For the first thirty seconds or so, I feel like I’m drowning in the sound of everything else in the room and the contrasting quiet between us. But then the stilted awareness dissolves, and I can focus on the lights, the dangling gold ornament just to my right, the laminated picture of Theo and Andrew as little kids hanging on the branch nearby. I can focus on his warm, easy presence next to me. Andrew’s arm presses along the length of mine and we just lie like that, breathing in tandem.
His stomach growls, and it makes me giggle again, and he shushes me. I turn to look at him, and he’s already looking at me, and with a knowing twinkle in his eyes, he lifts his finger to his lips and whispers, “No talking. I just want to be under the tree with you.”
December twenty-second. Still here.
And today’s theme—Sled Day—is my favorite. Unfortunately, I can imagine a million ways the universe might give me a failing grade and send me back to the start: An enormous tree branch on my head. A boulder thrown in my path. Comedic music as a backdrop while the camera captures me— the lone holiday tourist—caught at the center of an avalanche.
With trepidation, I set my feet onto the cold basement floor.
The house is quiet as I shuffle across the kitchen to stand in the window—my breath fogs up the cold glass in front of me. The gently falling flakes from last night transitioned into a full-blown storm while we slept, and the world has turned wintry white. Trees bow under the weight of fresh snow. The mountains wear sparkling, powdery caps. I’d never get tired of this view.
Lisa’s cookie bars are still on the counter, so I pick up the plate and dump them straight into the trash, covering the evidence with yesterday’s coffee grounds, and start a fresh pot. What do I have to lose?
On a roll now, I get breakfast started. Why wait for Mom to get up?
The smell of coffee and cooking meat is like a siren call and people slowly tumble in. Soon the TV is on in the other room, the theme music to How the Grinch Stole Christmas! filtering through the house.
“Thank you for getting this started, honey.” Mom pulls her hair back into a bun, slips on her Mrs. Claus apron, and takes the wooden spoon from my hand, wordlessly telling me that she’ll take it from here.
When I stand over the sink, I see Andrew already outside and shoveling the driveway. He’s got a beanie tugged low over his hair but even from here I can see his cheeks flushed against the cold, the way his coat stretches across his back. The coat is thick, but I can easily imagine the way his muscles shift with the effort he’s taking to dig the shovel beneath heavy piles of—
“Mae, honey, can you hand me the—oh.”
I startle, turning to find my mother standing beside me. “What? What’s ‘oh’?”
She struggles to look oblivious. “Nothing. Just needed”— she grabs a spatula from the drying rack—“this.”
“I was just looking at the view while I clean up.”
I turn on the water, rinse a clean dish again. “It’s pretty out.”
She lifts a brow and glances at the window. “It is pretty.”
I give her a look. Indulging my mother in this kind of thing will only lead to disaster. “The snow.”
Feet shuffle behind us, and a groggy Theo mumbles, “Did it snow?”
“It did.” Mom looks at Andrew once more, and then gives me a playful smirk before walking away. When I turn back to the window, Andrew is looking up at the house, and when our eyes meet, he throws a cheeky little wave.
My face flushes and I return the wave before turning off the faucet. I have no idea if he caught me watching him, or if I just caught him watching me, but my heart is pounding. No matter what he said last night, I don’t think we’re going back to normal anytime soon.
• • •
I’m sure no mother alive would be surprised by how long it takes us to get out of the house. Is every family such a mess? Miles walks in on Aaron in the shower and slips on the bathmat in an attempt to flee. Kyle can’t find his boots. Ricky can’t find his keys. Kennedy doesn’t like pants, and Theo gets sidetracked looking for WD-40 in the basement because his truck door is squeaking. When we’re all finally ready, we pile into our small caravan of vehicles for the short drive up the mountain. Once we step out of the cars, the wind is bitingly cold; we’re no longer protected by the thick trees near the cabin. In the end, Kennedy is glad she wore pants.
Bundled head to toe, we hop on the ski lift and watch as the trees and sledders on the slopes grow smaller and smaller beneath us. It snowed way more up here than in the valley, and the view is glorious. The sky is crystal blue, and the air is clear and smells like cold and pine, the storm having knocked down any lingering haze.
The wind at the top is brutal, and we all bend into it as we negotiate who is sledding with whom. Dad hovers, waiting for me to climb on board with him, but the truth is that I’m pretty sure he wants off the hook anyway.
Dad is a terrible sled partner. He can drive a car as capably as the next guy, but he’s like a nervous grandmother on the sled. Reactive and anxious and jittery. More often than not we end up tumbling over sideways, which makes Dad feel justified in his trepidation. We’ll spend the rest of the descent slowly scooting our way down the mountainside, with Dad’s heels dug into the trail and his hand liberally working the brake, while other sledders get run after happy-screaming run down the slope.
With Kyle standing to the side, already shivering in his one thousand layers of clothing, I decide to channel Fuck-It Mae.
“Dad, do you really want to do this?” I ask.
“Of course,” he says, unconvincingly.
“You don’t even like sledding.” I point to a teeth-chattering Kyle. “Why don’t you two go hang out in the lodge?”
Kyle shuffles closer. “Did someone say ‘lodge’?”
Dad frowns at me. “Don’t you like sledding together, Noodle?” But it’s a half-hearted guilt trip at best. The idea of being in the lodge instead—hanging with Kyle and drinking spiked cider near a roaring fire—has quickly captured him.
I lift my chin. “Go.”
They don’t need to be told twice: Dad and Kyle hop on the ski lift and head back down the mountain toward warmth, food, and booze.
Miles is already off, flying down the hill solo. Mom and Lisa are riding together. Aaron has Kennedy, Ricky has Zachary, and a quiet hush falls over the ten-foot radius around me, Andrew, and Theo as we do the math: there are two sleds remaining, one single-rider and one two-person.
These guys are both well over six feet tall; they couldn’t share a sled even if they wanted to. At five foot five, I know I’m going to ride with one of them, and usually I’d ask Theo to go with me because I would be nonverbal with nerves if I rode that closely with Andrew.
But now, the thought of settling between his spread legs, of his arms banded around my waist and his breath in my hair doesn’t make me nervous. It makes me hungry.
How does it make Andrew feel, though? Yes, he followed me under the tree last night, and yes, he seemed to like being there. But the very last thing I’d ever want to do is put him in an awkward position, now that he knows how I feel.
Before I can offer to go with Theo, Andrew steps forward, grabbing the rope for the two-person sled and giving me a little waggle of his brows. “Wanna ride with me, Maisie?”
I require no arm-twisting. “I do.”
If Theo is at all annoyed, it doesn’t show, because he jumps in front of a couple in their twenties, hops on his sled, and takes off down the slope with a whoop. Thank God.
Andrew drags me out of my thoughts. “Why aren’t you wearing a hat?”
I reach up, touching my hair. “Shit.” I left it in the car. Not only is it insanely cold out, but my coat doesn’t have a hood. Once we hit full speed on the sled, my ears are going to turn into icicles.
Andrew pulls his from his head and tugs it down over mine, but I protest. “Mandrew, you don’t have to give me yours.”
He lifts his hood up and grins at me. “My lice will like your hair better anyway.”
“Gross.” I lean in to plant a thank-you kiss on his cheek, connecting with the soft, chilly stubble there.
I’m suddenly glad that Theo is already halfway down the mountain, that my mom isn’t here to give me her little raised eyebrow, and that the people behind us have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that.
I pull back and he grins at me, but suddenly there’s an obvious awareness there, because while I hug him all the time, I don’t kiss him that often. Now I don’t know where to look. My gaze wants to sink to his mouth, but that would be a terrible choice because I worry it’d be stuck there, immobile. Too late. His lips are red from the wind, full like usual, totally fascinating. When I drag my attention back up to his face, Andrew’s eyes seem extra bright out here, more intense than usual.
“What was that for?” he asks.
“Well, for the record, I’m always here for kisses.”
He breaks the tension and sits down, sliding to the back of the sled and patting the space between his legs. My pulse trips. “Climb aboard, Maisie.” Andrew looks up at me, and my heart does an aching nosedive. “There are adventures to be had.”
It was one thing to hug him, but it’s an entirely different experience sliding between his strong legs, feeling one of his arms around my waist and the low vibration of his voice in my ear.
I nod, leaning back just a little, and Andrew releases the brake, lifts his feet to bracket my calves, and pushes off with his free hand. We work together, humping the sled forward in a way that makes me want to explode in embarrassment because it is beyond sexual, but then we are gaining speed, sliding faster and faster down the hillside.
His arm tightens around me, and without thinking I grab on to his legs, holding them tight, leaning back into him. I can feel the sturdy weight of his body behind mine, the way he grips me with his thighs. I’ve always known Andrew to be kind, generous, and playful. But the way he engulfs me on the sled makes me aware of his physical strength and brawn. A flash of an image tears through me: Andrew’s bare legs, his stomach clenched, head thrown back in pleasure.