We were making cookies at the Asylum a week before Christmas when I heard Lilith out the window. She came pounding up the steps and then burst through the door. She was wearing two layers of leggings, one on top of the other, and an enormous sweater, and in her hand she clutched a green envelope. Andy, Gina, and Milo all ran towards her excitedly.
"Open it, open it!" they cried out.
"When is it for?" Gina exclaimed.
"Is it for tonight?" Andy cried. "They would, they would make it for tonight, just to mess us up-"
"Give me a second!" Lilith shrieked. "Let me open it, you dunkopfs."
"What is it?" I asked Trevor dumbly as I turned to him.
"It's a Nightling surge. They send green envelopes to the people they want to run with them. It'll be for tonight," Trevor sighed.
"It's for tonight!" Lilith shrieked.
"They would. They would make it for tonight," Andy said, laughing.
"Are you all going?" I asked Trevor.
"The rule is that anyone in earshot of the movement has to go," Trevor said, "So you have to go."
"That's why you waited to come here to read it," I said in sudden understanding.
"Wait, what about Declan?" Gina asked.
"Speakerphone," Lilith replied with a cheesy smile, holding up her phone.
"yeah, thanks for that," Declan shouted through the phone. "Hello, everybody-" Lilith hung up on him.
"What'd you do that for?" Andy asked crankily.
"I hate phones." She replied cheerfully. "Danae! Aren't you excited?"
"What's the assignment?" I asked, still slightly stunned. Trevor methodically walked over and snatched it from her fingers.
"It doesn't say," he replied, "It just says that we should bundle up." he tapped his chin and then smiled. "I know what it is," he said softly, handing the paper back to Lilith.
"What? What is it? Tell us, tell us!" Andy shouted.
"Calm down," Trevor said, weaving around him.
"It's not like he's going to tell you," Lilith said, rolling her eyes. "Alright, I'm going to go now. I have to find Declan and apologize for hanging up on him. See you all tonight," she said, giving us all a suggestive wink before slipping out the door.
"She is an enigma," Gina said, shaking her head. Her stiff, short hair didn't move.
That night we all met at the designated point in the middle of the city.
"Are you ready for this?" Trevor asked, handing me a cup of hot chocolate. "Drink it quickly. The other people will be here soon. We're supposed to meet a few blocks from here. Seriously, drink it, Danae, otherwise you're going to freeze." I gulped down the liquid and scalded my throat, coughing before it warmed me from the inside. I had bundled myself in layers of thick clothing. Upon Lilith's insistence I had worn tights underneath my jeans. I could definitely feel the difference.
We began walking towards the meeting point, my anticipation growing. We reached the spot and saw a small group of people waiting. The sun was just setting. "When does it start?" I asked. It was quite creepy, with everyone standing around as if it was just a coincidence they had all met in one place at once.
"As soon as the street lights turn on," Trevor whispered back. I finished the hot chocolate and threw it into the nearby trash can. The street grew darker and darker. I shifted from foot to foot, growing slightly lethargic. I wanted to move, I wanted to start going.
The lights turned on and an unfamiliar girl with thick frizzy auburn, topped by a flowery cap, stood on top of the back of a truck. "Tonight, we've gathered to spread a little nondenominational holiday cheer," she said. They were a few laughs. "In the back of this truck are hundreds, er, maybe even thousands, of decorations. Feel free to string them up wherever you wish.
"In this time of, shall we say, environmental turmoil, we'd like to cut down on the amount of trees being cut down. So decorate the city, not some dead stumps, okay guys? Let's make this city beautiful!" a cheer went up and I clapped with them, my gloves making muffled sounds.
"Come up and get decorations!" she shouted. "Take as many as you want! There are ornaments, and paper things and popcorn strings! Oh, and tinsel, too!"
"You want to get some tinsel?" Trevor asked, smiling at me.
"Sure," I said, weaving through the crowd and grabbing an enormous spool of red tinsel, along with a compact box of popcorn strings, bags full of candy canes and a paper bag full of hundreds of tiny paper circles. I ran back to him, grinning.
"Come on, let's go!" I said, handing him the bag full of circles. He smiled, taking them and then took my hand.
"Ready?" he asked.
"Yes!" I cheered. We took off down the street. People were spreading in every different direction. Someone was blasting music from his or her cars, acoustic covers of familiar Christmas songs.
Trevor and I walked at a fast pace, dropping candy canes in trees and stringing tinsel along the fences that outlined them. "What's your favorite Christmas memory?" I asked Trevor. He let out a breath between his teeth as people rushed past us, panting and laughing, throwing popcorn into the air. It landed in his hair, and I'm sure mine as well.
"Christmas wasn't really Christmas for me," he said, chewing thoughtfully. "Because my father was often away, I spent Christmas eve alone, often in front of my television or in the library. Sometimes, he would come home for Christmas day, but that was rare. Our best chance to see him was the Christmas party, which you now know is that night.
"All growing up, I thought that was normal, you know? I saw movies and didn't get it. I was like, 'why are all those kids sitting together at that big table?' The only one I could relate to was Home Alone. I was seven," he said, taking a candy cane and licking the side of it before biting it off and chewing it. "My father was away on a business trip. Cassie made us grilled cheese and we ate it with cold meat loaf, because the cook had taken off to spend time with his family in Aruba, or something.
"After dinner, we cracked open the cook's stash of German chocolate ice cream and Mr. Field's cookies. They tasted so good… we fell asleep in front of the television watching black and white Christmas movies with gigantic bowls of Sundaes on our laps.
"My father woke me up in the morning. He had gotten me a horse. What kind of father gets his kid a horse? No normal man. But my father had. I was dumbfounded, I didn't know what to say. It was one of the best days of my life," he said, smiling over at me.
"That kind of happy… that doesn't happen twice. When you're that young, the happy just sort of keeps going, and going. You don't need anything extra to keep yourself motivated. You don't need painkillers or antidepressants or your cell phone or your trophy wife. You just need chocolate ice cream and your father to come home. Unfortunately, though, not all of us can even have that." He laughed. "I don't regret it though, Danae. Don't look so sad. This kind of happy is better, because it's real, and it's substantial. This," he waved his arm at the chaos around us, "This won't run away with the next flight to Chicago when the stocks shift. With this, I can let myself be happy, let myself be mad. It's so refreshing, so much better than that." I shocked myself by leaning over and kissing him on the cheek.
"Sorry," I said, turning away guiltily. "I just… you're so brilliant." He laughed.
"It's okay, we have to practice for Christmas anyway."
"Right. Practice. Because none of this is real." I said flatly. "You do realize the irony of your life, right?"
"Entirely," he said dryly. "But what about you? What's your best Christmas?" I let out a long sigh.
"Oh, wow, that's tough… alright. When I was four. I got Legos," I said, laughing.
"For real, Danae," he said, handing me a spool of tinsel. I took it and we began chasing each other in slow motion around a tree.
"Alright, alright," I said after he caught me. "I was five."
"Five? How do you even remember it?" he asked, frowning. I forced a smile.
"It's the only memory I have of my father," I said. "I was five. He came in, randomly, just for the night. I remember thinking he was so big, and so unfamiliar. But my mom told me it was my father and I was so happy. I didn't even see if she was glad that he was there. I don't think I cared.
"He took us to the diner, the only one that was open. I think the owners were Jewish." I laughed. "I ordered the big stack of waffles with chocolate chips. He got cheesecake with strawberries." I shook my head. "I agree with you. I don't think I had ever been that happy. I don't think I ever will be again, unless I do drugs or something like that. That sort of unadulterated happy doesn't happen for people our age. It belongs to children. Stupid, stupid children." I laughed.
"But you're happy you're here?" he asked. I smiled.
"Oh, look!" he exclaimed. "Free gingerbread! Let's get some," he said, walking over. I followed him and grabbed a gingerbread woman, at once biting off her head. It was sweet and crispy.
"Milo!" I called over to him. He ignored me. I grabbed one and ran over to him. "Look, Milo, I know you might be mad at me, but here, take some gingerbread. Let's talk about it. In the Christmas spirit," I said, handing him some.
"No!" he said, his voice reaching a strange pitch of panic. "Danae. Don't bother me tonight," he said. "Look, I understand you want to separate and that's fine, but at least give me some time and distance to deal with it." Genuinely hurt, I could only watch him as he ran away, calling another girl's name. Grabbing another girl's hand. Laughing at something she said.
He was embarrassed by me. He didn't want to be seen with me. I bit my lower lip in anger and sadness and clenched the gingerbread man hard in my hand. It broke into pieces and then further separated into crumbs. They fell onto and around my snow boots.
People rushed past me, laughing and throwing tinsel into the air. It landed on my shoulder. I didn't brush it off.
"Danae," Trevor said, finally catching up with me. "What's up with him?" he said, frowning after his brother.
"I don't know," I said flatly, shrugging. "What, um, what were you saying about Christmas again?"
"I wasn't saying anything," he said, frowning. "You were telling me about your father. You suddenly stopped. I'm thinking it has something to do with my brother,"
"What? No, don't be ridiculous," I said, shaking my head much too quickly. My face burned and I handed him the broken off midsection of the gingerbread men. "Here you go," I said. "Eat this." I handed it to him. "Oh, you have popcorn in your hair," I said, brushing it out. I had slight panic, wondering if he had seen me watching Milo run away. I turned to see that Milo had already disappeared amongst the blinking lights.
I felt someone kiss my face and turned in surprise to see Trevor looking smug. "Gotcha," he said.
"That wasn't fair," I said, floundering.
"Oh, calm down," he said. "We had to try sometime or other." I smiled up at him. Perhaps it was the candy canes but I felt something in my stomach squeeze. Only a moment later I denied it. I knew that anything I could ever feel for Trevor couldn't be reciprocated. Not to be outdone, however, I kissed him on the mouth. He tasted like a peppermint candy cane. Our lips barely touched before I pulled away.
"How was that?" I asked, licking my lips.
"It needs work," he said.
"We have all night," I sighed, gesturing towards the streets.
"Fair enough," he said, handing me the candy cane. "You want to freshen up before we have another go?"
"I have a better idea," I said, snatching the candy cane. "I'll race you to see who can get rid of their bag faster. No dumping. Play fair. Ready?"
"I'm going to win," he said in warning.
"We'll see," I replied, my eyes narrowing with mock malice. I grabbed the candy canes; he took the tinsel. "Go!" I shouted, running in the opposite direction, panting, and trying to ignore the biting pain in my chest.
One brother could love me, and he I had pushed away. The other brother could never love me, and he was the one that I kept close.