone was there,” I repeat.

She looks around the busy coffee shop, “So a non-private place for a private conversation? Okay….” But then she actually looks at me, “What’s wrong, Luke?”

“It’s about this whole Jackie thing.”

She cuts me off before I can continue, “You know what my dad wrote in my Christmas card this year? That he was proud of me. Proud of me for my grades, proud of me for budgeting financial aid. Can you believe it? I literally cannot remember the last time he said that – that he was proud of me.”

She takes another long sip. “All those years of him saying ‘why can’t you be more like Jaqueline’ and my step-mom saying all last year ‘well Jaqueline and Rachel are in school, have perfect grades, and a job’. Finally… finally, I’m proving myself – I have proven myself.

“And when I was on the phone with Dad last night, he said it again. He said he was proud that I was acing school, while still balancing my job and social life. And he said he was so happy that I finally found ‘a nice boy’.”

Shaking my head, I am a bit flabbergasted. “And what about when we ‘break up,’ huh? You said for Christmas, maybe New Year’s. What then? How are you going to explain that? How is he going to react to yet another failed relationship?”

I know I’ve gone too far when she sits back in her chair, crossing her arms over her chest. I know I’ve gone too far when she doesn’t speak, thin-lipped and eyebrows raised. I sigh, “Peyton….”

She shakes her head once. “I’m going to say we were better as friends and I made the mature decision to be single and focus on school.”

Of course, she has an answer for anything, but a solution for nothing. She just gets so blind-sided by emotions that she won’t talk about, let alone feel. She’s just going to get her way, no matter who she has to manipulate.

“Jackie,” she continues with a bitter tongue, “has never wanted anything of mine. She’s never, ever been envious of me. She was always the golden child, the perfect one to be compared to. Until now.”

Beyond frustrated, I just stare, “And how could you possibly know that?”

“She told me. And! And you know how bad it is? She told me she’s switching to our university.”

“What?”

“Yes,” she says smugly. “That’s why she came out this Christmas, she wanted to tell Mom in person. How she’s going to be closer and wanting to ride the train in on weekends. But! Anyway, she’ll be starting school with us after the New Year.”


*


So, apparently Jackie’s switching schools.

And will be joining Peyton and me this semester.

That’s awesome!

Now you can pursue a relationship.

It won’t be long distance.

Except I’m still “with” Peyton.

I thought you broke it off with her today.

I couldn’t.

And why not?

She said her dad’s finally proud of her.

So?

So what?

You brought up the whole:

“What happens when we break up” thing, right?

She says -

she’s going to say it was so we can stay friends

and something about focusing on school.

She has a plan.

Again, so what?

Do you really think….

Well, that Jackie’s going to be okay dating her sister’s ex?

Well, no?

But I can tell her the truth.

And make Peyton look psycho?

Well, no….

Uh-huh, exactly.

I’ll -

I’ll figure something out.


Chapter Eleven


If it wasn’t for the fact it was New Year’s Eve to the year 2020, I would be wearing my same old jeans, tee, and flannel. Because, even though we’re going to the same party with the same friends we always do, it’s Roaring Twenties themed to roll into the new decade with glamour and decadence. The once seniors to our freshman are old enough to buy champagne, so they have, along with any other alcohol one might consume.

Peyton had gone so far as to order a navy and silver Flapper dress, with a black headpiece and faux fur shawl. I drew the line of a costume for myself, though, so I ended up with taupe slacks, a brown vest, a forest-green button-down, and what Peyton called a taupe-y ‘paperboy’ hat. (She explained that with the hat, I wouldn’t need a tie.) In front of the mirror, tugging at the vest, I can’t say I look too shabby. A bit out of the ordinary for me, sure, but looking better than I did at prom.

Wallet – check, keys – check, and I eye my new phone. I’d mentioned wanting a better camera, so my parents ended up picking up one of the latest models. So far, I’ve loved it! The back camera is able to take such beautiful photos of the winter weather and close-ups like the wood-burning I’d done. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with an upgraded system and more memory. The only thing I haven’t tried out is the front-facing ‘selfie’ camera, but maybe that’ll change tonight. Maybe with Jackie. Phone – check, and I head downstairs.

Everything’s good, parents are already at the Pullman’s, after my coat on I open the front door. Only to find Jackie there, her hand up to knock.

Her pale hair in the faux bob with those perfect twenties’ waves, Jackie’s also has over-the-top makeup in the best way as she smiles up at me. Between her cream peacoat, I see a pink Flapper dress with rose gold sequence and little faux pearls. She lifts a gloved hand, “Hey.”

“Oh! Jackie! What are you doing here?”

She laughs, a little awkwardly, “Well, Peyton already left and I have no idea where we’re going.”

As I step outside and lock the door, I explain, “Yeah, she and I are kind of in a fight right now.”

“That’s unusual,” Jackie replies more as a statement than a question.

I motion for her to follow me around the house to my car, “Yes. I think the last time we fought was about the whole trip thing over the summer. And before that… well, probably over something stupid in high school – I can’t remember.”

I’d turned on the car some fifteen minutes ago so it greets us with warmth, “She’ll get over it soon enough.”

“What happened?”

Looking behind us to pack out, I try to answer without lying. “Well… for a Ravenclaw, she can be pretty dumb sometimes,” I try to joke. “I just don’t agree with some of her choices lately.”

“And instead of having her take advantage of your Hufflepuff ways, you decided to talk to her?”

My eyes fall on hers for a second and I smile. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

“Well, hopefully, she’ll cool off and you’ll sort it all out.”

Turning onto the next street, I sigh, “She’s my best friend. I wish things weren’t so complicated,” I let slip.

“This whole dating thing not working out so well, huh?”

Another turn, another sigh. “I know some of it my responsibility,” agreeing to this whole bull shit in the first place.

“I don’t know,” she comments quietly. “My sister has a way… of…” but she doesn’t need to explain for me to understand.

I look at her. “But I love her.”

She looks at me. “Me too.”

We both nod and stare straight ahead. “It’s just been a huge misunderstanding,” I confess. “And on top of you changing schools -”

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