Oh, why you look so sad?
Tears are in your eyes
Come on and come to me now
Don't be ashamed to cry
Let me see you through
'Cause I've seen the dark side too
When the night falls on you
You don't know what to do
Nothing you confess
Could make me love you less
I'll stand by you
I'll stand by you
Won't let nobody hurt you
I'll stand by you
So if you're mad, get mad
Don't hold it all inside
Come on and talk to me now
Hey, what you got to hide?
I get angry too
Well I'm a lot like you
When you're standing at the crossroads
And don't know what path to choose
Let me come along
'Cause even if you're wrong
I'll stand by you
I'll stand by you
Won't let anybody hurt you
I'll stand by you
Take me in, into your darkest hour
And I'll never desert you
I'll stand by you
When the night falls on you, baby
You're feeling all alone
You won't be on your own
I'll Stand By You - The Pretenders
The shadows curled about her in the ravenous night. She was luminous in her slumbering state; her pallid features in addition to her blonde curls the only indication of her quiet presence. Her lips were rosy with life, and with warmth he was lucky to have bestowed upon him on rare occasions. At times he wondered to himself if he had meaning and significance to his life beyond her. Sometimes her being so angelic, he hoped nobody would notice how selfish he was. How he wanted her all to himself. But never would he admit those words, for he knew in all good favour he didn’t deserve her. He had lit a fire under her these past months.
Independence seemed worth the effort at first. Digging himself into a fraternity didn’t seem like such a bad idea either. But he realized the deeper he dug, the higher she set herself apart from him. College life he figured would be the time they would’ve grown closer. After all, they had been inseparable in their friendship since high school, since Capeside, since Boston perhaps. Living together, attending the same college, they were too close to being driven apart. That was the story until now, at least. Now some horrible occurrence of loss sat in the pit of his stomach. He had lost her. The harder he tried to be his own person, the harder she had tried to live without him. And she was. She was living without him perfectly fine, which didn’t pass through his thoughts so easily. He felt deceit. Deceit that she would let him do this to her, deceit that he had let himself do this to her. She was the only thing that made him man. With her, he wasn’t just some stereotypical classification of a gay guy or some loser with a sexuality deficiency. He was a man. He was the man that could be everything to her; the man that she wanted to be everything to her.
The elderly rocking chair squealed its ancient protests to the subtle rocking motion he forced upon it. In the hidden corner of her room, he found solace. It was easier to let his myriad of emotions and clinging thoughts to vanish by doing this. Just watching her, in the middle of the night. She was most beautiful without the dark makeup lining her eyelids, or the flamboyant lipstick shading her lips. He preferred to memorize her beauty this way. It was natural, so to speak. The way her fingertips fidgeted restlessly with the blanket that trapped her in a cocoon earned a sentimental smile out of him. The habits only he had cared to notice about her, she took everywhere. Even in her dreams.
“Morning, grams,” he offered a sincere smile in greeting to her aging radiance as she made her way into the kitchen where he was busying himself making breakfast.
“What is that?” her voice was quaint as she gestured to the rather sickening mixture of egg yolks he was attempting to transform into something worth eating.
“Eh…it’s called Jack’s surprise,” he trailed with uncertainty, staring down upon it unsuccessfully.
“I don’t like surprises,” she chuckled heartily.
“Oh, women are so hard to please in this house. You. Jen. What’s a guy to do?” he grinned before hoisting her fragile physique against him with a tight embrace.
If there was anyone who gave Jen competition in his life, it was this ragged old woman. She was alive with spirits that drove him to be the kind of person he wanted to be. She had taken him in as her own grandson, being his only family in his world though she was not even related to him and had no obligations to his happiness. But she had made that her obligation. She had tried her hardest to give him sufficient love. For that, he would never deny her anything in this world.
“Christmas holidays start for you and Jennifer today, don’t they?” she inquired as she scanned through her cupboards for the ingredients she needed for her daily supply of morning tea.
“That they do,” he smirked as he passed over the mug of tea sitting on the counter that he had already prepared for her, knowing her daily routine. She thanked him with a frazzled roll of her eyes.
“Well, then. You could decorate the Christmas tree for me?” though her tone rose to meet a questioning point, he had already known that she had planned for him to do it despite his answer. But as his lips parted to respond, the blonde Jennifer Lindley jovially launched herself down the staircase.
“I’ll do it!”
“Hey, that was supposed to be my line,” he grumbled as she advanced, clad in her soft blue pajamas while her blonde curls waved evenly over her shoulders.
“If you can claim lines, then I can definitely claim decorating privileges,” she countered him casually, so he feigned defeat. They had always had these platonic, playful arguments in the past. But unfortunately, he could never tell now whether they were more on the ‘I loathe you’ side with all the disagreements that had been popping up in their new college lives.
“You both can do it,” Jen’s grandmother concluded in the midst of their mockery, waving her hands to fend them off as she left the kitchen.
“So…would you like toppings for your omelet?” he questioned her preferences, sliding the unappetizing creation from the frying pan onto a plate. He noticed her brows furrow subtly as she eyed it.
“Uh, no thanks. I’m allergic to eggs.”
He sat on the comfort of the sofa in the family room. The entire household was thick and heavy with the aromas of Christmas. Grams’ baking in the other part of the house had the remarkable ability to deliciously weave its way into his nostrils. It filled his lungs with undeniable warmth, warmth that was more pleasant than the chills belonging to winter. Then there was the distinct awakening of the spiced cinnamon stick that remained settled in his scalding apple cider. But nothing amounted to the soothing perfume of the pinewood Christmas tree. It was indescribable, and nothing short of heavenly. Neither was the site of it.
The tree was not overly sized, yet good in proportion. Its branches were laced with decorative lights that beamed so gently, so tranquilly. Ornaments of all sizes, all shapes, all colours accented its beauty to an even higher degree. And in the midst of it all was Jen. She was balanced upon an unsteady ladder, her short height not giving her the elevation she needed to reach the top. Yet her brows were heavy with concentration, her tongue curling out the corner of her mouth in determination as she stretched to cradle the angel figurine atop the very tip of the tree. You could tell a sense of accomplishment was achieved, for she propped herself back with eyes that danced with delight while she looked over her creation. As if a child, every small tradition of this holiday she cherished fully and with the innocence he had always loved about her. Until her grandmother had taken her in, her mother had not really had the gift of giving in her. Jen had rarely been able to take part in a family type of Christmas celebration. So now, she was definitely going to value what she had. And so was he.
“What are you staring at?” her heavy lidded gaze was adverted to his, gazing down upon him with her translucent orbs.
“Nothing. It just looks like a giant cucumber,” he teased.
“At least it looks like something, unlike your pitiful attempt at breakfast this morning,” she returned without a blink.
“I was just joking, Jen. It’s breathtaking. Absolutely breathtaking,” he smiled to her with an obvious sincerity. She immediately fled his gaze. It seemed nowadays they could never truly look upon each other with pure honesty like they used to. She was scared to look at him. Like he was some ugly existence she wished she were rid of. He remembered once upon a time when she looked upon him like there was nothing else in this world she loved more, like he was beautiful in her eyes if nobody else’s. That was the way he still looked upon her. If he looked upon her any other way, he felt the overpowering embedment of his senses. It wasn’t the complications of lying to her face…but the complications of lying to her eyes. He loved the way she expressed every emotion she felt through her eyes. And if he lied to her eyes, he was lying to everything she was. It was a weakness she had found in him, and yet, she was needless enough to not take advantage of it.
His reflection bled with the shock of the jacket he wore. It was his newly acquired fraternity jacket, which now inducted him as a true member. He smoothed out the material as it moved across his body like a rippling tide. His vigilance became unwavering at the form that was presented by the mirror before him. This jacket intoxicated him. He put on a façade, wearing it with the pride he thought he would’ve achieved by joining this college fraternity. But in all truth, he despised it. It was just something else to hide behind, something else to prove his self worth by. This jacket was sewn together with frustration, lies, and a new coldness that he had fit into his personality. His shoulders shrugged the material about to achieve comfort, exhaling incompletely as he readied himself for another traditional fraternity meeting at the fraternity house that had become his main hang out.
Grams and Jen had gone off together earlier to do the Christmas shopping they felt obligated to do. But now, alone in this house, a sickening illness wallowed in his stomach. He had an obligation to this fraternity, one so strong he couldn’t really acknowledge anymore what his role to play was.
The chimes of the doorbell alarmed him from his baffling thoughts, sending him down the flight of stairs to the front door in a hurry.
“Be right there!”
As the door widened, he was struck with this overwhelming sensation of relief that basked him in utter comfort. He felt as if every trouble that inhibited him had decayed and been replaced with nothing but complete carelessness.
“Andie!” his features pronounced the sudden joy at the blissful blonde before him. His very own sister, towed away from Italy. His brawny mass engulfed her in an embrace that could easily have drawn the very life out of her.
“And I thought nobody missed me,” her light chuckle and cheerful features were taken in by all his senses, lapping up her optimistic presence.
“What are you doing here?” he flashed her a wild smile, stunned by the very thought of her in his arms again.
“Well…I get Christmas break in Italy, too, believe it or not. And I figured after being away from my brother and best friends since last year, it was about time I gave up on phone calls and letters and went for the whole nine yards to come and surprise visit them in Boston,” she smiled warmly, overflowing with a bubbly nature.
“But…but how?” his eyes were wide with complete surprise.
“There’s such things called airplanes,” she chuckled.
“Why didn’t you call me and tell me you were coming? I could’ve picked you up at the airport!” his voice was booming with a loudness he voiced unknowingly, clutching to her shoulders as he stared down upon her dumbfounded.
“But then it wouldn’t be a surprise, Jackers. Plus, Boston, unlike Capeside or Italy, has taxis patrolling every inch of cement you walk on. It was easy to catch a ride. Though I must say my driver was a bit on the cuckoo side with his…”
“I can’t believe you’re here!” he cut off her absentminded rambling, propelling her against him in another tight hold.
“Well believe it, bro,” she muffled into the compression he inflicted upon her petite physique.
“Wait until grams and Jen see you! And Pacey, and Joey!”
Her lips upturned into a small smile, one that tingled his spine with its familiarity and at last granted his restless heart peace for however brief a moment it was. He had sincerely missed this girl…this woman that stood before him. This was his only blood family left, this single sister figure before him.
“What’s with the fancy James Dean look?” she grinned, tugging lightly at the fraternity jacket he sported.
“Well…nothing really. Just this…”
“Fraternity? Yeah, I heard about it from Jen even though you decided to keep it under wraps,” she supplied with a gentle simper.
“Unfortunately, I’ve got a meeting in a few minutes. I was just on my way out when you decided to show your pretty face. So you have two choices, lounge around here until I get back, or join me. The boys wouldn’t mind,” he offered casually, smiling down upon her with fondness.
“I’ll pick what’s behind curtain number two,” she joked, squirming with the anxiousness she was always well known for.
“That it is then, McPhee.”
The ambiance was all too familiar for him. As they made their ingression into the fraternity house, music blared unconsciously from speakers that surrounded the entirety of it. Voices from all around buzzed, hooted, and hollered for what it was worth. The smells of cigarette ashes and lingering alcohol coated the walls. In the distance the sounds of balls in a pool game ricocheting off one another could be heard.
“Jack, my man!”
An opposing male advanced to him, slapping high fives in a traditional greeting. He couldn’t place a name to the face, but that was the usual case. Everyone here was your best friend. Everyone here was your brother, not mattering if you knew who or what they were. He often wondered if it was some conspiracy in the shadows.
“Jack! Hey, Jack! Get over here, man!”
He rose on tiptoes over the crowd to spot a familiar friend of his within the fraternity, midway in a game of pool. He grinned, tossing a wave.
“C’mon,” he signaled to his following sister, who was oblivious to her surroundings though intrigued by them. He tugged her along, making a pathway through the other guys until he met up with his closest frat brother, Scott Raden.
“Jack, my brother, what’s up?” the beautiful male smiled with radiance, tugging him into an impish embrace of the male sorts, slapping one another on the back’s with a force that was complimenting.
“Not much, not much. I’d like you to meet my sister, Andie. Just flew in from Italy,” he gently pressured the blonde from behind him towards the other male, placing his hands upon her shoulders from behind.
“Always a pleasure. Any family of Jack’s is family of ours,” Scott’s hand extended to grip the blonde’s, smiling warmly before nodding to a few other latecomers and disappearing within the crowd. The entire place was bustling with activity.
“This is your meeting?” Andie whispered.
“Not always,” he chuckled at her inquiry.
“Oh, so it varies? What, one day you have a drinking meeting, the next a wrestling meeting, the next…”
“Andie, just relax,” he interrupted her firmly.
“Hey, you two want anything to drink?” Scott suddenly returned with a large pitcher of amber liquid, and by the stench it was some nameless brand of beer.
“Yes, sir!” he chuckled ferociously, snapping the entire pitcher as he began to chug down the alcohol. The surrounding crowds worked their way into a chant, clapping wildly as they cheered him on.
“Go! Chug, chug, chug!” Scott screamed wildly with the others, clapping in rhythm with his swallows.
He was drowned from his senses, concentrating on the cool warmth of the alcohol tearing down his throat in a flurry of excitement. Droplets of it fled from the corners of his mouth and eased down the exterior of his throat.
“Jack, that’s enough,” Andie interrupted the games, snaking the nearly emptied pitcher from his grasp with a stern gaze. The crowds hushed and debated whether to wait out the following argument, or to just continue what they were doing. Luckily they chose the latter and all attention was drawn away from him except for Scott.
“Andie, it’s nothing,” he argued, glaring at her with irritation.
“Hey, man, no worries,” Scott’s comforting touch rested upon his shoulder.
“Give me your key to the house. I’m going back home,” his sister informed him defiantly.
“Fine. Go back. Just remember it’s not your house, it’s mine,” he dismissed her with a wave of his hand, passing her the keys with a muffled snarl.
“No it’s not. That is grams’ and Jen’s house. This is your house, Jack. This is where you live,” she added indignantly before retreating.
Where he lived? Where he died. No longer did he belong to the household where grams and Jen made him family. Now he belonged to this new family. This was the family that provided him with complete acceptance, so he had thought. But now the love his true family had given him was running out.
“Lets go, Jack. Forget about her. She doesn’t understand us,” Scott concluded, tugging him off into the jinxed crowd of nobody’s.
The window was no barrier for the rays of sunlight that crept over his concealed body. He groaned heavily, burying his flushed features within the softness of his nearby pillow. Morning always managed to be one of those unwanted visitors for him. One of those visitors that persisted on coming back every day, though he tried his best to shun it. Andie’s off tone squealing of Deck The Halls downstairs caused goose bumps to flood his flesh with agitation. Jen’s familiar voice joined in each time for the chorus after Andie had completed each verse. Yet Jen’s voice was much sweeter, gentle and solemn though less practiced. Giggles followed each time their memory failed and they had to simply proceed through the song with hums to make up for the forgotten words. He couldn’t make out grams’ voice, but he recalled it being Sunday so she was at church unless hell froze over.
Andie and him hadn’t spoken since the other night, for there wasn’t really a reason to. What’s the point in apologizing when you’re not sorry? He didn’t feel like apologizing to either of them. He wanted to stick this out, as wrong as he might have been. He could then at least keep his pride.
Jen had already had her reunion with Andie the other night. They both welcomed each other with open arms and a few very insufferable shrieks of glee. They had grown closer since Jen took over the job of Andie’s big sister routine for him. But enough about sisters…counting sheep wasn’t working.
Death would be better than this. He tried. Every position he attempted, their voices were still capable of reaching his ears. It had been half an hour. At one point or another they had switched to Frosty The Snowman. Why couldn’t this be the moment where everyone screamed it was the end of the world? And it really was?
That was it. His footsteps pronounced their anger with hollow thumps he exaggerated, cursing beneath his breath as he made his way down the flight of stairs that led to the kitchen.
“You do realize that the clock up there is not yet pointing to the twelve, which means it isn’t twelve, which means there isn’t cheery singing…because I say it’s prohibited,” he smiled with an attempted sensitivity.
Their gazes sidetracked to where he stood, blinking casually at his obvious frustration. They were both already dressed, and having just finished breakfast. They must’ve taken pride in his misery. Jen’s fingertips performed a ballet over the rim of her glass almost wickedly, while Andie remained motionless…for once. They were both smiling. But it wasn’t comforting smiles. It was those sickening grins that foreshadowed something else would definitely be coming up, and that was the form of bribery they were going to use to get it.
“Not today, because today is…” Jen began, grinning deviously up at Andie.
“Skating day!” Andie finished with an ecstatic chirp.
“What?” was all he could manage, brows furrowed in debate.
“That’s right. You have just won yourself an all exclusive trip with two lovely young ladies to the outdoor skating rink just out of our very own Boston Campus,” Jen’s brows wiggled with delight.
Perhaps this meant that they had forgiven him for every mistreating moment he had graced them with lately…or perhaps this meant it was time for their sweet revenge.
Children of all ages skidded in disoriented circles together, while others were slumped on the ice with hysterics only a hyena could possess. The cement bench he sat on absorbed the coldness from the atmosphere and sent it up his spine in shivers. He could’ve sworn he had frostbite on his rear end. But, numbness was better than the humiliation of perfecting his own saddening attempts at skating.
“Oh, Jackers!” the blonde duo summoned him as they advanced carelessly upon their skates.
Both looked absolutely irresistible in their bouncing toques and floppy mitts. Their pallid cheeks had grown rosy, their hazel eyes filled with happiness he couldn’t understand. Some excitement, some rush of energy surged through them, and he couldn’t place his finger on where it came from.
“Ladies,” he murmured while clutching himself for warmth. His teeth chattered together unevenly to support his argument that no, he was not skating.
“You wouldn’t be so cold if you got off that cement bench and started skating. I, Andie McPhee, promise that if thee doth fall, I shall fall proudly as well,” her opened palm was held steady by her face, mimicking a respective soldier-to-soldier display.
“You’re full of…” he started.
“Joy. Happiness. ‘Ho, ho’ laughter,” Jen cut in swiftly.
“Yes. Now, Mr. Grinch, will you stop being a cynical, stubborn know-it-all and give it a try?” Andie inquired.
“I prefer Scrooge, thank you,” he seethed, feeling so unusually cold that a burning sensation blistered on him.
“You know what, Jack? Suck it up, you wimp,” Jen snarled, snapping his hands as she forced him upwards, dragging him onto the slippery surface.
“Bah, Humbug,” he sighed.
His knees stiffened, enjoying to be led rather than make any other voluntary physical motion. Both females positioned themselves on either side of him, guiding him with coos of encouragement. He almost smiled. Almost.
They released him, permitting him to balance on his own limbs. He remained stable until a gust of demonic little boys whisked past him, causing him to falter and crumble to the ground with a sharp grunt of pain. Two sets of laughing eyes watched him from above.
“You were saying?” he hissed.
He couldn’t believe it was the day before Christmas already. Soon Pacey and Joey would both be joining them in their home for a traditional supper and exchange of gifts, and of course to reunite with Andie before she left for Italy again.
Gifts coated in vibrant wrapping and decorated with curled ribbons were sprawled out beneath the tree. He leaned against the doorframe that led into the family room, still tender from his skating excursion the previous day. Jen was sitting, oddly positioned at that, on the ground with a small gift clasped gently in her palm. He begged for x-ray vision to see who the tag addressed it to, for it seemed of importance to her. She gazed down at it in a deep thought he couldn’t dig far enough to find her in. She seemed as if pondering whether it belonged amongst the others.
He didn’t even realize he was watching her anymore. It was some instinct, some habit that he couldn’t find a cure to. There was something about her, everything they had shared that kept him leaping in blind circles to find her again when he was the one who hid her in the first place. Her fingertips lifelessly set back her golden curls, her hazel eyes vivid with emotions in their depths. Her legs were entangled in a seating position that he admired for the simple reasoning that it made her look lost. Lost in some bigger world not even she could comprehend. Though her back was to him, and pajamas coated her body, every gentle movement of her skin he sensed. He knew she was aware he was watching her, but she cared not to acknowledge it like she usually did. She just remained lost.
“Alright! Here’s the last of them,” grams exclaimed in relief, her and Andie both appearing from the basement with an armload of gifts.
He was not startled from his thoughts, though awakened from them. He smiled gently to each of them. Grams absentmindedly patted the top of Jen’s head while placing the rest of the gifts beneath the guard of the tree before tightening her night robe around her midriff.
“You excited?” Andie had sidled up behind him.
“Not as much as you,” he teased, politely passing the gifts from Andie’s embrace to grams so she could add them to the others.
“You miss her.”
“Hmm?” he murmured, her whispered words catching his attentions.
“You miss her. Jen,” Andie repeated.
“What do you mean? She’s right here. I live with her,” he explained, keeping his tone down to a hoarse whisper as well while grams and Jen carried on a quiet conversation.
“What is this, reverse psychology? Yes, I live with her.”
“What’s happened to you two? Before I left…you two were Siamese twins, attached at the hips. You were inseparable.”
“We’ve changed. People grow up,” he thought aloud.
“Just because they grow up, doesn’t mean they have to grow apart. She used to know that you loved her,” she exhaled her warm breath upon his shoulder.
“She still knows.”
“Maybe you should let her decide that, Jack. It’s Christmas. Remember what’s important.”
With those simple tidbits of advice…perhaps conclusion, she edged over to grams and Jen without another word to prepare for the soon to come guests, while he prepared to put meaning into those words.
Christmas Eve. The doorbell rung in its usual annoying fashion, causing Andie, grams, and Jen to catapult towards the door in an excited race to see which guest had made it first. They in unison swung the door open to reveal a well spiced up Pacey Witter.
“Andie!” Pacey didn’t even need invitation to enter the house, for he had caught sight of Andie before he even had time to think of that. That was Pacey. Acting before thinking. It was no surprise of course. After all, once upon a teenage romance they used to be very much in love and still held a certain bond he didn’t dare criticize.
“Pace!” she shrieked in return, both of their faces alight with keenness as she hopped into his extended arms. He lifted her right off her feet, and they held each other for what seemed longer than forever. They had truly missed one another.
Surprisingly enough, the beautiful brunette Joey sauntered in shortly after Pacey with a bundle of gifts. She had caught a ride with him more than likely, and smiled meekly around, insecure with even her friends and alternate family.
“Joey?” Andie’s brows furrowed as she gently pulled away from Pacey, her eyes were bright with ecstasy. She didn’t even seem to recognize her.
Joey, his dear little Joey nodded in confirmation though she hugged herself almost shyly around the vaguely familiar Andie. But Andie took no offence to Joey’s nerves, and dragged her like a leech into an embrace. He saw Joey’s facial features relax at the comfort of the old friend.
Everyone began to clump like a mass of bacteria, exchanging affections and greetings with each and every one. He felt like a wreck in this house, with these people; these idiots that became his friends and family. They were idiots, all of them. To think that they had trusted him, had loved him, and he gave them nothing in return. They should’ve banned him from their lives, but yet they welcomed him with open arms. How fatuous of them to love him unconditionally when he deserved it so little, how genuinely stupid.
The roasted turkey was panned out before them, the delicious centerpiece of their Christmas supper. They all sat in a round circle of security, a bond that had always connected them. The one thing they all had in common was friendship. A friendship that made him think twice, and even cease thinking at times and just feel it. Just admire it for what it was and not take it for granted.
As soon as grams set down the last bowl of vegetables, their glances passed around in a gentle fondness before Andie smiled and settled her palms together.
“I’ll say grace,” she offered.
His gaze quickly became heavy lidded, adjusting his hands into the proper and respectful positioning to pray. He was surprised to see Jen had done the same with no complaints of the religious matter it involved.
“Thank you, dear,” grams mentioned quietly before she began.
“Dear Lord, we thank you for this wonderful food on this blessed night of giving. I ask you in the short time we have together to make this night perfect, and bless each and every one of the people at this table. I thank you for the friendship that intertwines us as kindred spirits, and I thank you for the unconditional love and happiness friends and family give. Thank you, Lord. Thank you for giving us to each other.”
Everyone kept silent while her voice slipped away into a faint whisper, then it was silent…completely silent. The hollow ticking of the clock was the only audible sound, yet even in his mind it became distorted and vanished. Not until he felt the light pressure of Jen’s touch on his thigh did his eyes give way to the light again, peeling open back into the orbit of friends and family before him. His vacant spheres treaded towards his closest comrade, smiling at her gently while her touch was taken away. She stared at him idly, as if she knew all his secrets and forgave him for every one that destroyed her. She made him sick with her love. She loved him too much, too much. He felt the perspiration clinging to his flesh in a daring fear, unbelieving of this woman. She shouldn’t love him still. She shouldn’t have forgiven him for telling her he didn’t want to be in her life anymore. He passed her up for the opportunity of belonging to a fraternity. A stupid college phase, he passed her up for…and yet she sat here, gazing at him with a sereneness that was a rumor to his heart. She could penetrate through his thoughts, his emotions, and she had easily torn his defending armor of lies. He couldn’t shield himself from that gaze, and it stung him savagely.
He swallowed as he realized her gaze had left its transfixed point on him, and the quiet hum of occurring conversation over their supper started. His gaze descended to where his plate was supposed to be, but it was being passed around and heaved with food. Once it reached him again, he fed his hunger while the others talked.
“So, are you going to tell us about Italy, little lady?” Pacey remarked between mouthfuls of mashed potatoes.
“Imagine paradise. Imagine freedom. Imagine a city sparkling with lights, splashed with every colour in the rainbow that even the cracks of walls are beautiful. Imagine voices you’ve never heard before singing in rhythm with cultured music. Imagine beauty. Imagine love,” she summed up with such passion, all eyes around the table slipped towards her. Andie was lost in this new land she had discovered, and she spoke of it as if a dream, a dream that was her reality.
“Badda-boom, badda-bing,” Pacey’s brows rose in astonishment.
“And school?” Joey added, her dark eyes catching Andie’s from across the table as she dabbed lightly at her lips with a napkin.
“Education there is a different kind of education than I expected. It’s very artsy, very openly expressed. It’s not as demanding as Harvard would certainly have been…and though I had planned to go to Harvard in the future, I’m not so sure it’s where I belong anymore.”
“This is coming from the girl who would try to commit suicide in high school by eating cafeteria food if she got anything below an A average?” Pacey smirked to himself as Jen let out a muffled chuckle.
“Well what do I need cafeteria food for anymore, when you can cook for me, right Pace?” she countered, wiggling her tongue at him. He nearly choked on his food.
“Just because I’m Mr. Grandeur Cook now, doesn’t mean I cook for you. I cook who pays me to cook. No dough, no bread,” he grinned wickedly. Andie’s response was an obvious rolling of her eyes before they all laughed quietly in unison.
He had released his tension momentarily, smiling as he engulfed his senses in Andie’s stories, Pacey’s jokes, Joey’s opinions, grams’ silent words, and Jen’s laughter. It was a moment that was worth the effort. It was worth everything in the world.
“Come on now, everyone sit, sit,” grams demanded, awaiting everyone to obey.
Pacey sat between Joey and Andie on the sofa, an arm slung around each in a gentleness of acceptance. Grams sat on the rocking chair after placing dishes of desserts upon desserts on the coffee table, as well as mugs warmed by foamy hot chocolate.
He on the other hand was crouched by the fireplace, the bright flames cracking at his intense stare. They were now the only light in the dark shadows of the family room. He packed in a few more logs before closing it and joining the others. He eased into a chair nearby the sofa his other friends sat on.
“Jennifer!” grams called to the missing blonde, whom was busy cleaning up the dishes after their supper.
She arrived with an almost exhausted expression, smiling weakly before crawling onto the carpeted floor instead of finding empty space on a chair.
“So, shall we tear up these suckers?” Pacey grinned, rubbing his hands together with anticipation at the opening of gifts.
“No,” Jen’s frank response interrupted his eagerness. Everyone turned to gaze at her, somewhat stunned at her change of plans.
“Jennifer?” her grandmother inquired.
“I think…I think we should tell stories. We could tell memories about past Christmas’.”
Everyone remained paused in a hesitant silence.
“That’s a great idea, Jen,” Andie agreed after their brief silence, and gradually everyone else nodded in agreement.
“I’ll start…as long as they don’t have to be happy memories,” Andie offered, and in response they all turned rapidly to listen to what was to come.
“Well, Christmas was always hard for me, knowing dad would never be around and mom was preoccupied in the loony bin…but the ones after Tim died were the hardest…” she trailed.
No…she had to do this. She just had to bring this up again. The last thing he wanted was to pile on the sad pouts after her memories of their dead brother. She just couldn’t let him go.
“Christmas was always hard knowing what he used to be. I remember him. Tim was so beautiful on Christmas. I remember every Christmas when Jack, him, and I would all hold hands and tiptoe down the stairs in the middle of the night,” she sighed in laughter. He on the other hand sighed in painful regrets.
“We were always so curious, and could never wait. We had to know if there was such thing as Santa Claus. Tim had to know more than all of us though. He always had to prove every belief he had. We would stay up all night, never taking our eyes off the empty Christmas tree. We would wait, and wait, and wait. But every time, we’d get so tired we couldn’t keep our eyes open. We’d fall asleep before we had a chance to prove the existence of Santa Claus…and when we’d wake up, there would always be presents galore…” her voice had grown fainter with each word, so frail and lost as her dark gaze met her lap. Pacey’s calloused fingertips tenderly enveloped hers with a warm smile bent in love and devotion. He on the other hand couldn’t go to her; his throat was suffocating him.
“I wanted to see him…” Joey started out of the blue, but her gaze was already lost before she had even started.
“Every year I had to get through Christmas without a mother and a father. I felt like I wasn’t related to any of my other friends. They all spent Christmas with their family, but I had none…none but Bessie. I had avoided him after he was thrown back in prison for drug dealing. I hated him. I never wanted to see him again, even after Pacey had forced me to go the first time. But I did. On Christmas Eve I went to see him, and I stared at him in silence between the prison fences. I almost ran; to see him again was the hardest thing I could face. I didn’t think he could ever love me, the daughter who he risked for his mistakes. I didn’t even talk to him. I didn’t want to talk to him. All I wanted to do was look at him, just look at him and let him know I hated him still for leaving me. Leaving me like my mom did. But he touched me…he touched my fingers with his through the fence and I cried. I cried for longer than I could keep track of, and he just stared at me from the other side. He didn’t say a word. Not one word until I looked up. And he said he loved me…” she seemed to conclude, though she hesitated as if there was so much more to tell. Her dark eyes had become hazed with saline, and Pacey glared ahead as if pinpointed on the blinking lights of the Christmas tree.
“He said he hated me…on Christmas,” Pacey began, swallowing with a strength he couldn’t keep up much longer.
“My own father, he said he hated me. I remember it as clear as day. Dougie and my sisters were all opening their presents, shredding them to pieces, and my mother was consumed in photography to catch the Kodak moments of their selfishness. I had no gifts. None but a paper card Gretchen had made me, scribbled with crayons. And yet I was happy. I was so happy that for once, someone loved me. She was too young to make a true piece of art, and all it said was Merry Christmas on the front with a Santa Claus that looked more like a drunken sailor than anything else. But on the inside, it was bordered with X’s and O’s. And smack dab in the center was the word love, followed by her signature. I sat in the corner while they opened their presents, and I read it over and over and over as if I didn’t know where the words came from, I didn’t know how they got on the paper. But I had to keep reading it. I had to make sure that somewhere there wasn’t fine print that said to dearest Pacey, the forever condemned failure. My father found me later and he took it. He took the card and he threw it in the fireplace. He burned it. He said it was worthless, just like me. I didn’t even scream at him. I just sat there, completely in awe at his destruction. And then he smiled, almost sweetly, and I had hope he would maybe apologize. But he didn’t. He said, ‘you know why there aren’t any presents under there for you, Pacey? I’ll tell you why. It’s because you don’t deserve them. Because Santa Claus hates you as much as I hate you, son.’ He hated me…” he ceased his words. His eyes had drifted from the Christmas tree to the fireplace, where the flames wildly reflected off his angry eyes.
“I remember the first Christmas after Jennifer’s grandfather died. It was the worst I faced,” grams immediately jumped in.
“I was insane with jealousy that the Lord would be spending time with my husband, while I could not. I wanted him back so desperately that I promised the Lord I would not celebrate his birth; I would not be joyful. And I wasn’t. I was angry. I cried more than I smiled that Christmas, but somehow I managed. Somehow I used Christmas as the turning point to celebrate my husband’s death. But I loved him, did I ever love him. But I finally came to terms with the fact that he was dead. The Lord had better plans for him. I was lonesome, so lonesome…” she sighed with guilt, famished pain.
“I never had Christmas…” Jen’s sudden voice caused him to shudder with uncertainty.
“I never knew what it was. My mother, the only one who could ever teach me about it chose not to. So I chose not to celebrate it. So many Christmas’ I tried to earn her love; tried to earn her affections…but to no avail. She looked upon me as some dirty stain in her perfect life. I shamed her. I humiliated her. And one Christmas when I was only eleven, I was sick. So sick my body felt broken from coughing. But I wanted Christmas so bad. So bad I put mind over matter. Normally like all the other times I was losing the battles of life, I would find a party to screw myself over with. But this time I didn’t. I went out to try the impossible task of finding a Christmas tree in New York City. It was already Christmas Eve. I found a tree by a park, and though it was only four feet tall and looked nothing like the Christmas tree in Charlie Brown’s Christmas, I fell in love at first sight with it. I had brought a saw and managed to cut it down, though crookedly. And I dragged it home, so overwhelmingly proud with myself. When I came home to show my mother, she had left a note saying she wouldn’t be home until the late the next day, because she had important business to attend to. I couldn’t believe it. She was missing Christmas. She was missing Christmas for her work…and I mutilated the tree, ripping it apart with my bare hands. I don’t even remember crying when I did it. All I remember is the cuts all over my hands and my arms. And I stared at the blood all night, and I wished it were infected. I wish I were infected. I wished I could be sick enough to die…” tears had welled in her eyes, and she had huddled herself into a closed ball before backing up against the chair he sat in, the warmth of her back pressed against his legs. He stirred.
Until this point, he had been mesmerized by his surroundings; the words that wept such pain and sorrow. And here Jen was, surrendering, pressed against his legs as she huddled herself upon the floor. And though her back was to him, he knew she wept. Not because he could see or hear her, but because he sensed every emotion she possessed before she even had the chance to express it.
He reached for the wool blanket that hung limply over the back of his chair, unfolding it as he permitted it to embrace her from behind. He drew it over her shoulders and her petite upper body, and he felt her tremble. She was unfamiliar to his touch now. Everyone else remained hushed until Andie spoke.
“It’s your turn, Jack.”
He was struck, completely off guard. He could not begin to describe a memorable Christmas, for he wasn’t sure he had one worth the pain that there’s had been. He could never speak of one with the passion and pain they had. Never in his right mind, never with this cold heart that fed on him.
“I can’t,” he responded hoarsely, his gaze staring blankly ahead.
Nobody seemed to mind his uncanny excuse. He heard Jen’s barely audible sniff from her seated positioning below him, and gently she turned. Her hazels were depthless, and they stunned him in place until he was idle and trapped in it. She freed his throat when she extended to reach a small gift from beneath the tree. It was the one she had been pondering over earlier that day. She cradled it in her palm as it rose to meet his hand. He accepted it, gently unwrapping it with no confusion, simply a numbness that filled him. Within he revealed a framed photo of them from their senior high school ski trip. They were both wearing their goofiest expressions, caught up in the moment. But they were smiling. They were smiling and hugging each other with a love and aching friendship he had never forgotten.
He exhaled sharply, his dark eyes suddenly finding hers with a sharp movement. She managed to smile up at him, reading his thoughts, reading his temptations to have what they once had. And somehow, as he clasped that small picture, he found strength in her.
“There was this Christmas I hurt everyone around me by trying to hurt myself…” he began simply.
“There was this…this opportunity that promised me nothing I needed, yet I took it. In that I lost everything I needed. I lost these friends of mine. These friends that at one point revolved around my life…and there was this one…she was the center of it all. I loved her…I loved them, all of them. They were my family. They were everything. They were all I ever really needed to begin with, but I became lost. I became so lost in this darkness around me that I couldn’t find my way out…and I didn’t know where to find them anymore. I had nothing. I was nothing. And as angry with myself as I was, as guilty for hurting them as I was, I tried all the more harder to get rid of them. I wanted to be lost. I wanted to find my own way out without their help. And then I started waking up to what I loved. I watched this beautiful angel every night I woke, and everything I felt inside was kept secret. And this lucky star of mine reminded me to remember what Christmas was really about. And I did realize. It wasn’t the materialistic things that really counted. It was everything else that counted. It was the unlimited supply of smiles they gave me, the unlimited supply of advice they gave me, the unlimited supply of unconditional love they gave me. It was always them. It was never anything else. And all I can do is say I’m sorry, even though I know that’s never going to be good enough. And all I can hope for is that they’ll forgive me, even when they have no reason to. But what I can say is that I love them with everything I have. Everything I have…” his dark gaze focused on each and every one of their depthless expressions, and then he looked down at her. Jennifer Lindley. She met his gaze, but now that these lies, these barriers he had been hiding behind wilted, her eyes no longer suffocated him…or her love. For once, he could honestly reflect that gaze.
“Merry Christmas, guys…” he smiled.