December came quickly. Festive strings of multicolored lights appeared on the eaves of houses like pimples before a date; Christmas trees glittered happily out of living room windows. Our elderly neighbors had an inflatable snowman, Santa Claus and snow globe sitting in their front yard, seven feet tall and full of the holiday spirit. It was bitterly cold, harsh winter weather. My foster family and I drank hot cocoa and munched on sugar cookies shaped like reindeer, spending hours decorating the tree, struggling to decide where the ornaments would look best.
TV commercials blared happy, jolly Christmas tunes as shoppers in scarves and coats racked up on presents for their families and friends. News reporters stated that this was the coldest winter in years, warning us about pneumonia and the flu, predicting White Christmases for the people of LA. Whenever I stepped outside I immediately began to shiver, my nose turning red and running like a faucet. I didn't do well with the cold, never had. I always got sick so easily, it was like the cold got inside of me and squeezed my lungs until they could barely work.
Christmas. Everyone was so excited, so happy, singing carols and gossiping about presents. I felt a pit in my stomach form and begin to grow, starting on the first day of winter vacation, five days before the big holiday. People around me were counting down the days until we could tear into our presents. I couldn't wrap my head around the holiday aspect. All I could think of was what had happened a year ago on that day.
Two days before Christmas, Emeline and I were bundled up in our heaviest jackets, heading out for one last bout of shopping. I didn't know why – we already had a stack of presents as tall as I was, sitting in her office, waiting to be wrapped in shiny foil suits.
"I'm thinking we should go to church tomorrow," Emeline was saying, pushing open the doors to Macy's, a red knit wool cap perched on her mahogany curls.
"Why?" I asked. I wasn't aware that they were the kind of people who went to church.
She searched for words, eyeing a silver and cobalt watch displayed in one of the jewelry cases. "Just because," she said finally. "Wouldn't it be nice?"
I didn't know what to say. I began to sweat under my three layers of protection against the cold. "Yeah," I fibbed, sucking on the inside of my cheek. "We should go."
We wandered around the department store for a while. I tried to block out the carols that played overhead. I hated Christmas music. Emeline eyed a cashmere sweater for a moment, running her hand over the pale blue fabric. She draped it over her forearm – she was going to buy it.
"I know the boys won't dare buy either of us clothes," she explained. "I might as well buy myself something."
I nodded, trying to seem enthused. I wasn't feeling the shopping today. The mint chocolate frappe I'd had earlier churned in my stomach as if someone had took an electric mixer to my guts. I took off my jacket and lay it across my arm – maybe it was the heat making me feel woozy.
"Are you okay, Eve?" Emeline inquired. She grasped a shoebox in her hand.
"I'm fine," I assured her, sitting down on one of the little stools, sticking my foot in the shoe size measurer idly.
She picked up a five-inch heel and stuck it daintily on her own foot, eyeing it in the mirror. She contemplated, lips pursed, finally grabbing the box containing the other heel and taking it with her.
This wasn't so much about shopping for other people, I realized. She knew she'd probably be disappointed with what Adam, Jonathan and I bought for her, so she had decided to buy things she knows she'd like.
That sort of hurt, but I understood. She was picky – we were almost destined to fail at pleasing her. Besides, who shops for a woman better than herself? It was only practical for her to buy her own things.
She let me pick out a few items for myself, but I didn't want anything. I didn't want them to buy me anything, period. But due to her insisting, I ended up picking out a few pieces of clothes just to appease her.
At home, Jonathan and Adam were watching a black and white movie on the living room television.
"Presents," Emeline announced, shopping bags dangling from her arms. "Do not look."
We carried them into the office. Most of the stuff we'd bought weren't presents for them, but she still didn't want the men of the house to see. I took my bag upstairs, depositing the charcoal jeans and the few tops into my closet, then headed back down to the office to assist with the wrapping.
An hour and a half later, every single gift was wrapped and beneath the tree, shining in their merry shells, bows poised adorably, waiting to be ripped to shreds.
Emeline stood, hands on hips, observing the tree. "I'd say we're doing well on presents," she said with a wry smile.
Jonathan came behind her, wrapping his arms around her slim waist, his chin resting on her shoulder. "How many are there?"
"Thirty total," I said absently, readjusting the plastic angel at the top of the tree.
Pine needles littered the floor behind it – we'd have one hell of a time sweeping all that up. The many downfalls of not getting a synthetic tree and reusing it year after year.
Adam whistled lowly through his teeth. "Sheesh, Em," he said, patting her shoulder. "You outdid yourself this year."
She smiled again, her teeth shiny and impossibly white. "Well, we have a new addition to our family," she said. "Of course there'll be more."
I blushed, looking down. It was too much, I didn't deserve all this. I didn't deserve her shiny white teeth and red lip grin; I didn't deserve how sweet they were to me. All three of them smiled at me, always the happy family.
The doorbell rang, saving me from more awkwardness. I opened the door, and the rush of cold air was like a punch in the nose.
It was Raeanne. A felt Santa hat sat atop her freshly cut, freshly dyed hair. She brandished an armful of presents towards me, a smile happily painted onto her lips.
"Greetings from the Connor residence," she announced, walking past me into the house. "Where the Christmas spirit hangs in the air like a cloud of deadly poison!"
I smirked as my foster family stood, a little confused, staring at the tall, wiry figure. Only Raeanne.
We hadn't been talking much. Though we all sat at the same table, it was as if there was an obvious divide between us – Drew and I on one side, Rae, Melissa and Amy on the other.
"Are those presents?" Emeline asked. "You shouldn't have."
Raeanne dropped her armful of gifts onto the kitchen counter. "Oh," she laughed sarcastically. "I didn't."
My eyebrows rose inquisitively. I leaned against the stairwell banister, arms crossed tightly over my chest. "Then who?" I asked, a little too harshly.
"Mommy Dearest, duh," she poked my arm. "There's one for everybody," she brandished to Emeline, Jonathan and Adam, "but she made me promise not to tell you what's in them. And also, don't open them until Christmas day."
Emeline smiled. "Of course not," she said warmly. "That's no fun otherwise."
Raeanne took off the hat, running a hand through her messy hair. "Yeah, I guess," she said. "I gotta get going. We're hanging our decorations last minute, and seeing as how I'm tallest, I've got ornament duty."
We followed her to the door. "Thanks," Jonathan said, holding the door open for her. She stepped outside, and he closed it behind her.
"Crap," I said. "I'll be right back." I opened the door and slipped outside quickly.
She was crossing the street when I came outside. "Raeanne!" I called. She turned around, the little ball on the end of her hat wiggling.
Her eyebrows rose. "Yeah?" She crossed back over, stepping onto the sidewalk. A car drove by quickly, throwing cold air into my face like water.
"I need to ask you something important," I said.
"Yeah?" she asked again.
"I need to borrow your car on Christmas."
She snorted, bursting into laughter. "Wait," she said, the humor subsiding. "You're serious."
I leaned on one heel, my arms crossed. "Yeah."
"Well, what for?"
My voice caught in my throat. I wasn't expecting giving an explanation. "It's a personal matter," I said vaguely. My breath was a mist in front of me.
Her eyebrows were halfway up her forehead again. "Did you get kicked in the face?"
"You've got to be out of it if you think I'm just giving you my car for a day."
I sighed. "You're the only person I could think of that I want to help me."
Her expression shifted slightly, becoming more unreadable. "What? Are you going on a drug run, or something?"
I laughed. "No," I shook my head. "I, um… I want to see my Mom's grave. It's the anniversary of her death."
Her face softened. She looked like a child, her profile smooth and slightly surprised. A small "oh" escaped her lips.
It was silent between us for a moment. Nothing but the rumble of the distant ocean and the sound of traffic could be heard.
Finally, Raeanne nodded. The hat bauble fell into her eyes. She took it off, flustered, tucking it into her back pocket. "One condition," she said. "Can I drive you?"
My brows furrowed, I asked, "Why?"
She shrugged. "It's a big town," she said, turning. "Wouldn't want you to get into some trouble."
I rolled my eyes, stepping backwards up the porch steps. "Thanks," I called after her. "Thank you, Raeanne."
"Anytime," she said, her voice raising, disappearing into her house without a backward glance.
On Christmas day, the living room was a wreck. I stood at the entrance from the kitchen, grasping a black plastic trash bag in my hands, surveying the damage.
Chris Cringle had kicked our house's ass. Wrapping paper and bows scattered the floor, the plastic angel on the tree had somehow tipped over. A few smashed baubles lay around the bottom of the tree like shiny, painted eggshells. As I collected the trash, I wouldn't have been surprised to find some foraging animals hidden in the mess.
The source of the chaos was lying almost directly in the middle of the living room, resting on his back, sleeping peacefully. A small black and white Jack Russell Terrier, little velvety ears folded downwards, soft black nose wet and sensitive, eyelids twitching as he growled at an invisible monster.
His name was Rufus and he was the latest addition to the household. Jonathan had gotten him for Emeline, but I knew he would end up liking Adam the most. Adam seemed like a dog kind of person. Me? I just hoped he knew not to come snuggling up at my feet at four in the morning.
Emeline had beamed when she first saw him, proclaiming that he was a cute little thing. Yes, it had been just freaking adorable when he'd jumped into the pile of gift wrap like he was a child jumping into a pile of freshly raked autumn leaves, tearing and barking, chasing his own tail around the room. I nudged the snoozing canine over with the side of my foot, picking up a scrap of paper decorated with jolly snowmen. He snorted in response, rolling onto his side and tucking his paws beneath his little head.
Of course I was left with the mess. The rest of my foster family had decided that a nap was in order after all of the strenuous labor they'd done opening presents. Adam lay on the couch, snoring. Jonathan and Emeline were in their room, no doubt doing the same. And here I was, collecting pieces of drool-soaked gift wrap. Merry Christmas.
A few minutes later, the living room looked as if Hurricane Rufus had never swept through. I deposited the bag of trash by the can in the kitchen, tucking the broom back into the pantry and grabbed the magnetic notepad off of the fridge, scribbling down a note.
I stuck it onto the fridge once more, collecting my jacket from the kitchen table. With one last look around the freshly tidied front room, I stepped outside into the cold air.
It was an hour's ride to the cemetery. A church had paid for an inexpensive plot and headstone for her, a rare blessing, as Marion Carmike had said. She was buried near our old apartments – most of the gravestones bore names with Hispanic origins. Her name did not fit in the sea of Flores', Rodriguez's and Garcia's.
Raeanne had decided to sit in the car to give me space. I knew she would. Hoped she would. It was a private thing, even if I didn't want it to be.
She was buried in the shade of a small tree beside a child's grave. I found that ironic, but didn't know exactly why.
Melorra Anne Faraday, the black words bore. I squatted in front of the marker, running my fingers against the grooves. Her date of birth put her at thirty seven years when she died. I sat down the small bouquet of roses I'd picked up for her, tucking them snugly against the stone.
My Mom. Sitting back on the cold, slightly damp earth, I wondered what her last thoughts were. She hadn't left a suicide note. I figured that was why the coroner ruled the death as "accidental." But then again, so many people write goodbye notes that the practice almost seems passé at this point. She just didn't want her death to be a cliché.
A small cherub smiled somberly at me, etched above her name. I touched it, feeling the texture of the chiseled marble. I wanted to remember everything about her grave, every last detail. My mind catalogued everything there was to know.
The smell of car exhaust lingered in the air. We were only a block away from the freeway. You could hear the faint pulsing beat of a Spanish radio channel. There was an apartment building next to the church, and the shouts of the Hispanic mothers as they tended their children could be heard over the din of cars. For the first time since my mother had died, I felt at home.
I didn't want to come back here. I wanted to pay my respects and then forget about it all, but still know that I would remember it. I wanted to remember the way the sunlight dappled her grave, filtered through the leaves. The way the grass was already full grown over her burial plot. The way the pale scent of roses infiltrated my nose.
Had it been a year? It felt like just yesterday I had crawled out of a hospital window and into the arms of my mother's dealer. What would she think of me? Would she be happy that I was doing well, or jealous that I had moved on?
I picked at my cuticles. Raeanne was waiting for me, and I knew I should go. But I also knew she'd give me as much time as I needed. Why not spend some time just memorizing this spot?
Footsteps cracked twigs behind me, and I craned my neck to see who it was. A tall frame, clad in a leather bomber jacket and jeans rolled at the cuffs. Mitchell Harris.
I stood quickly. Just the right time to run into him, wasn't it? I'd forgotten that his uncle's house was in this area; no doubt he'd be over there spending Christmas day getting hammered with his folks.
"What do you want, Mitch?"
He snickered. He needed a shave. His hair was slicked back as usual, his hands tattooed. A cigarette dangled between his lips. "What do I want?" He repeated, laughter in his voice. "God, that's a good one."
I crossed my arms. That familiar pull tugged at my gut. I hated it, I wanted to forget it. But I was still drawn to him after all this time.
His laughter faltered. "What? Ya still angry?"
I stared at him. "Still angry? You. Turned. Me. In."
He snickered again, taking a drag off of his cigarette, then moving the hand holding it away from his mouth. "I did ya a favor, Eve, and ya know it."
He had a point, but I was still too full of hard feelings to let that point seem reasonable. "Mitch. You thought that I wanted to go to a foster home?"
He shrugged. "You're a hard one to figure out. How the hell should I know?" His arms rose in a passive expression. "Ya saying you wanna come back?"
I knew he'd let me back. And the sick part of it was, part of me did want to. A dirty, masochistic part of me wanted to come back to whatever shithole he was living in and party with him. Feel his hands all over me in the middle of the night. Taste that cigarette smoke mouth. I wanted it. I wanted it bad. I felt that pull in my stomach and the voice in the back of my head both urging me to accept it.
I wanted to go back because I knew how it would end. I'd pull something like my Mother, OD in a dirty bathroom. I knew how it'd play out. And in my new life, I didn't. There were too many options I wasn't ready to consider, too many things that I didn't feel like I was prepared enough to decide. It was easier to die with a needle in my arm than with all of these new possibilities.
But that was better, wasn't it? It was better than a life with him. I could go to school, college, make decent money. Have kids with someone, watch them grow. That was better than living with Mitchell Harris.
"Ya always come back to me in the end."
My spine stiffened. "Not this time. I'm too good for that."
He scoffed, his anger flaring. He took a step towards me, and I backed away quickly.
"What? You got some dealer wherever you are now? You partyin' hard with the fuckin' richie riches? You can't do no better than me, you're just like your white trash, whore of a mother who went and offed herself just to get away from ya."
In a white hot flare of stupidity, I struck out. My fist hit home with his nose, blood spattering. I broke it with a clean hit. At least you've still got your arm, I told myself.
"You cunt." He charged at me, blood flowing from his nose and onto the collar of his button down shirt. "You no good, piece of shit bitch." His arm was raised to strike, and I knew I'd go down hard when it hit me.
"I think it's a good time for you to leave, whoever you are."
I turned. Raeanne. Always showing up at strange moments in my life. She stood, hands in pockets, a defiant look across her features.
"Says who?" Mitch asked.
She could have probably taken him on in a fight. They stood at the same height, but Mitch outweighed her by a good thirty pounds. With a little luck, she could walk away the victor. But I didn't want it to come down to that.
"You gay now?" Mitch asked, smirking.
My cheeks flared. I wanted to protest, but I remained silent.
He snorted, turned to leave. "I hope you're happy, Eve," he said, sarcasm dripping in his rough voice. "Hope you're real fuckin' happy."
The ride back to Santa Monica beach was awkward, to say the least. We spent the first thirty minutes of it in silence, staring out of the windshield as we hurtled down the freeway.
"Do you mind telling me what the hell was going on back there?" Raeanne asked, breaking the silence.
I stared at her. Where did I begin? "Ex-boyfriend. Very woman hating. We, uh, we have a bad past," I summarized quickly.
"I'm gonna need more than that, seeing as how I'm paying out of my ass for gas money on this trip."
Sighing, I continued. "He was the one who turned me into social services. His name is Mitch."
"Skinhead, drug dealer," she said, pulling into the drive through of a McDonalds. "I'm hungry," she explained.
"How'd you know?" I asked.
"You told me about him one time. You lost your, uh, virginity to him."
I flushed awkwardly, staring out of the car window. "McDonalds is open on Christmas?"
She shrugged, not trying to change the subject back to Mitch. "Guess so. What do you want?"
"Whatever you have."
We both had double quarter pounders and two containers of large-sized fries, as well as a supersized cup of Coke. She inhaled half of one of the fry containers just on the way to a parking spot. I sipped my Coke idly.
"Thanks for all of this," I told her, pulling my food out of the back and undoing my seatbelt. "It really means a lot."
She nodded, chewing on her burger. "I got a question," she said thickly, swallowing.
"Yeah?" I shoved a fry into my mouth.
"Why didn't you get your boyfriend to take you?"
I shrugged. "It'd just make him feel awkward. I don't want to subject him to that."
Rae laughed bitterly. "But you don't care about making me feel awkward?"
I stared at her, confused. "I didn't think it would do that," I said. "Did it?"
She shook her head. "Nah," she said. "I just wanted to know why you asked me instead of him. It seems more like something a couple would do."
I knew what she meant. I'd spent the past week's worth of nights thinking of that. Wasn't it too personal? That's why I just wanted her to let me borrow her car, not have her take me. Some things you just had to do alone.
I took a bite of my burger and watched her face closely. "I'm sorry."
Her eyebrows rose. "What for?" A dab of ketchup dotted her chin. I reached over a wiped it away before I could tell myself not to.
"For making you do this."
"You didn't make me do anything, Eve," she said. Her eyes darted away from mine, staring out at the parking lot before us. "I wanted to take you. I knew it was important."
I shrugged. "Still. You were right. It's a couple thing. And we're both sort of in different relationships."
She snickered. "I'm not."
Washing down a mouthful of fast food with the sugary Coke, I stared at her inquiringly. "What?"
"I, um… I dumped Melissa."
"When? Why?" The excitement in my voice was much too obvious. Her eyebrows rose as she glanced over at me.
She cleared her throat, leaning back in the seat. "'Cause it's wrong. I don't like her; I just want her around for sex. And that's not right."
I beamed with pride, and something else, staring out the window. "Good."
"Why's it good?"
I shrugged. "Because relationships like that kill you." I laughed suddenly. "Trust me, I'm one to know."
We pulled into her driveway at a quarter past noon. It had heated up to a warm degree of fifty three. The feeling of the sun on my back did nothing to abate the shivers I had.
"Thanks," I said once again, clutching my McDonalds cup in one hand.
She twirled her keys around one finger. "Anything to help," she said.
I stared up at her, trying to figure out what she was thinking. It was the closest we'd been in a month. Had I really slept in the same bed as her, felt her arms around me? That felt like a million years ago. In the past month, I'd felt like the crush had went away. But as I watched her eyes glitter in the sun, I realized it hadn't.
Fuck, I thought. I just couldn't get over her no matter how hard I tried. "Do you wanna come over some time before school starts?" I found myself asking, stepping closer to her, almost brushing chests with her. "I miss hanging with you."
She was embarrassed. I found pleasure in the way her eyes darted away nervously. She scratched the back of her head. "Yeah, sure. Definitely," she said. "Tomorrow sound good?"
"Sounds like a date," I murmured. The word was silky as it slipped from my lips.
"Alright," she said, smiling nervously. "Cool."
I hurried across the street, cursing myself. Was I just trying to get myself in hot water? Drew wasn't going to like that. He wasn't going to dig her staying over at all.
As my boot heel hit the top step of the porch, a glorious thought hit my mind like a rock through pond water. What if he didn't know?