Christmas in our small, inconsequential, southeast Texas town is usually a cold and rainy time of the year. In retrospect, the snow and sleet that covered everything, including the haunted forest, in a blanket of white must have been a harbinger that everything was about to change. However, at the time we thought it was a good omen. At the time we thought that all the sadness of losing our father and brother would finally disappear and we could recall the memories of Christmases past without shedding tears or hiding the pain under a pillow at night when all the rest of the world had fallen asleep, dreaming of sugar-plums and Santa Clause.
And so we filled Sprinkles with the spicy, sweet aromas of Christmas, drawing in customers with candy canes painted on the front windows and strings of twinkling lights swirling around the shrubs in front of Mom’s bakery. Giant gingerbread men dangled from the branches of the Norfolk pine tree that Andrew had bought at the Willis Boy Scout Christmas tree lot, and strands of popcorn and gumdrops adorned the tree, forming giant Ws from the blinking star on the top to the piles of the deceptively-wrapped empty boxes stacked beneath the decorated boughs.Mom closed the bakery early on Christmas Eve. Most of the regular customers had already picked up their boxes of decorated, spicy gingerbread men or bags of sugar-sprinkled Christmas cookies, so there was no reason to stay open when we had a party to prepare for at home.
I’ll always remember how weird Everett had behaved the days leading up to Christmas. Well…weirder than usual, I should say. But it was a good kind of weird, just like all of his weirdness was. When Mom and I arrived at home from the bakery, he was already there, attempting to shovel the newly-fallen snow from the driveway and sidewalk. Mom tooted the horn on the van, and he spun around, raising a hand to wave at us. He slipped on the ice and tumbled off the top step onto the snowman he and Andrew had made earlier.
“Bug Boy, you’ve killed the snowman!” I giggled, bounding out of the van and offering to give him a hand.
“I’ll build a new one…just for you,” He pulled me down into the snow with him. Tumbling off the mound that had formed the base of the snowman, I landed on my back and Everett on his elbow above me. “I’d do anything for you,” his blue eyes blinked behind his foggy, snow-covered glasses.
I caught myself stroking the side of his face with my gloved hand and a strange sensation sprang to life inside of my stomach, twirling and growing rapidly. “Everett…” I whispered, my breath hanging in the air around us like a mysterious fog.
Before I could say anything else, a snowball thrown by Andrew plastered across the side of Everett’s head. He was immediately on his feet pulling me up with him. The snowball fight that followed was epic!
By the time we were frozen to the bone, Mom was calling us to come inside for hot chocolate topped with fluffs of whipped cream and crushed candy cane bits. A fire burned brightly in the fireplace, and the twinkling Christmas tree lights reflected blurred colorful dots across the walls and ceiling.
“The guests will arrive soon,” Mom said as she plopped a platter of cookies on the coffee table in front of us. “Better grab a cookie while you can. They are fresh out of the oven!”
Everett shoved a chocolate chip cookie in his mouth and mumbled something that sounded like, “omnomnomnom…”
“I better go clean up before everyone gets here,” Andrew said, looking down at his sweatshirt smudged with motor oil from working on his pickup truck.
After he left the living room, Everett rushed to the stack of presents under the tree and plucked a small one from behind a very large green-foil-wrapped gift that was in the obvious shape of a guitar. The tag on the larger present proved what I was thinking. It was to Andrew from Everett. I giggled and shook my head as he made his way back to the couch and sat down next to me.
“This is for you,” he pushed his glasses up with his index finger and handed me the small present that had been concealed behind the large, foil-wrapped guitar. “Open it.”
“Now?” I looked at the square present bundled in striped paper and bound with a bundle of ribbons way too big for a box that size.
“Yes!” He nodded, smiling. “While we’re alone.”
I untangled the ribbon that had been wrapped around the package multiple times and ripped the paper off. Before I could register what it was, Everett blurted out, “It’s an iPod! You said you wanted one, remember? A few months ago…we were at the mall and someone walked by with headphones in, and you said you wanted one.”
“Oh, my gosh! Everett! But it cost so much! You didn’t have to do this!” I said while opening the box to reveal the shiny mp3 player.
“Turn it over,” he said, while guiding my hand. “I had it engraved. See? It says ‘To Blair. From Bug Boy. And I just had that little heart put on there. It’s no big deal. Just a little heart.” He pushed his glasses up again and smiled.
That weird sensation swirled again in my stomach, like fireflies fluttering around a glowing candle. “It’s so pretty, Everett!” I turned it over in my hand once more, stroking the engraving and the little heart. “It’s perfect. Thank you.” Those last two words were almost a whisper.
I meant to turn my face back toward him and hug him. But he was quicker. He placed one hand on my right cheek and his lips found their way to my left one, kissing me once…twice…moving closer to my lips…when…Andrew walked in and cleared his throat, completely ruining the moment.
“Uh…it’s snowing again and David and Natalie just pulled in,” he ran his hand through his ruffled brown hair and stammered awkwardly. “Just thought you’d want to know.”
“Oh, okay,” I blushed, looking anywhere but at my big brother. Andrew walked out, leaving Everett and me alone once more.
“You have to wait to open my present,” I smiled, looking up into Everett’s bright eyes.
A wide smile blazed across his face, speaking more than I could discern. It contained a double-meaning that I couldn’t figure out. So I did the safe thing and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and turned to go to the kitchen where the guests were beginning to congregate.
David’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Hargrave, arrived shortly after he and Natalie. Mrs. Hargrave was carrying a large, red poinsettia, and Mr. Hargrave had a bottle of wine in one hand and a box of cigars in the other. They were Grandpa’s favorite cigars, and he slapped Mr. Hargrave on the back while inviting him into the living room for a smoke.
Grandma, dressed in a Christmas sweater and jingle bell earrings, poured more hot chocolate into mugs while shaking her head. She’d been trying to get Grandpa to stop smoking for years, and she had recently gotten him to cut way back on the cigars. He’d usually chewed on a short cigar without ever lighting up. But judging by how quickly he retrieved a lighter from his shirt pocket, it looked like he planned on lighting one up.
Natalie was carrying a brightly-decorated gift bag stuffed with tissue paper and a small stack of Christmas cards, each decorated with a candy cane. She hugged me and stuffed the handles of the gift bag into my hand telling me that it was for me. Then, the excitement got the best of her, and she blurted out that she’d gotten me a manicure kit and some holiday-scented bubble bath. I hugged her and thanked her, knowing that I must appear to be a complete heathen compared to her perfectly-manicured self.
Everett’s dad, Mr. Forster, arrived just as Mom was getting the ham out of the oven. He exclaimed how he was starving and was glad that he’d arrived just in time and plopped a tattered paper bag on the counter just before the bottom ripped open. He reached into the bag and pulled out a vegetable tray, a fruit tray, and a bottle of apple cider. He’d just made a stop by Kroger on his way to our house from the university where he taught history.
As Mom was crumpling the tattered paper bag to toss it into the kitchen trash, Mr. Forster reached into his coat and quickly produced a leather-bound book. He slipped it into Mom’s apron pocket as if to keep from calling attention from the others in the room. Too late. Even though no one else noticed, I did. And I also noticed how Mom nodded and left the room, with her hand stuffed into her apron pocket, and headed for Dad’s study. I made a mental note to search for that little book as soon as I got the chance.
Andrew began singing Deck the Halls really loud and snapped me back into the moment. Before I knew it, David had joined in and Mom, Grandpa, and Mr. Hargrave had returned to the kitchen, singing along. So I had no choice but to add my voice to the chorus, however out of tune it was. I glanced behind me to see that Everett was still wearing that same broad, goofy smile on his face while singing.
I giggled, knowing there would be a time when I would hold onto that memory. Knowing that one memory, surrounded by loved ones in the kitchen on Christmas Eve, with that smile on Everett’s face would get me through a tough time…
Little did I know that it wouldn’t be that far in the future that I would grasp onto that one memory to keep me in the present and give me hope. Little did I know on that snowy, wintry Christmas Eve, that one day, a year from now, I would find myself lying bloody and broken on the jungle floor in South America, grappling with whether I should give up or try to fight for my life. Little did I know that one memory would make me choose to fight…