“Look, Ashley, I’m tired. If you’re not going to talk…”
I’ve been standing here for minutes, or days, or months, I’m not sure, but I’ve been completely mute.
It’s funny how when I know that she’s about to shut the door, I’m instantly able to shout, “Wait!”
It happened so fast, in fact, that I’m not even sure that it was me who did it.
I mean, when did the impulse register in my brain, ping to my locked jaw, and the damned thing actually obey that command?
I’m not so sure…
I’m seriously tempted to peek over my shoulder to be sure some other lunatic isn’t out there shouting.
No, I’m the only lunatic at this moment.
A dog barks in the distance, sparking another one beyond, and I get frustrated with myself.
I’m fucking it all up, like always, and I have to tramp down on the impulse to stamp my foot like an adolescent Kyla.
This should not be so hard. I’ve been through worse.
Just suck it up, numb nuts.
I square my shoulders and force myself to pull it the fuck together.
“I’m, uh… I’m sorry for showing up like this, and now, but I couldn’t wait…”
That dog barks again, only it’s closer and louder, and it startles me. I check my immediate area, but I don’t see one…
That’s when I realize that this barking isn’t a dog at all.
Several things happen in lightning fast succession: Spencer disappears from the crack in the door; the door shuts violently; I hear a harsh scrape, and then the door is flung open.
The canary car owner is standing there in her robe, her hair disheveled, and her eyes crazed.
She’s not fat, or even ugly – far from it actually – but the insanity laced politeness is rolling off of her in waves and she very much reminds me of Ursula from the Little Mermaid…
“What are you doing here,” she seethes sweetly.
I stare at her, trying to figure out how this is any of her business. But, this is her house – correction: this is her and Spencer’s house – and it’s the middle of the night, and I’m the ex.
I get it, totally, but not a single fuck is given this day.
I have something to say.
It’s for Spencer alone.
And Ursula isn’t going to steal my voice.
I gesture to what I assume is Spencer now obscured behind her. “I think it’s pretty obvious that I’m trying to talk to Spencer. So, if you don’t mind…”
In her defense, I’d have reacted no differently.
Well, that’s not true. Instead of threatening to call the police and slamming the door, I’d have probably just bloodied her nose.
It’s sort of my trademark move when someone pisses me off in the extreme.
Every breath Ursula takes qualifies, and I’ve only just met her.
And, well, I never said that my hatred of her was rational or warranted…
I can hear hushed arguing behind the door and I wait because this is so not over.
Not by a longshot.
It takes a few minutes, but the door opens again. This time it’s all the way, and this time, it’s just Spencer.
I smile awkwardly at her. “I’m sorr-”
She raises a hand to stop my apology and I know that she’s angry.
And she’s so damn cute when she’s angry.
I hear what she’s saying, really I do.
“You can’t just show up like this, Ashley.”
But I’m mostly focused on the fact that her skin is slightly flushed, and just as flawless as it was the night that I met her, the very night that I fell head over heels for the first and last time.
“And you can’t treat her like that, especially not in her own home.”
Her face and posture are rigid, but her hair is mussed, her lips are a little puffy, and her eyes – now sharp with adrenaline and anger – are still just as warm and inviting as they always were, despite how much she tries to be threatening.
I can’t help but smile a little.
She wants so badly to be intimidating, but nothing can mask her heart when her eyes are open.
And her heart just isn’t an angry one.
And now she’s indignant. “What are you smiling about?”
Her timbre was almost threatening…
I try to wipe the smile from my face, but I fail, miserably, and instead, I find myself wearing a shit-eating grin.
I can’t help it, and she won’t own it, but it’s entirely her fault.
It finally fades though when the reality of this situation comes to the forefront: she’s about to eighty-six my ass.
“Spence, can we… I mean, this isn’t something I can just say. It’s kind of… a lot.”
She sighs and I finally feel bad for waking her up. “Ashley, I don’t think there’s very much to say anymore.”
She’s so wrong.
I find my fidgeting fingers fascinating. “That’s not true, Spence. There so much, too much…”
“And it couldn’t wait until morning?”
I shake my head. “No, it really couldn’t.”
She scoffs. “I assume that this has to do with you disappearing four years ago?”
I nod, and then gulp.
Spencer’s mocking voice is not my favorite. “Four years, and it couldn’t wait one more night?”
I look up into her eyes with as much conviction as I can muster. “No, it really couldn’t.”
She takes a deep breathe, releasing it in measures. It’s almost clinical, almost cold – but only almost…
“Not everything can work on your schedule, Ashley. Despite what you think, the whole world doesn’t revolve around you.”
I don’t know what to say to that. I mean, she’s right. It’s not fair of me to do this at all, let alone without any regard for her needs.
But that’s the funny thing about nerve: if you don’t use it while you have it, you’ll lose it.
I had to do this, and I had to do this now, or I never would.
She’s not a coward though, so she couldn’t possibly understand, and I have no idea how to explain it to her.
I only know that she always appreciated how spontaneous I was, and I could only count on that one thing to have somehow remained intact, however slightly.
“Indulge me, please…?”
I can tell that she’s about to decline, so I hasten to convince her.
“Look, I’m only asking you to hear me out, and I promise that once I’m done, I’ll leave and I won’t come back, if… if that’s what you really want.”
I don’t know how I’ll survive it this time, but if that’s what will make her happy, then, well, there are more important things than survival.
And all of them are directly linked to her.
The way she’s looking at me makes me feel exposed, naked, and vulnerable. It’s like she’s searching me for something.
I don’t know what it is; I only know that I couldn’t be more sincere in my plea.
And she must have seen that, because she backs away from the door and leaves it open.
I watch her disappear into the darkness of the house and peek inside nervously.
Am I supposed to-
“Come in already…”
Okay, disembodied voices aren’t creepy or anything.
I hear a click as I step over the threshold, and the soft glow of a lamp lights the space.
I shut the door behind me, but when I turn around, she’s gone again.
When did she become a wraith?
I hear clanking towards the back of the house and assume that she’s in the kitchen, so I sit nervously in one of the modern, gray armchairs and tap my fingers on my knees.
I’ve never been in her house before, not since her parents at least.
It’s so… modern – all minimalistic glass and monochromatic tones. It feels masculine, and immediately I know that this isn’t how Spencer’s house would be, should be.
This must be canary sea-witch’s fault.
I wonder where Flotsam and Jetsam are…
I scrunch up my nose and gloat, finding warranted rationality in my dislike of her now.
Strange, her car is bright yellow and yet her house looks like a bus station bathroom. I don’t get what Spencer sees in her…
And before you say it, I know that I’m a little biased…
Okay, a lot biased.
Just… shut up, already.
This is hard enough without your snarky comments.
A large mug appears in front of my face and I flinch back a little before realizing that I’m supposed to take it.
My reflexes finally register long enough for me to accept it, and excitement bubbles inside of me as realization dawns.
Is this what I think it is?
I peer into the contents and narrowly avoid weeping with joy.
The liquid smooth chocolate sprinkled with tiny Christmas-colored marshmallows greets me with its inviting steam and glorious aroma, and I glance at Spencer gratefully.
If I were a dog, my tongue would be lolling and tail wagging.
And that would all be happening unabashedly.
I have no shame…
She shakes her head, an indulgent smile lighting her face, and she gestures to the mug. “Some things never change, I see.”
I don’t wait another second to take a huge gulp, happiness and memory and deliciousness filling up every inch of my insides and warming them.
I moan and lick the marshmallow mustache from my lips, closing my eyes and savoring that distinctly familiar taste of bittersweet history.
I hadn’t realized just how much I’d missed this…
I’ve observed her and Mr. C make this cocoa a hundred times, at least. This isn’t from a package or a box. I know exactly how it’s done from scratch, but I never had the finesse. It was as if I lacked the love needed to give it that magical quality.
But Spencer, she always had the touch.
Spencer chuckles and takes a sip from her own mug, nodding her own pleasure.
“Yep, I still got it,” she says in a self-congratulatory and decidedly sexy way.
Scratch that, she’s just smug.
I settle back in the chair, instantly comfortable and relaxed despite the circumstances.
There’s been so much pain and heartache in my life, but there was a time when everything was golden and new and… just right.
And this mug of happiness in my hand is a shining beacon in the dark illuminating that time. How strange that something as simple as a cup of cocoa can bring all of the good things surging back.
But it does.
And I want it to.
Why wouldn’t I?
It was the best time of my life.
My very own golden years…
Okay, I live in America. I’m not sure how many of you don’t, but I’m going to explain something for you about America should you live elsewhere.
In America, things are instant. We have instant coffee, instant tea, instant video and music streaming, instant insecurities upon birth…
In the land of the free and the home of the brave, it’s instant everything.
Instaland, if you will.
From convenience stores to potatoes to gratification – if you want it, and even if you don’t, it’s yours, presto.
So, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that Spencer Carlin and I were instant friends – instafriends – respectively.
Just add water and POOF.
It’s good to be an American…
Anyway, that first night in the Carlin home was the beginning of what would be the most impactful relationship of my life, and I was only eleven years old.
And this life-altering relationship was not only instant, it was deep, and that depth was only bolstered by the fact that I lived with the Carlin’s for the rest of November, and the whole month of December.
I spent almost every waking moment with Spencer: from watching movies to listening to music, from making snow angels to teaming up on Glen with rock-filled snowballs, from staying up until the wee hours of the morning talking about everything and nothing to avoiding embarrassing topics altogether.
We just clicked.
She knew… like, everything… and I was soaking it all up.
It was a genius move on Mr. C’s part really, taking me in and all.
I mean, I’m me, right?
So there’s that.
And then there’s the fact that Christine was his neighbor.
He knew what he was doing; I was sure of it. He had mutagenical – is that a word? Well, it is now… – superpowers. And he knew that if Christine saw me enough, she wouldn’t be able to resist me despite her apprehension.
So now I bet you’re wondering: what happened to all of your big talk about not needing or trusting and running away and blah, blah, blah?
Well, I figured a few things out about myself very quickly in that first week:
One – I had very deep-seeded trust issues that I would probably never fully recover from. Thanks, mom…
Two – I was a shameless narcissist and attention whore. Again, thanks, mom…
Three – Number two would always win out over all of the other emotional dilemmas. *shrugs* No idea who’s fault that was, but it couldn’t have been mine. And last but not least, drum roll, please…
Four – I could always run away if I needed to.
Now, it didn’t all quite click in my melon that neatly. I mean, I couldn’t pick it apart, compartmentalize it, and then process it. That would require a depth of emotional maturity that I was nowhere near capable of yet. But, the subconscious mind is a world of its own kind, and those types of things can snap together without any lucidity or awareness.
Unfortunately, when that happens, they usually snap together all wrong.
So what did all of this mean in my eleven-year-old brain?
How did I connect the dots into a highly-functioning coping mechanism without even realizing it?
The way that I really saw it was: I could soak up all of the attention and spoils that were being thrown my way, and I didn’t really have to trust anyone to do that, because I could just split if I wanted to.
How easy was that?
So, I’d decided to just feed my narcissism and see how it went. Running away was always there, like a security blanket.
So that’s what I’d been doing for the last two months, and so far, so good. I mean, things were really looking up. It was Christmas, and this year, both Kyla and I were going to get a present: we’d be officially together and officially adopted.
Kyla and I were both Davies as of midnight the previous night.
The only fly in my ointment was that this would be my last night sharing a room with Spencer.
I glanced over at her in the dark and smiled to myself. The sun was just starting to come up outside and my anticipation had my heart beating in my toes.
Spencer wasn’t anxious at all, completely unfazed by the Christmas hoopla. She was a very rounded and grounded individual, as I was coming to learn. But part of that, due to her very nuclear life, was just from years of practice.
For me, however, this was entirely new and sparkly, and I was coming apart at the seams. She’d tried valiantly to sleep, but I’d kept her up for most of the night because I knew that I’d get to see Kyla in the morning.
And well, picking on Spencer was just plain fun.
So, she’d get to that place where she was just on the precipice of falling into a dream, and I’d reel her back in by saying something that was on my mind.
And man was my mind was in a tizzy.
She handled it with grace, bless her. That is, until she just couldn’t stay awake any longer. She finally got fed up about two hours ago and insisted that we go to sleep so that Santa could come.
You should have seen her face when I’d told her that Santa wasn’t real.
What, she didn’t cry or anything…
And it was true. I mean, he’d never visited my house. If he was real, he had some serious explaining to do…
Besides, we were too old for that stuff. She couldn’t still have possibly believed that he was real. And if she did, it was time to break free of the largest, purposefully perpetuated deception on the planet. I mean, it was right up there with Michael Jackson’s nose and Dolly Parton’s tits.
But the playful shove that she’d delivered to my shoulder was answer enough, even though she’d given me a real one anyway. “Santa may not be real, but Christmas is about magic, Ash. Sometimes, it just feels good to believe…”
I loved the way that she said my name. It didn’t feel so shameful anymore.
And I couldn’t argue with her. The things that had been happening in my life were, indeed, quite magical.
I heard someone moving down the hallway and failing at stealth, and I already knew that it was Spencer’s older brother, Glen. He was such an ass, but he made me laugh – at him, not with him – and I took a slightly perverse pleasure in antagonizing him.
He took it all in stride.
Clay, the adopted brother, was probably my favorite though, aside from Spencer, of course. He was just like Mr. C. I mean, they weren’t related by blood, but he exuded kindness, patience, and a quiet strength.
All of them did, really. Well, except for Mrs. C. Don’t misunderstand, she was perfectly pleasant. It’s not like she was mean to me or anything, but she was more stand-offish… wary maybe?
It was just a difference of where Mr. C handed out big, full hugs like they were Halloween-candy, she more or less just rigidly squeezed a shoulder when expected.
I heard the door creak open and glanced over to see, sure enough, Glen’s ugly mug peeking inside. The room was now washed in the gray light of the newly rising sun, and he flashed a toothless grin at me before holding a finger to his lips in a gesture to be quiet.
I frowned, not sure what he was doing, that is until he flung the door open, and with a guttural yell of squeaky, prepubescent-boy glory, took a flying leap onto the bed. His weight and the buoyancy of the mattress sent a squawking Spencer into a flailing panic that then launched him over the side and onto the floor with a thud.
Well, I’d tucked in on myself just in time to brace for impact, and I was laughing so hard that my already full bladder was screaming.
And it only got better, for me anyway.
Spencer was sitting up ram-rod straight, her hair was tangled on her head, her eyes were unfocused, and there was a spectacularly dumb expression on her face as her mind tried to slog, rather slowly I might add, through the events that had just taken place.
And when it all finally registered for her, well, that’s when she really lost it.
She threw back her covers, or tried, having to first fight the tangle of sheets around her feet to free herself.
It was a battle of epic proportions. But the war was not yet won…
“God, what is wrong with you?!”
She finally emerged from the linens, grabbed her pillow, and just as Glen got to his knees, she engaged in a rousing game of whack-a-mole with his already bruised head.
“HEY,” he protested between vicious swipes. “Come on! It’s Christmas!”
He tried to get his arms over his face to shield himself from the onslaught, but Spencer was dishing out some serious punishment.
It took at least ten hard, rapid-fire whaps with the whizzing pillow, the sound so loud and painful that I flinched with each one, before the ire finally drained from her system.
She was such a brute…
Her pause allowed Glen to stumble to his feet but she was still able to land one final, swift kick to his ass as he ran for the door that jettisoned him into the hallway.
She slammed it shut behind him and immediately dumped herself face-down in the bed with an exhausted groan.
The noise and the way that her hair covered her whole head sort of reminded me of Cousin It, and I found my already precarious situation growing dire.
I was in desperate need of a bathroom, my stomach felt like I’d done a million crunches, and I couldn’t get the air back into my lungs.
There’s no way I would make the short distance to the bathroom.
Spencer’s head shot up and she yelled, “Hey!”
She smacked me hard on the arm and it hurt.
“You let him, didn’t you,” she accused.
I shook my head, only able to sputter between laughs.
“I swear…” Deep breath. “I didn’t…” Splutter. “Know until-” Cough and hiccup. “Was too…” Gasp. “Late.”
Spencer started laughing with me, giving me one more good pinch in my already aching sides. I deserved it though. Even if I had known, I wouldn’t have saved her.
When I finally got myself under control, I raced for the bathroom, spending several minutes waiting for all of that stuff… down there… to do what it magically does.
When I came back out, Spencer was hopping up and down waiting for a turn, and I shook my head at her as she raced inside.
“Why didn’t you use the other one downstairs,” I asked.
I mean, logic…
I heard a muffled, “Shut up, Ash…”
“COME ON, YOU GUYS! THE RENTS ARE UP AND WE’RE ALL WAITING!”
God, Glen had a voice that carried with un-natural acoustics. I could tell that he was in the living room, down stairs, on the other side of the house, and yet his bellow still made me cringe.
I grabbed Spencer’s favorite green hoodie off of her computer chair and zipped it on, unconsciously burying my nose in my shoulder.
It smelled amazing.
She finally emerged and stopped dead in her tracks, putting her hands on her hips.
“Hey, that’s my favorite,” she complained.
I crinkled my nose at her Peter Pan pose and said simply, “I know.”
She shook her head and eyed the sweater longingly as she grabbed her lesser loved red one and slung it on grudgingly. She poked and pinched me the entire run down the stairs and we were slightly breathless from giggles as we entered the living room.
All joking stopped and I felt my jaw hit the floor.
Even after a good haul of stolen treasures was laid out on the floor of my room to be marveled over, I’d never seen anything like this in my life. Presents, some big and some small, were stacked ceiling high like brightly colored building blocks creating modern mountains throughout the large room.
There was hardly room for all of the animate objects to sit, but that was kind of nice, because Spencer and I had to cram ourselves together in the last remaining armchair.
Now, in retrospect, I realize that some of the things that I’m remembering sound a little creepy, like at any moment I might start sniffing her panties and cutting off my ears in devotion. But it wasn’t like that. I wasn’t obsessed with her and it certainly wasn’t sexual.
My only experience or understanding of sex was, well, you know…
It was more the fact that, while I didn’t realize it, I trusted her completely. She was probably the only person that I really trusted. And I was so starved for emotional and physical comfort that I craved it.
I needed to be hugged, and held, and pinched, and poked, and stroked, and just loved. Spencer gave that to me freely, and that’s what made this relationship the most life-altering that I’d ever know.
She was the first person to reach me on the inside at a time when I didn’t think that I had any value.
So I soaked it up greedily, unashamedly.
But when the family started opening presents, all of the warm and fuzzy feelings drained away as I realized that not a single one of those presents would be for me.
I’d never had presents before, except for the best present ever: Al, so that was nothing new. But before, I didn’t know what I was missing.
And no, I’m not talking about the presents themselves.
What makes a present special is that someone thought about you and loved you enough to want to give you something. They weren’t just expecting you, they were anticipating you with bells on and a wagging tail.
Now, of course, I didn’t see it quite that logically back then. All I could feel was that I was unloved and an outsider looking in.
So, as the Carlin family, all smiling faces and playful banter, showed their love for one another, I began to feel very upset.
I started to pick at the imaginary lint on my borrowed PJ pants, stewing in my self-pity.
The warm breath near my ear almost made me jump.
“Ash, are you okay?”
No, I really wasn’t, but I couldn’t tell her that. This was something else that I would later learn about myself: no matter how much love and attention I received, it would never be enough.
I should have been thankful. I’d never had it this good. These people didn’t owe me anything. If anything, I owed them. But I was immature and selfish, and broken and hurting.
I smiled at her, but it must not have been convincing, because again, Spencer’s eyes revealed all, every thought and expression. And I could see it as plain as day: she knew that I wasn’t okay, but she didn’t know why. And if I wasn’t going to tell her, there was absolutely nothing that she could do to help me.
I hadn’t learned this yet, but that was probably the worst thing that I could ever do to Spencer Carlin, because she was one of the most compassionate people on the planet.
But more than that, she’s was a fixer. And when she couldn’t fix it, it ate away at her.
I tried to soothe her more convincingly this time.
“I just miss Kyla,” I whispered back.
There was a wave of empathetic sadness in those expressive mirrors, but I’d successfully lied to her for the first time in my life, though not nearly the last.
I mean, it was only half a lie…
She put her arm around my shoulders and smiled sweetly at me.
“She’ll be here soon.”
“I know,” I said. And I did, but that’s the nature of lies, even half ones: they compound, quickly and even innocently.
“I bet that I could cheer you up,” she continued brightly.
I smiled back. It was impossible not to.
She pushed out of the chair and my embrace, leaving me instantly cold, but she was back in a flash with a card in her hands.
“This is from me,” she said while holding it out.
I took it and noticed the delicate scrawl of her childish hand, “To My Best Friend…”
I stroked a finger over the words, hoping that I could physically touch their meaning, and relishing the fact that I was apparently hers as much as she was mine.
“Open it,” she prodded more excitedly, maybe even more than I was.
But I needed a moment, not just to relish it, but to gather my scattered thoughts. I’d lied to her, but she’d still known?
She was having none of that though…
“Come on! You’re killing me, Smalls,” she moaned.
I grinned at her and, in unison, we both chorused, “Hey, yous guys!”
That sent us off in peals of laughter. That was one of those movies that she’d exposed me to, and I’d instantly agreed that it was one of the best movies ever.
And, well, it was.
“God, Ash, come on already,” she complained again, trying to swipe the card from me to open it herself.
That was so not going to happen. I tore it open with exaggerated enthusiasm.
“That’s the spirit,” she whooped.
A gift certificate presented itself. It was for the School of Rock in Alpha Park, and not only did I have guitar lessons for a whole year, but I had vocal lessons too.
My tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth as if it were made of peanut butter, and my hands shook like I’d contracted Parkinson’s. All in all, I felt like Charlie holding the golden ticket.
I looked up at her speechless and just stared at her in awe for several long moments. She could have given me a toothbrush and I’d have loved it, but instead she gave me the sun, the moon, and the stars – maybe even the whole galaxy.
And this is where another realization slapped me in the face: I had nothing to give her in return. But worse, I hadn’t even considered that in all of my wallowing.
At least that hurt just as bad, if not more, than the fact that I had thought that I wouldn’t be getting anything. All I could do was throw my arms around her neck and cry. And she held me, smelling like sunlight and jasmine and friendship.
“I don’t have anything to give you,” I croaked out.
She pulled back and I loosened my hold. Her face was all smiles, all Spencer, and she said the only thing that someone like her could.
“But you already have. You gave me my best friend.”
She lifted the envelope and danced it insanely in front of my eyes as proof, and I smothered her again, both of us laughing this time.
“Thank you,” I said lamely.
It wasn’t nearly enough, but there just weren’t words good enough for her.
Nothing would ever be good enough for her.
Somewhere in the back of my addled mind I heard the doorbell ring, but it wasn’t until Kyla squealed my name that I released one girl to find an equally precious one in my arms.
Once I’d squeezed the life out of her and checked her over to be sure she was indeed healthy and intact, I spent a good half-an-hour with her on my lap as she went on and on and on about all of the things that she’d seen, how’d she’d played with a ferret, and how they were like really squishy cats that smelled like our old house.
And I just absorbed the sound of her voice.
I could tell that pandemonium was breaking out all around me, all of it joyful, but I just relished the solid feel of her in my arms and let some of my worry fall away. Nobody would be taking her away from me this time. They never would again, unless it was from lifeless hands.
She was huge, so much bigger than the last time that I saw her. Some of the baby fat had tapered off a bit though, and she was as smart as a whip.
The only thing that ended her excited litany was when Christine pointed her in the direction of her own stack of presents.
I took a moment to study this woman, my guardian.
Christine had a severe face and sharp eyes, and I’ll admit that when I’d first met her, I’d disliked her immediately. But the more that I spent time with her, the more that I realized that she was just wary.
She’d been hurt too.
A hard countenance is the result of a hard life. We were alike, she and I. And I had the sneaking suspicion that she wouldn’t tolerate any shit from me. That didn’t mean that I wouldn’t push those boundaries. In fact, it might have secured that inevitable outcome.
Such was life.
But despite all of that that, I could tell that while she was a stern woman, she wasn’t trying to hurt us or use us in some way. Of course, I didn’t trust her, but she was more than tolerable.
Kyla chewed her way through the gifts with relish, of which, there were many. Most of it was clothes and other necessities because she didn’t have any of those things. But there were plenty of toys and baubles to keep her fascinated as well.
Kyla’s joy was my joy, and I thanked our new guardian for it.
“Thank you, Mrs. Davies.”
She stroked the wavy, auburn curls from my eyes gently, almost timidly, and simply said, “Call me Christine, and you’re welcome.”
On closer inspection, I could tell by the redness around her brown eyes that she had been crying at some point, and wondered what had happened to hurt her so badly.
But I didn’t really need to know the specifics, because in all of the ways that mattered, I already knew. I’d lived through it too. It might have had a different face or circumstance, but the outcome was the same.
I continued to watch Kyla, but Christine stopped her when she reached for yet another gift. “Kyla, those are Ashley’s presents.”
I looked at her disbelievingly for a few moments, something quiet and indiscernible passing between us. And before I could chicken out, I gave her a short, jilted hug.
The massacre of Christmas paper that followed was waist deep by the time that I was finished. I’d never seen so many clothes that didn’t have holes or stains on them.
I suddenly couldn’t wait to get dressed.
There was also an MP3 player and several CDs, for which I swooned, but the last gift nearly gave me an honest-to-God heart-attack: an electric-fucking-guitar, complete with a small amplifier.
I was in rock and roll heaven.
Spencer had to pry it forcibly from my fingers, but apparently there were traditions that had to be honored. Besides, I was more than ready to get the full Christmas experience. Who knew when I might get another?
First, because Mrs. C was a bit of a control freak, was the time-honored tradition of clean-up. To a chorus of groans, we all pitched in to pick up the mess and stuff it into trash bags.
Glen got the bright idea to be playful and stuff some of it down Spencer’s pants while she was bent over, and I don’t remember how we’d overpowered him, but it was funny watching him try to struggle free of the ribbon binding his hands and feet together.
Once he was hogtied and gagged on the living room floor, a pretty red bow squarely stuck to his forehead like some demented, BDSM elf, it was time to get dressed so that we could start helping with the meal.
I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to cook. Kyla and I had survived on dry cereal and peanut butter sandwiches. But, as I was coming to understand, I could rely on Spencer to show me.
Mr. C was waiting for us when we entered the kitchen, fully showered and dressed. I still had the green hoodie and Spencer didn’t know it, but she was never getting it back.
Mr. C was wearing an apron that proclaimed him a genius and a funny-looking white hat, and for someone whose arm was elbow deep in a turkey’s ass, he was way too happy.
“Well, it’s about time you girls showed up.”
He smiled warmly and his arm made a slurping pop noise as he liberated it.
That poor, poor bird…
“You two are all set up over by the stove, Spence. Make me proud.”
Spencer grabbed my hand and pulled me over to the range where several ingredients and a large chrome pot waited. She picked up one of the aprons and handed it to me.
It was covered in a gaudy pink and blue floral pattern, and bunches of lacey trim adorned the edges. There were even little pink bows and pockets…
I lifted it and looked to Spencer to see her putting on an apron as well, but hers looked normal and told me that I should kiss her.
“Come on, Ash. Put it on so we can get started.”
She was beaming with excitement, but she had to know that I wasn’t going to wear this. I didn’t have much in the way of clothes, or I didn’t used to, and I wasn’t a picky person, but this…
It looked like something you’d find in a blue-haired granny’s house, with a lot of cats, and creepy dolls…
It was itchy and it smelled funny.
I glanced over at Mr. C to see him whistling as he happily fisted his bird, and lowered my voice so that he wouldn’t hear me.
“Spence, I mean…”
I was speechless so I just held the apron out to her. She held it up and inspected it closely, and I was relieved when she nodded and seemed to understand what I was saying.
God, I was so stupid…
She had it around my neck and was tying it behind my back before I even knew that it was happening.
Just about that time, Glen walked in with a sour expression on his face. He took one look at me and all other thoughts of retribution flew out of the window because he was laughing so hard that he could barely speak.
However, nothing – not even asphyxiation – was going to stop him from rubbing his gratification in my face.
“I was going to tell you guys to expect some serious paybacks, but…” He gestured to me. “I think this will do just fine.”
One day, when he least expected it…
“Lay off, Glen,” Spencer said, turning me to face her.
She stepped back, looked me up and down, and then clapped her hands together under her chin.
“You look so cute, Ash! Just like Betty Crocker,” she cooed.
I looked around the room trying to find something, anything, to threaten her with. My eyes lighted on a spoon and I felt what King Arthur must have felt the first time that he saw Excalibur.
I lifted it slowly and grinned evilly.
Spencer backed away before finding another and holding it up in challenge.
It was to be a duel then…
I was just about to lash out when Mr. C’s amused voice interrupted.
“No rough housing in the kitchen, girls.”
I glared and then pointed the spoon at her. “This isn’t over.”
She glanced down at the apron before meeting my eyes again. “Still totally worth it…”
God, I couldn’t win, so I stopped trying.
“Truce,” Spencer asked.
I gave a long-suffering sigh and she beamed, bouncing over to the stove and turning on the burner under the big pot.
“What are you making,” I asked.
“This,” she said. “Is only the best stuff on the planet.”
She lifted a container of Hershey’s cocoa powder and held it as if it were something indescribably precious.
“Chocolate…,” she said simply, a dreamy expression on her face.
I laughed and watched as she started to measure things into the pot, and something warm began to blossom in my chest.
This was what it was like to have a family.
They weren’t really mine and I was on borrowed time, but either way, I was in deep trouble. Because when it came time to run, it was going to be impossible for me to leave these people.
You couldn’t run if you loved them.
And I was falling in love.