Fifteen

☼►thirteen◄☼

Image


Before I knew it, there were only twelve days until Christmas. The weather had become even colder and wetter, and I was in a constant state of uncomfortable. I was accustomed to freezing temperatures, but for some reason, the chill here permeated much more fiercely than back home. Maybe it was because it was another Christmas without Sophie, and now I had to deal with not being with my parents on top of it.

The holidays were the only times they came together to pretend we were still happy. It was hard, and I knew it was all a facade. But they still tried. They had pretences to put on - letting those cracks show in front of the family who came to visit was an unacceptable thing. So Sophie’s memory stayed tucked away for at least one day. Her name wasn’t spoken, everyone avoided looking at her photographs on the wall, and we pretended.

“May I come in?”

I looked up from my latest novel, smiling at Robin. “Sure. What’s up?”

“Well, Anne wants - we would like for you to come help decorate the tree.”

I stared, blindsided by the request. Harry had warned me it would most likely happen, but I hadn’t expected it to actually come true. I helped put ornaments and lights on the tree at home, so it wasn’t an absurd request on Anne’s part.

The oddest part was that a large part of me wanted to do it. I wanted to be a part of their holiday traditions. I wanted to be a part of their family even if it was just pretend. I was good at that. Pretending.

Swallowing down the guilt, I set aside Tuck Everlasting, making sure the bookmark is firmly between the pages before letting the book close. Robin’s hand was gentle on my shoulder as we made our way to the family room. Anne turned away from the box in front of her, grinned brightly when she saw me, and waved me closer.

I watched for a minute to see if there was any rhyme or reason to the placement of the baubles, but there really wasn’t any. Gemma and Harry argued over certain spots in the branches, though that was more of a competition amongst themselves and less following rules. I ducked down to grab a large, shiny green orb and carefully slipped the ribbon over a branch.

Anne murmured my name from right behind me, her voice quiet yet so loud in the sudden silence. I caught Harry’s eye over his mother’s shoulder, but all he did in response was smile and jerk his chin toward his mother. Frowning, I faced Anne only to end up blinking owlishly at the box she was holding out to me.

“What is this?”

“Open it, darling.”

With everyone’s eyes on me and my hands shaking, I chewed on my lower lip and lifted the lid to the box. My breath stuttered out of me at the sight of a glittering star nestled in swathes of deep-purple velveteen. Tears pricked at my eyes as I stared down at the ornament.

“I - I don’t know what to say.” I dragged my gaze from the box to Anne’s face. “What’s this?”

She smiled, sniffling, though nothing could hide the fact that her own eyes were filling with tears. “This is our way of saying welcome to the family, Seren. We each have our own ornament, and now you have one, too.”

She took the star from me, turning to hang it on the tree between the green bauble and a glittery blue one. I covered my face with my hands, and the tears spilled over. Arms wrapped around my shoulders, held me tightly; I turned and pressed my face into the front of Robin’s shirt, but I couldn’t stop crying.

It was so ridiculous, to be crying over something as small as my own decoration on the tree. I knew it. But there was no way to stem the tears. It meant the world that this family cared enough to do something like this for me. I felt… included. Loved.

When I finally calmed down, Robin ran his hand over my hair and smiled down at me, a knowing gleam in his eye. I scrubbed a hand over my face, drew in a steadying breath. He moved away to help Anne wind tinsel around the tree; as I watched them move in a choreographed dance, something smoothed out in my chest, something that had been sharp with fear and doubts. I exhaled slowly and turned away from the tree.

It might have been a horrid idea to believe that these people truly cared about me, but the star… everything they’d done for me since I arrived a few months ago… it was hard to think otherwise.

I didn’t want to think otherwise.

{~:~}


There was no warning before my bedroom door burst open, Harry stumbling into the room and slamming the door shut behind him. I glared even as I set my knitting aside, though I desperately needed to finish it. There were only fifty more rows to go before it was complete, and Christmas was just two days away.

Instead of saying anything, he held up his own project with a proud grin; bright spots of red flooded his cheeks beneath sparkling green eyes, and he ran his free hand through his curls, mussing them further. I tore my gaze from his face, though it was harder than it had any right to be, and to the scarf in his hand.

Biting back a squeal, I reached out for the knitting. The yarn was as pure white as it had been when I first saw it, row after row of tidy stitching. It was absolutely perfect. Gemma was going to love it, and rightfully so. Harry plopped down on the bed beside me, gathering up the scarf I was making, and examined it closely.

My delight at Harry’s success faded into humiliation. The gift for his mother was awful in comparison, lumpy and uneven. Not even on the same level of his present for his sister. My stomach churned as I waited for the criticism - or worse, pity.

To my surprise, he grinned up at me. “This is great, Star! Mum is going to love it so much.”

“It’s terrible,” I moaned, dropping my forehead to rest on his shoulder. “I can’t give it to her.”

“Wanna know something?” he murmured before continuing, “The very first thing I ever made was so awful, I literally set it on fire in the garden. I’m not joking!” He swatted at me when I burst into startled laughter. “It was… it was dreadful, and I couldn’t let it see the light of day. This? This is so much better than my first attempt.”

“Well, I had a great teacher,” I whispered once the tightness in my throat eased just enough.

“She really will love it, don’t worry.”

Harry kept me company while I started working on the scarf again. I listened with half an ear as he talked about random things, read excerpts from the novels I’d brought with me, or just sang whatever snippet of a song happened to pop into his brain. My mind drifted, reality going out of focus, as I worked. The camaraderie, the peaceful rhythm of his voice, lulled me into complacency. Calmness in the face of a holiday away from home, my family, and everything I’d ever known.

I didn’t realise when the room fell silent, or when Harry stretched out to lie next to me, but I certainly noticed that he’d fallen asleep. And it was no wonder. The clock read almost half-one in the morning, and we both were up incredibly early this morning.

I gingerly rolled the scarf around my needles, placed it in the nightstand drawer, and padded as quietly across the room as I could. Waking him didn’t seem like a good idea, so I turned off the light and laid down next to him. A small voice in my head whispered that I was practically begging to be hurt by this boy, but I didn’t care.

How could I, when he’d given me so much more than he could ever know?

The next day was spent holed up in Anne’s room, helping her wrap the gifts for Harry, Gemma, and Robin. She kept mine hidden away, scolded me when I tried to peek, but her voice was full of laughter, eyes full of a light that I’d seen in her son’s. As soon as I finished taping down the paper on the last gift for her daughter, she shooed me from the bedroom, and I headed off to find something to do besides read.

Harry wasn’t home; he’d gone to visit a friend for a while, and Gemma was with a girlfriend doing some last-minute shopping. Robin was preoccupied with getting everything ready for Christmas dinner. I didn’t want to be in the way, so I told him I was going for a walk. He frowned as he turned away from refrigerator.

“Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, I just wanna get some fresh air, that’s all.” When his concerned expression didn’t fade, I forced a smile. “If I stay inside, I’m going to try to find my presents, and I think Anne might get upset at that.”

His face split with his smile, and his laughter followed me to the front door. I slipped on my boots and coat, called out that I would be back in about an hour, and stepped outside. Snow glistened under the weak sunlight, icicles catching the light and sending sparkles across my vision, and children shouted as they stomped around in the winter wonderland.

Somehow, the snow and cold here didn’t make me as miserable as the snow and cold back home. I couldn’t quite figure it out, but I had a feeling that it was because of the company I had. The family I’d come to love as my own were so warm, kind and loving, giving and compassionate. It was impossible to be upset around them.

As I walked around the town, my mind travelled from my family to school. Miss Letts had told me on the final day before break that my essay was approved for submission and it would appear in the first print of the new year. I’d been terrified of it being rejected, but the fact that it was being printed was inexplicably more frightening. If it was rejected, well, that just meant I wasn’t a good enough writer.

It being printed for everyone to read meant that I had the ability. It also meant that if anyone found out it was me who wrote it, they would ask questions. The pain of losing Sophie had slowly begun to abate, and even my anger at her running away was disappearing, too. I supposed I could understand her reasoning, even if I thought it was selfish of her.

I had done pretty much the same thing: Someone offered me a chance to get away, and I took it without looking back. The difference was, really, I would be going home again. I had a return date. Sophie never gave us one. So we were stuck without any answers - any closure - while she got to live whatever life she decided to lead.

I decided to head back to the house when I lost all feeling in my cheeks, my eyes watering from the nip in the air and my nose simultaneously frozen and dripping. The choice was proved to be a smart one when an errant snowball hit me directly in the face. I wiped snow from my eyes and turned to face the child who threw it. She stared, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, for a second then bolted away without a word.

It was Hell, biding my time until Robin and Anne went to bed, but I managed it. As soon as their door shut behind them, I dug out the scarf and set off to finish the last twenty-five rows. It was slow going, considering every tiny sound I heard had me freezing up and waiting to be caught out. My heart raced, pounded out an uneven rhythm, as I rushed through the final leg of the project.

“Finally!” I cheered quietly as I tied off the last row.

It wasn’t a pretty thing, but it was the best I could have done. Stuffing it under my pillow, I dropped my needles and yarn onto the nightstand then tiptoed through the dark house. The box was still in the den; Anne had promised to leave it out in case anyone had wrapping left to do. Silently sending a thanks to the woman for having forethought like that, I stepped into the room only to stop and stare at the tree.

The fairy lights were lit up, spreading dots of golden-white light throughout the family room, and the tinsel draped in graceful arcs as if to highlight all the decorations - the baubles, the popsicle-stick reindeer and plastic mistletoe, tiny handprints embedded in ceramic. And the star.

My star.

My star that dangled from a branch on a wire so thin, it was nearly invisible from a distance. The delicate blown-glass ornament reflected the lights in a dizzying array of sparkling, and I blinked back tears at the memory of what it stood for - that I belonged in this family. I was as much a part of it as Harry and Gemma, Robin and Anne.

Before I could stand there much longer and get caught, I rushed across the room to the stash of supplies over in the corner. My breathing sounded extraordinarily loud in my ears as I grabbed a roll of gift wrap, tape, and a small garment box. The floorboards creaked just as I’d turned back to the doorway, and I froze in place until I recognised the person who’d encroached on my nighttime thievery.

Gemma grinned and shrugged unabashedly, gesturing toward the gifts under the tree. “I always try to figure out what I’ve gotten.”

“I won’t tell,” I whispered and left her there by the tree, the strands of lights illuminating her face in a hazy glow, softening her features, as she read the nametags on each present.

Wrapping the gifts took very little time, though that was mostly due to the fact I didn’t quite care what they looked like in the end. The high of finishing the knitting made it easier to ignore how utterly awful the wrapping was. And besides, what mattered was on the inside. I just hoped everyone else felt the same way.

I set the presents on the bureau and turned off the light before crawling into bed. A wave of exhaustion abruptly crashed over me, blurring my vision and weighing down my bones. I could barely see straight, so I closed my eyes and settled more comfortably between the sheets. One heavy exhale later, and I was asleep.