"You need to think about this, Eric," Tom, my roommate, told me. "I don't think it would be good for you to stay in this apartment alone for a month. Please come home with me for Christmas. My family would really love to have you."
I told him I'd think about it.
I grew up loving Christmas. My parents always made it a fun event. There was just the three of us, and no other family nearby, but we made it fun. We were never all that religious, but we understood the peaceful message of Christmas. We also understood the fun. Mom would cook and bake, and Dad always decorated the house to the hilt. When I got old enough, I loved to help him.
My parents were great, anyhow. I was brought up with a lot of love, and we didn't hurt for anything financially. I had good friends, the odd girlfriend or two, and enjoyed childhood, right up until the time I left for college.
It was shortly after I entered college that everything changed.
I grew up about 30 miles south of Boston. I decided to go to Boston University. Far enough away so that I'd have to live in the dorms, but close enough so that I could go home and visit every so often. At first, it was great. My parents drove me up, helped me bring my stuff into the dorm. I met my roommate, Tom Devereaux, a cool guy from Vermont. I kissed the folks goodbye, they headed home.
A couple weeks after I got to school, they decided to fly to Los Angeles, to visit my Dad's best friend, his old college roommate. I was happy for them, they hadn't had a vacation with just the two of them for a long time. They stopped in, early in the morning, to take me to breakfast on their way to Logan Airport.
Then they headed to the Airport. It was September 11th, 2001. They were on American Airlines Flight 11.
I got lucky with a roommate, more than I had realized. I don't know how I would've gotten through the next couple of months without Tom's support. That, and my professors at BU, who cut me a considerable amount of slack. In addition to my grief, I had lots of stuff to settle. My parents were pretty comfortable, financially, and they had left everything to me. A lot of my first semester in college, in between classes, was spent dealing with their estate-and walking around in a fog that they were dead. My first Christmas as a college student, instead of a joyous reunion with my parents, was spent selling my childhood home-I couldn't bear to keep it.
As time went on, things got worse. Part of it was how they died. When your parents die in such a public way, you can never escape it. I mean, 9/11 was contemporary America's "Day of Infamy." I'd never know when I'd be flipping channels on the TV and see that damn plane slam into the tower.
Of course, there was the media. I was a Survivor. How did I feel about all this? I mean, come on-I lost my parents! How did I feel? You've got to be kidding me. And there was so much peripheral stuff. I tried to ignore much of it. The President was sending us into Afghanistan to find Bin Laden. Whatever. There were survivor's groups organizing to sue somebody-the airlines, the government. Whatever. None of this was going to bring my parents back. A bunch of dead terrorists in Afghani caves wasn't going to bring my parents back. Soaking American Airlines wasn't going to bring my parents back-besides which, I wasn't hurting financially. I just tried to make it all go away.
It wasn't easy. As time went on, as I said, it just seemed to get worse. I managed to keep my grades up, but that's all I managed. I know Tom was worried about me. It didn't help that, as freshman year dawned to a close, I suddenly realized that I would have nowhere to go when the semester ended, having sold the house. I luckily found an apartment near campus. Tom went home for the summer to Vermont, and I spent most of the summer alone in my new apartment, being miserable.
Thank goodness Tom agreed to move out of the dorms and room with me at the apartment I had gotten. The beginning of Sophomore year wasn't much better-especially considering I was confronted with the First Anniversary. More footage of planes hitting buildings. More prattle from the talking heads. More media boffins finding me and asking me, "How do you feel?" One of my favorite singers, Bruce Springsteen, released the first album with the vaunted E Street Band in 18 years-and I couldn't listen to the fucking thing, because it was about 9/11.
There were days, and they became more and more frequent, that I wished I had been on that fucking airplane.
Tom was really worried about me. I knew that. He tried, I'll give him that. Tried to drag me to parties, to social events, tried to invite people up to the apartment. It just wasn't working.
It was when he got back to school after Thanksgiving weekend in Vermont that he tried his last ditch effort-getting me to go to Vermont with him for Christmas.
A few days after he first brought it up, he sat in the chair in our living room. "Ever been to Vermont?" he asked.
"Don't think so," I told him.
"It's like magic. Especially this time of year. You'll love it."
"I don't know if I'm capable of appreciating it," I sighed.
He looked at me. "Eric? Look, I'm going to lay it on the line. I'm deathly afraid that I'm going to come back from Christmas break and find you dead on the bathroom floor, OK?" I just stared at him. "Really," he continued. "And if I don't at least twist your arm to come home with me, and that happens, I'm going to feel responsible. Listen. Nobody can replace your parents. I know that. But my parents are good people. They want you to come home with me. They want to pamper you," he grinned.
I managed a weak smile back. "I'm just afraid I'll bring everybody down."
He grinned. "Don't worry about that. That's not possible, not at this time of year, not in my family."
"Oh, are your parents into Christmas?"
"Somewhat. Sort of. That's not really it."
"I'm not telling," he grinned. "You have to come with me and experience it yourself."
"OK, fine, I give," I said, secretly relieved. Because he was right. I had been thinking about suicide. I just didn't want to mess up Tom's Christmas. But he'd twisted my arm hard enough that I just couldn't say no. "I'll come home with you."
"Great. I'll tell the folks."
Our last finals were a week and a half before Christmas, Thursday, December 13th. We drove right up that afternoon. We'd anticipated we'd get to his house sometime in the early evening. Well, it was 9 before we got there-we hit snow in Vermont, big surprise-but that was early enough.
Tom lived in a town of about 1500 people in Central Vermont, not far from Montpelier. We drove through the town, headed for his house, and I could see it was one of those storybook New England Village type places, very pretty. We got to his house, and were greeted by his parents. I'd met them a few times, and it was nice to see them again. They welcomed me heartily, which, I admit, felt good. Tom and I brought the suitcases in and were in the living room, chattering with his parents, when someone came around the corner.
I'd guessed she was a couple years younger that I (I turned out to be right-she had just turned 18, I'd be 20 in February). She was about 5'7". She had wavy light brown hair, just past her shoulders. She was wearing a soft red sweater, pajama bottoms with Curious George on them, and big pink fuzzy bunny slippers. That, plus the absolutely stunning smile on her face, led to an overall endearing effect. When this girl smiled, she smiled all over. Her eyes lit right up. It was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen.
Who was this?!?!?
"Tommy Boy!" she shouted in greeting, and came over and gave Tom a big hug and a kiss. Then she looked at me, still smiling.
"Hiya, squirt," he said to her. "This is my roommate, Eric. Eric, this is my baby sister Kathy."
"Baby?" she snorted at him, then looked at me, smiling again. "Nice to meet you, Eric," she smiled. "I'm glad you're here."
"Nice to meet you, too," I returned, finding myself smiling back at her. That made her smile wider. It was almost blinding.
We settled on couches, chatting for a while, about school, about the trip up. I found out that Kathy was a senior at the local high school. She was very amusing, smart, and interesting. I found myself enjoying her company right away.
After a while, she yawned and said, "Well, I'd better go to bed. Some of us still have school in the morning," she grinned. She said goodnight to her parents, then hugged Tom. "Welcome home, big brother." Then she came over to me-and hugged me! She even kissed me on the cheek. "Eric, we're glad you're here," she said-and then she was off.
Tom chuckled, and then said, "C'mon, rooms. Grab your stuff, I'll show you the guest room." We got up there and he helped me with my things.
"Had you ever mentioned a sister?" I asked, bemused.
"Oh, probably once or twice. Not that you listen to a tenth of what I say," he grinned. "Anyhow, you can't just talk about Kathy, you have to experience her."
Over the next couple of days, I got what Tom meant. Kathy was a trip. As I said, she was 18-but her personality swung between 18; up to somewhere around 30; and down to, oh, five or so. She was incredibly bright and very mature-but, somewhere in the back of her mind, she still believed in Santa Claus and fairy tales and magic. I quickly found out what Tom meant about being impossible for this family to be 'brought down' by me at Christmas. Most of that came from Kathy.
She came home from school on Friday to find me perched on the couch, reading a book. Her parents were working, and Tom had gone out. "All alone?"
"Yeah, they abandoned me," I grinned.
"You'll have to put up with me, then," she grinned. She went over to the entertainment center, and found a DVD. She put it in, and started it up-it was It's A Wonderful Life.
"My favorite movie of all time," she sighed.
"That figures," I grinned back. But I couldn't hold the grin. "It was my mother's, too."
"OH! I'm sorry, Eric, I don't have..." she was reaching for the remote.
"No," I waved to her. "It's fine. I promised myself I was not going to spoil any of you people's Christmas."
She put the remote down, and looked at me. "This is tough for you," she said softly.
"Yeah. My parents loved Christmas. It all reminds me of them." I sighed. "Last year, I was too busy, and it was too soon, for it to really hit me. And the year before that, when I was a senior in high school-well, if I had known it was going to be my last Christmas with my parents, I might have been more pleasant."
"Melanie happened. We'd been dating for two years. Suddenly, she decided she didn't want to be 'tied down'. We were supposed to go to BU together-but she suddenly decided she was going to Syracuse and she didn't want a relationship anymore. This on December 21st, mind you."
"What a bitch," Kathy hissed.
I looked at her, and snorted out a laugh. "Got that right. Oh, it even gets better. At a New Year's Eve party ten days later, I found her making out with Dave-who had been my best friend since second grade."
"Yup. They went to Syracuse together. I heard he later dumped her, which serves her right, but still. I didn't even go to my Senior prom, there was nobody else I wanted to go with, and I wasn't going stag. Anyhow, that seems so insignificant now-it's that I spent what ended up being the last Christmas with my parents in a complete funk that bothers me now."
"I'm sure they understood," she said.
"They always did," I said softly.
"You loved them very much," she said.
"I did. They were great." I sniffled a bit. "Damn, I miss 'em."
"Does it bother you, talking about them?" she asked. "I mean, I can shut up..."
"No. Not really," I admitted. "I just don't, you know? Nobody asks."
"If you ever want to talk, I'm here," she said with a soft smile. "It's up to you." She smiled wider, and waved at the TV. "So what are your favorite movies?"
"Oh, either Die Hard, or Terminator."
"Liar!" she laughed.
"You're lying." She had that blinding smile on again. "You're way too much of a softy for that. I'll bet it's really Sleepless in Seattle or some other chick flick."
"A softy? Me?" I said.
"Yup. I see right through you," she grinned.
I didn't admit it right then, but she was right. Except she had the wrong Meg Ryan chick flick--it was When Harry Met Sally!
The next day, when I got up, Tom and I went out with his Dad to buy some stuff they needed for the Christmas decorations. We got back and Kathy was gone. "Hitting the mall," Mrs. Devereaux laughed.
She came back about three in the afternoon. "It's snowing!" she said when she burst in. "I love snow!" She was giggling like a kid.
"A lot?" her mom asked.
"No, just light, but it's still snowing. I hope it keeps up until tonight, that'll make it perfect! I love this night anyway, but it's even better with snow."
"What's tonight?" I asked.
"The Lights Festival on the town common," Tom said.
"Oh, it's wonderful!" Kathy enthused. "They set up the lights all around the common, and Santa Claus is there, and the school band plays Christmas Carols, and there's hayrides, and everything!" She turned to me. "You are coming, right?"
"I'll think about it," I said, but the thought filled me with dread.
She let it go then. After supper, they were getting ready to go. I started to head up to my room. I'd decided against going. I just wouldn't be able to take it, I didn't think.
"You coming?" Tom asked.
"Nah. Not my thing. You folks have a good time," I said, and I headed to my room.
I was there for a couple minutes, and there was a knock on my door. Kathy came in.
"Hi, Kath." She came over, and sat on a chair next to my bed.
"Look. Your parents really liked Christmas, right? Sounds like they would've liked something like the lights festival."
"No doubt," I said, wondering where she was going with this.
"Look, I know I just met you, and I know this is really presumptuous, but..." She took a deep breath. "If they felt that way, do you think they'd be happy about this? Do you think they'd want you sitting alone in your room, while something like this is going on, and friends that want your company? Would your parents have wanted that?"
My God. It felt like I had been slapped.
Kathy must have seen it in my face, because her eyes got wide, and she said, "Oh, shit. I've said too much. Eric, I'm sorry." And she was out of my room in a shot.
But she was wrong. It took me a minute to compose myself, and then I walked out of my room to the top of the stairs. They were gathering to go out, and Kathy looked upset. "Hey," I said. They all turned to look at me, especially Kathy. "Would you guys mind waiting a minute?"
Kathy lit up like those lights we were going to go see. "You guys go ahead," she said to her parents and brother, "I'll wait." I went and fetched my shoes and jacket, and headed downstairs. She was waiting for me. We'd be walking over, it wasn't far.
"Thanks," she said as we headed down the sidewalk. "I thought I had..."
"Thank you," I interrupted. "Nobody's said that to me. It might have been the only thing that would've worked. It was like a wake-up call. You're right, they wouldn't have been happy."
"I'm glad," she said softly.
I grinned. "I even heard, in my head, my Dad with the punchline."
"Yeah. 'A pretty girl wants you to take her on a hayride in the snow with the Christmas lights and you're saying no? Are you an idiot?' Believe me, that's just what Dad would have said."
She looked at me and broke up laughing. I laughed back. It felt good. She held out her arm and I wrapped it in mine, and we walked towards the common.
When we got there, we found her parents and Tom. Then, suddenly, two other girls came running up, giggling, and hugging Kathy.
"Hello, girls," Mrs. Devereaux said. The two girls greeted everyone and turned to me.
"Meet the rest of the posse," Kathy giggled. "This is Lisa and Becky. Guys, this is Eric, Tom's roommate."
"Hi," Lisa giggled.
"Hello. You didn't tell us that Tom's roommate was cute," Becky said. Jesus, I was gonna blush!
"Tom didn't tell me," Kathy grinned. "I had to discover his cuteness by myself." Oh, God! "Anyhow, hands off the cutie-he's mine," Kathy said, wrapping her arm back in mine and leading me off, the girls giggling behind us.
"I'm yours, huh?" I said.
"Well, for tonight, anyhow," she said sort of sheepishly.
"Good," I said. "You are, after all, the one that dragged me here."
"And don't you forget it!"
I guess I was surprised at how much fun I had. They did it up right with the tree lighting. The music was good. And the hayride around the center of town was great-Kathy grabbed my hand and cuddled up to me while the horses led the wagon around. After that, we got out and went to find the hot chocolate concession. We grabbed our cocoa, and sat down on a bench in the middle of the common. Sitting with Kathy, the lights all around us, surrounded by the softly falling snow and the happy kids running around-I felt good. Really good.
For the first time in a very long while.
"You're having a good time," she said.
"Yes," I admitted.
"Good," she said. "Mission accomplished."
"More than you know," I told her. I got that blazing smile in return.
The next day, I was in the living room, when Kathy came in. "We're going outside to string up the outside lights. You up to helping?"
"Yeah," I said, and followed her out. It was fun. Afterwards, we did up the tree.
It could've been weird. Watching them, laughing, sharing the kind of inside jokes that any family develops over time-well, it could've made me depressed. And it could've made me feel left out. Tom and his family made sure that that didn't happen-especially Kathy. She got me to help her unstring lights outside. She sat next to me on the couch while her dad did the lights on the tree, laughing and giggling and explaining the inside jokes. She pulled me out to the kitchen to help with the hot chocolate.
After she-and their parents-had gone to bed, Tom and I were still up, watching the late football game. "You said something to Kathy, didn't you?"
"Yeah," Tom admitted, "but she's going above and beyond. I told her what had happened to you, you know, and that you might have a little trouble, yes. Kathy's a good person, I knew she'd be nice. However, I didn't tell her to wrap herself around you like a clinging vine," he laughed. "That's her own initiative."
"Funny how I don't mind," I chuckled.
"I know you don't," he grinned. "You're actually not morose."
"What did she say to you when she went into your room last night?"
"Just, kind of reminded me that my parents wouldn't be happy with me moping around."
"Huh. I thought of that, but didn't know if I should say it. But that's Kathy for you. She knows how to say stuff like that," Tom admitted.
"Yeah," I agreed. "She's something else."
"That she is," Tom agreed with a funny little grin.
Kathy was in school that week, so I only saw her at night. She'd come home and do her homework, then, after supper, she'd hang out. Tom's girlfriend Emma came home from Northeastern on Sunday, so he was out a lot at night with her. After the parents went to bed, Kathy and I chatted a lot.
We discussed everything. She was smart as a whip, opinionated, and sure of herself-but she still had that little girl quality that I found altogether endearing.
I remember a discussion about religion. "I don't buy organized religion, it's all about control," she had said. "And I don't buy 'holy books' and men in the sky and thou shalt nots-I don't buy any of that. But I think there has to be something. I don't think any of us know what it is or ever will-but I think there's something that binds us together.
"Take Christmas. Yes, it's Jesus' birthday, and that's all surrounded by the whole organized-religion thing. But take Jesus as a man, look at what he said. It's all good. He preached peace and love. Look at the other symbols of Christmas-the lights, the singing, Santa. It's all about love. Screw the commercialism, and screw the fire-and-brimstone, I don't care about that. Love, peace, beauty, magic-that's what's important. Did you see the looks on the kids' faces at the common when Santa came walking? That's magic, pure magic. This is what's important to me.
"That's why I think there's something-call it love, call it magic, call it The Force, whatever. I think some people never find it. But I think that's what it is."
"You're amazing," I told her sincerely. I got one of those smiles for my trouble.
We talked like that for a couple hours every night.
Tuesday, at the supper table, we were all talking, and someone said something about a dance. Kathy suddenly looked up and said, "Wait a minute! Did anyone tell Eric about the dance?"
"Oops, I forgot," Tom said.
"Dance?" I asked.
"The annual Christmas Dance, this Saturday night," Mrs. Devereaux informed me. "It's a do. You brought a suit, yes?"
"Yes," I grinned. "You all are going?"
Mr. and Mrs. Devereaux nodded, and Tom said, "Emma and I are all set to trip the light fantastic."
"You?" I asked Kathy.
"I don't have a date," she said. "I suppose I could go stag." If that wasn't a blatant hint, I don't know what was.
I was glad to pick up on it, though. "Kathy, could I have the honor of escorting you to the dance?"
"I'd love you to," she grinned.
Afterwards, while I was sitting in the living room, I heard Kathy hiss to Tom in a whisper, "You forgot to tell him! I've been waiting for him to ask me!"
Later, I was sitting with Tom-Kathy was in the bathroom-and he grinned at me. "Boy, did she get you. 'I don't have a date!' Yeah, right. She turned down three guys."
"Huh?" I said.
"Three guys asked her to that dance. She turned them down. She's very picky."
"But she said yes to me?"
"You figure it out," he grinned.
That's when I had a flash. "Damn, Tom, I appreciate your sister's help-but please tell me she didn't say yes out of pity."
"No. No way. Trust me on that one."
When Tom had left, and Kathy was back from the bathroom, she sat next to me. We were watching old Christmas specials on the TV. After a while, she quietly said, "Thanks for asking me to the dance. I really didn't want to go alone."
I wondered if I should say anything. I finally decided to. "Tom tells me you didn't have to, you had other offers."
"He told you that?" she blurted. "Well, anyhow, wasn't anyone I wanted to go with, is all."
"Well, thanks for saying yes, then," I grinned.
It wasn't a formal formal dance. In other words, no tuxes and the dresses were 'nice' but not prom dresses.
Kathy's dress was really nice, a lovely pale blue thing. Since I didn't have my car-we drove here to Vermont in Tom's-we went with Tom and Emma. That was fine-Tom and Emma had been dating since sophomore year in high school and, since she went to Northeastern, which wasn't far from BU, I saw her all the time. She was cool. I had to admit that she and Tom made a great couple.
It was a dinner dance, so we settled in at a table with the Devereaux's, and Emma's parents. After dinner, it was time for some serious dancing. I'm no great dancer, but I'm decent, and Kathy was pretty much on my level. It was fun.
The funny thing was, I guess exactly what Kathy was up to hadn't hit me. Tom reassured me she didn't come here with me out of pity-but I still was thinking she was just being a friend, making sure I enjoyed myself.
The first hint I got that things weren't quite as they seemed to me was on that dance floor. A number of guys asked to cut in. I was a gentleman, so was willing. Kathy cut them all off at the pass. These were guys she obviously knew-friends. And she didn't want to dance with a single one of them.
I got another hint when she did accept a cut-in. Her friend Becky danced over to us, with her boyfriend Mike. Mike asked for a dance with Kathy, who answered, "Of course-but Eric has to dance with Becky." I laughed and agreed.
Becky was a little harder to dance with-only because she was rather petite and I was six feet tall-but we managed. After we got going, Becky grinned at me and said, "Don't worry, by the way. Mike and Kathy have been friends for a very long time-and Mike and I have been a couple since seventh grade."
"Seventh grade? That's amazing. But why would I worry?"
"It is pretty amazing," Becky smiled, "but Mike and I are just like that. Joined at the hip since twelve years old," she giggled. "Anyhow, as for the other thing, I didn't want you to think Mike was making time with Kathy."
"That's really none of my business, isn't it? Kathy's just being a friend."
Becky glared at me. "Boy, are you clueless."
"All right," she sighed, "I really should cut you some slack, because you don't know Kathy well. Let me clue you in. First of all, I'm shocked to see her here with you. Second of all, I was really shocked to see how she was with you at the Lights Festival. She was cuddling you, holding your hand."
"I just thought she was bubbly and affectionate."
"She is," Becky agreed, "but only with people she really, really trusts. For a very long time, that's been her parents, Tom, Lisa, myself-and to a lesser extent Mike. Notice how Mike is the only person besides you she's danced with? If it weren't for you, the only people here she'd allow that kind of contact with are Mike, Tom, and her Dad.
"Mike's safe, he's mine and she knows it," Becky grinned. "Tom and her Dad are safe for obvious reasons. You're not safe. Frankly, I'm flabbergasted. But, let me assure you, it's not friendship or good samaritanism or anything like that. I know her better than that. Except for me, Lisa, and Mike, she keeps friends at a very far distance."
"What are you trying to say?"
"Those are questions you're going to have to ask her. I've probably said too much as it is. I just wanted you to have a clue as to the score."
Just then, the song ended, and Kathy and Mike drifted back over to us. "Good, here's yours, gimme mine back!" Kathy giggled. Mike bowed to her gallantly, and scooped Becky back up. I took Kathy in my arms.
I thought about what Becky had said the whole time we danced. Afterwards, Tom dropped Kathy and I off and went to take Emma home. We knew he'd be there for a while, and Kathy's parents had already returned and headed off to bed, so Kathy and I sat on the couch. She immediately snuggled up to me.
"Had a interesting conversation with Becky while we were dancing."
"Really?" she said. "About what?"
"What did she say?" Kathy said, with a catch in her voice I couldn't miss.
"Oh, not much. Just that you seemed to trust me, and that Becky was very surprised by that-but she wouldn't say why."
"Oh," she said, subdued. "It's kind of complicated."
"That's OK, you don't have to say anything."
"I will. Just not right now, OK?"
"Up to you," I told her.
"OK," she sighed, and snuggled back up into me. We stayed that way until it was time for bed.
Over the next day, and the day after-which was Christmas Eve-I started noticing a few things. I think they'd been going on all along, but I hadn't really noticed, because I thought Kathy was just being friendly.
The big thing was the touching. She was constantly touching me. Putting her hand on mine, or touching my shoulder. Snuggling into me while we were sitting together. Holding hands when we were in the mall doing last-minute shopping. Innocent stuff, mind you-but very affectionate.
Besides the touching, there were the little looks she was giving me.
How did I feel about all this? I wasn't quite sure. On one hand, the whole idea scared the shit out of me. On the other hand, the days I'd spent here were the happiest I'd been since my parents died-and she was the main reason for it.
Christmas Eve, a bunch of us went to the mall to do that last minute shopping. Mine was mainly that I wanted to buy something for her. I thought and thought, and finally came up with something.
After supper, Kathy, Tom, and their friends invited me along for another tradition the group of them had started a few years back-going around the neighborhood singing Christmas carols. I went along, though I told Kathy I was no great singer. "That's OK," she laughed, "you've got to be better than Lisa. And she's loud!"
We had a great time-and Kathy was still with the touching. Held my hand, wrapped my arm around hers, and the like, the whole time we were out. The snow had started falling again, just a little. We laughed, sang, just had a blast. We got back to the house and had hot chocolate. After the crowd dispersed, we headed up to bed.
I was reading, when there was a knock on my door. "Can I come in?" Kathy asked softly. "Sure," I said, and in she came, dressed in a flannel robe and those pink fuzzy slippers. I was propped up on my bed, leaning against the headboard, reading. She came and sat on the end of the bed.
"We need to talk."
"OK," I replied.
She took a breath, and started talking. "You asked me a question the other day, after the dance-about what Becky had said. I need to answer it, and to explain things. What Becky was talking about was this-I don't have a lot to do with guys. I avoid them. Once bitten, twice shy, you know? Well, I've been twice bitten.
"I've had two boyfriends in my life-freshman year, and sophomore year. Look, I'm a sensual person and always have been. Sex isn't any kind of bad thing to my mind, and discussions about it have never been taboo in this house-my parents are cool. I've been open to the possibility since I was 12. So, when I had that first boyfriend freshman year-well, after the appropriate time and the appropriate steps, we had sex. Understand, I was completely willing and it was a whole hell of a lot of fun. Having sex itself, I don't regret.
"It happened three times. Then he dumped me. The reasons he gave were awfully flimsy. I didn't misunderstand-he got what he came for, so he was moving on. Simple as that."
"Jesus," I hissed.
She nodded. "Yup. And then it happened again, Sophomore year. He was even quicker on the draw. The day after we had sex for the first time, he dumped me. What was worse was they both talked. Everybody at school knew that I had slept with two guys before my sixteenth birthday. Guess what that made me? The school slut."
"Oh, damn, Kathy," I moaned in sympathy.
She gave me a sad little smile. "Don't misunderstand me, this is no big tragedy. You know me. My basic personality is happy-go-lucky, and all this didn't change any of that. I kept my head high and ignored the slurs, and it all died out after a while. And since the second guy had been most responsible for the rumors, I made sure I spread it all around that he was a lousy lay." I snorted a laugh in surprise, and she giggled in return. "It wasn't a lie, either. My first boyfriend was much better. Anyhow, I'm not a sad sack over it and it doesn't affect me. Except when it comes to guys. I'm wary. I'm not going out with anyone that asks, I'm not letting a little infatuation lead me down that path anymore. I'm waiting for Prince Charming."
"Prince Charming doesn't exist," I laughed.
"I'm talking about my Prince Charming, my Santa Claus, my personal guy that makes all my dreams come true. Eric, don't you believe in magic?"
"No," I said.
"Did you, before?"
Before my parents died, she meant. "That's a good question," I said. "Maybe."
"I think you did. And I think deep down inside you still do. Look, there's evil in the world, and the evil exists in people's minds. Your parents were killed by evil people. Not even magic can do anything about that. Hey, those two guys did nasty things to me-not nearly on the same scale as being killed by terrorists, I know that. But it was small-scale evil. It didn't make me stop believing in magic."
"I'll have to think about that one," I mused. "It almost sounds like your saying that magic can't fix everything, the way you see it."
"Here's another way to put it," she said. "Love doesn't conquer all-it only conquers the willing. You have to be open to it. Those terrorists had too much hate in their hearts to be open to love. My boyfriends had too much lust, I guess-but they weren't open to it. If you're open to it, it'll find you."
I thought about that one for a minute, then said something that I'd barely even allowed myself to think, much less say out loud. "My problem with that is, everyone that I love goes away."
"I know," she said softly. "But you can't stop trying."
I took a breath, then changed the subject-I thought. "Well, so, tell me-what are you going to do when you meet your Prince Charming?"
"I guess that's partially up to him-since I've already met him." She looked right into my eyes, and my jaw dropped. "I met him almost two weeks ago. And it's been such a short period of time, and I can't believe how fast it happened, but it did." Still looking at me, she took a deep breath, and said it. "Eric, I'm head over heels in love with you. You're my Christmas miracle."
"What?" I croaked.
"I think I knew it right away," she said. "I know I knew it the night of the lights festival. Do you realize what you did to me that night? When I came up here, and said what I said, I thought I had blown it. I went downstairs practically in tears. And then you told me it worked. And you went with me to the festival, and it was like watching a chick break out of its shell." Her voice dropped into a hoarse whisper right then. "I saw your soul that night. And it's beautiful."
She looked down. "And I know you're not as open to it as I am, and I know why, and I understand. But I just couldn't hold this in any longer. Look, Tom's been your closest confidant since your parents died." I nodded. "And he told me, last night, that, since you came here, it's like you're a different person. And he was guessing that it wasn't him or Mom and Dad that were responsible."
"He's right," I admitted, "but, well, it's what I said before."
"I know," she smiled. "I can't make promises. I certainly can't promise not to die, nobody can do that." I looked at her in shock. "Believe me, if I could, I would. But I can't. And, deep down, you know it. All I can promise is that I love you-and take it from there. But I know this-you love me, too. I'm your Christmas miracle as surely as you're mine. You're just more scared than I am. Don't think for a minute that I'm not, by the way-you have no idea what it took for me to do this."
"No, actually, I do," I grinned. "I can see it in your eyes." She grinned back, a wee bit relieved. "Look," I went on, "I guess I knew this. I had an idea what was going on, especially after I talked to Becky." I took a breath. "Kathy, I don't know if I've been this happy in my life. I know I haven't been this happy since my parents died. I'm falling in love with you." I closed my eyes, and croaked, "The problem is, I'm not sure I want to."
"Too late," she grinned.
"Not if it doesn't go any further."
"Bullshit. Listen to me. Imagine this-you give in. We spend the rest of the three weeks you're going to be here in complete bliss. You head back to Boston. When you get there, you find out I got run over by a bus. How would you feel?"
"JESUS CHRIST, KATHY!" I blurted, holding my head in my hands.
"I'm making a point. Listen to me. Now, imagine this. You don't give in. I back off. We keep a respectful distance for the rest of the time you're here. You head back to Boston. When you get there, you find out I got run over by a bus. Is the feeling any different?"
I looked at her in absolute, utter shock. "Oh, God, Kathy," I moaned.
"It's not any different, is it?" she said quietly.
"No," I admitted.
"Love is love. You can't close yourself off from it forever, because you're just too loving a person. I think you know that now. Neither can I, I've found out. And there's one other thing to consider."
"What's that?" I asked.
She got a little twinkle in her eye. "Well, considering what you told me the night of the lights festival-if you turn me down-what would your father say?"
I gaped at her, and then, I couldn't help it. I started laughing. "Damn, how do you manage to say the right things?" I laughed. She just grinned at me, Cheshire Cat-like. "You're right. I think the word 'idiot' would come out of his mouth multiple times."
"Do you know how nice it is to see you laughing about your parents?" she said.
That statement hit me right between the eyes. After that, I couldn't help myself. I was sitting propped on the headboard, and she was on the edge of the bed at the foot, and I just launched myself at her, wrapping my arms around her and holding her tight. She quickly joined me. "You're a miracle," I whispered.
"So are you," she whispered back. "Christmas Magic," she giggled.
"As long as it doesn't go away on New Year's Eve," I laughed.
"Not a chance." She unwrapped herself from the embrace, gently pushing me away while giggling, then stood up. She kicked off the fuzzy slippers, and then her hands went to the buttons on her flannel robe. They were quickly undone, and she shed the robe. And my jaw hit the floor.