So It's A Wonderful Life [Novella]

Fiction By Madeline // 1/14/2017

Upon the first few flakes of snow—the icy, defined sort with sharp points that melted immediately against a warm palm—Jo was grabbing her Ugg boots from the hall closet. They were knockoffs, with rough piping where the brand name should have been, and extra faux fur, and a completely flat sole, no pretense of tread. She put them on anyway, since she had no idea where last year’s boots were, then tossed her hair back over her shoulder, roping it up with a seasoned twist of her hand.

Marjorie sat on the couch, a grape juice cradled between two plump hands in a plum-tinted sippy-cup. She deigned not to look away from the television, even with Jo enthused, “Look, Margie, snow!” It didn’t matter. Dora was on. And it was a Christmas special. The irony.

Feliz Navidad!” Dora screeched. “Can you say ‘Feliz Navidad’?”

Marjorie complied, tripping over the final syllables. She glanced back at Jo bright-eyed for approval, but all her step-sister could muster was a wincing thumbs-up. It was in Jo’s completely unbiased and totally humble opinion that Margie was allotted far too much television. Jo’s mother had adhered to strict guidelines for her four children when it came to media, but then she’d met Paul, and Paul had a laziness about him that he disguised as a lax, charmingly-carefree approach to life. Jo had sensed this right away, directed opaque criticisms her mother’s way, but Laura Fitch-Kearney had become Laura Fitch-Loo, and Joanna took on the name too, along with Pacha and Lee. Braam didn’t have to because he was twenty, and living with their biological father.

Ugh. So many names were swimming through Jo’s head, and with such little sense. She screwed her eyes shut until they were gone, then fluttered them open to the glaring white, real-life snow globe that hovered just outside the window.

“Margie,” she announced, “I’m going out.”

Feliz Navidad!” Dora was thrilled it was Christmas. What a novel concept. “Feliz Navidad!”

Fuh-leeze!” Marjorie reared her head and let the words slur from deep in her throat. “Nah-vee-dowd! Fuh-leeze. She brought her chin down, breathing audibly. Drama queen. “See, Jo?”

“I see. Very impressive.” Jo was pulling on her gloves. She intended to make a snowball and toss it across the way, maybe at the squinty neighbor’s Miser Brothers yard ornaments. They were almost certainly an antique, a bonafide relic that was probably worth some cash, but every day that Jo went for the mail—and it was always Jo, because she was on the lookout for those logo-marked acceptance letters—a fiery head of hair and a blue, detached smile followed her trek.

On second thought, the snow wasn’t really sticking. A powder covered the ground, fine, even though it’d been coming down since that morning, when Laura and Paul had whirled out of the door in a quest to get some last-minute shopping done. Lee had been right behind them, Pacha on his heels; he was meeting his girlfriend at a movie, and the parents were dropping Pacha off for her orchestra rehearsal. There had been pecks on the cheeks and a number of “be safes” exchanged, and then they were gone, and silence had fallen—until the jubilant trill of “Vámonos!” erupted from the flatscreen.

Jo was losing track of her thoughts. She smoothed a hand across her face; her craft-fair gloves were soft against her cheek, but not very practical. Anyway, there wouldn’t be snowballs. She turned the doorknob, and the chill of the handle sparked a smile on her face. Reaching for a handful of Hershey’s Kisses from the bowl that sat on a table adjacent to the door, she told Margie she’d be back. Be good, stay there, watch your show, okay? The mandatory sitter responsibilities.

“Yes,” Margie said, drawing a deep glug from the juice.

Jo frowned. That child was all Paul—every inch of her, from the dark eyes and hair to the dimpled cheeks and the lackadaisical way about her. Three-year-olds weren’t known for being particularly fastidious creatures, but Margie didn’t even protest sharing her most prized possessions, because nothing mattered to her in the first place. As she stepped outside, the toddler glanced disinterestedly back at her; Jo noted a purple stain blossoming at the corners of her lips.

She closed the door behind her with a deep sigh. The chill crackled in her lungs, and she perked up for the first time in a whole week. Since break had commenced some eighty-seven hours ago, things had been the antithesis of jolly. There had been a tense family dinner at this family-style chain restaurant Paul loved, where everybody was supposed to be celebrating their respective vacations. But Pacha’s practice ran over, so she wasn’t there, and Lee invited his girlfriend before asking—she was a serial texter, that one—and Margie ate food from everyone’s plates but her own. All the while, Jo’s mother had been smiling, radiant—angling her cheek toward Paul’s persistent lips, and giggling into her overpriced wine while Margie grabbed another green bean from her plate. She’d even posed thoughtful questions to Lee’s vapid girlfriend, who could barely manage her responses.

It just hurt, in the pit of Jo’s throat, to summon the Once Upon A Times of her life, to remember the Fridays when school let out and they would rush home to bake three different kinds of cookies with Mom, and then Dad would come in with a small gift for each of them, as per tradition. Jo still had all of them, for the twelve years of her life their Christmases lasted, on a shelf in her bedroom.

And now Jo was stuck in memory land, a dangerous place to be: after the gifts had been presented, they would come together as a family and spread themselves out on the chairs that they’d bought half-price at an antique sale, and gobble their efforts, and commence their weekend-long Christmas movie extravaganza. They didn’t even watch those anymore; nobody could get Margie to sit through one, Lee was always with his airhead, Pacha would’ve but she was perpetually rehearsing, and Paul only liked comedies, which weren’t even the good ones. They’d tried It’s a Wonderful Life once, but he’d fidgeted the whole time, eventually ending up playing a puzzle game on his phone, the device in one hand, the other draped over Laura’s knee.

Jo hadn’t tried since then—since two years ago—to get them all together to watch something. It was reminiscent of old times, yes, but the fact remained that it wasn’t old times, and that was all Jo really wanted anyway.

She came to and realized she was at the end of their lane. The Miser Brothers squinted at her from across the street. She glared at the red one and shook her head at the blue one, and then unearthed a multicolored stack of envelops from the mailbox. Mostly Christmas cards, she noted as she absently flipped through. No response to the three early-admittance applications she’d filled out.

The Hershey’s Kisses were cold in her pocket. Jo fumbled with the tinfoil wrapper and stuck three in her mouth, all at once. She allowed them to melt down as she strolled lazy circles around the yard, opening the cards one-by-one. They were swiftly dotted with snow droplets, but she wasn’t ready to go back inside just yet.

She read well-wishes from her second cousins, a lengthy brag—ahem, catch up—from one of her mom’s former sorority sisters, a brusque note from her maternal grandmother, a doting one from Paul’s aunt, and something from somebody named Jean, which was probably intended for her father. It was brief, a Hope your holiday’s good, Warmly Jean and addressed to his last-name only—Kearney—and anyway, it was the lamest of them all. She marched over to the trashcan through the sparkling white, which was actually sticking enough for there to be some crunch beneath her feet. She lifted the plastic lid, where yesterday’s garbage was presently joined by Jean’s half-assed attempt at seasonal well-wishes.

Jo pivoted to survey the yard, feeling lighter. Even the Miser Brothers, at least from this distance, weren’t that disconcerting. Or maybe it was the prospect of there being enough snow to chuck at them that was lifting her spirits. Whatever it was, Jo was thankful, and she closed her eyes and allowed herself to just breathe for a few moments. She’d taken a meditation class freshman year, and it had gone something like that.

She was revived by the honk of an approaching car. She blinked against the bright light of early afternoon and watched as Paul and her mother rolled to a stop in the driveway. They had beaming smiles on their faces, and Jo watched as they exchanged a few words before they swung their doors opened and stepped out in unison, as if rehearsed.

If there was one thing Jo was glad about, it was her mother’s newfound happiness. Even if she resented it sometimes. Keeping this in mind, she started toward them, and a smile automatically tugged at her features. Her mother caught her in a hug a few feet from the car, and kissed both cheeks.

“You’re frozen!”

Laura was warm. “Yeah. I’ve been out here awhile.”

Her mother searched the yard. “Is Margie with you?”

“No—she’s inside. Watching Dora. I had to escape.”

Her mother laughed. Paul was unloading Macy’s sacks from the back of their Durango. Jo remembered the Hershey Kisses and plucked one from her pocket to offer Laura.

“Mm, thank you.” She bit it in two and ate one halve at a time, keeping a hand on Jo. “You can grab a couple bags if you like. We just bought for the littles.”

Margie and Pacha, that was. “Okie-dokie.”

Her mother hurried after Paul, ponytail bobbing. “I’m going to go preheat the oven. We got those pizzas you like for dinner!”

As Jo headed toward the car, she realized she was still smiling. Something about this afternoon—the quiet, the promise of favorite food, her mother’s touch—felt sacred. Maybe she could suggest a movie after all. Perhaps they’d all find places on the couches and dim the lights as a family’s imagined holiday unfurled onscreen. Perhaps it’d be good.

Jo couldn’t help but peek into the bags as she snatched them up. There were books in one, an autobiography of a pianist and another on composing, and a pretty collection of pastels in the other, along with three pads of drawing paper. Pacha would be thrilled.

She was starting across the yard when she heard her mother’s voice. She couldn’t tell what it was at first, but it droned, and then it registered. It was a scream, and as Jo listened it slid into a wail, and she just knew. It was diluted, that sound, and aching, and then it came back with a roar. Jo had never heard anything like it, but oh, she knew.

She collapsed into the snow, both knees cracking against the sidewalk, and barely managed to catch herself. Her quivering arms gave out as Paul sprinted past, not even seeing her, and rifled around in the car, emerged with his cell phone. He dialed, and his voice was frantic, but Jo couldn’t make out any of the words. She rolled onto her back and started up at the sky. Snow fell straight into her open mouth, against her irises, swirled up into her nose. She coughed wetly but she didn’t bother to shield her face, and she could feel something seeping through her pant leg, and her lungs ached, but she wasn’t cold.

She was on fire, and Paul was rambling on the phone with the operator, and her mother was still yelling inside, where it was warm. Jo’s heart beat in her ears.

“I could have killed her,” was how she greeted Braam that evening.

The oldest of the siblings breathed an acknowledgement, but he didn’t try to comfort her—not yet. Jo was still going.

“I left her for twenty minutes, Braam.” Jo brought her nails to her lips, where she nibbled with fervor. Tears began to drip from her eyes, for the third time that day. She strode over to her bedroom door and slammed it shut, keeping Pacha and Lee cut off. “Her show ended, and she came looking for me. But then…then she saw the candy, and I should have been there—”

“She’s fine.” Braam’s voice was made deeper by the distance between them. “Jo, you’ve got to stop this hysterical stuff.”

“She could have died.” Jo gave in to a fresh bout of sobs, the ones that had started when her mother called from the hospital with the news that Margie was going to be fine. The Hershey’s Kiss had melted in her throat before the EMTs had even arrived, and she’d followed her first resuscitative breaths with a request for another, please.

“She didn’t.”

“Yeah, but I was—” Jo almost couldn’t stand it, she hated herself so much. She didn’t even want to say this, admit it to her brother whom she admired so much. “I spent the whole morning being annoyed with her. Thinking about how she wasn’t even really one of us. That’s terrible.”

“Everyone has those thoughts, Jo-Jo.”

“I just can’t believe it.” She hadn’t even bothered to put on clothes yet, was in her underwear and fuzzy robe, which fluttered open as she sat. In a haze, she grimaced down at her knees, which were mottled with bruising. One of the scrapes had already begun to scab over. “She almost died today, because of me.”

“But it’s not like—”

No.” Jo gripped the phone harder. “Please, please don’t say anything consoling. I need to feel bad about myself right now.” She allowed herself a wavery laugh. “You called me, remember?”

“Right. Because when I talked to mom she was worried about you.”

“About me?” Jo sniffed. “Her baby almost died today. Because of me. I’m just…” She broke off.

“You’re her baby, too.”

“I thought she was dead. You should have heard Mom when she found her; it was the worst thing I’ve ever heard. And then the ambulance came and brought her out, and her lips were still blue, but she smiled as they went past me.”

It had happened just five hours ago, and already it was a blur. But Jo remembered that moment in minute detail. The juice stains stark against Margie’s skin, her almond-shaped crinkly eyes, the stubby fingers that had squelched together in a wave. Her mother, matching the stretcher with every step, one hand on her little girl’s rounded belly. Laura had been staring down at Margie with a look suspended above the world, a look Jo couldn’t begin to fathom, of a woman having dodged her greatest fear, the deadliest bullet.

Pete finally came to revive her. Carrying a box of tissues, he helped to dab the half-frozen snot from her chin. Then he led her inside, and sat her down, and made her tea, and told Jo it wasn’t her fault. It could have happened to anybody. They were lucky—they were blessed—everything was okay. He’d tousled her hair like she was a boy, and then he’d left to be with his wife and daughter at the hospital.

It was too much to bear—all of it. Jo cradled the phone to her ear and laid back, tucking her robe around her. Braam was still talking, saying soothing things, no doubt, but Jo didn’t want any part of it. She closed her eyes and let his voice lull her until she felt numb.

Then: “Are you still there?”

“Yeah.” Her throat was sore from all the crying. “But I should go.”

“Well, don’t just lie around feeling sorry for yourself. Do something. You’ll feel good.”

Jo started to say she didn’t want to, but stopped herself. That would just prompt more consolation from her well-meaning sibling. “Okay.”

“All right. I’ll call tomorrow morning.”

“Sounds good.”

“I love you.”

“I love you.”

They both hung up at the same time, or maybe Jo a little early—but she liked to imagine they were so in sync that the line died out in unison. They’d always been the closest of the children, of the parings that naturally sprung up between them. Lee clicked with Braam over their love of alternative rock music and nostalgic childhood things, like nerf gun wars and monster truck races. Braam and Pacha got along just fine, as their mother liked to say, and the same could be said for Jo with either of them. But she and her older brother—they took on the world together. Barely two years apart, so it made sense. They were always together in all the family pictures, separated from the rest—sitting just a tiny bit closer, eyes shining just a little more, like maybe they had a secret.

There was only one time when Jo hadn’t been tuned in to Braam. When their father left, he’d started filling up his spaceship-patterned suitcase and old Nike shoeboxes with his belongings. He and Mom must’ve had the conversation in private, because Jo never caught wind of it. All she knew was one day she woke up, and her dad was idling at the curb—he waved at her from the porch, wearing a collared shirt and a strained smile—and then Braam was brushing past. Jo had cried and cried as they’d hugged, thirteen and fifteen years old. Yesterday’s mascara had been caked beneath her eyes—she’d just taken to wearing it—and he’d turned bright red as he fought against tears of his own.

“I’m going to miss you,” she’d whispered. “Please don’t go.”

“Jo-Jo. I have to take care of Dad.”

“Daddy’ll be fine.”

“He can’t be alone.”

“It’s his fault.”

“It’s not all his fault.”

Back then, Jo hadn’t the initiative to realize that her brother might know more than she did, which was nothing. All that was certain was this: her mother had started to recede into herself, and her father was staying late at work or sometimes not coming home at all, and then Laura told her out of the blue, on a weekday afternoon. It wasn’t like in the movies or books, where parents sit their beloved children down and pledge loyalty to them forever, wizened eyes brimming with the shared memories of the past dozen years. Good years, but ones that had reached their unanimous end.

No, it had been Jo peeling a carrot over the kitchen sink, and her mother’s hand on her shoulder: I don’t know how to tell you this, sweetie, so I’m just going to say it: Daddy and I are getting a divorce. Chasing at the heels of those penetrating words were a series of facts, as if to make it easier for Jo to process. He’ll be moving out and All of you will stay with me, were among them.

Jo would’ve chosen her mother anyway, if it came down to it, but she could read between the lines—Neil Kearney didn’t want them. And then Braam left, and then their family was gone.

She still hated him a little for it, even today. Gone was her best friend. And now—now he was eons away despite the fact that he lived within the limits of her phone, but she hated that. It made it worse, sometimes, that she could hear his voice and feel his words resonate and yet he wasn’t sitting at the end of her bed, rolling up a magazine in his hands, swatting her with it whenever she annoyed him. They used to do that, years ago. Just sit together for no reason but to be in the same room, each of them wrapped up in their own occupations.

Jo rolled over onto her stomach. She still felt queasy, despite her brother’s attempt to calm her. Laura would probably call any minute, like she said she would when they finally discharged Margie. All Jo wanted was to see her little warm face, wrap her up in her arms and never let her go—but the thought sickened her at the same time. She’d be holding luck in her arms, a sheer miracle of fate that had kept her from imploding everyone’s lives on this day. Five sleeps until Christmas.

From the corner of her room the door was gently nudged open, and in came Pacha. She had her braids undone, the silvery blonde spilling over her shoulders. She joined Jo on the bed, staring wordlessly for a moment, then reached out to adjust the arm of her robe—it had slipped.

“Mom called.”

“Oh?” Jo tried to keep the fear from her voice. Something could have gone wrong. Perhaps Margie was having to stay overnight. Maybe—

“They’re already on their way. But they’re stopping for food first. She told me to ask you what you wanted, and I just pretended to and said you asked for fries.”

Jo’s mouth crumpled. “Thanks, Pacha.”

“Sure.” She nuzzled around the bed until she was comfortable, facing Jo. “Can I have a hug?”

“Of course.” Jo gave in to her little sister’s comfort, dear Pacha, who was twelve years old and an angel, a prodigy—the sweetest of them all, a person Jo should aspire to be. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Pacha murmured against Joe’s robe. “Are you fine?”

“I’m fine.”

“I’m just so glad she’s okay.”

“Me too.”

“I’m just so grateful.”

“Believe me—I am, too.”

“I know.”

They lay in silence for awhile, until the clock crept ever closer to eight, and Pacha pulled back. “It’s been half-an-hour. Mom will be here.”

“Go on.” Jo gave her a pat at she scooted off the bed, leaving the smallest of imprints where her lithe frame had been. She reached up to turn off her light. “Tell them I’m asleep. I’ll see her in the morning.”

“Asleep?”

“Yeah, I’m tired.”

“But the fries—”

“I didn’t ask for the fries. You eat them.” The room went dark, and it took a second to adjust to the light from the street lamps as it broke through the gaps where the blinds didn’t quite meet the windowsill. It glinted off Pacha’s worried eyes, so Jo closed hers. “Goodnight.”

With reluctance, she headed for the hallway. “Jo.”

“Mm?” She really was tired, the stress of the day threatening her consciousness. She nosed against her pillow. “What, Pacha?”

“If you’re upset about Margie…”

Like she wanted a response. “Of course I am,” Jo snapped, not that she meant to.

“I know. But it’s not your fault.”

“Okay.”

“It’s not.”

“Okay.”

“Say you know. Please?”

“Pacha—”

But the unmistakable sounds of the front door cut her off, followed by footsteps, cheerful hellos. Her mother sounded like herself, Jo was relieved to hear. Bags rustled, filled with fast food. Paul shouted, “Dinner!”

And then Margie, above the rest—“Watch Dora?”

“In a minute.”

Please?” She’d been told that Please would guarantee almost anything.

“Yes, baby. Give Mommy a minute.”

Jo buried herself beneath her comforter. “Please shut the door.”

Pacha did. Jo cried a little more, as she listened to her family being happy together, as she gave fervent thanks that Margie was alive and well.

She fell asleep like that. Praying.

In her dream, Jo had Margie’s brown hair and eyes, the deep dimples, the boundless love for Dora and the affinity for Spanish. When she woke, it was to her mother sinking down at the end of the bed. A new day’s sun streamed through the curtains, and she was holding a cup of coffee in each hand.

“What time is it?” Jo asked through a thick throat.

“Early. But I wanted to talk.”

“In here?”

“If you want. Or the living room.”

Jo pushed herself into a sitting position. “Living room.”

Her mother rose slowly, balancing the mugs. “I’ll be there.” She whisked out, but not before she gave Jo a smile that brought with it some comfort. She wasn’t angry; she just wanted to make sure her eldest daughter was okay.

Jo finally put on some real clothes—she’d slept in that terry robe all night, and it had left thin, stringy imprints on her skin—and splashed some water on her face, in the bathroom. Up and down the hallway, the doors were shut. Jo wondered if Margie was alone, in her former nursery with its baby blue walls and duck photos and toddler bed, the floor littered with plastic toys.

She was leaving the bathroom and about to head down to the living room when her phone cheeped from her room, far too cheerful for this hour. She hesitated a moment at the threshold of the stairs, following their track downward, the freckled wood grain with its wide strip of carpet—but then that phone. She went back for it, and pursed her lips at the sender’s name, and recoiled with surprise when she read the message—but it was solace. It was salvation.

With a racing heart she replied, Yes.

She dared to ask her mother where Margie had slept last night, when she finally joined her on the couch, and of course it was with Laura and Paul in their room, nestled snugly between them. For a good thirty seconds, Jo did nothing but sip at her coffee and stare blankly at the tree. It hosted a collection of old and new ornaments, some procured from family and friends, others plucked from dollar-store shelves, still others made in the brightly-lit classrooms of every grade imaginable.

“What’re you thinking?” Laura finally asked. Jo sighed.

“I’m trying not to.”

“Are you still upset?”

“Mom.” Jo twisted to look at her, really look at her, so her mother could see the disgust on her face. “Of course I am. I feel sick about it. Margie could have died.”

“That’s ridiculous, Jo. It’s not your fault.”

“But it is Mom. I should have been with her.” Jo brought her hand down on her knee, and a bit of coffee sloshed over the rim of her cup. She ignored its hot sting on her thigh. “I feel so terrible, and I can’t stand it. I was outside doing nothing, and she was in here choking—”

“Honey, it had just happened. Literally thirty seconds before we pulled up. Just then. It’s not like she was in here running wild. She was just inside the door, so close, and I’m not angry at you. Toddlers are wild.” She laughed to prove her point, how unaffected she was.

Jo didn’t buy it.

“But,” Jo dissented, and hated herself for it, “she could have. If it had been a moment longer that you guys waited to start heading home, Margie could be dead.”

Her mother’s smile faded. Her lips were cracked. “There’s no point in speculating, Jo. She’s fine. It’s for a good reason. She was always meant to be fine.” The optimism crept back in, and she reached out to grab Jo’s hand. “I’m talking to you now to tell you to stop this. It’s silly. Your sister is fine, and we all have a reason to be grateful. Maybe this happened to teach us something, you know? To remind us that family is important and not to get caught up in all this holiday…whatever. The material aspect. Regardless, it’s over, and what matters is that we continue living happily, because our baby is okay.”

Jo couldn’t think of any words that would suffice in a response, so she nodded. Then her mother was pulling in her for a hug, and Jo had to strain her arm to set down the cup so she could free both hands to wind around her. They held tight for a little while, Jo burying her nose against her mother’s worn pajama top, the same one she was always wearing in holiday photos past—blue with glittery snowflakes, many of them dulled or cracked or just plain decimated after the dozens of washes it had endured.

When Jo pulled away, she took a moment to look at her mother—really look at her. Try to see herself in her, try to see Pacha and Lee, Braam and Margie. They were hardly there, she felt sometimes. Her mother’s light brown hair, pale blue eyes, none of these particularly dominant traits, if she harkened back to her eighth-grade, state-issued biology textbook. She’d given herself to her babies, Laura Fitch-Loo, dedicated herself to her first husband and thrown her all into childrearing. She’d been lost among the squabbling and triumphs of the lot. But then came Paul, and then came Margie, and she’d reclaimed something in herself, a pulse that radiated off her now, an energy. Jo longed to submerge herself in it, allowing it to cradle her through the holidays.

But that wasn’t an option. It was all too much, the everything about this place, and anyway—she’d agreed. So she opened her mouth, and she formed the words.

“Braam—”

“Braam!” Her mother’s arm slackened around Jo, but she kept it there, still touching. “I forgot to call him back last night.”

“It’s okay—”

“No, it’s not.” Laura stood and leaned over to snatch her phone off an end table. “I need to let him know. Is it too early? Oh, he must be worried.” She pressed the button on the side of the device, then scrunched up her eyebrows. “But maybe not. He hasn’t texted.”

“That’s because I talked to him last night.” Jo found herself standing, and a moment later, she found herself embellishing. “We actually had a good conversation. About stuff. He helped me to work through it. And so I was thinking, well—”

Her mother was distracted, that much was apparent. “And I forgot to write Grandma back on Facebook. She was all worried about her. I guess one of the EMT’s was Ann’s boyfriend. You know Ann, my cousin…anyway. It got back to her.” She glanced up, took in Jo’s twisted expression, the pressure she was applying to her lower lip. “Jo. What’s wrong?”

“I was thinking—well, Braam and I discussed it. Together. Last night.” The embellishment. “And this morning, and I kind of said yes—” She paused, anticipating another distracted interruption, but none came. Se had her mother’s full, undivided attention—and, she noted, she’d put the phone down. “Well, I don’t know exactly…we just kind of, I mean, it came up. And anyway.”

Now she paused for real, beseeching her with widened eyes to prompt her for more, give her a reason to keep talking. Because she did not look like her mother, she had her father’s blonde hair and brown eyes and sly smile, which sucked, because she wanted to look like her. And she wanted to be like her. And she wanted to be worthy of a mother like her, of such unconditional love, which would remain even after Jo made the request she was about to make. And that stung, that she was still selfish enough to make it.

“Go on, honey,” Laura said at last. “I’m listening.”

“I think—well, actually, I know. Yeah, I know. Um. I want to go visit Braam and Dad. In Maryland.” As if that sentence required the clarification.

“Okay.” Her mother’s tensed shoulders sank back into place. “Well, just tell me when, and we’ll figure it out. Buy a train ticket, or—”

“Tomorrow, though, Mom.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Yeah—tomorrow. Or I want to leave then, at least.”

“Tomorrow.”

“Yes.” Jo knitted her fingers together in her lap and lengthened her spine, as if this was a job interview. Why do you want this position? Well, because I cannot stand it here a moment longer. Feeling like I can’t breathe. Feeling like we’re playing at being a family, pretending it’s Christmas. The words were there, congealing on her tongue, if her mother asked them.

Of course she didn’t. “You miss Braam, honey?”

“Yeah.” Jo gave a brusque nod, businesslike. If she kept herself poised, answered all the questions with absolute affirmation and a squared jaw, this was a cinch. “I do.”

Laura curled her fingers around Jo’s knee and leaned, applying the slightest bit of weight. She was her mother’s anchor, that much she could see. She’d let her down, yesterday—and now today.

“But it’s Christmas. What if you go after, for New Year’s?”

“Mom—”

Squeeze. “We have the presents, and our plans. We were going to see that movie, Christmas Day, remember? The one you wanted?”

“Yeah, but—” She could see that in Maryland, that’s what she wanted to say. Laura wouldn’t let her.

“And, honey, it just wouldn’t be the same without you. That’s all.” Her smile wavered. “It’s been bad enough not having Braam, all these years.”

“I know, Momma.” She laid her hand atop her mother’s. The diamond Laura sported on her fourth finger pressed into Jo’s palm. “That’s why I want to go out there. He asked me, and I didn’t have the heart to say no.” She stared off into the distance, through the window, where the snow was beginning to melt. “He’s lonely, I think. Braam.”

Her mother leaned away, and Jo missed her warmth. The frown she wore betrayed her guilt, and Jo wished she hadn’t lied just then. That she’d been forthright. She was lonely, not Braam, who had his father and friends and FaceTime, and used it frequently to stay in touch with his faraway family. Jo squirmed on the couch, until she found the spot that molded to the curve of her back. Laura was thinking, that much was clear. Jo found her eyes and they traded terse, upturned lips. She did look like her mother sometimes, she supposed. Just not all.

“Okay,” she said at last, soft. “You can go.”

The words punctured Jo’s guard, and her breath released in a hiss. “Oh, Mom. Thank you.”

She reached for the laptop the family shared, all of them. There were frequent fights over it—Pacha had sheet music to print, Lee had a song to download, Jo had an essay to type up, Laura wanted to unwind with Netflix and Paul needed to check on his stocks. Or sometimes there was Margie, greasy fingers atop the mousepad, playing one of the old-fashioned arcade games Pacha had a perchance for and downloaded from questionable websites. The computer was all of them. And now Laura was pulling up google, and typing in a search for an Amtrak ticket from New York City, New York to Aberdeen, Maryland.

It was a two-hour ride by train. Jo threw some clothes in a bag, maybe five outfits’ worth, not really sure how long she’d be staying. Maybe for a couple days, enough to get over the hump that was Christmas. Maybe until the New Year. Or maybe until her break was well and truly done, when she’d be forced to return to school to finish up the last grueling half of senior year.

Her mother placed her presents in a carry-on bag, hastily wrapped in whatever paper she could find—they hadn’t purchased the Christmas kind yet—and adorned with the gift bows that were always skimmed over in the dollar-store bulk packages, due to their garish shades of purple and pink. Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday read the script on one of the packages, the right size and heft to inform Jo it was a book, probably that new one from the author she loved.

She tore the paper off on the train after saying goodbye to her mother, which had consisted of three kisses on the cheek and explicit instructions to save every gift for Christmas morning. Sure enough, it was the promised novel. She flipped open to the first page and sighed against the seat. Oh well. It was entertainment.

An hour in, she slid her hands under either half, then—clap—brought them together. The book was okay. She just couldn’t concentrate. She’d seen Braam last summer, his baseball cap on, all his shirts three-quarter length. They’d played frisbee in the backyard, the wind whipping through the trees, lassoing the edge of the neon green disc and pulling it over the fence after every flick of their wrists. They’d eaten huge sandwiches while sitting on the lawn, talking shop—his life in college, his girlfriends, his classes. “Apply to John Hopkins in the fall,” he’d said to her. “We could share an apartment.”

She hadn’t.

Everything was easy with Braam. That wasn’t the problem. She’d been able to get over the initial hurt when he’d left them, because he was compassionate. He didn’t want their father to be alone. After that, it was still as easy when they were together—just never enough.

Jo was excited to be seeing him. It was her father she was worried about. They talked on the phone at least once a month, but the last in-person visit had been three years ago, when he’d come to them. It was back when Braam still needed an escort to be able visit the rest of his family, someone to steer a car through the pines that lined the rural highways, someone to spend their money on gas.

Braam stayed at the house with all of them, and their dad spent one night in the hotel before heading home. He’d taken them out to dinner, though, all his children—Braam, Jo, Lee, Pacha—at a fast-food restaurant they’d insisted upon. It was before Margie, when Paul and Laura were still “seeing what happened”, as her mother explained it when he’d moved in earlier that year.

“How’s school?” Her dad had asked, and they’d all gone around the table and offered up their bland responses. Nobody ever wanted to talk about school.

“Pacha, you still in lessons?”

“Yeah.” She bit into her hamburger, and with her mouth full, couldn’t answer any more questions. He looked to Lee.

“Things okay for you?”

“Yep.”

“What’ve you been doing?”

“Nothing.”

“He has a girlfriend,” Pacha blurted, the huge bite miraculously swallowed in time to announce this information.

Their dad raised his eyebrows, almost to his receding hairline. “Starting young.”

Lee, twelve, nodded solemnly.

“You nice to her?”

Another nod. “She likes Alice in Chains.”

“Sounds like a keeper.”

His third nod. Then the attention was on Jo, the next in the line of children. Her father opened his mouth, poised with a question, but it was a false start. A few seconds paused, and then he refocused on his food. He didn’t have anything he wanted to know. Jo swallowed her hurt and downed the rest of her coke.

Later, he’d pulled her in for a goodbye hug as they stood on their front porch, Laura ushering the others through the door. It was chaste, the hug, but tight. Jo laid her head against his chest and felt the scruff of a sprouting beard on the crown of her head. Then he’d let her go like it was nothing, and was gone, squelching in his work boots down the wet driveway.

“Did you have a nice time?” Her mother asked, as Jo stepped inside. She kicked off her shoes and beelined for the kitchen, where hot chocolate called her name, despite the warmth of the summer evening. She could sit in front of the air conditioner unit and drink it.

“Not really,” she admitted.

After that summer, Braam got his own car and was able to drive himself up, and her father didn’t visit. He always said the kids could come see him, but Pacha and Lee were too young to go by themselves, and when Margie came along a few months later, there wasn’t an adult free to take them. It was up to Jo to keep the connection going, but she didn’t have the desire.

Now here she was, on the train, breathing heavily. This seemed like a terrible idea, all the sudden. If Christmas at home depressed her, Christmas at her Dad’s would undoubtedly be worse. Never mind the twelve perfectly memorable holidays they’d shared early in her life—he was different now, and so was she, and it perhaps even Braam couldn’t bridge the gap between them.

Jo noticed the boy when she got up to go to the bathroom. He was sitting on the edge of a seat, long legs stretched across the row, impeding her way. He wore heavy, thick boots, black as midnight, and sunglasses. His head was shaved down, so much she would've thought him bald from a distance. Jo paused in the aisle, waiting for him to draw his knees up, to open a small path for her sneakers. His head was angled toward her, late-afternoon light boring into his sunglasses. She stared. She cleared her throat. He didn’t move.

Finally, she lifted her leg, and gingerly stepped over his ankles. Either he was incredibly rude, or he was asleep. Judging by the steady rise and fall of his chest, it was the latter. She went to the bathroom and washed her hands, and when she returned he was sitting up, staring out the window. The glasses were off.

She was prepared to walk past without so much as a backward glance, but he cleared his throat at just the moment she breezed by, and she hesitated.

“Ma’am—”

She half-turned, and he clamped his mouth shut. “Oh. I didn’t realize—”

“It’s fine.”

“Was I in your way?”

“No.”

“I mean earlier.”

“Not really.”

“Okay.” He settled back in the seat, then added—as if an afterthought—“Sorry.”

“It’s fine. Really.” She smiled nervously, and swiftly returned to her seat, scooting as close to the wall as she could get, twisting her neck to look out the window. Her nose almost touched it.

Another thirty-minutes ticked by. Jo occupied herself with the passing landscape as it blurred behind them. It was a beautiful state, New York. She might miss it.

Someone slid into the space beside her, the silence punctured with their sharp exhale and the crackle of the faux leather seat. Jo startled and whipped around, worried about what she’d find—an old person, those were scary, confused about their seat. Or a nosy child, even though Jo had lots of experience with them. They were equally as daunting, after Margie.

But no. It was the boy from earlier, the one who’d thought Jo was a Ma’am. Involuntarily, she scooted even further away, so her left arm was pressed flush beneath the window.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m bored, so I thought I’d come talk to you.”

She was too stunned to speak, at least for a few seconds. Then, “Talk?”

“Unless you don’t want to. I can go back to my boring seat.”

“It’s fine,” Jo said, automatic.

“Okay.” He glanced around the train car. Travelers were sparse. Jo supposed there weren’t a lot of people who wanted to go to Aberdeen. She wasn’t even sure she did. “I think we’re the only ones here under the age of thirty.”

Under thirty scared Jo. How old was this guy? She swallowed. “Yeah.”

“Anyway.” He quit his appraising and turned to her, sticking his hand out. “I’m Lyon.”

“Jo.” Awkwardly, she angled her right arm to shake. “And I’m under twenty. Not thirty.”

“Excellent.” He flashed his teeth. “So am I.”

She was relieved. Visibly. His face fell, abruptly stoic. “So I guess I was really off. About your age.”

“Kind of.”

Twice today. First I thought you were older, and then I was going to say under-twenty, but I didn’t wand to offend if you were, like, drinking age or something. Some people wear that like a badge.”

“I’m not. And I don’t.”

“Or me.” But that had been established. Jo drew a breath, tried to think of something to say. Nothing came. She was an awful conversationalist.

He let a few moments pass, drumming his boots in the aisle. After the silence stretched on long enough to become uncomfortable, he tried again: “What takes you to Aberdeen?”

“Family.” She forgot to add, And you?

“Me too,” he answered for himself. “Specifically Christmas.”

“Christmas,” she reflected. The word was bloated with a dozen connotations, all of them exclusive to her. Her face burned. He was going to think she was an idiot, but she hadn’t asked him to come sit by her. She didn’t want company on this trip. She wanted time to think.

He laughed like he understood. “Yeah. Quite the holiday, when you’re little. And then you grow up.”

“And then you grow up,” she seconded. Was she just going to keep repeating him? Perhaps. Jo propped her cheek up with her fist and lolled toward the window.

“I’m kind of nervous,” he volunteered, after a moment. “I haven’t seen my family since August.”

“Me either,” she said, meaning just Braam, of course.

“Are you in college, or something?”

“High school.”

“Out-of-state high school?”

“Not really.”

“Hm.” A smirk lit up his features, softened the line of his jaw and the sharp edge of his lower lip. His eyes stayed the same, though—dark brown, huge, boring into her. “Descriptive.”

She didn’t respond to his prodding but stiffened, shifting her arms so they were crossed over her chest. His eyes flicked up and down, almost imperceptible. But again, they were enormous—she saw it in her peripheral vision. He scooted away.

“I’m sorry. I’m making you uncomfortable.”

She itched to interject with a solid, “No,” the practiced politeness of youth, but it was true, so she held her mouth shut. Finally, she allowed her eyes to meet his.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated, his third apology so far. “For bothering you. I seriously just thought it looked like maybe you’d like company, because I did, but I always forget. People don’t always want the same thing as me.” He plunged his hands into the pockets of his jacket, a close-cut, nondescript ornament. Jo blinked. “That’s one of the reasons I’m all the way over here, three hours away from home. Military school, you know.”

Her mouth was dry, so she nodded.

He was perched on the outermost edge of the seat, rose in one fluid motion. “If you need anything, I’m—” He gestured toward the rear of the train cab. “You know. On the way to the bathroom.”

“Thanks.” Jo finally said. And he left.

She felt bad for a little while afterward, but not enough to turn around and beckon to him. She was worried he’d been coming on to her, but that wasn’t it; she saw it was true, after watching him, that he was just antsy. Needing engagement. She just wasn’t on board to provide it.

With fifteen minutes to go, Braam texted. It was lengthy, she saw as it lit up her phone, an ellipsis poised at the end. I’m so sorry, the preview began, but I’m going to be

What. Going to be what. She opened it and skimmed the bubble, several inches long. He was going to be late, a friend had called and needed help. Dad was in a meeting, it’d probably be seven o’clock before either one of them could make it to her at the station. Jo checked her phone. It was almost three.

When the train finally groaned into the station, she felt some relief. At least she’d be able to get her bearings, look around at her temporary home, see if the ground felt different beneath her feet, if the air carried a different smell. Her family lived in a suburb of New York City, fairly calm, but any venture into its heart carried an element of urgency.

As soon as she stepped onto the platform, bogged down by two bags on either shoulder, she felt the difference of the place. Aberdeen was quaint—that was the first word that came to mind—with its brick depot office, leafless saplings on either side. The grass was stubbly, surrendering to winter’s grip. She scurried along the platform to a bench bolted to the building, and set her things down. There was a chill in the air, and she dug in her suitcase for her coat.

Once she’d unearthed the puffy blue shell, she slipped her arms into it and plopped down on the bench, staring around. People threw their arms around each other, middle-aged sons and daughters reunited with their parents. There were smiles all around, twinkling-eyed grins that beautified every face. The older people shuffled about, fussing over new hairstyles and baggage, insisting on being the one to tug it along, despite its heft. Jo leaned forward, elbows on knees, and watched it all unfold.

She spotted Lyon through the crowd, taller than most anyone else. He looked studious, mouth barely cracked into a smile, as he leaned forward and opened his arms to a woman with highlighted brown hair. The hug was brusque—a tight squeeze, a pat on the back, and they were separating. A brood of people waited behind her: a boy who looked like Lyon, only a smaller version, with dark brown hair; a young woman who was probably older than him, judging by the baby on her hip. She gave him an one-armed hug. Then there was a man, padding on his stomach, wearing khakis and a collared shirt buttoned all the way up. Their embrace was the stiffest of them all.

Jo finally looked away, feeling intrusive. It was probably his family—at least, she hoped it was, but maybe Lyon was friendly with everybody. Maybe she was about to witness his orbit around the whole platform, pulling strangers to him, kissing cheeks. She grabbed the smaller of her two bags and plopped it on her lap, a barrier—just in case her wild speculating came to be true.

She pulled out that new book again, and busied herself with trying to fall into it. She had three hours to spare, anyway. She supposed she could walk to her father’s house—Aberdeen was small, around fifteen-thousand people. She supposed 1543 West Vine Street couldn’t have been that far. But she also supposed she didn’t know her way around, and she didn’t want to wander aimlessly.

The book it was.

The noise of chatter dimmed as people made their way off the platform, arms slung around each other’s waists and shoulders, until only a few voices remained. Jo glanced up from a jumble of words at the culprit. It was Lyon and his family, lingering. He was talking with his hands again, orchestrating various topics with sweeping palms and flicked wrists. Then he pointed, directly at her, and Jo’s stomach bottomed out.

He was walking over, why was he walking over, and she was fumbling with her book, trying to look busy. His family tracked his path with curious eyes, but they dropped away as soon as he reached her. Jo’s heart was pounding, her breathing heavy. She didn’t know why.

“Excuse me,” he said, the picture of politeness. “Jo, right?”

She looked up, nodded, unconsciously biting her lip. He was so tall. His head was directly in front of the sun, and it cast his body in silhouette.

“Do you need a ride anywhere?”

She deflated. Thank God. A proposition she could refuse. Jo shook her head so that the earrings she wore smacked the hollow beneath her ear, a halfhearted reprimand.

“Are you sure? My family doesn’t mind. It’s Aberdeen, anyway; it’s probably on the way.”

Ah, he was insistent. She curled her fingers around the edge of the book, crinkling the paper. “I’m fine, thanks.”

“Okay. Well.” He backed away, and the fickle warmth of the sun returned. “Nice to meet you.”

“Mm,” she said absently, glancing back down at her reading. This boy drained all the politeness out of her. It was unparalleled. “I mean—yeah, you too. Have a nice Christmas.”

Though he was out of earshot by then, she saw when she looked up. He rejoined his family, and they started a slow procession toward their car, the only one left on the adjacent lot—a nine-passenger van, it looked like, big and bulky and ugly to boot. Plenty of room for Jo and her luggage.

“Wait!” She called, standing up. She was cold. She was tired. She wanted to get the initial reconciliation with her father over with, after witnessing so many others here today. “I can—I mean, is there still room?” She had to shout, which was embarrassing; she was a scene from a movie, desperation rising to the surface and bubbling over.

Lyon cupped his hands around his mouth—“Sure!” Jo tucked the book beneath her arm and heaved the bags onto the shoulder, and waddled toward them. They were all staring, and she felt her face flush. Lyon met her halfway, lifting the heavier of the burdens from her grip.

“Glad you changed your mind. Wouldn’t want you to freeze.”

“No.” The dam had broken inside of her, maybe because of his kindness, and she drew a steeling breath. “My brother would be disappointed.”

“So you’re a sister.” His family had resumed their trek and were a few yards ahead, almost to the van. The asphalt was crunchy with snow salt.

“To four.”

“I’m a brother.”

“I gathered.”

“To two.”

“How is that?”

“Mostly peaceful, since I’m never here.”

“Must be nice.”

“Sometimes.” His smile was wry. Jo had been insensitive.

His family were piled in the van by the time they’d reached it. The woman with highlights introduced herself simply as “Lionel’s mother”, and his father didn’t speak at all. Jo handed her bags to Lyon, who threw them in the back, and clambered into the car. The young woman was sitting in the middle row of seats, the baby strapped in a carseat beside, the younger boy their bookend.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” the boy said.

“Hi,” Jo said.

It was awkward, sitting in another family’s car. She strapped herself in the back, and Lionel followed, leaving the middle space between them. The car roared to a start, and then they were off. The younger woman was cooing over the baby, and the boy had pulled a handheld video game from somewhere. In the front, the father had tuned the radio to NPR and the mother was poking at her cell phone with agitation.

“Fool stupid thing,” Jo heard her mutter.

“As promised,” the father said, and they lapsed back into silence.

Lyon cleared his throat and offered Jo a smile that was borderline apologetic. It was deadly quiet, aside from his sister’s high-pitched monosyllabic gabbing. “Goo,” she directed at the baby. “Ah-goo.” Over and over and over again, until Jo’s head rang with the noise.

“So where are we going?” Lyon asked. Jo’s body pulsed, like an electric current had gone through her, and she dug in her pocket for the slip of paper, handing it over.

“I’m sorry,” she said, as he accepted the address.

“That’s funny. I had a good friend that used to live here.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Braam-something. It was a weird last name.”

Jo’s heard had stopped, or at least it felt like it had—the sudden rush of breath, the tickle in her throat. She coughed. “Kearney?”

“Oh, yeah.” He glanced sideways at her. “You know him?”

“Um, yeah…” A laugh slipped from between her gritted teeth. “A little.”

From the front, his father turned his head. “I need an address, Lionel.”

“Right.” Lyon glanced down at the paper and read it off. The father signaled left.

“That’s sir, now. Don’t you forget.”

Lyon’s face reddened; he kept his gaze fixed straight ahead. “Sorry. Sir.”

Jo swallowed, looking out the window. Lyon was ramrod-straight next to her, she could feel it. His family sucked. She wanted to say that, but she didn’t, so she volunteered, “Braam is actually my brother.”

She was trained on the scenery, didn’t look for his reaction. She could feel him relax, though, and was satisfied. “Oh, wow. It’s a small world.”

Jo glanced back at him. “I guess so.”

He was smiling at her now. “I think I remember him talking about you, Except you were Jo-Jo, back then.”

“Still am.”

“Ah.” He rolled his shoulders, pulled up his sleeves. Jo tried not to squint too hard at a thin stripe of black ink on the inside of his wrist, just barely visible. She wanted to know what it was. “I’m not the most observant. I should have realized.”

“It’s okay.”

A few moments passed, just the drone of NPR, the ever-continuing baby-talk, the beep of the video game, another curse from the mouth of his mother.

“So is your name actually Jo?” Lyon offered. “Or something else?”

“Joann. I just couldn’t say that when I was little. So nobody calls me that anymore.”

“I like that name. It’s old-fashioned.”

“Hm.” Jo smiled, despite herself. She pulled the corner of her sweatshirt up over her mouth. “Well, Lionel’s also pretty old.”

“Yeah, well.”

“But you go by Lyon.”

“At school. They called my Lying-Lionel, but then it kind of became Lying-Lyon, but then I started telling the truth some of the time, so…”

Jo nodded. She wanted to ask if he’d lied to her about anything so far, but didn’t have the courage. They were turning again, another left, and this street harbored houses. Jo noted the numbers—1447, 1449, 1451—and knew they were close.

Sure enough, the van rumbled to a stop a few moments later. She sputtered her thank yous and goodbyes, and Lyon followed her around back to unload her things. The father didn’t turn the van off, and it pumped exhaust right into Jo’s face as she snatched up her bags. She coughed.

Her father’s house had tan siding and a cement front porch, with two steps up. She set her things down in front of the door and turned to Lyon. His family lingered at the curb, the mother glaring out the window at them. Jo drew a breath.

“Well—” She said, but he was saying, “So—”, and neither of them got their sentences out. Jo felt her chest constrict. Her father worked from home. He would be inside, probably on the phone, or a Skype call. She looked at Lyon.

He looked back at her. “Thanks for finally talking, Joann Kearney.”

She didn’t correct him, Joann Fitch-Loo, like she should have. She was Joann Kearney, at least here. Her father’s daughter.

“Thanks for the ride, Lyon.” She didn’t ask his last name. She didn’t want to know any more about his family than she had to. “I’ll see you around.”

“Sure.” He turned and took the stairs in one big clunk of boots, but it wasn’t awkward like Jo would’ve been had she attempted the same thing. She waved as he walked away, ignoring his mother in the passenger side. Right before he reached the door, he pivoted around.

“Living the dream in Aberdeen!” He called. “That’s the motto here!”

Jo laughed as he got in, and the car pulled away, really before he’d even have time to buckle his seatbelt. The back windows were tinted, but Jo waved again, imagining he was watching.

The house was cold and dark. The door opened onto an oak staircase, up which she could hear the sounds of somebody moving around—the rustle of papers, a baritone murmur. Her dad was on the phone. She tiptoed in, leaving her things sitting in the entryway, and gave herself a tour. The living room had white carpet and photos of all his children on the mantle, outdated ones from when they still did school portraits. An electric fire burned beneath, offering weak warmth, and a Samsung flatscreen took up half a wall.

Branching out from an archway was a hall, off which there was a bathroom; the narrow space opened into a kitchen. The floor was linoleum, the counters gray formica. All the appliances were black. Jo glanced through a glass-paneled door into the backyard, which was grassless and dusted with that morning’s frost.

There was a small eating area with an IKEA table and some nameless painting of a beautiful woods, a cabin at its center and deer dispersed throughout, nibbling at lush blades of grass. Jo narrowed her eyes at that, which had a woman’s touch. Paintings—those weren’t her dad. Their old house had paid homage to artifacts, things like signed baseball gloves and hand-lettered signs from his family’s farm, which had littered the ancient walls. It hadn’t been perfect, not like where Jo and everyone else lived now, but it had character. She could tolerate her current home, but this—this was awful. This was the product of some company’s quick grab for money, chewed up, digested, and uniform.

The eating area, which could hardly be called a dining room, cycled right back into the entranceway with the front door and the stairs. That was all. Jo stood on the side of the staircase, recessed lighting glaring down on her—there were no fixtures, she realized, an acute absence of iron-edged pieces emitting a rich glow—when the stairs groaned. She glanced up, and there was her fathering, hurrying down, the phone still pressed to his ear. Keys jangled in his hand as he spoke into the mouthpiece, a hundred miles a minute, “Okay, George, that sounds good. We’ll figure it out. But I have to go pick up my daughter, she’s waiting—”

Jo stood there and waited for him to notice her, to look over his shoulder, but he didn’t. He hung up the phone, fumbled with a leather jacket hanging from a coat stand, and smoothed a hand through his hair. It had receded even further and was thin, the remaining blonde strands clinging stubbornly to his scalp. Jo watched as he pulled on one white sneaker, and then the other. He was rushing too much to notice her, she was going to have to say something—

Then Neil Kearney bumped into her suitcase, knocking it over, and the bag too. All her things spilled out onto the floor—chapstick and hairbrush, book, a family-size bag of hershey’s kisses. He froze, then dropped to his hands and knees, scooping things up in great big handfuls.

Jo decided the easiest thing to do was to make an entrance. As quietly as possible, she backed out of the room, into the breakfast nook, and then clomped back in again. Her father looked up at the sound. Their eyes met for just a moment, and neither of them smiled, until suddenly he was grinning wider than she’d ever seen.

“Hi, Joann,” he said, pushing himself into a crouching position. “Did Braam bring you?”

She hung back, reaching up to curl an arm around the stair railing. Steady. “No, actually. Somebody gave me a ride from the station. They lived in the area.”

“Oh, well.” He rose, throwing his hands up, sheepish. “Everybody kind of does, here.”

Jo nodded. She drew a breath. Her father stepped toward her and opened his arms.

She fell into them, squeezing. He’d gained some weight, her father. He’d always been thin, but now he sported the trademark figure of most middle-aged men—broad shoulders, with a slightly rounded torso. Jo didn’t like how foreign he felt. She missed the skinny knobs of his shoulderblades.

He held her for a few seconds, probably the longest hug they’d ever shared, and then they both stepped back. Jo gave him a tight smile and bent over to finish gathering her things. Neil stooped to help, but Jo waved him off.

“Well, okay. I’m glad you’re here. You’ve grown up.”

“It happens. And me too,” she agreed. “Where should I put my things?”

“Oh, yeah—” he snatched up both bags, right out of her hands, and started up the steps. “Let me show you.”

She followed him, and he chattered out a long excuse, littered with apologies. One of the agents had called about a huge sale that had fallen through, and the commission was lost, and the wealthy buyers were furious, and now they were threatening to go with a different agency. There were a lot of ‘ands’. Jo nodded along as he prattled, even though he was in front of her, and he didn’t stop until they’d reached a small room with a small desk and a small lamp and a small plaid couch.

“It’s a pullout,” he explained, dropping her things to the floor. “You can have my room, if you want, but I thought you might be more comfortable in here.”

“This is fine,” Jo assured him. “I like it.”

She did, actually, comforted by the presence of those things she’d been missing downstairs, dashed up on the walls. They were there, all the pieces of her father’s life, each of which came with its own story. Their placement was haphazard, not strategic like it’d been at home, but she didn’t mind. Jo was smiling, actually, but stopped when she caught Neil studying her.

“Well,” he said at last, “It’s going to be five. You hungry?”

Jo had already gotten into the kisses on the train, probably a third of the bag, but her stomach yearned for real food. She followed her father into the kitchen, where he proceeded to pull out a phone book and look up a number for pizza.

“What do you like on yours?” He asked.

“Just cheese,” Jo said, splaying her hands on the countertop.

“Really?” He dialed the number with furrowed brows. “I thought you liked ham and green pepper.”

“That’s Pacha.”

“Or barbecue chicken.”

“Lee.”

“Or veggie.”

“That’s Braam.”

“Right. I knew that.” He held the phone to his ear. “Well, okay. A cheese pizza and a veggie.”

Jo nodded. She wanted to ask him how he could’ve forgotten, with the memories of pizzas past—Friday nights, boxes lined up on the dining room table, Jo’s ceaseless complaining—filling the room. She used to throw huge fits over pizza. Everyone else liked toppings, so her parents would order those, and tell Jo just to pick them off. She’d cried over that, the unfairness. Middle children tend to come last.

She'd always ended up on her father’s lap, watching as he painstakingly pulled chunks of onion and slivers of black olive off the cheese; she was too stubborn to do it herself. Then he’d fold it up for her, like a taco, just the way she liked, so she would forget there had ever been an injustice.

Jo almost said something about it. She ached with the weight of the words, but then her Dad was saying, “Hey, it’s Neil,” and placing their order. When he hung up, he glanced toward the fridge. “It’ll be here in a half hour or so. You want something to drink?” He opened up the fridge and scanned the rows of beverages. Jo could see, over his shoulder, that there was very little food. “We have milk, or Sprite, or beer…” The words tipped off his tongue, anxious, into a void.

“I’m eighteen, Dad.”

“Right.” He pulled two sprites and popped the tabs. “Those are reserved for Braam, anyway.”

Jo sipped at her beverage and decided her Dad must be kidding—a poor attempt at a joke. They moved into the living room, where Neil flicked off the fake fire and traded it for the hum of the TV. “I hate that thing,” he said, gesturing to the stack of plastic logs. “Came with the house. The actual fireplace doesn’t work, of course, because this was built in oh-seven. They don't make homes like they used to anymore.”

“No,” Jo said, thinking of her old house, its creaks and groans and woodwork.

Neil flicked through channels and asked if The Twilight Zone was okay. Jo consented, and they watched the black-and-white episode in silence, until the bell rang with pizza.

Jo threw some sheets onto the pullout. In the dark of the bathroom, she yanked on her pajamas—the door didn’t lock—and washed her face, and brushed her teeth twice while staring in the mirror. It was covered with spray from the sink, fingerprints, and dust. She wished she were home, where everybody campaigned for use of the bathroom, and usually two or three of them ended up scrubbing their teeth over the kitchen sink, the foam dripping from their mouths and spotting whatever dishes had been left for morning.

Once she’d said goodnight to Neil, who clomped back downstairs for more TV, Jo shut herself in the room and sat on the creaky pullout; the springs dug into her thigh. She called her mother. It rang once, twice, and then Paul answered.

“You’ve reached the Loos.”

Nobody else answered a phone like that, except him. Hey works, Jo wanted to quip, but she didn’t. “Hey, Paul.”

“Oh, hi!” He leaned away from the receiver, announcing her call—it’s Jo!— to whomever was within the landline’s radius. “How’s Maryland?”

“Good. How’s New York?”

“The same as ever”—some muffled speaking in the background—“Oh, Pacha say hi.”

“Put her on.”

“All right. Have a good trip! We’ll see you soon.”

“Yep.”

Pacha came on and startling babbling about that evening’s practice. “They said they’re just going to make that part a solo, since it’s too hard for us all to do together, and they’re having auditions tomorrow so I’m trying out. So wish me luck! How’s Daddy? What’s the house like?”

“He’s good, Pacha. He says hi.” He hadn’t. “The house is okay. A little boring.”

“Nicer than ours?”

“No,” Jo said, thinking of their old home, the one they’d moved out of shortly after the divorce. Of course Pacha didn’t mean that one, but the answer was true for both, regardless. “Not even close.”

“Mm,” she sympathized. “Well. Mommy’s here. I should go practice.”

“Yeah, well, make sure to have some fun.” Jo put on her voice of exaggeration, the one she always used with Pacha. “I worry about you.”

Pacha wasn’t listening anymore. She shouted a quick, “Love you!” into the receiver, and there was another rustle, and then her mother’s voice was in her ear.

“Jo! I wasn’t sure if you’d call.”

“I said I would.”

“I know, but I thought you might be busy with Dad.”

“Nope.”

“Okay.”

They were quiet a moment. Her mother sighed.

“How is he, anyway? Good?”

“Seems to be. He was working when I got here and couldn’t pick me up—I got a ride from a family at the train station.”

“Oh! Sorry, honey, I’m sorry.”

“It was fine,” she said, thinking of Lyon and the whole awful lot, his family. “Anyway, I’m about to go to bed.”

“It’s nine.”

“I know. I’m so tired.”

“Yeah, sweetheart, we got up early.”

“Yep.”

“Okay. Well, tell Braam I said hi, and Neil, and I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Do you want me to call? Or will you? I don’t know what you’ll be doing.”

Tomorrow was December twenty-third. Jo supposed shopping. “We’ll see. Either way.” She didn’t bother to tell her mother that Braam wasn’t home yet. It would just beg questions, and ones she couldn’t answer. “Goodnight.”

“I love you,” her mother said, with as much sincerity as Jo had ever heard in her life.

“I love you, too.” She meant it, but it was lacking resolve.

“Okay. Tomorrow.” The line disconnected.

Jo tossed the phone aside and climbed beneath the covers, scratchy flannel ones that might’ve been from the nineties. She pulled the thin comforter up over her shoulder, and then groaned when she realized she was going to have to get back up to turn off the desk light. She did, shivering, suddenly cold, and paused a moment to look at the picture on her father’s desk.

It was a newer one, of him and a face that Jo knew too well: Robert, her dad’s best friend, his sole confidant—set against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains, both of them sporting black ski caps and huge, white-toothed beams. Robert had his arm slung around her Dad’s shoulder. He was the one holding the phone, making a sacrifice to the biting cold with an ungloved hand so he could press capture.

Jo was glad to see him, still present in her Dad’s life. He’d been around for many years, more than Jo could be sure of. He’d moved to the Aberdeen area shortly before her father, and Jo found herself wondering—was she going to see him? Would he remember her, little Jo-Jo with her blonde braids and affinity for alphabet soup? She’d used to sit with him and her father as they had lunch, coke cans and corned beef sandwiches, their easy conversation coming in tides, washing over her.

It brought her happiness, that picture, to see a bit of old life still clinging to the new—thriving, it looked like. Jo flicked off the light, and she got back into bed, and she went through the same motions to tuck herself in. She wondered where Braam was.

Right before she fell asleep, she realized she hadn’t asked her mother about Margie.

Braam returned some point between the hours of ten and eight, while Jo slept. She was relieved to find him in the kitchen the next morning, overseeing breakfast on the stove. He grinned when he saw her and rushed over to pull her in for a bear hug, flinging egg off a spatula in his hurry.

“Man,” he said, tucking her under his chin. “You’re actually here. In the flesh.”

She squeezed him back, momentarily too overcome to say anything. Tears pricked at her eyes.

Braam freed her, and Jo swayed backyard. She was a little lightheaded. He hurried back over to his eggs and scraped at the pan, but they’d already begun to stick.

“I hope you don’t mind overcooked food,” he said, gesturing to his efforts, “because these are going to be awful.”

“They’re eggs,” Jo said, seeking out the coffee pot and then making a beeline. She liked it black, with too much sugar. “You can’t screw them up.”

“Oh, you can. And I have.” He scooped them out of the pan, evenly onto two plates. He’d made too much, Jo saw. Probably four or five apiece.

“Jesus,” she said, as he handed over a quivering pile.

“What?” Braam began to wolf his down, still standing. Jo stretched up to scrape some of hers onto his plate, but Braam twisted away. “You don’t like eggs? Since when?”

“I do, but not a whole dozen’s worth.”

“Oh, come off it.”

Jo gave up and speared a bite with her fork, waving it in the air, a peace offering. “Thank you.”

“You’re not welcome. Because you’re so ungrateful.”

“Always.” She popped the bite in her mouth, chewed, swallowed. They needed salt. Jo went back to her coffee, leaving the eggs to grow cold on the counter. “Where were you last night?”

“With a friend.”

“A friend?” With raised eyebrows, Jo imagined she looked just like their mother. That was probably true, because Braam quickly busied himself with the dishes. He’d polished off his plate.

“Yes, Jo-Jo, a friend who very much needed me.”

“A lady friend?”

“That’s unrelated.”

“Hm.” Jo knew she looked amused, sounded amused, but she felt a pang. He couldn’t tell whatever hottie he was busy with that his sister was coming in, the sister he hadn’t seen since July? Whatever. She stirred some sugar into her beverage, and took a sip. Bitter and sweet, the way she liked it.

When Braam was done with the dishes—and had eaten her breakfast, too—they moved into the living room, where they plopped down onto the couches and talked about everything but what mattered most. Braam was gearing up for an especially rewarding baseball season, or so he said, and had the newly-defined muscle and practiced pitch to show for it. His grades were good, classes were interesting. He asked Jo about her life, but she kept it basic; she still had the same friends, after all, and aside from Margie there hadn’t been any great stirs at home. Her mother seemed happy with Paul, and Jo was happy for her, so she said.

“But what about Dad?” She asked at last, curling her legs up underneath her. “Is he okay?” Neil was already at work, his last nine-to-five before holiday break, so it was safe to talk about him—what Jo had been itching to do.

Braam nodded, tugging at a loose thread on a couch pillow. His had mouth pulled down a little at the corners. “I mean, he seems happy enough. Working. Busy. Doesn’t do much outside of that.”

“Hm.” Jo tried to catch Braam’s eye, but he wouldn’t allow it. “Well, I mean—I noticed the picture upstairs on his desk. Last night. Of him and Robert.”

“He sees him a lot.”

“He lives nearby?”

“Just the next town over.” Braam pointed out the direction, like she’d know what he was talking about, but Jo loved him for it. “But he’s his only friend.”

“Oh.” Braam sounded so especially sad about that, Jo didn’t interject with her own sob story: yes, she’d mentioned the bubbly brunettes from her youth, companions that she ate lunch and went to concerts with, but really, Jo was just as alone as her father. She had her family, and Braam, and that was enough for her. Neil was perhaps the same.

Braam wouldn’t understand. He had the world and a mob of affable people at his disposal, so Jo didn’t try to explain. She just nodded and changed the subject.

They went downtown to buy Christmas gifts. The street was lined with mom-and-pop stores: a health-food grocer, a bookshop, and one devoted to trinkets. Jo ducked into the latter and spent a while among the rows of wind-up robots and iridescent rubik’s cubes. She grabbed a small, light-up keychain piano for Pacha, and a novelty handbook for Lee—Nico Ninja’s Pocket-Sized Guide to Ninja Chicks—and snagged a coloring book Margie would love, black paper that you scratched designs onto. Jo took her purchases up to the counter, and paid nearly thirty dollars for the small gifts, and then most of her shopping money was gone.

When she excited the shop, she spotted Braam down the street, talking to a broad-shouldered guy in a football jersey, no coat. Braam’s eyes leveled with hers, and Jo signaled that she was going into the next place which—now she saw—was a distillery. Maybe not. But then he was waving her over, and his friend was turning around to look at her, and she couldn’t very well run off. She swallowed her annoyance and marched over, hating the friend’s leering smile.

“Monroe, this is Jo,” Braam said, as she reached them. She pushed up the shopping bag until it nested in the inner crease of her elbow, and stuck her hand out. They shook.

“Jo, Monroe. Doesn’t that have a nice ring to it,” he said, with a throaty guffaw. Jo cringed.

“Yeah, well, my name’s actually Joann. So not really.”

He didn’t seem to notice her discomfort, nor did Braam. “You should bring her to the party tonight, B.”

“I was planning to.”

This was the first Jo had heard of it. “What party?”

Braam smiled at her, coaxing. “One of my buddies is throwing a Christmas party.”

“Nick,” Monroe supplied.

“Yeah, Nick.”

Jo smiled politely and shifted her weight to her other foot. This was unbearable. Monroe looked like a classic meathead, thick neck and middle and a hint of a beard. She rolled her eyes heavenward and tried not to look at either of them—the beefcake or her brother.

They chatted for a bit while Jo stood there awkwardly, calculating a way to move on. Finally, she’d decided just to say it—I have to get back to shopping—when the beefcake reached out to Braam, and they clapped hands. His shifty eyes moved to Jo. “Hope you’ll come tonight.”

“Yeah,” she said lamely, and he swaggered off. Jo whirled on Braam.

“Tell me you don’t actually like him.”

Braam was smiling, but it faltered. “What? Monroe? He’s kind of an ass, but he’s okay.”

“He’s an idiot, Braam.” She let the bag drop to her fingers. “Like, a two-plus-two-equals-five type of idiot.”

“He’s just a friend, Jo.”

“He’s a lousy one.” She breathed in through her nose, and the sound was sharp, the air cold in her nostrils. “Whatever. Let’s go.”

“Fine.” The word was staccato. Jo raked her hair back at the crown and stalked off toward the next shop, Braam hanging back slightly, texting somebody on his phone. She huffed into the bookstore and started browsing for something her Mom might like, or maybe even Paul.

“Do you think Paul could use a cookbook?” Jo plucked up the edge. It had meat on it, a sizzling steak with chives sprinkled on top.

“I dunno.” Braam had just come in, and wasn’t looking. “Does he cook? Does he read books?”

“Both.”

“Then I say get it.”

“Yeah.” She flipped it over, and frowned at the price. “Do they have a discount section here?”

Braam pointed, and she started that way, but he didn’t follow. Jo paused halfway and bored holes into her brother’s profile, willing him to look up from the glow of his screen.

“Go on,” he finally said, eyes barely flicking up. “I’ll be there in a sec.”

Jo made it to the corner, where all the poor sellers were thrown into a shallow wood tub. She stooped over and rifled through, tossing aside titles like Mary Manhattan Makes Martinis and The Promiscuous Shopgirl. There were a few cookbooks, but they either had covers with B-list celebrity chefs, or pledged its readers would Get Thin, Fast! which Jo thought might be offensive.

She felt a tap on her shoulder, and her lips lifted in a rush of relief. “Braam,” she said, pulling Mary Manhattan Makes A Baby from the top. Mary herself was depicted on the cover, curled protectively over her slightly swollen midsection. A thought bubble rose from her stomach, cradling a fetus that was drawn in near-graphic detail. “Look at this.”

Braam laughed, except it wasn’t Braam, but Jo recognized the voice. There was a leap in her throat, a collision of nerves, and she threw her gaze over her shoulder. Lyon was standing behind her, one hand in his pocket—the same jacket from yesterday, Jo noted—the other balancing a stack of novels.

“That’s my favorite,” he said. “How’d you know?”

“Oh.” Jo dropped the book back into the bin, edging around. “Hi. I’m sorry. I thought—” She trailed off, and left her words hanging there like that. Lyon was smiling, but it wasn’t expectant. “Anyway.” She laughed. “That was embarrassing.”

“That was entertaining. It’s okay.” He set the books down on the top of a stout shelf, and Jo peered curiously at the titles. They were all part of the same series, something depicting magic and lies and a skull. She gestured at them.

“Favorites?”

“No, my little brother likes them.” He wrinkled his nose at the pile. “I don’t read much.”

“Me either,” Jo said, even though that wasn’t true. “I mean, I do read—actually pretty often—but not books like that. Anyway.”

“Anyway,” he agreed.

They stared at each other, smiling a little stupidly. Jo was relieved to see a familiar face.

“So how’s family?” He posed. “The same?”

“Just my Dad and brother.” She thought about Braam, and Monroe, and last night, and tonight’s soiree. “Mostly the same, I guess. You?”

“Horribly the same.”

“Yeah.” She folded her hands together and worked her palms around, anxious. “I noticed. But—yeah, that’s family.”

“That’s family.” Today he was wearing a forest-green turtleneck and tan slacks and those serious boots. His sleeves were rolled up, and Jo tried again to see the tattoo, but it was angled toward his body, and she’d have to ask, which would be awkward.

He saw her staring. “Ever seen one of those before?”

“Huh?” She raised her head.

“You know. Those. Those scary, permanent things.”

“Oh. Well, yeah. Of course.” Jo didn’t know anybody personally who had a tattoo, but she’d seen plenty of them. She didn’t say that, though—it’d sound childish. “What’s yours?”

He flipped his wrist. Jo frowned at the petite New York skyline.

“Oh, wow,” she said, grabbing his hand without thinking, lest he tuck his hand away. Her home was formed by one thick, arching stripe, from one side of his wrist to the other. “I like it.”

“I got it when I moved there last summer. For my senior year.” He made a noise kind of like a laugh, but under his breath. “Kind of a—well, you know—to my parents, if you know what I mean. I thought—well—” He pulled his hand away, quickly, and Jo stumbled back with the surprise of it. “Oh, hey, Braam.”

Braam sidled up beside Jo, draping an arm around her shoulders. “Hey, man.” He stuck his free hand out, and Lyon moved to shake it. “Long time no-see.”

“Yeah. It’s been awhile.”

“How’ve you been?”

“Good. You?”

“Decent.” Braam looked to Jo, eyes alight with affection. “So, you know my little sister?”

“We were on the same train yesterday. Yeah.”

“Awesome. Glad to have her meet an old friend.” There was an edge to his voice, a protective veil that Jo hated to hear. “Well. We’ve got to go.”

“Yeah.”

Braam started to turn her away, but Jo ducked out from his hold. It was so obvious, what her brother was doing, that it embarrassed her. “There’s a party tonight,” she said, her voice steely. “If you want to come.”

“Oh—”

“It’s…” She glanced at Braam, whose face had hardened. “Where is it?”

Braam rattled off the address, no hint of friendliness in his voice. Jo grinned to make up for it.

“And I’ll be there, and I don’t know anybody but you and my brother. So you should come.”

“Um.” Lyon picked up his books, nodding absently. He was taller than Braam, Jo noted, thinner. “Okay. I’ll see what we have going on.”

They exchanged nods, and Jo knew right then he’d be coming—anything to escape that family. That was why she’d invited him, she told herself, feeling a flash of nobility. His incorrigible family.

“All right. See you.” She raised her hand in a half-wave, and then Braam really was pulling her, by the wrist, straight out the jingling entrance.

He didn’t speak as they took long strides down the street, putting yards of distance between them and Lyon. Finally, satisfied with the gap, Braam stopped. He was breathing heavily, but not from exertion.

“Jo—”

“What?” She snapped, surprising herself. “What was that?”

That was me trying to send a message.”

“What are you talking about?”

Braam shook his head, cold. “I don’t want you around him. That’s all.”

“That’s all?” She scoffed, winding her arms around herself. “Our life isn’t a fifties sitcom, Braam. If you’re going to ask me not to see somebody…it’s just—that’s ridiculous. I want to know why.”

“He’s just…not a good person.” He nodded resolutely, and his curls bounced. “Okay?”

“He seems nice.”

Jo.” Braam shook his head. Bounce. “He literally got sent away.”

Jo thought back to their time on the train yesterday, and the car ride. She supposed she didn’t really know him all that well. “I just—”

“I know.” Braam softened. “You’re a good person. A genuine person. That’s why…anyway, I don’t want anybody around him, much less my sister.” He reached out, gave her a gentle shove. “I’m sorry for embarrassing you.”

Jo waved him off. She needed to catch her breath. She and Braam had fought plenty of times before, but never about somebody else. Not with all this change stewing around them. She sank down on the curb, and a moment later, Braam joined her.

“Can we just—” She broke off, afraid to ask. Mostly because she feared the answer.

“What?” He put his arm around her, again, but this time it was comfort, not possession. He nudged her. “C’mon, Jo. What?”

“Can we just stay in?” She looked pleadingly at him. “Last night I didn’t even see you, and today…there were all these people.”

Braam nodded, his face soft. “Yeah, of course. It’s just a stupid party. I thought—”

“It’d be fun,” Jo finished. “Yeah, well, you know me. I hate parties.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“Me too.” She laid her head against him, and they sat there for awhile, listening to the sounds of people chattering, car engines, and carolers, faint in the distance.

It was Braam’s idea to make Christmas cards, a task they’d loved as children. They spread magazines and copy paper over the small table, and put on carols. Braam managed to find glue sticks. They listened to the classics on the small radio, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, cut snowflakes from the white paper and affixed them to red cologne advertisements. After a while, Jo got up and put some hot chocolate on the stove; it was the good, old-fashioned kind, heavy on the coca and made with whole milk.

“I haven’t had this,” Braam said, as he accepted the cup, “since our last Christmas together.”

Jo thought back to that as she ladled the steaming liquid into another mug. By the time she’d plopped into her seat, she’d summoned enough fragments to piece together the final holiday they’d spent as a family. “I got a cell phone. Didn’t I?”

“A flip phone, back then.”

“Yeah.” Jo giggled at a sudden tickle of excitement—residual, left over from that beautiful morning. “And Dad got Mom something, didn’t he?”

“I’m not sure.” Braam frowned in concentration as he applied glue. The snowflake tore. “Agh.”

“I mean, didn’t he?”

“That was the last year, Jo-Jo. I don’t think they were talking much.”

Jo thought. She supposed that was true. Around October, he began to sleep on the couch. He stayed at work late most nights, selling farmhouse after duplex after small apartment, or so he said. Jo could see that hadn’t been the case now, of course. Her mother didn’t want to have to fix him a plate, sit beside him at the table and watch him eat. She didn’t want him in her bed. She didn’t want to spend another holiday with him, because she’d been hurt.

Jo wanted to know what he’d done. She’d long supposed cheating—wasn’t that what broke up most marriages?—but never dared to ask anyone to confirm it. She wouldn’t be able to look him in the eye if she knew he’d been unfaithful to her mother, who’d been the picture of devoted. That was all in the past now, anyway—it didn’t matter. But still, she wanted to know.

“Braam.”

“Yeah.”

“Braam.”

He looked up at her insistence, right into her wide eyes. “What? Is something wrong?”

“Did Dad—” She worked her lip through her teeth. This was a precipice, if there ever was one. “Did he cheat on Mom?”

“What?”

“You know. Back when they broke up—”

“Jo, I don’t—”

“Hello!” Neil called out, as the front door opened.

“—know. Hey, Dad!”

They shared a weighted look, and refocused on their cards. Jo could hear her father stomping snow from his boots in the foyer.

“It’s going to be a white Christmas,” Neil enthused, as he breezed into the nook. He stopped when he took in his children, and what they were doing. “Are you guys making cards?”

“Yeah,” Jo said, holding her latest up to see how it’d stacked up. She’d cut yule logs from a climate change article, and they looked great with a crayon fire blazing stop them. She flipped it around, for Neil to see. “You like?”

His features were alight, rendering him years younger. As he took one of the remaining two chairs, he unwound a scarf from around his neck—thick and gray and close-knit. “It’s great.” He turned to his son. “What’ve you got, Braam?”

He dutifully displayed his, and Jo added a border to the fire. Maybe she’d make it a mantle, sketch their pictures onto it, like her dad’s display in the living room—a kind of holiday inception. She penciled a large rectangle above the square, and outlined the frames.

Neil’s eyes hovered over the pile of scraps. “Can I make my own?”

“Sure,” Jo said, sliding it toward him. “Go crazy.”

They were all silent for a few moments, Jo fine-tuning her sketch, Braam rounding off the edges, Neil selecting his components. Jo heard him draw a breath, as if preparing to speak, and then let it go, and then suck in again—a dance of sorts, dangling on the edge of words.

“Everything okay?” Braam asked, noticing too. Jo forgot how attuned they both were to everything around them. Laura used to draw them to her after an especially insightful comment, reeling them to either hip.

“My sensitive babies,” she would say, stooping to kiss their fluffy heads of hair. And they’d giggle and squirm and twist away, and then run off together, playing kings or bandits or ranchers. Jo glanced across the table at Braam and had the sudden urge to drawl, “Howdy partner,” like she used to—the signal that promised to spur an adventure. What would happen, she wondered. Would he laugh? Would he say, “Word’s a buncha crooks robbed the bank,” in his southern accent? Or would his eyebrows come together, a wary smile shift his cheeks—would he say, “What are you talking about?”

That stumped Jo most. She bore down on her pencil, and she drew the impulse away.

Neil had answered, she realized with a start, and looked at him, catching the tail end of the sentence. “—dilemma. So you guys decide.”

Braam looked to her. “Jo?”

“Oh…” She hedged, scrambling to catch up. “I don’t care.”

“Yeah, me either.”

Neil twisted to Jo with expectant eyes. “You decide. You’re the guest.”

“Um…uh…” She drew a breath. “The…first.”

“Okay.” He nodded once, solid. “So we’ll go to Robert’s for Christmas Eve.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Glad it’s settled.” He pushed back from the table. “What do you kids want? Chinese?”

Takeout every night. Jo was hungry, but she longed for her mother’s vegetable stir-fry, her teriyaki chicken and rice—something that wasn’t delivered to their door. “Why don’t I cook?”

Neil frowned at the clock. “It’s almost eight.”

“I’m a fast cook.”

“We don’t have any groceries.”

“I’m also a fast shopper.” Already Jo was standing, her mind made up. “And now I’m going to the store.”

Braam gave a decisive swipe of crayon and rose. “I’ll go with you.”

A look had tilted Neil’s face off its axis, a half-smile that grew as he looked between them. He swept up his gray scarf and draped it around his neck. “All right, then. It’s settled. We’re going to the store.”

Under the fluorescent lights of the local grocery—which Neil always shopped at, because he knew the owner—they dodged in and out of aisles and filled the cart with goodies: fresh vegetables, fish imported from Maine that was wrapped in brown paper. As they pondered the gourmet cheeses for their appetizer, Neil reached out and grabbed Jo around the shoulders and pulled her to him, beaming. He had a proud look about him, a fatherly look, and for a moment Jo leaned her whole self against him.

“This is nice,” he said, and the pressure of his hand gave way. Jo let her head linger on his shoulder for a beat longer, then righted her neck.

“Yeah,” she said, meaning the hug, knowing he was referring to their meal.

“My Jo, a cook.”

“Yep.”

“Laura teach you?”

“She did.” Jo bent and grabbed two cheeses that looked nice, a hard cheddar and an aged swiss. “What do you think?”

“Now we just need crackers.” Neil grabbed the cart and pivoted it on its wheel toward isle seven. They walked slowly, pausing to let harried shoppers pass.

“Laura’s an excellent cook,” Neil offered, out of the blue. “The meals she used to make…”

“Yeah,” Jo sighed, a sudden hitch in her throat. “She still does.”

“I think I miss that the most.” They’d reached the head of the aisle, and Jo slipped in ahead of him.

“Her food?” She frowned, angling her chin so he wouldn’t see.

“No…I mean, of course that. But I meant—” He’d stopped in front of the fancy crackers, not the household names but the ones with cracked pepper and seeds, “—you know, the dinners. The meals. Where we’d sit down together and Braam would say the prayer…”

Jo’s thoughts flashed, wondering where her brother was. Lost in some aisle on his phone again? Maybe he was talking to another magnetic “buddy”. Then she sifted back father, through the dense thicket of her memories, and found the ones that matched Neil’s words: Braam in his spot at the head of the table, so proud, “Hey, God, thanks for this food…”

“We had the best conversations then, remember?” Neil’s voice was a mist, a damp that settled. “We laughed so much. We always ate too much.”

“Pacha couldn’t have spaghetti without getting it everywhere.”

“Oh, yeah.” He laughed, a hearty sound that registered below the baseline of reality. It was just vibration, she realized, but she latched on and clung to it, to the way it felt in her chest. “That was good spaghetti. Do you know how to make that?”

Yes, Jo thought, and so do you. Her father had chopped the green pepper alongside her mother, diced the onion and tipped in too much red wine, until she’d protest, “You’re going to get those kids drunk,” and he’d chuckle and lean over and bury his mouth in her neck, speaking low against the curve. Jo remembered that much, watching from the outskirts—when had that stopped, she wondered? Was there a time she could pinpoint, a day, an hour, a minute when it had ground to a halt, all at once?

“Red wine,” Jo found herself saying. That was all. Red wine. As if the whole sauce was comprised of it.

Neil perked up, and reached to snag a package of crackers. Rosemary and Olive Oil, the box relayed. “That’s what we need! A nice merlot, or a cabaret.”

“Sure,” Jo agreed, but her voice was drowned in the sudden squeaking of the shopping cart wheels. She hadn’t noticed it before, but as Neil journeyed in pursuit of the alcohol aisle, the noise paved his way. Jo hesitated, and then she grabbed a box of plain butter crackers, because rosemary was gross.

Neil poured a few inches of wine for each of them, a little more for himself. They settled back against the couch pillows while the red potatoes roasted and the salmon baked, helping themselves to the platter of cheese and crackers. Jo sandwiched the cheddar between two flaky crusts, and she chased one with another until her mouth was so dry she had to sip the wine.

That only made it worse. Wine was awful.

Neil swirled his around and took a drink and wrinkled his nose. Braam laughed.

“It’s vinegar, Dad.”

“It was six dollars. I should have known.”

“I’ve tasted some decent six-dollar wines.”

Neil rolled his eyes. “I’m sure you have, son.”

Jo startled at that, out of whatever cracker-slash-malbec induced reverie she’d been swathed in. Son. An odd word, from Neil Kearney’s lips. Jo took another sip.

“Robert knows good wine.” Neil pondered his glass. “He goes to these art things a couple towns over, always tries to get me to come, but it’s all pretentious stuff.” He smiled privately. “And I always drink beer, and he always teases me about it.”

Jo looked to Braam for his reply, but he was spacing out, and then it occurred that Neil was talking to her, Jo, who wasn’t around, who didn’t know these mundanities of his life. “Oh.” That’s all she said. Oh.

“He’s excited to see you tomorrow, Jo. It’s been awhile.”

“Yeah.” Jo shifted, reached for another cracker and then thought better of it. She felt a little sick, actually. “I don’t know when.”

“Probably just before the—” Neil bit the word off, raised the glass to his lips. He was going to say the divorce, Jo thought, and as casually as if it were bad weather. Which it had been, as a metaphor goes.

“Everything happened,” Braam concluded. So he wasn’t swept up after all.

Jo ate another cracker anyway. The wine sucked.

By the time the salmon dinged, it was nearly ten. Jo didn’t have an appetite—she’d eaten too much cheese and crackers. She served the salmon anyway alongside the potatoes and a small salad. They sat down at the table. Neil exclaimed over the home-cooked meal, and Braam wolfed his down, which was a compliment. Jo picked and flaked with the tines of her fork. She was hungry, but not for food.

Jo pulled on a sweatshirt before bed, then crawled between the sheets. It was late. Her eyelids were heavy. She’d call her mother in the morning.

She burrowed into the crisp cool, teeth chattering for those few excruciating moments it took to warm a previously unoccupied bed. Finally, after minutes had passed—maybe ten, maybe fifteen—she found herself slipping. She tried to let go off all the thoughts her mind clung to, stubborn pieces of the day she turned over and over in a search for fissures, scuffs, any weakness that would allow her to root inside and find her answers. Which was impossible, because Jo didn’t even know her questions.

Meals, and forgetting them, and dinnertime prayers, and glasses of wine, and the divorce

A creak, on the stairs. Jo sat straight up.

It sounded like—well, like Braam. Braam’s tread. She knew the sound of his footsteps, the way he threw his weight from foot to foot, the bounce of his shoulders. He was going downstairs.

Jo slipped from beneath her cave and squeezed through the door—the best to avoid squeaky hinges—and padded to the top of the stairs. There stood Braam, coat on, hat pulled low over his ears, fiddling with the front door.

She sang with hurt. “Braam—”

He flinched, she saw, then turned to look at her. Opened his mouth. “Don’t be mad, Jo-Jo, okay? One of my friends messaged me and they just really needed me there tonight.”

Jo whirled to remember what he was referring to, and then it hit—the party. She breathed heavy through her nose. Why wasn’t he content to be? Why did he always have to race off?

“Braam—” She started.

He threw his hands up. “Jo. I said don’t be mad. I’ll be back soon.”

“No—” She started down the steps, and then turned and loped back up. “—I’m not. I’m coming.” She’d decided right then. She didn’t want to, actually—she hated parties, though she’d never been to one to know. Not the kind of party Braam was running off to, anyway.

“Jo, I’m fine—”

“I said I want to go.” She squared off against him, fingers twitching into her palm. “So I’m going.”

It was apparent, from the set of her jaw and the edge in her voice, that this was not debatable. She watched Braam’s chest slowly rise and deflate. It was worse than a slap.

She hurried back upstairs—half-worried he’d go ahead and leave while she was getting ready—to hook a bra beneath her sweatshirt, pull on a plain pair of leggings, run a brush through her blonde hair. It was fluffy and frizzy. She didn’t bother to glance in a mirror.

Braam was still standing by the door when she scurried back downstairs, as fast as she possibly could without making any discernible noise. He twirled the keys to his car around his pointer, over and over. He smiled at Jo when she joined him, and out the door they went.

The night was obsidian, dusted with frost—it was sprinkled on the gray-green grass and pavement and rooftops, nature’s glitter. It refracted the moonlight, sparkling, and with the street lit up by Christmas lights—a brilliant cacophony of red, green, and white—it was breathtaking. Jo paused just a moment, her hand limp in the gaping sweatshirt pockets, and wriggled her toes in her boots, and took it all in. Braam ducked into his sleek car, the paint so dark it nearly blended with the night, and then headlights blinked on, blotting Jo’s vision. She squinted and rushed around to the passenger side. The heat was going, as was Braam’s favorite rapper. He backed out with a jerk of the wheel and put it into drive.

“So…the party,” Jo ventured. “How big will it be?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Braam breezed through a four-way stop without so much as a pause. Jo startled at that. “He usually invites everyone in our class…which is like two-hundred, but only about fifty come, but then they tell their friends. It’s an open thing.” They’d caught up with some sort of city-issued truck, maybe a street sweeper or garbage collector. Braam crossed the solid yellow line, hit the gas, and maneuvered right past him, smooth as silk.

Jo reached up and buckled her seatbelt. “Braam, could you please slow down?”

“What?” He challenged. “Jo. This isn’t New York. It’s the smallest town ever—believe me.”

“That’s how people get killed.”

“Yeah, well. Do you drive?”

Jo didn’t have to. Not in the city. She crossed her arms and turned toward the window, letting her anger settle in the rigid breaths between them. Braam cleared his throat.

“Jo.”

She didn’t answer.

“Jo.”

What?” She snapped, mocking his tone.

“I’m sick of fighting, okay? Let’s not do that.”

“Then—just quit treating me like this all the time.”

He took one hand off the wheel and began drumming on his thigh, rapid-fire. “Like what?”

“Like your annoying little sister.”

“I’m not—”

No, Braam, you are. You’re the one who invited me, remember? It was your idea. So quit acting like I’m getting in the way of all your fantastic holiday plans. Okay?”

Now it was his turn to ignore her.

“Okay,” She answered for him. He turned down another street, and she noticed the speedometer needle drop. He still ignored the next stop sign, though.

Further down the block there was a house, ablaze with light. Jo knew this was their destination. Cars peppered either side of the road, everything from beaters to parent-issued numbers, glossy with tinted windows. The neighboring houses also glowed some, and Jo saw the sorority letters nailed to the front porches.

“Are these all college houses?” Jo asked, as Braam pulled up behind a gargantuan truck with monstrous wheels. Jo could envision the driver: a muscle-shirt wearing, tobacco-chewing, bud-light guzzling redneck. Those kinds of people would be here.

“Yeah,” Braam said, throwing his door open. He dug in his cupholder for a stick of gum, and popped it in, then offered the package to Jo. She took it, figuring at least it’d be something to do. “The whole block, at least.”

“Why don’t you live here?” She asked, as she slammed the door and followed him across the yard, up the walk. The front steps were wood and they creaked, sounding their arrival. A few people sat outside on porch chairs, drinking from longneck bottles and lighting cigarettes. Braam didn’t acknowledge them, so Jo didn’t, either.

“Because sororities are stupid,” he explained, as he pushed open the screen door and stepped through. Inside it was oppressively warm, the hallway crowded with people and music and noise. Jo kept at Braam’s heels, ducking her head and brushing against his back with her head. Some guys said hello, people Braam knew, and she didn’t look up because she didn’t want to invite their cursory stares.

Every room they passed, Braam peeked in, until he finally found what he wanted and veered left. Jo faltered and glanced up momentarily to see him heading for a fridge in the kitchen. He grabbed a beer, and then one for her, and she took it with a weak thanks even though she didn’t want it.

“So,” Braam said. “I’m going to find my friend.”

“Okay.” Jo said. “Where is he?”

“Um—I don’t know. I’m going to text her.” He mumbled something, and then wandered off, thumb tapping at the screen of his phone. Jo rolled her eyes.

Was this a different girl, she wondered? A new one from the other night? Or did his brother have a girlfriend, somebody he didn’t want Jo to know about?

“I found her,” Braam announcing, circling back over. The kitchen was empty, aside from them. “I’m going to go catch up. I’ll meet you here in—” He glanced at the clock hanging on the wall, which was slightly askew with unmoving hands: 5:57. He referred back to his phone. “Well, an hour. So one-fifteen.”

“All right. And then we’ll go home?” Jo already sounded hopeful, and she wished she hadn’t come. This wasn’t her scene.

“Yeah.” He was distracted, that much was apparent, because he didn’t even glance up as he left the room. Jo let all the air whoosh out of her as she sank back against the fridge, wishing the cool would seep out, blanket her shoulders. It was too hot in here, too new and confusing and much.

She took the gum Braam had given her and popped it into her mouth, closing her eyes, chewing quickly. It was spearmint. She chewed until all the flavor was gone, and when she opened her eyes—hoping for a familiar face, that familiar face—it was to an empty room.

Jo found solace in the backyard, which was empty because it didn’t have any seating and because it was freezing. She pulled her sweatshirt down and used it as a barrier between her thin leggings and the grass. She wished she had a blanket so she could lay back.

Inside, the voices hummed and the music droned and thumped. She popped the tab on a coke she’d located, buried in that fridge behind rows and rows of miller lite and heineken and a couple of wine coolers. She sipped. It was ice cold, but she didn’t shiver.

She missed home. She missed Pacha’s sweetness, and Lee’s aloofness and Paul’s eagerness, and Margie’s keenness, and her mother’s touch. She knew if she was home right now, she’d be in bed, and she probably would’ve had hamburgers for dinner and gingerbread for dessert, and then they would’ve sat up together and planned their Christmas Eve, like they did every year. Instead here she was, one-hundred and fifty miles from them—practically a world away.

She’d been wrong to come here, Jo realized. Braam hadn’t meant his invitation, and her father was just puttering along unaffected, and did nobody move anymore? Was everyone confined to a life of stasis, of having the same thoughts and feelings even after a huge, irreversible change? Why were her parents so unaffected, why didn’t her siblings care, why why why didn’t they ache for their lives the way they used to be, and never would again?

Why was she the only one?

Jo sniffed and ran her fingers beneath one eye. Her nail pinched the thin skin there. They were long, too long, and needed to be cut. She didn’t even know where Neil kept the nail clippers. Also, she was tired. Also, she was cold.

She stood up, brushing off grass and ice crystals, and decided she’d go inside and find a quiet place, away from everyone. She reached for the back door, peering inside to see if anyone would impede her way to the kitchen in her quest to dump this coke down the drain.

With magnetic force, her eyes locked into another pair, and despite herself, a smile unfurled across her face. She stepped back as Lyon stepped forward, and then back again, and forward again, until he was coming through the door and she’d given him enough space to swing it open.

“Hi,” he said, a little breathless. “I was looking for you.”

“Well.”

“And you were hiding.”

“Not from you.”

“Not from me?”

I don’t want you near him. “Just the masses.”

“Okay, well, good.” He was wearing the black jacket, the same turtleneck and pants. Jo backed away until she was back at her former spot, then pulled her sweatshirt back down and folded her legs against the grass. It was cold, yes, but a nice cold. Because she was warm.

He ambled over and plopped next to her, sighing. “So.”

She edged around until her back was to the house, and he followed. “Did you get your books?”

“Hm?” He glanced over. His eyes seemed to sparkle in the night, like the frost.

“The books.” She held her hands in the air, parallel and horizontal, miming the stack. “You were getting them. For your brother.”

“Oh, yeah. Cost a fortune.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“They’re overpriced.”

“I’m not surprised.”

He laughed at that. “And you? Did you get Mary Manhattan?”

“It was tempting.” She turned her head away, with a small smile. “But no.”

“Yeah.” He reached down and plucked a blade of grass, tender. He held it in his palm. “I don’t think Braam would’ve let you hang around a minute longer.”

Jo huffed. “Yeah, well. He’s been…” She clamped her mouth shut, suddenly, feeling shame. She wasn’t about to badmouth Braam, not to a stranger. Because he was a stranger.

I don’t want you near him.

Maybe there was a reason, a valid reason. Although she hadn’t yet heard it.

“It’s okay,” Lyon said, allowing a few seconds to pass.

“I felt bad about it.”

“It’s not your fault. Or his either, really. It’s mine.” He flipped his palm and let the blade fall back to meet the earth. Its descent seemed slow, although it couldn’t have been more than a second. It spiraled and glistened and spiraled and glistened. “Anyway.”

“Yeah.” She nodded.

“I did some dumb things.”

“Me too.” It slipped out, effortless.

“Which is why I got sent to school.”

“It’s why I’m here.”

“Mirrors.”

“Really.”

His grin was a bit sad at the edges. “I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”

Jo was off somewhere again, like she tended to always be, but she returned at that. “My what?”

“Your screwed-up story.”

“Who says my story is screwed up?”

“No, like an I-screwed-up story.” He used his hands when he talked, flinging them out and drawing them together and curving his fingers in a c-shape, like Pacha’s beginners piano book had said to do, way back when she was first getting started.

Oh.”

“Yeah.”

She swallowed. “It’s awful. It makes me sound awful.”

“Mine too.” He leaned back on his palms. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m pushing.”

“No, you’re fine.”

He shook his head. “I’m always pushing. I’m working on it.”

Jo felt like maybe she was too—always pushing, that was. “That’s good. It’s a start.”

“Yeah.” He scratched his cheek, then tilted his head toward her. “So you want to do it?”

Her heart raced. “Do…?” She swallowed again. Her throat was dry, and oh, she had a hard time following him. His mind. It lurched up and around and wove through words and trains of thought like nobody’s she had ever met before.

“Tell our stories. The I-screwed-ups.”

Do that. Okay. “Sure.” She waited, and then sat up straighter. “Do I start?”

He was smiling again when he said, “Not at all,” and then scratched his cheek. “Okay, background: I hated my parents when I was younger. You saw. They’re really…cold people.”

“Mm,” Jo affirmed.

“Yeah. So.” His hands were flying, and she watched them—not even his face, not his eyes, his hands. They were encapsulating, teaching him to her. “I don’t know if they ever wanted kids, or whatever, but they had three of us anyway. So we grew up and we had everything we wanted, but they worked, and we all kind of split off. My sister did her thing. My brother did his. And I did mine.”

“Which was delinquent stuff,” Jo quipped, breaking the spell of thumbs and wrists and palms.

“Naturally. Like you read in every sob story.” He had stilled. “Basically I tried to be as difficult as possible. A rundown—” He paused to hold his finger up, theatric. “One—calls from school for back-talking. Two—escalate to starting fights. When that doesn’t get much response, three—steal books from the library. Set them on fire. In the school parking lot.”

Jo tried not to laugh, really, but it slipped out. He eyed her.

“Your sense of humor is twisted.”

“No, but it’s so dramatic—”

“That’s what I was going for. Anyway. So I did that, and it was all kind of silly, stupid, recoverable stuff, you know? I could keep going.” His voice plunged, and Jo realized the heavy part of the story was coming, the one that she shouldn’t laugh at. “So I decided, okay, let’s get worse. And worse. I played into all the classic rebel-without-a-cause tropes. Shoplifting, breaking store windows.” He sighed. “And not getting caught, because Aberdeen is stupid and nobody even bothers to lock their doors, much less with security systems.”

Jo nodded along, and he seemed to be thinking.

“So this next part is just—dumb. But that was the climax, really, because nothing worked with them. Nothing. They just didn’t care what I was going through, what I was dealing with, so I had this great idea to walk into a shop in broad daylight and grab stuff so the owner would see. I just stormed in and started grabbing stuff off the counters, and he just stood there. ”

Jo was silent, bated breath.

“So he follows me out, and he was watching me walk down the street, and he said my name. He’d known me all his life. It’s like that here.” He grabbed some more grass, let it fall, and then did it again. “You’re not used to it, probably, being from New York. But here.” At this, he chuckled, and this time he ripped up a whole handful. The night was punctured with the elastic sound of it, the tug and rip. “Everyone knows your birthday and middle name. They know what you looked like when you were seven. They used to see you come through their doors and then when the same you comes in ten years later it destroys the younger one, and all they remember is the bad. So it was my fault.”

Jo finally stared down, at the space between her calves, a patch of green.

“He told me to come back and put it back, and nobody would ever have to know. The whole street was empty. Nobody was around. I could’ve gone back.” He shifted slightly, closer to or farther from Jo, she couldn’t tell. “But I didn’t. I kind of laughed and kept going, and he had no choice. It was the worst moment of my life.” All the sudden, he straightened, brightened. “Anyway. I got shipped off to military school, I had a lot of counseling, and here I am. Same place, different person.”

“Well,” she said, and her voice was small. “Mine’s not…that drastic.”

“So?” He baited. “It's still yours. Tell me.”

Half an hour later, she was still talking. It surprised her, how much of her life had been pent up until this point. She started with Margie, and then went back to the divorce, Braam leaving, feeling abandoned and alone, having to watch as her family was rebuilt. Then she jumped back to the Now, to the decision to come here for Christmas, to the fact that all her best memories kept pressing it on her, but not in a good way. It was more like they were there to remind her what she was missing.

“And I think I’m just sad,” she found herself saying. The party had quieted behind them. Car doors had slammed, and people had driven off. She’d drawn her knees to her chest, and she pressed her chin against them, hard. “I’ll never have it again. Any of it. And I’ll never have the ending that I wanted. There are all these things that I just don’t get to have, and I can’t seem to forget them. Like Christmas movies. We used to watch so many Christmas movies every year, hours of them, and now nobody wants to sit still long enough for one.” She was pouting.

He didn’t say anything, and Jo decided she was done, so she added, “The end.”

That got Lyon to smile. Her reward.

“Well,” he said, “I don’t know what to say to that either.”

“Our stories are pretty different,” she noted.

“But also pretty the same,” he countered.

Jo yawned. “What time is it?”

From in his pocket, Lyon pulled out a phone. “It’s a little past two.”

“Oh.” She stood on wobbly legs. “I was supposed to meet up with Braam forever ago.” She didn’t feel the prick of urgency, though, the desire to get to him.

“I didn’t see him in there, when I was looking for you,” Lyon said, still sitting. He gazed off into the night, past the fence line at the rear-facing rows of other houses with their windows dark. “If that helps.” He glanced up at her. “And I was all over.”

Jo wondered what she looked like from that angle. Probably not good. She tried to tuck her chin as she answered, “Okay. Thank you. For this—everything.”

“Sure.” He hesitated and so did she, wondering what came next. Her skin prickled, as a chill finally set in. Or maybe it was due to the image she’d conjured of him rising, reaching for her, pulling her in—lips on lips and body against body.

“Okay. So…Merry Christmas.” She sidled over to the door, peered inside. The bodies were considerably less dense. “Happy Hanukkah. Happy New Year. All of those.”

“Yeah.” He stood, too. “I’m tired. But I’m glad I came.”

“Oh, yeah. Otherwise I would have been—”

He’d stopped beside her and reached for the door handle, cutting his arm across the space in front of her. He smiled at Jo, and she tried to, but she couldn’t feel her face.

“Lonely,” she finally finished. “Or, um, alone.”

“There’s a difference.”

“Yeah.”

He slid open the door and gestured for her to enter first, so she did. He kept close behind as she headed toward the kitchen, and she knew if she stopped he would bump into her, and she kind of wanted that to happen—and she was crazy, that was it, she was crazy.

There were already some people in the kitchen rinsing out empty bottles. Jo moved to dash her coke can under the spray, but a girl with a kind face slid it right out of her hand. Jo said thanks, and then there was Lyon, tall and expectant.

“So tomorrow,” he said. “I have something for you.”

“What?” Her heart stuttered.

“Not, like, a present. I just—I thought of something you might like.”

“Oh.”

“And it’s not a gift.”

“Okay.”

“So…bringing it by. Can I?”

“Um.”

“If not—”

“No, I mean—yeah, of course you can.”

“Okay.” He nodded, and his smile was childlike. “What time?”

Jo tried to think of when her father might be gone, or when Braam might be gone, or when both of them might be gone. They all were due to Roberts at six.

“Early-afternoon,” she said, “any time”—and then immediately wished she had set a definite hour.

“I’ll be there. And it’ll be quick, I promise.”

“No rush.”

“Well—” He backed out of the room, and she stood, powerless to move or break the contact. “I’ll have a hard time waiting.”

And then he was gone. Jo sagged against the countertop as all the energy left her. She had to find Braam. But she was sleepy, and it must’ve been two-fifteen by now.

She looked all over the house, up and down a narrow flight of stairs and even in the bedrooms—which were empty, thank goodness—and the bathroom, where a bunch of girls were gathered around one who was heaving over the toilet bowl, and all through the downstairs. He was nowhere to be found.

She eventually went out to the car, figuring he had to show up sometime, only to find that it was already on and he was already in it, half-asleep. She tried the door and found it locked, then rapped her knuckles against the window.

Braam straightened from his slump and barely glanced over before hitting a button. There was a release, and then Jo threw the door open and slid inside.

He started the car without a word and pulled onto the road. Jo worked her lower lip in her teeth and wondered what had happened. Had his liaison gone wrong?

“Braam—”

No,” he boomed, in the sharpest voice Jo had ever heard him employ. It pierced right through her. “Don’t talk to me.”

“What?” It came out with her breath, barely there.

“Don’t.”

“Don’t what?” A little stronger this time.

Talk to me. Are you deaf? Do you have problems comprehending?”

“Braam—?”

“Apparently so.” He rolled his eyes so hard it was a wonder they didn’t fall out. Jo’s annoyance was mounting.

“What did I do to you?”

“Nothing.”

“Seriously.”

Nothing.”

“Well, obviously it was something, Braam. Obviously.”

“You just don’t—” He slapped his hand against the wheel as they cut through the night, and all his frustration released in a slurry of words. “Get it. You don’t get it. I tell you I’m going to a party, you don’t want to go, I tell you stay home, you want to go. I tell you I’m going to meet a friend, and you want to wander around like some lost puppy, and I tell you don’t talk to him, and I see you sitting outside together.”

“Why do you care?” She was veering into screechy territory.

“Because you won’t leave me alone! And it wasn’t my idea to have you because you almost killed our sister, it was Dad’s.”

Jo’d never heard him yell so loud. It split her ears. She collapsed against her seat, rigid spine deflating. She didn’t have words. She didn’t have thoughts. She just had her lungs, expanding and contracting in sharp pains throughout her chest.

They pulled into the driveway only moments later, and Jo fumbled with her seatbelt. She threw open the door and spilled out of the car, holding her hand over her mouth. She bit down on her tongue, hard, as she rushed toward the front door and wrenched it open. It was as Lyon had said, the doors never locked.

She took the stairs two, three at a time and shut the office door behind her and fell into her bed, and when she pulled her hand away from her face, a gush of tears came with it.

The morning brought a headache, like a hangover might have felt had she been drinking last night. She woke too early, nine o’clock, and lay there for a while.

Jo wanted home. She wanted to call her mom and say, Take me back. She wanted to trumpet from the skyscrapers of New York that her brother was a fraud and her dad didn’t care. Most of all, she never wanted to see this place again.

But Lyon was coming by today. And Robert was expecting her. And there were reasons to get up, to go on here. So she did. She dragged the desk chair from the office and propped it beneath the bathroom doorknob so Neil or Braam wouldn’t accidentally walk in on her. She stood under the shower-head, arms at her sides, and closed her eyes as the hot water streamed over her eyelids and lips and into her mouth and ears. Her hair was heavy, her head bogged down. Then she reached for the shampoo bottle and squirted twice the prescribed amount—fifty-cents, instead of twenty-five—into her palm, and lathered up.

Downstairs, it was quiet. Jo ate a quick breakfast, handfuls of dry cheerios. As she shoved pieces into her mouth, some rolled off and journeyed to the floor, and instead of picking them up, she reached out with her bare toes and ground them into the laminate. She didn’t know why she did it.

“Jo!”

She whipped her head up. Neil stood in the archway—the one off the foyer—smiling. He had a few books in his arms, faded shades of red and green and blue, and he deposited these on the kitchen table. Jo froze her foot on the cereal and slid it back, until it was under the lip of the counter, then discreetly shook her leg. The crumbs sprinkled the ground.

“Come over here and help me, will you?”

She nodded, pressing the last palmful to her mouth. Chew, swallow. As she drew up to the table, she could read the titles: Best Home Cooking, Betty Crocker’s Cookbook, Holiday Treats. They were recipe books, faded pages of them, and now she vaguely recognized them—these were from her father’s mother, a woman who’d died long before Jo. They were the ones they used to pull out every Christmas, hunting for a combination of measurements and specifications that allowed all six of the brood to pitch in.

“I’m trying to find something to make for Robert’s today,” Neil explained, thumbing to the Index of the first, “if you want to lend a hand.”

Jo sat down beside him and grabbed Betty Crocker. She flipped to the pages that contained all sorts of cookies. They leafed through, didn’t speak.

“You and Braam,” Neil said at last, “you got in late last night.”

Jo glanced up. “You heard us?”

“The slam woke me.”

Jo stared. Her chin quivered as it all came back, and she buried herself in the pages. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s not why I mentioned it.”

“Okay.” The word squeaked out. Neil put his hand on her wrist.

“What happened?”

She couldn’t speak, for fear of crying. She couldn’t relive it.

“Whatever it was, it'll be okay. Fights are normal.”

She nodded, drilling into a line—1/3 cup chopped walnuts.

“You should give Braam a break. He’s dealt with a lot, you know, since Laura and I separated.”

The sadness quelled. He didn’t understand. He couldn’t fathom that maybe Braam had been wrong, that maybe Jo’s reaction was just. She tried not to let the anger show, but there must have been a flicker, because all the sudden Neil’s warmth was gone from her skin.

“Jo—”

“Yeah, Dad,” she sighed. “It’s okay. I agree.”

“Okay.” He turned a page. “I just want everyone to get along, you know.”

“Yeah.”

“Good.” He stabbed his finger against the page. “This is it.”

Jo read the heading upside down. “Cheeseball?”

Festive cheeseball.” He stood and reached over to grab a pad of paper from the counter, then bent back over the book, jotting items down. “Okay. I’m going to go to the store.”

She waited to be invited. He pushed his chair in.

“I’ll just be a few hours. I actually have a quick meeting and then I’ll grab lunch and get the food. Do you want me to pick anything up for you?”

Jo shook her head. Then she wondered if she should just ask to come along. She didn’t want to be left alone with Braam, the both of them free to confront everything.

“Braam still asleep?” She asked.

“I suppose. He texted me last night he was at a friend’s.”

“Oh.” She frowned at this. “What time?”

“Three in the morning. I guess after you fought—”

“Yeah,” Jo interrupted, her tone saying don’t go on. She pinched a page between her thumb and forefinger. “I’ll see you.”

“I’ll be back in time for us to make this. And then Robert’s.”

“Yup.” She tried to infuse some cheer into her voice, but was mostly unsuccessful. Jo sat at the table and listened to the sounds of Neil leaving—shoes being pulled on, coat being zipped, the scratch of that scarf he loved so much. The door opened and closed without so much as a goodbye.

And then she was truly alone.

Jo was making her bed when there was a knock on the door. She hurried to pull the corner up, hoping it was Lyon, that he was early. It was just past noon, and she’d been laying on the couch watching Saturday cartoons and feeling sorry for herself until only a few moments ago.

She bounded downstairs and called that she was coming, and then she drew a breath and opened it quick, a bandaid ripped off. She really wan’t expecting Lyon—maybe the postman with a delivery, maybe even Braam, glaring and brooding—but it was him, and she beamed.

“Hi,” she said, stepping back to let him in. He paused at the threshold and reached into a backpack that hung off his shoulders.

“Hey. I really have to hurry. I know you said early-afternoon and it’s early-early afternoon, but here’s the thing I mentioned—”

“Wait!” Jo beseeched. He considered her.

“Just—just come inside.” She beckoned him forward. “Please. Just a minute.”

He pulled his hand from the bag, empty, and let it drop to his side. “I can do five.”

“Five is terrific.”

He stepped through, Jo shutting the door behind him, and then he bent over to untie his boots.

“Shoes are fine,” she said, but he gave her own socked feet a pointed look.

“Excuse me if there’s a smell,” he joked, as he freed his own. He was wearing thick socks, evergreen, with a small snowflake pattern.

“They’re Christmas!”

He laughed, sheepish. “Yeah.”

They were both standing, then, facing each other. Why had Jo invited him inside? Her heart was pounding, and she felt for a moment like she was going to pass out.

“Do you want a drink?” She said at last.

“Oh, no thanks.” He swept his hand toward the door. “No time.”

“Well—yeah, I’m just going to grab water. If you want to follow. Have a tour.”

He did. She walked fast, pointing out little things—that’s a fake fire, here’s the bathroom if you need it in the next three minutes, this is the kitchen, um, obviously—grabbed a glass, filled it to the brim, downed it in five unladylike gulps.

“Where’s your dad?” Lyon asked, his eyes roaming the room.

Jo set her glass on the counter: clink. “Shopping.”

“And Braam?”

“At a friend’s.” She toyed with the idea of telling them about their fight last night. He already knew everything else, but then—that was something entirely new. She wasn’t sure what to make of it herself, and every time she thought about it, she almost cried, and she did not want to cry in front of him. So instead she tipped her head upstairs.

“So you’ve seen what the first floor has to offer.”

“Yes.”

He was wearing a black sweater today, no jacket, and drawstring cargo pants, and his boots. She tried not to let her eyes linger for too long. “So how about the second?”

“Like, two minutes,” he said, and they left the room, looping around to the base of the stairs.

“What do you have going on today?” Jo asked, as she started up, tentative. She angled herself so she was walking sideways, butt-to-wall. She wasn’t wearing her flattering pants.

His head was down. “Strict instructions from my mother to be back in fifteen minutes with some butter from the store, and that was twenty minutes ago.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t worry—this is worth the lecture.”

“Oh.” Her face warmed. She was standing in the hallway, facing her open door. “Well. This is the office, where I’m sleeping.” She pointed down the hall. “And the bathroom, which doesn’t lock, and which makes for some pretty stressful peeing.”

Oh, no. Her own shock betrayed her, and Lyon laughed.

“Don’t worry. I do that too.”

“Good. That’s good. Um—” She found herself taking steps forward, into her temporary bedroom, and he followed closely. “So…this is my suitcase.” She pointed to that, and he nodded. His arms were folded across his chest, his hands concealed beneath. She wanted to look at his tattoo. She wanted to hold his hand in hers. She wanted him to hold hers back.

“It’s a nice suitcase,” he said at last, and she winced. She’d stopped talking.

“Yeah. It holds all my earthly possessions.”

“They’re good for that.” He was amused, that much was clear. Jo decided that was good. He lifted his foot, and moved forward, and forward, and he was so close she could hear his breaths.

“Jo.”

“Yes.” Her own were coming quick, as she looked up at him, following the line of his jaw to the corners of his eyes, and they were looking right at her. Then they slid past, and he reached out to grab the photo on the desk behind her. Robert and her dad.

“Who are these people?” He asked, turning the picture from side-to-side, tipping a wedge of sunlight from one side of the frame to the other.

“Oh, that’s my Dad.” She pointed to Neil, to his face so happy his eyes crinkled, “and Robert.”

“Robert. You didn’t mention Robert.”

“No.” Why would she have? She set her lips, puzzled, and watched him study the picture.

“It’s cute,” he said at last. “They look happy.”

“Yeah, they do.” She found herself smiling, at him, at the picture. It was a good one, a sweet one. She was glad he could appreciate things like that.

Carefully, he leaned forward and set it back down on the desk, adjusting it until it was how it had been. Jo sidestepped from between Lyon and the desk and stood idly by, reaching for something—anything—to talk about. To keep him here.

“So,” she began, “not to be greedy or anything—”

“Oh, right!” He dug again into his bag and pulled out a rectangular object. It took Jo a moment to see that it was a DVD, and as he handed it over, the title registered—It’s a Wonderful Life.

“Hah,” she said, word catching.

“You said last night,” he explained, “that you missed this. So I thought I’d bring it to you.”

Her eyes pricked. She ran her fingers over the cover. “Thank you.”

“And I was thinking about you, and your story, and I think the message is relevant.” He tapped the case, and his nail clinked against the plastic. “Sometimes you just have to step back and look at your life through a different scope. Like this—like if I hadn’t done those things I did, if I hadn’t grown up with terrible parents and been sent away, then I wouldn’t have been on the train home three days ago. And I wouldn’t have met you.”

She looked up at the sudden change in his voice. Earnest, and yearning. She knew because hers was the same.

“Thank you,” she said, and she meant it.

“So,” he elaborated, “if you look for it, I think you can find wonderful things in your life. That’s what I’m trying to say. It just didn’t come out…right.”

“It was fine,” Jo assured him. “Perfect, actually.”

Their eyes met. She stared straight into his, unflinching, and he did the same. Maybe this was it. Maybe this was the reason she’d felt led to come here. A cosmic intervention from the universe.

He suddenly broke their contact, and Jo was reeling.

“I should go,” he repeated, apologetic. “Or my mother really will be furious.”

“Yeah. You should. No murders on Christmas.”

She thought for a moment that was too far, too personal, but he laughed. “Yeah.”

They’d made it to the doorway, just a few feet, before Lyon abruptly turned around. Jo almost bumped into him. He was staring at that picture again, smiling slightly, but there was a wrinkle on his forehead—confusion, Jo realized.

“How long have they been together?”

Jo frowned. “Who?”

“Your Dad and, ah—”

“Robert?”

“Yeah. The guy in the picture with him.”

“It’s Robert.” Jo thought back. “I don’t know. For years. Since I was born or before.”

Really.”

“Yeah.”

“Weren’t you upset about that?”

She was still trying to puzzle out how long they’d known each other. “About what?”

“Them. Together. All that time.”

“No…” She shook her head. “They’re best friends.”

“Huh.” His voice said it all.

In one dizzying rush, she caught up with him. Her stomach dropped. “Wait, did you mean—”

No, no. I’m sorry.” He shook his head, vehement. “I just thought…when I saw it, they looked like a couple. That was all.”

She leered the picture, dubious. “My Dad’s not gay.”

“I realize that.”

She turned back to Lyon. “He was married to my mom for…for sixteen years.”

“Of course.”

“Then why would you say that?” She clenched her hands together as he flailed his helplessly.

“It just popped out, Jo. Seriously. I’m sorry.”

“Whatever.” That first surge of incredulity wheezed away. “It’s fine.”

“I’m sorry for it.”

“That’s fine.” She waved him off, with the hand that was still holding the movie, and she softened. He’d come out of his way to give this to her. She couldn’t fault him for that. And, in fact, now that she looked at the picture—which she was, absolutely and openly staring—it did kind of look like that. To the untrained, uninformed eye.

Except Lyon was informed. She’d informed him last night. And he’d still

“Merry Christmas,” he said, and Jo was snapped back to him. He radiated energy, the kind somebody could live off of. It doubled when he leaned over, pressing his lips to her cheek. They were slightly rough, chapped. “I hope it’s a happy one.”

“Yeah,” she said, shaken and thrilled and everything all at once. “You too.”

“I’ll just—” He hooked his thumb toward the door, and she moved to follow, but he waved her off.

“Don’t worry about it. I can find the door.”

“If you’re sure.”

“It’s big and brown and has a handle.”

“That’s it.” The words were little more than an exhale.

She heard him lope down the stairs, then the front door opening, and clicking shut. She wanted to think about that kiss, over and over again, the scrape of his lips, but something even stronger was calling to her.

She swept over to the desk and scooped up the picture, drinking in every inch of its surface. Her dad, the smile, the light in his eyes. Robert, his hand curled around his shoulder, protective, holding the camera out. Their faces were close, their cheeks nearly touching.

No.

She turned it facedown. How ridiculous. Gay men didn’t marry women. They didn’t have four children. They didn’t pull their wives in by the waist and kiss their neck.

She took downstairs to hunt for some lunch. There was leftover pizza, she thought.

Robert’s house was nice, a one-story, fifties-era bungalow with wide windows that spanned whole walls. Light poured from them, illuminating the yard—a winding pathway and flowers on each side of the stoop, a lone, squat tree, a tasteful angel formed in white lights. You could hardly tell the sun had gone down.

Jo got out of the backseat of her father’s car and pulled her top down. It flowed, oversized, over the same black leggings she’d worn last night. She hadn’t bought any nice outfits, and next to her father in his suit jacket and Braam in his button-down, she felt underdressed.

They walked up the sidewalk together, to the front door which was open, the glassed-in screen door left to ward away the cold. The windows had been draped with gauzy curtains, ones that made the outside privy to the shapes of people—rounded and undefined. Through the door, Jo could see it was quite crowded. Robert had a lot of friends besides her dad, it seemed.

Neil breezed right up to the door and opened it for his children with all the confidence in the world. That left none for Jo, head downturned, as she walked in to a throng of husky-voiced people holding wineglasses. It smelled like cinnamon and vanilla, his house, and there was a real fire crackling in a white-brick hearth. Adults stood around it in a cluster, chatting and chomping on mini sandwiches. The ceilings were low, imposing, cut across with dark wood beams. The floor was natural wood too, honey-toned, and covered with a thick shag rug; the walls were a muted shade of sky blue. It was gorgeous.

Braam drew up beside her, and Jo longed to reach out and grab his hand, squeeze, just to feel him there. But they weren’t speaking, or at least not much. He’d come in late, with only a few moments left before they had to leave, and Jo was getting dressed at the time. They needed a moment alone to make up, move on, and that hadn’t yet presented itself.

She would forgive him, Jo had decided after her pizza that afternoon. They’d been subsisting on phone calls and text messages the last few months; they needed time to get used to each other again. Jo missed their closeness. She missed knowing he was there for her, absolutely. And she didn’t care that her coming to visit hadn’t been his idea; he’d asked her, so he’d wanted it, and she had, too.

Maybe not anymore, but that was beside the point.

Jo glanced sideways at Braam, who was scanning the room. A hand dropped on her shoulder from behind, and Neil inserted himself between them.

“Let’s go say hi to Robert,” he said. “Wait till he sees you, Jo!”

“Yeah,” she said meekly. What else was there?

They hadn’t gone more than a few feet before Robert found them. He was one in the group by the fireplace, and he caught sight of their clan from across the room and lit up, really, he shined. Jo’d never seen anything like it. He excused himself, a quick murmur of lips and an apologetic smile, and then he was rushing to them.

“Jo!” He exclaimed, throwing his arm around her. She staggered back, but he had a good hold, kept her steady. He withdrew. “Oh, wow! You’re so lovely!”

“Isn’t she?” Neil agreed.

“You look like the best of him. Of both your parents, although your mom—” He laughed, and Jo’s stomach lurched, fearing a criticism, “—is about the prettiest woman alive. So that’s no surprise.”

Relief. Jo nodded, and continued to nod, as Robert and Neil struck up a conversation. She found herself watching Robert’s face, trying to mark the passage of time. He was as buff and broad as ever—a true man’s man, as they went—and he had shaved his beard, and underneath his skin was a deep tan. He was smiling, and handsome, and she was glad her father could still count him among his friends.

“It’s a great turnout,” Neil appreciated in response to something Robert had said, hands on his hips as he cocked his head at the room. “I see Becky and Dan are here.”

“Yeah. They said we’ll have to repeat the other night.”

“Oh, yeah. It was fun. They’re nice folks.”

“Mm.” A noise of acknowledgement, and nothing else. Jo refocused to find Robert beaming at the three of them, at all of them. “It’s so good to see you all together. I remember when each of you was born, you know. Those were great days.”

“They were,” Neil agreed.

“But today’s days are better.”

“They are,” Neil agreed.

Jo stepped back.

“I’m—hungry,” she attempted. “So I’m going to—”

“In the kitchen,” Neil supplied.

“Thanks.”

She wove through the people, offering a blanket excuse me every few feet. She was going to be sick, she thought. She was lightheaded. Food might help.

In the kitchen, she found a spread on the counters, buffet-style. The floor was tile, the walls cream. She liked this house a lot, actually. She grabbed a piece of celery and ate it to the beat of O Come All Ye Faithful, which was blaring from a radio.

The walls, she noticed. They were covered in trinkets. A wooden sign boasted Coca-Cola, 15 cents, and there was a birdhouse clock, and then faded seed packets that might have been from the seventies, plus a silver set of measuring spoons that were mounted on a board and hung above small table. All from antique stories, filling up the spaces, screaming home.

Jo had to sit down. The table was cute, iron with two chairs. She fell into one of them, and laid her hands in her arms. This was the perfect setup for a morning cup of coffee, breakfast, intimate conversation.

She rested her forearms on the cool, grainy surface and then laid her head on them, closing her eyes. She sat there for a little while as people came in and out, willing her head to stop spinning. What was wrong with her? What if she had to go to the hospital? Was there even a hospital nearby?

She drew a steadying breath in through her nose, out from between slightly parted lips. She did this until the sickness had subsided some, and then she slowly raised her head. Better.

Then she saw: on the chair across from her, there hung a scarf.

A gray scarf.

A wool scarf.

A close-knit scarf.

She couldn’t breathe anymore. That was it, she couldn’t breathe, she was going to die. And time stopped—it actually stopped—so that all she could see was the scarf, wound there, looking like it belonged. Like it was made for the chair, or the chair made for it, or the person who wore it made for this house.

A sound flew from Jo’s mouth, an involuntary cry, and that’s when the spell was broken. She stood up, because she had to find Braam, and escape these walls with their carefully-chosen ornaments. A hodgepodge of items that meant nothing until they were put together.

She whisked up the scarf as she brushed by.

“Braam.” Her voice was shaky as she reentered the living room. Her hands were trembling. She couldn’t spot him, but her father and Robert were in the center of the rug, holding court. She watched her dad reach up to absently pat his friend on the back, once, twice. He let his hand linger before it dropped behind him. In return, Robert reached up and curved his hand around Neil’s shoulder. It was that picture all over again, except now Jo saw what it meant.

Mine. It meant mine.

She spun around and around until she finally caught sight of Braam’s curls as he exited the bathroom. She rushed over to him and latched on to his arm, so hard that he staggered back.

“Braam—” She pleaded, tightening her grip.

Concern flashed on his face, the most Jo had seen from him in a long while. He looped his free palm around her back, steadying her. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

Jo’s face burned, and she tried to slow her breathing, but she couldn’t. “Braam.” She raised the scarf against his arm, clutched in her fist. “This was in the kitchen.”

“Yeah.”

“Dad was—he wasn’t wearing this tonight.”

“No, I don’t think so. It doesn’t really go with that jacket.” He laughed.

“It was already here. Which means he’d been here today. And—the walls, Braam. Have you seen the walls in the kitchen?”

“Yes, Jo. I’ve seen them.” He released her, impatient. “What’s the problem?”

“Braam, that’s Dad’s style. Dad’s.”

“I know.”

“Like at home, you know? The old house.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“And Dad—Dad’s scarf is here. He’s standing there in the—in the middle of the room with Robert, and Braam—”

“Jo.” He was blinking, unfazed. She needed him right now, she needed him to understand. She needed him to pull her in and say it’s okay, and as she looked at him with eyes everywhere but on her, she almost begged, Please don’t go. Like they were thirteen and fifteen again.

She was crazy. She must’ve been crazy, because he didn’t get what she was implying.

“Braam,” she said, gritting her teeth. “Dad and Robert. I think they’re together.”

He nodded.

“A couple.” She was barely able to get the words out. Braam was going to laugh—false. Or gasp—revelation. Or fall back against the wall, clutching his throat, he’d always suspected, and they’d sink down to the floor together, crying because finally the hugest twist in their lives made sense.

But he nodded. Once. Absolute. And just like that, Jo knew—

He’d known. And he didn’t tell her.

And, most of all, it was true.

“Braam.” His name came through an open mouth, through brimming eyes, and it was the saddest sound Jo’d ever made. An instance of guilt consumed him, swallowing his eyes and mouth. He started to reach out to her, but then he stopped.

“You knew,” she said, and the first tears spilled over. "What?

“Jo, just—Jo—”

“You knew.”

There were people passing by on their way to the kitchen, and they whipped their necks her way, and Braam was shushing her.

She didn’t want to be quiet. She wanted to scream.

“You knew.” She was accusing now. She reached up and shoved against his shoulder, hard, and then harder, and then so hard he smacked into the wall. “You knew.”

Braam wrestled her arms down and then yanked her, rough, into the bathroom. He slammed the door behind him and leaned against it, blocking her way.

“Jo.”

She broke free of him. The jolt stilled her, and a few seconds passed where her chest heaved and his heaved and she looked at someone she didn’t know.

“How long have you known?” She asked at last. “I mean—how long has this been going on? When did it start? Why?”

“I don’t know,” Braam volleyed.

“Yes, you do.” She braced her hands against the wall, pleading with wide eyes. “Please. Just tell me the truth. Just—tell me.”

“I don’t know.”

“You have to know, Braam, you have to know something—”

“I don’t know!” He spit, the words explosive. “I don’t know. Are you hearing me? Is this the same as last night? I don’t know!”

Jo pressed herself tight against the wall. Everyone must have heard that, she thought, but the noises of the party continued—voices, music, their jolly soundtrack to Christmas Eve. They were quiet again. Jo didn’t know what to say, other than, “Fine.”

Braam closed his eyes, reminding Jo of herself earlier, in the kitchen. Pretty the same.

“I never have heard for sure,” he said at last. “That’s why I can’t tell you.” His eyelids retracted, the whites blooming red. “I just figured it out, after awhile. I suspected back then. There were things…conversations I overheard. Or ones they weren’t afraid to have in front of me, I don’t know. Okay? Okay? But I don’t—I don’t know if he cheated on Mom, I mean, I don’t know.”

Jo hadn’t asked, not right then, but he knew that was her next question. He could feel it.

“Does he—is he here a lot?”

Braam hesitated. Nodded.

“How often?”

“I don’t know…” He stuck his hands in his pockets, avoiding her gaze. “Whenever I’m away, I think. At a friend’s. At an overnight baseball thing. He doesn’t—I think he’s afraid that I’ll look at him different. But I won’t.” He narrowed his eyes. “You won’t. He’s our Dad. He’s still—he’s our Dad.”

She was claustrophobic. The air was thick, and she hated this house.

“Let me out.” She moved for the door. He planted his feet.

“Don’t bother them,” he said, voice cool. “They’re happy. Don’t ruin this.”

Jo grab the handle and tugged. “Let me out.”

“I will if you promise.”

“Promise what, Braam?”

His gaze was firm, his head steady. On her. “If you ruin this party for them—if you try and take this away from him—I’m done with you, Jo.”

What?” Her breath seeped out. So what if she wanted to make a scene? So what? He’d been lying to her, Braam had been lying, everyone secretive and concealing and all this time all she’d needed to move on was the truth. And here she was, Christmas Eve, finding it for herself.

“You’re my brother,” she protested, when he didn’t answer. “You can’t—you wouldn’t do that.”

“Try me.”

She gaped at him, a mixture of whiplash and hurt, and then she raised her fists to her eyes, rubbing, stretching the skin like a toddler. When she dropped her hands, Braam had slipped away, the door slightly ajar. She contemplated that gap a moment, at the darkness that lay beyond. She could go out, march up to Neil, force him to speak his own truth. Her truth.

But then, she didn’t know what to say. Where to begin. How to say it. And she didn’t—she didn’t want to humiliate him. Not in front of all these people. Not the way she’d just been, so daft she couldn’t see it.

The door swung open as a woman stepped in, giggling to herself. She startled when she saw Jo.

“Oh! I’m sorry.”

“No—” Jo waved her off, and brushed past. “I was done. I was just leaving.”

She didn’t want for the woman’s reply, booking it out of there. Braam was nowhere to be seen. She stepped into the living room and surveyed it, the pockets of laughter that rose up into the air and the little details—the braided coasters, the throw on the back of the couch. This was her Dad, all of it. And there he was, still in its heart, grinning and radiating happiness.

Jo tilted her head. She cleared her throat, which was hard to speak through. She was still holding the scarf, wrapped around her wrists. She walked right up to Neil and she stood there until he felt her eyes and turned away from the people. She held it out to him, stone-faced.

His eyes flicked from the scarf, to her, the scarf, her, scarf, her.

“Thank you,” Neil said, drawing a breath. Robert, standing next to him, glanced over, did a double-take when he saw Jo’s face.

“Here,” Jo implored. He reached out. She pressed the scarf into his hand, letting her fingers linger in his palm. Hands that had held her as a child, loved her, brought her into this world.

Tonight was not the night. She would not shame him.

“I’m going to go,” she informed him, measured. “And I don’t want—I don’t want you to follow.”

“Jo—”

“I’m going to go,” she reiterated. She spun on her heel, and she headed for the door. She didn’t try to find Braam to say goodbye. She didn’t turn around.

Outside it was colder, but there was plenty of fresh air. She sat down on the step and pulled out her cell phone.

She called her mother.

Neil ducked out after a few minutes, car keys in hand. He was flushed, and he almost stumbled right over her, still sitting, the phone in her hand.

“Jo,” he breathed. “Thank God. I didn’t know where you were going.”

She pressed her fingers to her cheek. They were ice-cold.

“Jo,” he repeated. He dropped beside her. “What’s wrong?”

She shook her head and enveloped her phone in a fist, then dropped it in her lap. “I called Mom, and she’s booking me a ticket home right now. I’m leaving at eight-thirty.”

“What?” He recoiled. “What are you talking about, Jo?”

“I’m going home. To be with my family.” She hadn’t worn a coat, but she wished she had. She pulled the sleeves of her shirt down further, staring into the night. “I shouldn’t have come here.”

“Jo. Of course you should’ve. Just—” He wagged his fingers at the phone. “Give me that. Let me talk to Laura. This is insane. You can’t just—I mean, it’s Christmas Eve. We have plans tomorrow. Together.”

“I don’t want to be here, Dad.”

“So we’ll leave the party.” He nodded. “Yeah. I’ll go in and get Braam, and tell Robert—we’re going. You can wait in the car. You don’t even have to—”

Dad.” She looked at him, really looked at him. Her lashes were wet. “I mean here. Here. With you. And Braam. I don’t know what I was thinking, going away. I don’t why I couldn’t just be—” She lifted her head to the sky, a night without stars, “—happy, you know—with what I had?” She sighed, returned her line of vision to the lawn. A dazzling white. “I think because I couldn’t understand it. I haven’t felt like myself since you guys split up, and all this stuff happened that was out of my control, and I didn’t have an answer for it.”

“Well—” He started, but she gave a sharp shake of her head.

“Until tonight. And now I know.” She studied the phone, turning it over and over. The screen was black ice. Laura was going to call when it was booked.

“Know…” Neil trailed off. She could see, in her peripheral, that he was stricken.

“About you,” she said softly, “and Robert.”

“Oh.” He sat back. “Oh. Jo—”

“Dad.” She held up her hand, finally looking at him. “I don’t want to know why. Or how. Or when. I don’t even care, you know.” Her hand shook, and she pressed it to her mouth. “I don’t care about that part of it. The two of you—that’s whatever. It’s your thing.” Then she clasped her hands together, in her lap, and she focused on them. “I just wish you’d told me. I wish you’d have been honest, and you didn’t hide it. And—”

He was trying to speak, Neil, starting and stopping words. “Jo, it’s—Robert and—well—” He suddenly stopped. He had nothing to say. As usual.

“And the worst part is,” she whispered, “that, you know, when you realized you loved him or whatever. When you thought, I want to be with him—you made a decision, Dad.” She lifted her chin. “Robert moved, way back then. For a new job. And you moved with him.” She smiled, faintly, and then took to nodding. Again and again. “And so, at the end of the day—you chose to be with him, rather than us. And that’s why I’m so angry, I think.”

His shoulders stooped. He leaned on his knees.

“See?” She made a noise in the back of her throat, a close-mouthed laugh. Disbelief. “You can’t even deny it. And you’ll never be able to change that. That will always be your choice.”

“Jo.” He reached out, turning her chin to him. His face was lined. “I love you. I love Braam. I love Pacha, I love Lee. I love your mother.” He swallowed. “I never stopped loving your mother.”

“Then why—”

“I just realized there’s a difference between loving and being in love. And I’m in love with Robert, Jo, yes. It’s true. And I have a happy life with him.”

“A happy life where you have to hide—”

“I don’t—I’m not. Here. Hiding.” He freed her, but she couldn’t look away. “I was waiting for the right time to tell all of you, to own up to it.”

“But how can you love him,” she demanded, “when you also loved Mom?”

“I don’t know.”

She hated those words.

She hated her questions, and she hated the answers.

The phone lit up: her mother, calling with the promise of a train ticket.

Jo stood up. “I need to go back, to pack my things.”

Neil followed suit. “I’ll drive you.”

“No—I don’t want you to. I want you to go back inside.”

“Well, then who’s going to?”

“I have somebody.” She hit answer, raised the phone to her ear. “Hi, Mom.”

“Honey, it’ll all set. You just need to be there at eight-thirty—”

Neil was still pressing her, demanding to know who. “How could you, Jo, you’ve been here only three days?” He jangled the keys in the air. “I’m taking you. And we can talk about it on the way home. I don’t want you to go, Jo-Jo, I want you here.”

“Is that Neil?” Laura asked.

“Yes.”

“Let me—”

“No, Mom, I’ve got it. I’ll call you back.” She hung up. Neil was standing there, huffing. Jo wondered briefly how she’d got here, to this exact moment in time.

She’d pulled him on white-pages, searching by first name only, and the town. Living the dream in Aberdeen. He was there. And his home phone number.

“I’ve got a friend,” she said at last. “Someone from here. They’ll take me.”

“Jo—”

She turned her back, dialing the number. “Go back inside, Dad. Enjoy the party.”

“Jo.”

She half-turned and smiled at him over her shoulder, sad and wistful and hating herself. She was going to forgive him, she knew that. She’d already lived too long without it.

“I’m going home,” she said simply, and turned her back. The phone rang and rang, and finally, a shrill voice picked up.

“This is Elizabeth.”

Jo drew a breath. “This is Joann Fitch-Loo. May I speak to Lionel?”

He followed her inside and up the stairs, to help her pack.

“You really don’t need to do this,” she said, warm-cheeked, flipping on the overhead. He shrugged it off and picked up her suitcase, set it on the bed.

“Was it bad?” He asked, between the sounds of shirts rustling as they were folded.

Jo laughed, hoarse. “Which part?”

“I’m guessing that means yes.”

“Well.” She picked up the DVD Lionel had given her only a few hours prior, before everything that had been suspended finally fell into place. “This feels like weeks ago,” she said, lifting it to him. A salute.

“Life’s like that sometimes.”

“I guess.” She studied the title, then placed it in her bag atop a sweatshirt. Something occurred to her: “Hey—do I need to send this back? Is it your copy?”

“Nah,” he said, and smiled. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I can—”

“But don’t.”

They stared for a minute, both of their faces harboring sadness. Jo could see his, knew she wasn’t imagining it. “I’ll go grab my toothbrush.”

“That sounds like a plan.” With a sigh, he turned to her suitcase and began zipping, then hiked it up. “I’ll take this out to the car.”

“And I’ll be there.”

He bumped down the steps and out the front door, and Jo grabbed her few things from the bathroom, adding them to her smaller bag. She stood in the room for a minute or so, then bent over the pullout, stripping it of its sheets. She nested it back into the couch, folded the bedding, and laid it atop the plaid cushions. All traces of her gone, like she’d never been here.

She hesitated by the desk before reaching over to turn the photo of Robert and her father right-side-up. It was a good picture, not meant to hurt her. She didn’t look back as she turned out the light, then sailed down the steps and out the front door of that cookie-cutter house, shrugging on a jacket, and hopped up into Lionel’s van. At last she was free.

“I can’t believe your Mom let you come get me,” she said, as the vehicle sputtered to life. It was nothing like Braam’s car, all stealth and danger. And Lyon was nothing like Braam. Despite her brother’s reservations, she liked him. He was kind, and thoughtful, and he made her feel listened-to.

That was all Jo wanted, after all this time. To be heard.

“Thank you,” she said abruptly, before he could reply to her previous comment.

“For what?”

“For…” She shook her head, stringing the right words together in her head. “For forcing me to talk to you.”

He laughed under his breath, turning the wheel, one hand in front of the other. “You have a way with words.”

“But seriously.”

“Okay.”

“I mean it. I wasn’t going to.”

“I could tell.”

“And now—” She forced herself to say it, just throw it out there in the open, “I can’t imagine if I hadn’t.”

He went quiet. They took another turn.

“Funny,” he said at last, “I feel the same.”

Her smile widened, and she buried her face in the collar of her jacket to hide it.

They reached the train station in less than ten minutes, and the engine idled as they sat there, neither of them wanting to say the next words—goodbye, until next time. Et cetera. Jo wondered how she could feel so reluctant to leave somebody she’d just begun to know, but she supposed that was how all great stories started between people. A meeting, a rightness—life new again.

“I wish I could get on that train with you.”

His words broke the quiet. Jo turned to him. He was guarded, staring out the windshield at the depot and the few souls filing in. She found his hand across the gearshift, wound her fingers through. He glanced over in surprise.

His mouth was slightly agape—she could hear his breathing, mixed with her own. “This summer,” she said, staring at his lips. She flicked her eyes to his, reluctantly abandoning her post, “come and get your movie.”

The air was loaded with possibility, and it roared as the meaning of her words sank in. She waited with bated breath, the belt buckle digging into her thigh.

At long last, a smile. “Okay.”

“Okay,” she affirmed, and released herself, swinging the door open. She shouldered her bags and leaned back in the cab, briefly, to drink him in one more time. Favorite jacket, grey sweater, pants, boots. She was obsessed with him, she decided, the look of him and the flight of him and the mind of him. “Thanks for the ride.”

“You’re welcome for it.”

She walked away, paying careful attention to the swing of her hips. She wanted to get it just right, this exit, and she was almost to the depot office when she heard the whoosh of his window being rolled down.

“Hey,” he called, “Next summer? I’ll watch that movie with you.”

She turned around. His hair was coming in, she noticed, stubbly and brown. “Don’t get my hopes up. It’ll be hot. The antithesis of It’s a Wonderful Life weather.”

He had his arm out the window. His grin was infectious. “That’s a movie that’s perfect anytime. Enjoy your Christmas.”

She smiled and lifted her hand in a wave. The truck rumbled away, Lyon nodding to her, and for a moment she felt a pang—for her dad, for Braam, for Lyon—but it was quickly snuffed out as she stepped inside. A woman leaned forward from behind a desk and asked what Jo needed.

“I pre-booked a ticket,” she said. “To New York City. It’s Fitch-Loo.”

The woman jabbed at the computer keys, the clacking brisk. “Yes, here it is. You’ll board in twenty minutes.”

“Perfect,” Jo said. The ticket was printed, and she took it with her to one of the plastic chairs against the wall. She settled in for the wait. Her book was calling to her, the one from her mother, so she dug into her bag. She’d forgotten to place a marker where she’d left off three days earlier, but it only took a moment to find her place.

Christmas Morning in the Fitch-Loo household was a swirl of wrapping paper and sprigs of ribbon. Squeals and gasps populated the air while Jo sat on the couch beside her mother, thigh-to-thigh, with Margie on her lap. She helped her tear into a dozen Dora-themed everythings, clothing and toys and even a sippy cup; Jo smiled at each excited screech, each awed, “Thank you!”

There was a piano for Pacha, an honest-to-goodness upright number with eighty-eight keys. She was overjoyed, tears in her eyes, as she threw her arms around Paul’s neck and then Laura’s and then Jo’s.

“Whoa,” she said, brushing her hands over her sister’s back, “I didn’t have anything to do with this.”

“I know,” Pacha said, the words choked. “I’m just glad you’re home.”

She flitted over to her prize, and Jo sat there in a swamp of guilt and consternation. She lowered her eyes, staring off, distantly registering the sound of Paul’s administering of new-phone guidelines: you’re not to text anybody after ten, okay? And I don’t want to catch you sending anything inappropriate on that snip-chatter thing. Snapchat. Okay? Deal? And don’t go buying all the apps. You don’t need all the apps.

He sounded like a Dad, she realized. Like he was their Dad. And for a moment, as Jo pulled out of her reverie and looked across the room at Paul, standing in front of Lee with hands on his hips, the teenager bent over his new device, not even paying attention—Jo’s heart swelled with gratefulness. No, he hadn’t filled the Dad void that Neil Kearney left behind. She’d resented him, a little. But it was obvious, looking on as she was, that he’d been that for her siblings. And what more could she ask for?

Laura’s hand was suddenly on her knee. “Honey?”

Jo wiped away a tear. This particular Christmas was making her all sentimental.

“Here, Margie,” Laura said, reaching over to slide the toddler from Jo’s lap. “Go put the furniture in your dollhouse. Mommy wants to see it!”

’kay,” Margie agreed, hurrying over to the bright square of neon oranges and pinks and greens, placed against the fullest part of the Christmas tree. It was supposed to look like a Spanish villa, Jo thought, but it didn’t.

“What’s wrong?” Laura asked quietly, scooting even closer to Jo. She wrapped her arm around her. “Was there something you wanted that you didn’t get?”

She was mildly teasing, but Jo couldn’t even muster a smile. She laid her head on her mother’s shoulder. “I just feel bad.”

“Does your stomach hurt?”

She laughed at that. “No, Mom, I mean about leaving like I did. Adios, as Dora would say.” She contemplated Margie for a minute, fat little arms and legs. “I think I scared myself, realizing how much I didn’t care until…” Jo drew a breath. The sound of her Mom’s cry came back to her, insistent, wailing. The feel of the pavement on her knees. Only days ago. “But then I was looking for the wrong things. I thought Braam and Dad would make it better.”

“Yeah, well.” Her mother wrapped her arm around Jo. “They haven’t been here, honey. They couldn’t possibly understand.”

They’d gone over the whole, convoluted story when Jo got home last night, late, twelve a.m. They’d eaten Christmas cookies and had two tall glasses of milk each and stayed up until two, while Jo explained and Laura listened. She hadn’t said much.

“I’m sorry,” she was saying now, and Jo looked at her mother. There were crow’s feet sprouting from the corners of her eyes, gray strung through her hair.

“For what?” Jo asked, when no elaboration came.

“For not telling you about Neil…your father.” She drew a breath. “I didn’t think it was my place. It’s his story to tell, you know? I didn’t want to mess with the way you felt about him.”

She hadn’t. And Jo appreciated that, although it must have been hard some days. She settled into Laura’s side, burrowing, really, and studied the Christmas tree. Next year, she’d be home from break at her first year of college. Living away from home. Not even here to listen to Pacha’s piano playing and Lee’s attempts at being suave and the sounds of Dora from the living room.

She was sad, suddenly. But it was Christmas. Jo didn’t want to be sad.

“How did you find out?” She finally asked, soft.

Laura ran her hand up Jo’s arm, over her shoulder, down her arm, up. A soothing circuit.

“I didn’t,” Laura said at last. “We just started to pull apart—I’m sure you remember—and then he was coming in one day and he said he was leaving. Laura, I have to. And so I asked him where he was going, and when he said Aberdeen—” She broke off, and surprised Jo with a chuckle. “Well, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out. He’s transparent, your father. Robert picks up and leaves, and there he follows three weeks later.” She stared into the air, at nothing, perhaps seeing his face as he told her, or his back as he walked away.

Jo reached up to squeeze the hand that was circling. “Momma.”

“Yes?” She glanced down at Jo.

“Are you happy now?”

Her lips lifted, and her eyes tightened. A full-faced smile. “Extremely.”

“Good.” She glanced around the room, at her family assembled together, enjoying their morning and gifts. From across the room, Paul held up a package, from which he’d just unearthed a watch.

“Thanks!” He said, with all the cheer as if he’d just been granted season tickets.

Laura laughed. “It’s just a watch, sweetheart.”

“No, but I love it.” With a flourish, he snapped it onto his wrist. “I’ll wear it today.”

“Well—I’m glad. I’ll never get you anything nice again, if you’re this grateful. You’ve set a new precedent.”

He replied, but Jo didn’t hear it—not really. She was watching them, thinking about how she had someone that made her feel that way now. Happy and silly and easy, like she never had to try too hard, never had to think too hard, never had to wonder too hard again. But then it was electric, too. She hadn’t told her Mom about him, Lyon, but she wanted to.

A lot had come from her trip to see her father. But perhaps that was the best thing—perhaps that was the root of the reason. If it was the universe who decided these things, then she was perfectly okay with that. Or maybe it had just been chance, or God, or whatever. But there was a reason.

“Mom,” she said now, her hand still touched to Laura’s. “I met somebody.”

“You met somebody?” Laura perked up. “What does that mean?”

“On the train to Dad’s. I met somebody.” She sighed. “A boy. He gave me a movie.”

“He sounds great.”

“He is.” Jo glanced up at her. “Nothing really happened, but I think it might eventually.”

“Well, just—” Laura went back to rubbing her daughter’s shoulder, slow and smooth. “Keep me posted.”

Jo dropped her chin to her chest. “I don’t even have his phone number,” she realized. “Just his home phone.”

“Well, isn’t that old-fashioned.”

Jo grinned, thinking of their long, life-sharing talk. “Yeah. I guess so.”

They were quiet. Pacha had pulled out the piano bench and now sat on it, fingers trilling over the keys. Margie had set up the kitchen of the house, except the little plastic fridge was upside down and the table was missing its chairs. Lee was still absorbed in his phone, Paul casually throwing additional reminders his way as he studied his watch on a recliner.

“Jo,” Laura said, “are you happy?”

Jo didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

And she meant it.

Neil called on New Year’s Eve. Jo was in her room, folding her laundry and piling it gently in her drawers, when her phone rang. His number lit up the screen. She debated answering and then decided—New Year, New Leaf. She had every day to change things, and she might as well start now.

“Hi,” she blurted, too quick.

A moment of stunned silence. Then, “I didn’t think you were going to answer.”

“Me either,” she admitted, sinking down on her bed. She pulled her leg up underneath her, trying to get comfortable. Her whole body was bristling, from her head to her toes. She’d half-expected him to call her on the train ride home six days ago, begging for her forgiveness, begging her to return, but he hadn’t. The truth was, Neil Kearney was happy with or without his daughter.

It all came down to whether she could be happy without him.

An unfair balance. Jo sighed into the mouthpiece. “How’ve you been?”

“Busy. We closed on that house right after Christmas. Remember, the one that delayed me coming to get you?”

“Yeah.”

“So that was good. And now I’m off for a few days.”

She tugged at some lint on her pajama pants. She needed to get dressed. It’d been a lazy day, lounging about the house, bouncing Margie on her stomach, telling Pacha all about Lyon—the twelve-year-old was fascinated by him, and probably in love, although she hadn’t even seem him for herself yet. She’d spent the past hour kicking Lee’s butt at tennis, and gloating incessantly. It’d been a good day.

With or without her dad.

“That’s nice,” she said at last, bland. “What’re you going to do over it?”

“Um—skiing. We’re going to head up north.” He added, “Robert and I.”

Jo straightened. “Really.”

“Yeah.”

“Like a weekend getaway?”

“Yep. We’re—well, we’re celebrating four years together.”

Jo let out the longest breath of her life. So he hadn’t been with Robert before he’d ended things with her mother. He hadn’t cheated, probably. “That’s good.”

“It’s something.”

“And Braam?”

“He has a girlfriend, I think. He hasn’t introduced her yet.”

“Well, tell him—tell him I said hi.” They’d yet to speak. Jo wasn’t sure where they stood, honestly, if things could go back to the way they’d been. Probably not. The years apart had changed them, shaped them both so they no longer fit into their old molds—and no longer fit together.

“I will.”

“Whenever you see him next.”

“That’ll be dinner tonight. I made him promise to be there.”

“That’s probably necessary.”

They breathed into the receiver. Jo scrambled for something more to contribute and then decided she had nothing. This conversation had been satisfying enough. Neil was trying to reach her. To tell her all the details he’d withheld before, to be honest. That was all she wanted, really.

“I should go,” she finally said. “We’re going to start making dinner in a bit.”

For a minute, the both of them pictured it: the six Fitch-Loos, gathered around their oval table, conversation bouncing back and forth, ricocheting off smiling mouths. Good food. Good memories to carry into the New Year. Maybe a botched prayer of thanks.

“Okay,” Neil said. “Enjoy it.”

“Thanks. And you too.”

“I will.”

Jo started to pull the phone away from her ear, but then he was saying, “Wait, Jo—” And she held it back up.

“Yeah?”

“You left some gifts here,” he explained. “The ones from your Mom, I think. In the office.” He paused. “Do you want me to mail them to you?”

She thought. She inhaled and exhaled and thought.

“That’s okay,” she said at last, glancing at the clock. Six hours until midnight. “I’ll just get them next year.”

Comments

I just skimmed over this

I just skimmed over this because of the length, but I was SO excited to see you post again! I knew that you had been writing, so I've been waiting in eager anticipation. I can't wait to read this in detail when I have a little more free time.
Also, I like the name change, and the sentiment behind it. Growing up is a funny thing :)

Erin | Sat, 01/14/2017

"You were not meant to fit into a shallow box built by someone else." -J. Raymond

Ahhhhhhh I've been WAITING

Ahhhhhhh I've been WAITING for you tic publish it!! I've been stalking your page ever since you put it up as a draft. :) I'll comment as soon I have had a chance to read it. :)

Damaris Ann | Sat, 01/14/2017

"The lines and verses are only the outward garments of the poem and are no more really it than your ruffles and flounces are YOU. The real poem is the soul within them . . . and that beautiful bit is the soul of an unwritten poem. It is not every day one

Haha, same here!Everyone is

Haha, same here!
Everyone is so excited and but haven't read it yet but still wanting to let you know!
EDIT: OH YES, and your name!! Welcome to apricotpie, Madeline! Maddie! I saw one of your comments a couple weeks ago, and was like who's Madeline? and clicked, and said, "Ah ha!" I won't call you Homey anymore.
Anyways, now your name is lower in the writer's page...anyone else used to think, "I wish I was I higher up?"
continue studying, talk to you later.

Lucy Anne | Sat, 01/14/2017

"It is not the length of life, but the depth of life." Ralph Waldo Emerson

YOU GUYS. Made my night. I

YOU GUYS. Made my night. I appreciate each and every one of you and I've MISSED YOU ALL cause I haven't been on here. ❤️❤️❤️ Thank you so much. Encouragement is half the writing motivation, if that makes any sense. It may not, since its 12:30. I'm tired. I should bed. <--see what I did there? That was on purpose, but it's the TIREDNESS.

Megan--awww, thanks for the comments about the name change! And you can seriously call me whatever, but I appreciate it. It took me sooooo long to get your name right and i still can't figure out why!

Madeline | Sun, 01/15/2017

everything was better when/you would call and I'd be like/yeah babe, no way

Hahahaha, I have also been

Hahahaha, I have also been stalking your page and was eyeing this one like a tigress her prey lolol. I was soo excited when I saw you post it! Can't wait to sit down with tea at some point and read it!!

EDIT: Also, I think it's funny that we all felt like telling you we're excited to read this but haven't yet. :P AND HOW IN THE WORLD DO YOU MAKE THOSE HEARTS.

Sarah Bethany | Sun, 01/15/2017

I knooooow. It makes me feel

I knooooow. It makes me feel speshel!

And that is the work of my phone emojis!! Unfortunately I don't have them on the computer. :'( I suppose I could copy and paste the hearts though...

Madeline | Sun, 01/15/2017

everything was better when/you would call and I'd be like/yeah babe, no way

Whew. Seriously, you're gonna

Whew. Seriously, you're gonna have to stretch this out further. For realsies. Like, I need to see her and Braam work out the big fight they had in the car, Braam needs to explain why he warned her about Lyon, and GOOD GRIEF I need to hear all about their first official date and how he finds her again and when he meets her mom and all that good stuff.
Basically, I loved it. Every. Single. Bit. Well done.
You might want to go back and edit a bit because I spotted three or four misspelled words and then one word used twice (which I'm pretty sure you meant to edit out). :)
Your work inspired me. Again. Why do you always do this to me????? I love it. Your structure, your characters, your discriptions...perfect. I love it.
One small critique: you stated that Braam and Jo were one year apart, and then later the age-gap seemed to change to two or three years. Th but that could have just been me misreading it...
Again, I loved it. This is a masterpiece, and I'm so so so proud of you for havcreating it!
Did I mention that I love it? Well, I do. I love it.

Damaris Ann | Mon, 01/16/2017

"The lines and verses are only the outward garments of the poem and are no more really it than your ruffles and flounces are YOU. The real poem is the soul within them . . . and that beautiful bit is the soul of an unwritten poem. It is not every day one

Maddie!!!!!

Good grief. It's a masterpiece!!!
But you need to write more of the story. For realsies. I need to know why Braam really got mad when they fought in the car, I need to know why Braam disliked Lyon so much, for Pete's sake I need to know how Lyon finds Jo in the summer, how there first date goes, what happens when he meets Laura...oh boy. You're just gonna have to stretch it into a novel. ;)
In all seriousness, well done. I loved it sooooo much, and I absolutely could not put it down once I started reading. I was captivated. Enthralled. Enchanted. Mesmerized. I could go on...
But it's late, and I am aware that the longer I type, the less honest-to-goodness sense I make.
Again, I loved it. I'm so proud of you for writing it, and sharing it. I honor you for your diligence! I absolutely adore and admire you as a writer. Your structure, characters, and descriptions melded together create perfection. Keep it up. <3

Damaris Ann | Mon, 01/16/2017

"The lines and verses are only the outward garments of the poem and are no more really it than your ruffles and flounces are YOU. The real poem is the soul within them . . . and that beautiful bit is the soul of an unwritten poem. It is not every day one

Oops, I comment twice. *looks

Oops, I comment twice. *looks sheepish* I lost my internet connection and thought that I lost the first comment...oh well. I'll just leave 'em both up. ;)

Damaris Ann | Mon, 01/16/2017

"The lines and verses are only the outward garments of the poem and are no more really it than your ruffles and flounces are YOU. The real poem is the soul within them . . . and that beautiful bit is the soul of an unwritten poem. It is not every day one

Just wait till you see the length of this. Whoops. *blush*

Ummmm, so while I was reading, I scribbled down notes, and now I'm scared to copy and paste them here, because I KNOW they're going to make a behemoth-sized comment... Oh, well!
I was engrossed -- 100% engrossed -- and I wanted you to know I had an extremely long and tiring day (long story short, my mom hit her head while ice skating and I was with the kids while she was at the hospital...but she's okay now), and yet I sat here staring at my computer screen tonight from beginning to end... and it was even better than a Netflix-binge, in the sense of relaxing me and entertaining me... I LOVE escaping to the worlds that you create, and getting to live in them. You put your readers THERE, so completely. And GAHHHHHHHHH a;sdlkfjalsdjf;lsakdjf I *cannot* say this enough, but you RULE when it comes to the novella genre (I say this again below, so ignore the repeat compliment -- but you deserve it to be repeated). It's just... I just... gah. Did you study it? Did you take a class? You know how to wrap everything up, you know how to tie every thread, you know how to give a sense of emotional completion, and your story arc progresses at just the perfect rate. SUCH a good story and I was so grateful to have it to read (with my cup of tea that had to be refilled frequently) tonight <3 Thank you for this. (I really feel like I could study your novellas to learn how to construct one well!)
ALSO, I met a woman in her 70's who went through exactly what Laura did.

Okay, the side-comments as I read this:

I really liked this moment for some reason:
"The Hershey’s Kisses were cold in her pocket. Jo fumbled with the tinfoil wrapper and stuck three in her mouth, all at once. She allowed them to melt down as she strolled lazy circles around the yard, opening the cards one-by-one. They were swiftly dotted with snow droplets, but she wasn’t ready to go back inside just yet."
Very visual.

Knees cracking on sidewalk... I heard that and felt that, so hard.

"They used to do that, years ago. Just sit together for no reason but to be in the same room..." AWW.

Few grammar things -- missed "of": " the arm her robe" -- I think?? Also: "so much she wouldn’t thought him bald" -- would've? Also: "“Which is why I got send to school.” And: " She’d spent the past hour kicking Lee’s but at tennis." I'm not nit-picking -- I just thought the extra pair of eyes would help!! Also, like Damaris said, the age difference between Jo and Braam seemed to shift to me, too, but I wasn't sure if it was just my memory... or if I was thinking he was drinking because he was 21... but he's probably drinking under-age instead.

"But then came Paul, and then came Margie, and she’d reclaimed something in herself, a pulse that radiated off her now, an energy." Beautiful and compelling description.

"bloated with connotations" -- so unusual, "bloated", but perfect.

This made me smile: "fussing over new hairstyles and baggage, insisting on being the one to tug it along, despite its heft..."

"Then Neil Kearney bumped into her suitcase, knocking it over, and the bag too. All her things spilled out onto the floor—chapstick and hairbrush, book, a family-size bag of hershey’s kisses. He froze, then dropped to his hands and knees, scooping things up in great big handfuls." I LOVED this. It was beautiful, the items mentioned (she's spilling back into his life) and how he didn't move at first and then how he gathered everything with large motions. That and him fixing his hair (I imagined for his daughter) -- I love how you showed emotion here without even telling us what the father and daughter were feeling in this moment.

Such a little detail but so profound and sad, that he forgot: "She'd always ended up on her father’s lap, watching as he painstakingly pulled chunks of onion and slivers of black olive off the cheese"

I totally felt the betrayal when she found Braam sneaking off... I felt like I was THERE, like I was the sister. In fact, I frequently felt like this was my relationship with my closest-in-age brother... the intimacy, the need for each other, the occasional anger, the way falseness can creep in, but how nostalgia also stays strong.

Oh, my gosh, I think I know why the marriage broke up. Just a guess, but right here: '“Robert knows good wine.” Neil pondered his glass. “He goes to these art things a couple towns over, always tries to get me to come, but it’s all pretentious stuff.” He smiled privately. “And I always drink beer, and he always teases me about it.”'

I liked the poetic random surprise of "tender" in this: "“Yeah.” He reached down and plucked a blade of grass, tender. He held it in his palm. “I don’t think Braam would’ve let you hang around a minute longer.”

THAT WAS SO REALISTIC, when she found Braam asleep in the car, and when he told her not to talk to him.... soooo good, SO well-written!! Besides studying you for novellas, someone could study how you just wrote that argument -- it was so punchy and realistic; I heard everything in my head as if real voices were speaking. I felt their bodies, especially his. You wrote him amazingly there.

Gray, close-knit scarf: bam, you did it. I was told that if you mention an article three times, the reader will remember it and unconsciously know it will have significance -- and you mentioned it twice so by the third time it was so recognizable. Well done!!

UGH. It just hit me in the gut, SO much, when she told Braam about her father and Robert, and he already knew. That they didn't fall together crying to the ground. :(

Pause for a general comment: you're SO GOOD at novella-length stories. It is NOT an easy genre... but you always hit a perfect beginning, middle, and end, and make us care about the characters, and get emotionally involved, and have a satisfying ending, and a good flow and pace, with no holes.

"How all great stories begin" -- Lyon is really the breath of fresh air in the middle of all this confusion, hurt, and loneliness. Someone who wants to know her, and who will share her sorrow. I am excited by his presence in this.

And that was beautiful, the mom staying up late with her daughter and talking. This is the second (maybe third?) amazing mother character I remember in your stories. :D You seem to tend to write these phenomenal and supportive and warm and affection mothers... I love them. I'm glad the mom asked Jo if she was happy, too. What a satisfying conclusion...

And AWWWWWWWWWw, the last line!!! I was wondering how you were going to tie up this father-daughter clash... and you truly did it well, with a fine balance of her being happy without him in general, but also allowing him to still have a place in her life. Beautiful and heart-warming and life-affirming, this entire piece. Just like It's a Wonderful Life, I feel like I'm going back into my own life happier for having known it <3

Sarah Bethany | Tue, 01/17/2017

P.S. -

- I also loved the unstated aspects of Braam's life. He was definitely going through some stuff himself, and we as readers didn't need to know necessarily what those things were -- but your hints at them just created distance between himself and Jo, and darker shades in the backdrop. Very excellently done.

Sarah Bethany | Tue, 01/17/2017

Oh, my goodness! Thank you

Oh, my goodness! Thank you both SO MUCH! *hands to cheeks* Your comments are so wonderful, and kind, and encouraging. I could go on indefinitely!

Damaris - Ohh, two from you! I'm not going to complain! ;) Thank you for taking the time to type another at all. I think that's happened to me a couple times, and usually I just give up and come back. Writing the first one can take a lot of me it seems, sometimes, so I really appreciate you doing that! Thank you for pointing out the mistakes as well--I proofread this, but it can seem impossible to catch everything without another pair of eyes! As for the age thing, you're completely right--I actually started the story intending for them to be a year apart (it was going to go a different direction, originally, but then it took a detour as these things tend to do!). I went back and hunted and I found I had put "only a year apart" towards the beginning--forgot to take it out--but changed/already written everything else to fit the two-year age gap. They're little things like that which can really take people out of a story, so thankyouthankyou for pointing it out. I absolutely love comments from you! <3 Also, I'm going to get to throughly reading the snippets of your new story soon! I skimmed last night before bed, and it was really rooted in conversation, which I loved. Expect a comment from me soon!

Sarah - AHHHHHHGHGHGHGHG. <---a sound of pure happiness, just so you know! Wow!!! When I pulled up your comment and I saw the length, I had to stop myself from squealing. Believe me, there is no dismay to be found in the reception of a novel comment, as many of us call them! ;) Thank you so, so, so incredibly much for your specificity and your generosity and your dedication in writing these. You are a writing role model for many of us, I know, (and a life one too, really!), and I'm always so excited by a comment from you!

I'm glad to hear your mother's okay, and that this could be a relaxing outlet! The Netflix bit? HUGE compliment (and I made the word huge huge for emphasis, which I'm finding kind of hilarious), because I'm one of those occasional need-to-relax-Netflix-bingers! And thank you thank you thank you for saying that about the novella genre as well. For years I concentrated on writing full stories, and then I realized that doesn't suit me--not like I want it to--and I have problems staying with characters for that long, making them interesting. I want to write a book, but for now I'm content to stick to this and expand until it finally reaches that point where I'm like, Okay. I've got an idea that'll exceed 40,000 words. lol. I've never taken a class of any sort, but I think that reading it huge--reading a lot of realistic work, in my case, over a scattering of genres. Seriously, thank you so much for everything you said on this point--it made me smile, my spirit soared, all those lovely things! ;) And the tea sounds wonderful!

Thank you for pointing out the grammar! As I said above to Damaris, I proofread it, but it was a quick proof--I was itching to get it up here! And it's long, and I was honestly like, I can't takeitanymoooooore!. Having extra pairs of eyes is an enormous help! I went back up and fixed that, and the age issue too, which you both were correct in thinking! (Jo is 18, Braam supposed to be newly 20, lol).

And yes, you were right, of course! I tried not to give too much away about Robert, but I want there to be hints--things that outsiders could see (like the readers!), and things that Jo would be oblivious to. I don't know if this is one of them, if I should tone down that part, if it's a little too wistful...because when Jo finds out, I wanted it to be a mix of realization and sense and perhaps a little shock, for the reader. Obviously her reaction is stronger. So whatever I can do to achieve this is ideal! lol!

Oh, yay! I'm so thrilled you thought that about him! That was really my goal--for him to break up the monotony of her life, somebody she could identify with, and be excited by.

I definitely tend toward favoring the Moms of my stories (and sometimes villainizing the dads!). I don't know...I think the thing I wanted to achieve here was the contrast in the warmth between the two of them, and I'm glad you felt that. And I'm so happy you felt satisfied with the ending! I can't go on enough!

Now look at my comment! I've got to run & type up a page (wahoo) on a movie we watched last night for film class, but I wanted to write back, because I so, so, so appreciated this, Sarah! Thank you so much!

P.S. Yesss, and I'm glad you saw that with Braam as well!

Madeline | Wed, 01/18/2017

everything was better when/you would call and I'd be like/yeah babe, no way

Ahhhhh, I think I enjoyed

Ahhhhh, I think I enjoyed reading your response as much as you enjoyed reading my comment!!! ^.^ There's nothing like a huge hunk of text to us writers, hehe.

I'd say keep what you have, when hinting that Robert is gay. I didn't pick up on it at ALL when I saw the photograph, though I stored it away in my mind... and then when we saw the photo again, started thinking, "This might be important..." and then when I heard about the "teasing", I thought, "Hrrmm, that sounds more flirtatious than friendly to me!" I think if you tried to "tone it down" you might lose the warmth in the dad's voice... but, then again, I know if you felt like it was necessary, you could pull something off. I had guessed he was gay, but was STILL impacted when that was confirmed, and felt everything along with Jo. It definitely still hit me hard... perhaps even more so, because I started bracing for it, even before she did.

I am so glad my comment brought you such happiness <3 And, seriously, you've found the genre that you thrive within. I think if you don't care about novel length stories, you're right in not pursuing them (until one feels natural or necessary). For me, I have trouble confining myself and cutting myself down, so I need the physically larger scope of a novel... (and even that leaves me feeling constrained sometimes... I have self-restraint issues, LOL) And so I admire the people who can tell a story on a smaller scale, with *just* as large of an emotional impact. BraVO.

And if I want to study the novella genre, I think you're right in saying that reading it is key.

EDIT: Wait, I just feel like adding again that I really don't think you made it BLATANTLY obvious that her father is gay. I think you built up to it, in a proper way. And I think some people might miss it entirely, too.

EDIT again: I just re-read your comment and realized you said you want to eventually write novels... so ignore what I wrote here, lol. I think you'll be fabulous in whatever scale takes your interest!

Sarah Bethany | Wed, 01/18/2017

And I don't know if I'm a

And I don't know if I'm a life role model, haha. Especially not in romance!

Sarah Bethany | Wed, 01/18/2017

Come on, Sarah; who wouldn't

Come on, Sarah; who wouldn't want a heart like yours? <3

Damaris Ann | Wed, 01/18/2017

"The lines and verses are only the outward garments of the poem and are no more really it than your ruffles and flounces are YOU. The real poem is the soul within them . . . and that beautiful bit is the soul of an unwritten poem. It is not every day one

Oh gawrsh. ^.^

Oh gawrsh. ^.^

Sarah Bethany | Wed, 01/18/2017

:)

The way you write... it's just so real and easy to identify with - not because we've been through those exact experiences ourselves, but because the little details (like Dora) and feelings are ones we can relate to. One thing I loved about this piece was the way in the end it wasn't perfect, the tension of the divorce meaning things weren't the way it could have/should have been/once was but there being enough healing that people could be happy where they are while still desiring there to be still more change and healing.

Kyleigh | Sat, 02/11/2017

^ Yeah, Kyleigh nailed why

^ Yeah, Kyleigh nailed why your ending was perfect.

Sarah Bethany | Sun, 02/12/2017

Thank you so much, Kyleigh!

Thank you so much, Kyleigh! What a wonderful comment to receive! :) I'm really glad you felt that way about the end...that's always my goal, to point in the direction of the end without actually giving it, to convey a sense of healing, and I'm so glad that came through here.

And thank you, Sarah, as well!! You lovely people, you!

Madeline | Fri, 02/17/2017

everything was better when/you would call and I'd be like/yeah babe, no way

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