I laugh out an awkward ha-ha, but the room goes deathly silent . . . until I very audibly swallow. I want to be eaten by the floor.
But I can’t stop now. With a rush of bravery, I walk the rest of the way across the room to hand him the gift wrapped in heavy, glossed green paper with a matte red bow. After I finished making it, Mom wrapped it for me, handing it to me with tears in her eyes and a single kiss to the palm of my hand.
“I wanted to give you this,” I say. “It’s called Happiness.”
Finally, he tilts his head back down and opens his eyes, but he doesn’t look at me. He warily studies the wrapped package in my hands. “What is it?”
“Just open it.”
At the confused flicker of his eyes to mine, I add, “It’s a Maelyn Jones original. In an Elise Jones–painted frame. We did it today.”
Tentatively—reverently—he takes it. With fingertips that have touched nearly every inch of my skin, he easily pulls free the silken bow. The rip of the thick paper tears through the room. The gift hasn’t been put in a box, it’s wrapped as-is: a framed drawing, charcoal on paper.
I wonder briefly where Mom found the simple wooden frame to decorate lovingly with brilliantly painted quaking aspen—whether Lisa pulled something old and unsentimental out to make room, or whether Benny helped Mom dig through the attic—but I don’t really have time to dwell on the question, because Andrew sucks in a breath and then becomes an inflatable doll with all of the air sucked out. He’s sweetly deflated.
In my sketch, the figure is easily in his eighties, but clearly Andrew. I worked to capture the warm kindness of his eyes, the wild disobedience of his hair, the playful curve of his mouth. And the woman at his side is very clearly me. I tried to age-soften my cheekbones, to capture the round swell of my bottom lip and the wide depth of my smiling eyes.
We’re sitting on the porch swing of the cabin, side by side, fingers interlaced. My left hand rests on my lap and is decorated with a simple wedding band. Andrew has clearly said something that made me laugh; my mouth is open, head tilted back in glee, and his eyes shine with a delighted, cocky pride. We aren’t hamming it up for anyone; don’t even seem aware there might be someone nearby, capturing this moment.
Who knows what we’ve been through in the past sixty years, but we’re still undeniably happy.
“Mandrew and Maisie,” I tell him quietly, voice thick. “I didn’t have time to do a full painting, but I think I like it like this. This way, it’s only a sketch, just a possibility. Even if it never turns into more, you are the only one who makes me that happy, and I am so grateful for it.”
Leaning forward, I quickly kiss his forehead, and turn to leave before I burst into tears.
I save that for the moment I step outside, alone, into the snow.
• • •
I don’t feel like going back to the cabin. Indoors sounds oddly claustrophobic right now. I’ve had so many big revelations over the past few days that it almost seems like I need some quiet time to digest them, let everything consolidate so I can figure out where to go from here.
The driveway leading away from the cabin is about a quarter mile long and is freshly plowed. My boots crunch over the thin, packed snow, but it’s an unseasonably warm afternoon and I can hear ice melting from tree branches in a lively cacophony of drips and splatters. Out at the main road and suddenly unsheltered from the wind, I zip up my coat and veer left, walking another quarter mile or so to a street that is nearly as familiar as my street back home.
Andrew, Theo, and I used to take this walk all the time when our parents wanted us out of the house. We’d pick up sticks and use them as swords, walking sticks, or magic wands. We’d take turns pointing out which of the cabins we would each buy when we were older and what we would do each day of the week once we were permanent neighbors. We’d cut into the trees and search unsuccessfully for bear dens or hunters’ traps. Over the years some of the houses have sold and been remodeled or even completely renovated. But the small street lacks some of the ostentatious sheen of other parts of ritzy Park City; even the renovated houses kept the sheltered woodland vibe. In the middle of summer, if you squint down the street you can still see the winter wonderland ready to emerge.
Smoke puffs up from chimneys and an overlapping medley of holiday music filters out to the road. At my favorite home on this street—an ivy-covered stone building that feels like a gnome’s house in the woods—I stop, looking up to the wide bay window facing the street from inside. Two shadowed bodies move around in the front room, near the brightly lit Christmas tree. Another is busy in the kitchen. Even out here I smell roasting turkey and the buttery salt of pies cooling, mingled with the sharp clean scent of cold pine trees. If I’d thought to bring my sketchbook with me, I would draw this scene, right here.
If I’m so happy here in the snow, I think, why don’t I live somewhere it snows? It’s a sudden mental realignment, the realization that I don’t need to stay in California, and I don’t have to try to shoehorn my life into the current template. I can move. I can dig around in the tunnels of my thoughts to imagine my dream job. I can figure out who the hell Maelyn Jones really is. I took my shot with Andrew, and it’s out of my hands now, but it doesn’t mean I have to let the other threads of bravery fall away.
• • •
My mood, bright from epiphany, dips as soon as I walk back inside the cabin and realize Andrew’s is not one of the bodies in the living room.
“Hey, guys,” I say.
The boisterous chatter comes to an abrupt stop at my entrance. Miles bolts upright. “Hi, Mae.”
Everyone stares at me expectantly. I was not anticipating my return to be so carefully clocked. “Hi . . .”
Zachary rolls over facedown onto the rug, giggling.
“What’s up? Do I have a bird’s nest on my head?”
Aaron runs his fingers through his black-hole hair, saying, “No. You don’t,” like I might have been asking seriously.
Finally, Lisa asks, “Did you come in through the mudroom?”
I shake my head. “The front door. Why?”
They continue to stare at me like they’re waiting for me to say something else.
“Okay. Um . . . is Andrew still out in the Boathouse?”
“He’s—” Kennedy begins at the same time Ricky blurts, “Was it cold outside?”
Blinking in confusion, I give him a drawn out “Yes?”
I look down at my new watch and realize I was gone for nearly two hours and didn’t look to see if Andrew’s car was still in the driveway. I’d ask if he’s here, but I’m not sure I want to know.
I turn awkwardly in place, unsure what to do with myself. “Well, you’re all acting like weirdos, so I’ll be down in the basement for a bit. Let me know when I can help with dinner.”
“You should go upstairs,” Zachary sings into the floor.
Every head in the room bobs in agreement.
I stare at them quizzically for a beat before saying, “Okaaaay. I’ll do that.” At least it gives me an excuse to escape. I shuffle down the hall, rounding the banister to begin climbing the stairs, but my foot lands on something and it crunches beneath the sole of my sock. I lift my foot, pick the item off the bottom, and study the silver object.
It’s a flattened peppermint kiss. I’m lost in bewilderment for a breath, but then my eyes focus back on the floor, and I realize there’s another one only a foot away in either direction: one leading upstairs, and one leading back to the kitchen, where I would normally come in from a walk.
Hope glimmers silvery at the edges of my thoughts. I jog up the stairs and follow the trail of candy down the hall and around the corner. It leads directly to Andrew’s bedroom, and stops just outside his closet.
My heart is an absolute maniac in my rib cage as I pull open the door, and Andrew squints into the light.
“That was a monster walk, Maisie. I’ve been waiting to hide for like a half hour.”
I’m nearly too stunned to speak, but apparently not too stunned to burst into tears. “Andrew?”
From the base of the stairs comes a burst of applause and cheers.
“I told you to go upstairs!” Zachary shouts before it sounds like someone claps a hand over his mouth and carries him out of yelling range.
With a raspy laugh, Andrew pulls me forward into the closet.
I wonder if I’m shouting, but my heartbeat is so loud in my ears it’s thunderous. “What’s going on?”
His voice is gentle, and the tiniest bit suggestive: “What does it look like?”
It looks like he’s sweetly lured me here, like he’s staring at my mouth, like he’s about to kiss me. But given my fragile, blown-sugar emotional state, it would probably be a very bad idea to assume anything right now.
“Well.” I bite my lip and look around the small, dim space. Stating the facts seems like a safe place to start. “It looks like you left a trail of my favorite candy so I’d find you in this closet.”
He gives me a bright flash of teeth when he smiles. I feel his hand as it carefully comes over my waist and slides down to my hip, fingers pressing, coaxing me closer. “Any idea why?”
I’m on the verge of replying that, to be safe, he’d better say it, but the words feel tired and dusty in my throat. What comes out surprises me: “You wanted to get me alone in the spot where we first kissed so you could admit that I was right all along.”
Andrew bends and presses his lips to mine once, gently. “You were right all along, Maisie.”
I know he’s talking about us, and what I said in the Boathouse, but the smell of peppermint lingers on his breath. “I know I was: peppermint kisses are delicious.”
He laughs, exhaling a warm puff of air across my neck. “Did you know that they are in fact called ‘Hershey’s Kisses Candy Cane Mint Candies,’ and they’re ‘white creme and the refreshing crunch of peppermint’?” He kisses my throat. “Which means, of course, they aren’t technically white chocolate. I don’t have to shame you for loving them anymore.”