“Think I’ll take my coffee outside and enjoy the last morning here.”
There. If Theo has half a brain—which is presently up for debate—he’ll take the hint and follow me outside to talk.
But once I’m sitting on the porch swing, bundled up in a down coat, thick socks, boots, and a blanket, I’m cold from the inside out. I don’t want to shake the foundation of this special place, which is why I’ve never been tempted by Theo’s flirtation, or admitted to anyone but Benny that I have real and tender feelings for Andrew. Our parents’ bedrock friendship is far older than any of us kids.
Lisa and Mom were roommates in college. Dad, Aaron, Ricky, and Benny all lived together in a ramshackle rental off campus; they gave the old Victorian the incredibly creative name of International House of Beer, and from photos it looked like something out of Animal House. After graduation, Aaron moved to Manhattan, where he met and married Kyle Liang and they eventually adopted twins. Ricky and Lisa stayed in Utah, Benny roamed the West Coast before settling in Portland. My parents put down roots in California, where I was born and, eventually, Miles—the Surprise Baby—when I was nine. They divorced three years ago, and Mom is happily remarried. Dad . . . not so much.
Aaron has often said that these friendships saved his life when his mom and brother died unexpectedly in a car accident during junior year, and the group rallied around him to celebrate the holidays together. Even with all these ups and downs in life, the tradition stuck: every December twentieth we give ourselves over to Ricky’s highly specific and detailed Christmas itinerary. We haven’t missed a single year as long as I’ve been alive, even the year my parents divorced. That year wasn’t comfortable—strained is an understatement—but somehow spending time with our non-blood family helped soften the dislocation within our blood family.
The vacation has always been the celebratory red circle on my calendar countdown. The cabin is my oasis not only because Andrew Hollis is here, but also because it’s the perfect winter cabin, the perfect amount of snow, the perfect people, and the perfect level of comfort. The perfect Christmas, and I don’t want to change a thing.
So did I just completely ruin everything?
I lean forward and hug my knees. I am a mess.
“You’re not a mess.”
I startle, looking up to find Andrew standing over me, grinning and holding a steaming mug of coffee. With a view of his face in the bright morning light—mischievous green eyes, the shadowy hint of stubble, and pillow creases on his left cheek—my body reacts predictably: heart takes a flying leap off a cliff and stomach sinks warm and low in my belly. He is both exactly who I wanted to see right now and the last person I want to know what’s bothering me.
Trying to remember what my hair looks like, I pull the blanket up to my chin, wishing I’d taken the time to put on a bra. “Was I talking to myself?”
“You sure were.” He smiles, and Lord, if the sun doesn’t come out from behind the clouds. Dimples so deep I could lose all my hopes and dreams inside them. I swear his teeth sparkle. As if on cue, a perfect brown curl falls over his forehead. You have got to be kidding me.
And oh my God, I made out with his brother. Guilt and regret mix sourly in the back of my throat.
“Did I reveal my plans to overthrow the government and install Beyoncé in her rightful place as our fearless leader?” I ask, deflecting.
“I must have come in after that part.” Andrew gazes at me with amusement. “I just heard you say that you’re a mess.” Something’s in his expression, some playful twinkle I can’t quite translate. Dread gives me a swift kick to the solar plexus.
I point to his face. “What’s happening here?”
“Oh, nothing.” He sits down beside me, puts his arm around my shoulders, and plants a kiss on the top of my head. The kiss is distracting enough for the dread to dissolve, and I work to not grab for him as he pulls away. If I could ever be on the receiving end of a long, tight Andrew Hollis hug, it would be the affection equivalent of chugging down a tall glass of water on a scorching day. I know I’ve never deserved him—he’s too good for any mortal—but it never stopped me from wanting him anyway.
A film of unease settles back over me when he laughs out my name against my hair.
“You’re awfully chipper this morning,” I say.
“And you are not,” he remarks, leaning forward to playfully study my face. The headphones around his neck fall forward slightly, and I can tell he never bothered to turn off the music; “She Sells Sanctuary” by the Cult filters tinnily through them. “What’s going on, Maisie?”
This is what we do together; we become our old-person characters Mandrew and Maisie. We make our voices shaky and high-pitched—to play, to confide, to tease—but I’m too freaked out to play along. “Nothing.” I shrug. “Didn’t sleep well.” The lie feels oily on my tongue.
“Um . . .” My internal organs disintegrate “Sort of?”
“So you and my brother, huh?”
Everything in my head is incinerated. Brain ash blows out onto the snow. “Oh my God.”
Andrew’s shoulders lift when he laughs. “You two kids! Sneaking around!”
“Andrew—it’s not a thing—I don’t—”
“No, no. It’s okay. I mean, no one is surprised, right?” He pulls back to get a look at my expression. “Hey, relax, you’re both adults.”
I groan, burying my face in my arms. He doesn’t get it, and worse—he really doesn’t care.
His tone softens, instantly apologetic. “I didn’t realize you’d be so freaked out. I was just messing with you. I mean, to be honest I figured it was just a matter of time before you and Theo—”
“Andrew, no.” I look around, desperate now. A surprise escape hatch would be a great discovery. Instead, a glint of silver catches my eye—the sleeve of Andrew’s hilariously awful holiday sweater hanging over the edge of the trash can. Miso, the Hollises’ corgi, got ahold of it on Christmas Eve and Lisa must’ve decided it was beyond saving. I wouldn’t mind joining it in the trash right now. “It’s not like that between us.”
“Hey. It’s fine, Maisie.” I can tell he’s surprised at the degree of my alarm, and he puts a reassuring hand on my arm, misinterpreting my meltdown: “I won’t tell anyone else.”
Mortification and guilt surge in my throat. “I—I can’t believe he told you.”
“He didn’t,” Andrew says. “I came back to the house last night because I left my phone in the kitchen, and saw you two.”
Andrew saw us? Please, let me die here.
“Come on, don’t make such a big deal about a little kissing. You’re talking to the guy whose mom moves the mistletoe around the house every day. Half this group has kissed each other at some point.” He gives me a noogie and, if possible, my mortification deepens. “Dad sent me out here to call you in for breakfast.” He playfully jabs my shoulder, like a pal. “I just wanted to give you some shit.”
With a little wink, Andrew turns and heads back into the house, and I am left trying to find my sanity.
• • •
Inside, holiday music still tinkles silvery through the air. The living room is now home to the remnants of Christmas: a stack of broken-down boxes, trash bags stuffed with wrapping paper, and storage bins full of folded ribbons to reuse next year. Suitcases have been lined up near the front door. While I was freaking out on the porch, the kitchen filled, and I’ve apparently just missed the hilarity of Dad and Aaron getting caught on the landing together under Lisa’s location-hopping mistletoe.
Breakfast is already in full swing: Mom has added the last bit of ham to eggs and potatoes and whatever else was still in the fridge for a casserole. Lisa pulls some Danish sigtebrød out of the pantry, and Ricky piles plates with pancakes and bacon. We’re a sluggish bunch, full of the months’ worth of calories we each ingested in the past two days, but I know, too, that we’re shuffling around morosely because it’s our last morning together. I’m not the only person in this room dreading returning to the humdrum of a nine-to-five life.
In a few hours Mom, Dad, Miles, and I will load up and drive to the airport. We’ll fly back to Oakland together, and then separate at arrivals. Mom’s new husband, Victor, will be back from his annual trip with his two grown daughters and will have flowers and kisses for Mom. Dad will drive alone back to his condo near UCSF. We probably won’t see him for weeks.
And on Monday, I’ll return to a job I don’t have the guts to quit. The life I want to enjoy. I just don’t. In a twist of stellar timing, my phone chimes brightly with a reminder to email a profit-and-loss spreadsheet to my boss by tomorrow morning. I haven’t even opened my laptop since we arrived. Guess I know what I’ll be doing on the drive to the airport. Every cell in my body feels droopy when I think about it.
We all find our seats around steaming platters of food.
Phones are supposed to be off-limits during meals, but Miles and his enormous brown eyes always manage to get away with murder, and nobody wants the hassle of arguing with Theo, who is now nose-deep in Instagram, liking photo after photo of models, muscle cars, and golden retrievers. He still won’t look at me. Won’t talk to me. As far as he’s concerned, I’m not even here.
I can feel Benny watching me with that gentle, perceptive way of his, and I meet his eyes briefly. I hope he reads the skywriting there: ANDREW SAW ME AND THEO MAKING OUT AND I WOULD VERY MUCH LIKE TO DISSOLVE THROUGH THE FLOORBOARDS NOW.
Kyle hums while he pours a mug of coffee. He must have a Hangover Jesus somewhere, suffering for his sins, because even after the cocktailpalooza last night, Kyle still looks like he could glide onto any Broadway stage and dance his way into next week. By contrast, his husband, Aaron, didn’t drink a drop but looks haggard anyway: He’s been going through a bit of a midlife crisis.