DAY ONE: COOKIE DAY
Hot air poured out from the vents. It smelled like cooked dust, but Jonathan didn't seem to notice. His knuckles had gone white against the steering wheel. He stared out the windshield like the few dozen flurries in front of it were a wall of ice.
"What, babe? I'm trying to focus here."
I followed his gaze back out onto the road. Nope. Still not even remotely close to anything resembling a blizzard. "Do you want me to drive?" I asked.
"No, I'm fine."
I sunk lower in the seat. Not only would we get there faster (given that I knew these roads and could comfortably drive over a snowflake), but I could turn down this goddamn heat. "The person in the driver's seat controls the radio and the temperature," Jonathan always said. I hated that rule.
He turned around another mountain curve, and I could hear our luggage shift in the trunk. We each had enough clothes for five days plus travel, but I genuinely wasn't sure Jonathan would make it that long. There were so many details that he wasn't happy about – the fact that he was meeting my family in the presence of another (not related) family. The fact that there were no cabs that were willing to travel so far from the airport, so we'd had to rent a car. The fact that he'd needed to take off three days of work for this trip (even though he'd happily done it for Aspen last year). He also couldn't understand the whole five-nights-of-Christmas thing. "Christmas is one day, Alison," he kept saying. "Why do we have to do it over and over again?"
The brick trim of the post office crept into view. It marked the start of the town. We were getting close now, and I could hear my pulse in my ears. Maybe it was the altitude. I was sure they'd love him, just like I did, but my family could be pretty rough around the edges. My brothers especially.
I looked past Jonathon through the driver's side window. The movie theater and the kitchenware store and the coffee house blurred by in the background. I tried to determine if he looked normal in this setting – if he looked like he fit. But he was a world-traveler, right? He fit anywhere.
The Chapmans' house was roughly fifteen minutes from town, and not a foot of the drive was horizontal. Jonathon looked increasingly more anxious as the car climbed up and up, but he kept declining my offers to take over. By the time we reached their driveway at the top of the mountain, my boyfriend's face was bone-white.
He turned the keys toward him and the engine sputtered into silence. "We did it!" I said, trying to sound supportive, but Jonathon didn't reply. Instead, he opened the driver's side door and threw up.
"Aw, babe." I rubbed his back through his shirt for a few seconds before my gaze landed on the wrap-around porch. Then my hand froze. Through the windshield, I could see Connor and Nick and Jake and Caroline. Their bodies were all in relaxed positions, strewn across the furniture as heat rose from their mugs. But their necks were all unnaturally twisted while they stared at my boyfriend and his rejected breakfast on the gravel.
I opened the car door and got out. The Vermont air cut right through my flannel. "Could you go get him a glass of water, please?"
Caroline stood up and disappeared through the front door. The rest of them kept staring.
"All of you."
"You need four glasses of water?" Nick asked. He was arguably the wiseassiest of my brothers, which was saying something.
"Just go inside, guys!"
They shuffled to their feet and left the porch. I turned back to Jonathon, who was still bent over with his torso out of the car, but it looked like he was done puking for now. Caroline came out with the water. She wordlessly handed it to him before offering me a wave and heading back inside.
After that, it took me roughly fifteen more minutes to convince him not to drive straight back to the airport. By the time we gathered our luggage and walked through the front door, all eleven of them were crowded into the entryway waiting for us. They didn't even try to act subtle about it.
Only when we had closed the door to Jonathon's temporary bedroom did I let myself exhale. He threw his suitcase up onto the mattress, unzipped the zipper, and started digging through everything. I could tell by his choppy movements that he wasn't happy.
At least he'd opened the suitcase at all. That was a good sign. I stared at him, trying to figure out what, exactly, was going through his head. His skull was probably swarming with names and faces; the introductions had been more like a list than pleasantries. "This is my boyfriend Jonathon," I'd said. Then came the avalanche of other names. "That's Nick and Connor, my twin brothers. Everett, my oldest brother, and his wife, Kristen; they're expecting soon. My dad and mom, Joel and Lori, and their best friends, Hannah and Stephen Chapman– they live here. Then their daughter, Caroline, and their sons, Jake and Michael." After that, we figured out which rooms we'd be staying in and pretty much sprinted up the stairs.
"Babe? You alright?" I gingerly sat down on the bed next to the suitcase, but he wouldn't look at me.
"Not really. Their first impression was me hurling on their driveway, so."
"It's fine. It's normal to get nauseous on the drive up. The altitude and the dry air and everything."
Jonathon seemingly found what he was looking for – his toothbrush. He grabbed it and whirled around to locate the bathroom.
"Babe? Do you want to take your change of clothes with you, too?"
"What's wrong with what I'm wearing?"
"Nothing, but you're going to get dough all over you."
"It's cookie day," I said.
"Each day is a different Christmas tradition, remember?"
"I still don't understand this, Alison," he said.
I inhaled and pushed my bangs back off my forehead. "My parents and the Chapmans decided that there's too many good Christmas traditions to stuff into one day, so they split it up into five. That's why I left you that list of specific outfits. Tonight's the old t-shirt and the pants that you don't care about getting dirty."
"On your bedside table. At the apartment. Before we left."
His face wasn't bone-white anymore. Now it was a disconcerting mix of purple and red. Jonathon left the room with only his toothbrush. I'm guessing he hadn't seen it. He didn't do well with unpreparedness. I sat quietly until he came back.
"And another thing," he said, tossing his toothbrush back into the suitcase. "Why aren't we sleeping in the same bedroom? We're adults. We share an apartment."
I shrugged. "I think my parents just didn't want to disrespect Hannah and Stephen. I mean, they're not like that, really, but it is their house, y'know?"
Jonathon didn't reply to that. He kept rustling around in his suitcase for something – or nothing, just to keep his hands busy.
Forcing the air out of my lungs, I stood up. "Look, I know you're not happy about being here, okay? I know it's overwhelming and a lot of people and you'd rather be on some assignment trip just the two of us. But it's been five years since I've been home for this, and I need you to understand that it's important to my parents, so it's important to me. Okay?"
Finally, my boyfriend looked me in the eye. His expression softened. "Okay. Sorry Alison."
"It's fine," I said. "I'm gonna go downstairs and actually say hello. Come down when you're settled, okay?"
I dropped my suitcase in my own room across the hall and changed into an old baseball tee and jeans. Everyone had cleared out of the entryway by the time I got to the bottom of the stairs. Now they were scattered around – my brothers on the leather couches with Caroline, Jake and Mike poking at the fire, and my parents helping the Chapmans unload the ingredients onto the counter. My mom came over when she saw me.
"Ally! How was the ride?
"And the flight?" my dad asked, following after.
"Long, but good. Weather held up, so we can't complain."
My mom brushed her hands over my bangs, flattening them against my forehead over and over again. "My little valley girl, finally home," she said. "I feel like I hardly know you anymore. We have so much to catch up on. Are you still even allergic to peanuts?"
I laughed and wriggled out of her grasp. "Stop it," I said. In actuality, my parents and I were close. I'd called them a few times a week, if not every day, since I'd moved to California. But anyone who's ever gone to school out of state knows how it is. In the beginning, you come back for everything. You catch a flight every time someone so much as mentions a holiday or an engagement or a positive pregnancy test. Then you ease into the routine of it and start meeting people. You stay local for holidays and get an internship. You land a job out of college and get an apartment and can't spare the time or money anymore to come home much anymore.
They understood. They didn't mean to guilt me for it. But they also didn't keep quiet about missing me, either.
There was a sudden noise in the kitchen. I looked over my mom's shoulder to see a huge mushroom cloud of powder.
"Um, Lori? Could you get the broom? I dropped the ten-pound bag of flour and it seems to have detonated."
"I'll get the mop bucket from the garage," my dad said.
"Okay," Hannah replied. "But everyone else stay out of here, or you're gonna track this everywhere."
I watched from the staircase as the four of them hustled around the kitchen, wetting paper towels and scooping the stuff into little snow piles. I saw someone moving towards me out of my peripherals, but I didn't glance over until they spoke:
"So look who finally decided to show up."
Jake. The middle Chapman kid – my closest friend or worst enemy depending on the year. Back when we were five, when it was cool to hang out with any gender, we colored together under the dining room table. When we were fifteen, on the other hand, he flung a spoon full of mashed potatoes at my new dress on Formal Christmas Day. At that point in my jeans-and-band-shirt-ridden life, it'd been the only dress I owned.
I rolled my head on my neck, making it seem like a huge chore to look over at him. "Yeah, well, my parents implored me to show up despite the fact that you might be contagious. They said people were starting to suspect that I was staying away in fear of catching the stupidity."
His green eyes narrowed down into two tiny slits, and then they curved. He grinned. His braces were gone, I realized. So was the lanky please-don't-notice-my-height hunch he used to carry around. Now he stood with his shoulders back and his hands shoved in his pockets. "Still a piece of work, I see. No wonder you stopped getting invited."
"I never stopped getting invited. Your mother loves me."
"She loves not having to hear Caroline bitch about being the only girl."
"Me." I pointed to myself. "She loves me."
"Delusional." He pointed to me, too. "You're delusional."
I opened my mouth to fire back at him, but heard footsteps above me. Jonathon was walking down the stairs, still dressed in the same button-down and khakis, but looking a little calmer now, thank god.
"You might want to change before you get down here, Jon," Jake said. "There's already been an explosion."
"Jonathon," my boyfriend corrected. "And it's fine. I'll get it dry-cleaned when we get back to California."
"I don't care if your dry-cleaner's a wizard, dude. My mom's chocolate raspberry filling does not come out of anything."
"I'll take my chances," Jonathan said.
Once the flour-bomb had been cleared, all of us lined up in the kitchen to grab an apron and locate our assignments. Things were brought to a brief halt when multiple people insisted that Jonathon could not wear those clothes, and he went to change into an oversized "I LOVE MONTANA" t-shirt that Mr. Chapman had lent him. Once he was back, everyone gathered around the kitchen island to begin their assigned recipes.
"So, Jon, what do you do?" Stephen asked.
"Jonathon," he corrected again. "I'm a travel writer."
"That's exciting. What kinds of things do you write about?"
"Just about everything. Resorts, restaurants."
"Well, that explains why Ally's always skipping out on stuff here," my brother Connor said. My mom smacked him with the rolling pin, leaving an oblong flour mark on his shirt.
"And how's that treating you? The travel writing?" Jake asked.
"I love it."
"As much as you love Montana?"
A bunch of them snickered, and Jonathon made a "hah" noise, but there wasn't much humor in it. "Yes, roughly that much. But it's not as haphazard as everyone thinks. There's a lot of planning and time management involved, so it suits me."
"How about you, Al?" Hannah asked. She was buried up to her forearms in dough. "We've missed you a ton these past few years. What've you been up to?"
"I'm a PR person for a small boutique agency. Nothing exciting."
"An office job in California? Sounds pretty exciting to me, lady. Do they have those cool swinging hammock chairs like Google?"
"Not quite," I said. "But the weather's always nice, and the cafeteria has loads of great food. And a designated nut-free section."
Jake brushed past me to get the milk out of the fridge. "Isn't that discrimination?"
"If they have a section where you specifically can't go," Jake said.
"I said it's nut-free."
I flipped him off, and instead of anyone reprimanding me for it, his mom said, "Don't be an idiot, Jacob." I turned to him and mouthed the words, "She loves me." He shook his head.
One by one, we all caught up around the woodblock counter. Everett and Kristen talked about their plans for the nursery and how she'd been having bizarre cravings for hot chocolate and baked clams (simultaneously). Connor told us about his construction job in Maine while Caroline said she'd been seeing someone new, and Mr. and Mrs. Chapman talked about expanding the garage into a studio for the carpentry. Jake was working with his dad now, making wood tables and dressers that were selling in some of the shops around town – Stephen's retirement project ever since he'd finished up with the service.
By 9:30, seven different types of cookies were in the double ovens and we were all starving. We ordered Chinese food from the only place in town (as was tradition) and sat around the coffee table sharing dumplings, lo'mein, and General Tso's chicken.