A/N: I AM HERE AGAIN—and in a timely manner too! I think I gave an estimate of 3-4 weeks in the last update and it took about 5 weeks, so all in all not bad for someone who once posted a “Pt.1” and didn’t post the accompanying “Pt.2” until 3 years later *UPSIDE DOWN SMILE EMOJI*
On that note, this is the second half of Chapter 5.21: In My Arms, so be sure you’ve read Pt. 1 of 2 before continuing.
Also, thank you as always for your kind words and support. I know I always say it, but it’s only because it’s true. While I do write for me, there is something a bit lonely and unsettling about receiving silence in return, so these encouraging gestures, no matter how small, genuinely make all the difference.
Thank you for reading! I hope you’ll all enjoy the culmination of this chapter, even with the heaviness that it contains.
Trigger/Content Warnings: Strong language, secondary character death, funeral depiction
♫ Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
And folks are bundled head to toe ♫
♫ Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe
Help to make the season bright
Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow
Will find it hard to sleep tonight ♫
Ice gathered on the windows in a crystalline fog, but inside all was warm and bright. Christmas Eve had been a night of carols crooned from an antique record player; the rich tastes of honeyed ham, sweet potatoes, and freshly baked rolls; and boundless conversations filled with laughter and cheer.
Milo shrieked with delight and flailed as Gabriel made the tiger plush Camilla gifted him ‘pounce’ into his lap. My husband chuckled, and an easy smile curved my lips at the sound.
“I think he might have a new favorite toy,” I observed. As if in confirmation, Milo grabbed the tiger and bounced it on his leg, squealing excitedly all the while.
“I’m glad he likes it,” Grandma Camilla said warmly. “Gabriel had one just like it when he was little” —she turned to him, an impish glint in her eyes— “What did you name it again? Stripes?”
“It was ‘Sir Stripes,’” he corrected. Camilla and I giggled. Gabriel looked away and scratched his head. “He was a noble tiger.”
“Clearly,” I teased, bumping his shoulder with mine. He smiled, and Grandma Camilla gazed at us fondly before rising to her feet.
“Who’s up for some hot cocoa?” she asked.
“Oh, me, definitely!” I enthused with a clap of my hands, while Gabriel straightened in his seat and said, “I’ll help.”
“Nonsense, nonsense, I’ve got it,” she replied with a dismissive wave of her hand. Gabriel relented, but seemed to be having second thoughts as he watched his grandmother disappear into the kitchen.
“She said she would let us know if she needed help,” I gently chided.
Gabriel slouched in his seat and heaved a sigh. “I know.”
I smiled bracingly and reached out to ruffle his hair. Milo giggled at the rumpled sight and brought his tiger to his mouth to chew its ear.
“So much for being at the top of the food chain,” Gabriel wryly remarked, patting his hair back down.
I laughed, but the sound broke off into a yelp as a massive crash abruptly sounded from the kitchen. Milo startled too, dropping his tiger as Gabriel surged to his feet and ran past us.
I raced after him, Milo tucked securely against my chest.
My heart is torn just in knowing
You’ll someday see the truth from lies
“You should have let me help!”
I skid to a halt on the outskirts of the kitchen, inches away from shards of shattered ceramic that lay scattered across the floor. Gabriel stood nearby, his posture rigid and his face a stormy mixture of frustration and concern.
“It was an accident,” Grandma Camilla calmly insisted. “The same could have happened with or without your presence.” I looked at her searchingly, taking note of the way she wound her hands and the subtle pallor of her skin. Milo whimpered, disquieted by the tension.
“Why don’t you come sit with us?” I suggested tentatively. “Gabriel can clean up here and finish the cocoa.”
A trace of annoyance flickered across Camilla’s face. “I’m perfectly capable of—”
“Of course,” I interrupted with a quick smile, “but he’ll feel better if he does it. You know how he is.”
I felt Gabriel’s eyes on me, his gaze intent, but he didn’t say anything, instead firmly folding his arms across his chest. I smiled again, and Grandma Camilla sighed in defeat.
“Yes, alright,” she muttered.
We walked back to the living room, Camilla’s steps somewhat cautious and unsteady. I resisted the urge to help her, instead simply keeping near her as we made our way over to the couch and took our seats. I bent to pick Milo’s tiger off the floor, brushing away invisible dust before I gave it back to him.
Grandma Camilla’s wrinkled hands were shaking slightly. She folded them together in her lap.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
Camilla nodded, a loose lock of hair falling into her face. “Just a little tired, I think. I’ve overstrained myself the past few days.” Milo held out his tiger to her in apparent offer. She chuckled and patted the toy on the head. “Oh no, dear. That’s yours.” I smiled, and Camilla smiled too. “He looks so much like Gabriel, you know—so much like my daughter, though he has your eyes.”
“Yes,” I agreed with a nod. “They—they were my mother’s eyes. My biological mom, I mean.” An odd slurry of emotions stirred within me, sadness for what would never be winning out among them all. Camilla leaned forward and squeezed one of my hands in hers.
“I’m sure she’s watching over you, and feeling so proud.”
I smiled sadly, a lump rising in my throat. “I do hope so,” I whispered.
Gabriel re-entered the room holding a tray on which he balanced three steaming mugs of cocoa. Camilla and I murmured a ‘thank you’ as he offered a drink to each of us and set the tray down on the table. He took a seat too, blowing softly over the rim of his mug.
A gentle snow had begun to fall outside the window.
“Mama,” Gabriel started, unsure, “maybe we could schedule an appointment with Dr. Ricchetti after the holidays…?”
Grandma Camilla looked down at her hot chocolate, her expression unclear. I chewed my lip, expecting her to argue, to brush him off, or maybe even laugh, but instead she merely nodded and said, “Sure.”
Behind us, the grandfather clock began to chime.
* * * * *
When the clouds will rage in
Storms will race in
Late that evening, long after we’d all fallen asleep, I was jostled awake by Gabriel returning to bed when I hadn’t even known he’d left. I groggily cuddled up to him, wrapping my arm around his waist, but stilled as I felt how cold he was to the touch—how he smelled of cigarette smoke and the icy wind outside. My heart sunk and I pulled him closer, pressing a kiss between his shoulder blades.
“Gabriel?” I whispered.
“Sorry.” His voice was barely audible and somewhat hoarse. I shook my head and hugged him. He didn’t have to apologize. I felt as though I understood. I was afraid for Camilla too and even if Dr. Ricchetti didn’t find anything of note, nothing stopped the relentless passage of time. Eventually…inevitably….
I shut my eyes against the thought. No. Not anytime soon. I forced a quick breath. “Would you like to stay longer?” I asked. “I can let my family know there’s been a change of plans.”
“I don’t mind, and I’m certain they’d understand.”
Gabriel sighed. “My grandmother would shoo us away if we tried—accuse me of being overprotective.” He paused and then added, “She won’t be alone anyway. Mrs. Fitch invited her to spend Christmas with them and said she’ll be visiting more often. I texted her earlier and asked.”
“Okay. If you’re sure.” I laced my legs with his as I held him even nearer, trying to provide warmth and comfort despite being smaller than him. Still tired, I felt myself doze off in the next silent minutes, but startled and woke when Gabriel gently shifted me and turned onto his back. I cuddled into him again, simply adjusting my position. He wrapped an arm around me too.
“Maybe though,” Gabriel quietly started, “come the new year, we could stay in Bridgeport for a while?”
I opened my eyes, rather stunned. Although Gabriel no longer hated being in the city of his youth, it was still unexpected to hear him suggest we live here, even for a time. The place held too many painful memories. He wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t feel that here was where he needed to be.
“Absolutely,” I answered. “We could ask Sammy and Dante to arrange someplace for us to stay.”
Gabriel nodded. He took a steadying breath and then softly added, “Thank you.”
“Of course,” I murmured, closing my eyes.
Whatever you need.
But you will be safe in my arms
* * * * *
We stumbled into Christmas Day in a sleepy haze, having rose with the sun to make the drive to Starlight Shores. Despite exasperated objections, Grandma Camilla had made us a lovely breakfast, and we’d drunk so much coffee I was halfway convinced I’d bounce out the car window and into the road.
It was miserable enough that I’d started second-guessing the whole trip, but those regrets vanished as soon as we walked through the doors of my parents’ home.
The smells of roasting turkey, caramel apple pies, and cinnamon-scented branches permeated the warm air, and Christmas songs chimed from speakers mounted high on the walls, lending the house a sense of magic and wonder.
Stacked tall around the tree were dozens of glittering gifts too, all shapes and sizes and trussed with elegant bows. Gabriel and I added our presents to the pile, laughing when Milo tried to pull one of the ribbons. I headed off then to hang up my coat and search for my family, while Gabriel brought Milo upstairs to change, which I would do later.
As it turned out, Mom and Dad had returned to the kitchen after answering the door (where Dad attempted to steal a freshly baked cookie), while my brothers were out in the yard building a snowman.
I watched from the window as Thomas attempted to sneak up on Augustus and shove a snowball down his coat, only to be caught mid-attack and promptly, well, suplexed! Thomas shrieked as he hit the snow, and Tobias doubled over, laughing so hard he nearly toppled over too. Then they were all laughing and throwing snow at each other, half-formed snowman forgotten. I watched them for a minute longer, happy, yet regretful that I’d missed so many of these moments.
Smiling wanly, I turned away and climbed upstairs in search of my sister.
I bumped into Gabriel and Milo first, all traces of melancholy erased when I saw our son dressed up for Christmas in a little suit vest and tie. “Look at you!” I marveled, poking Milo’s tummy and making him giggle. “You’re so cute and handsome!”
“For the record, I did do his hair, but he messed it up in .5 seconds,” Gabriel flatly announced.
I laughed and reached out to tousle his hair. “Like father, like son.” Gabriel smiled, and my heart melted like warm butter.
“I’m gonna head downstairs now and get him something to eat,” he said.
“Do you need any help?”
“Nah, I’m good. Just wish I’d thought to do that before dressing him up….”
“Use multiple bibs?” I suggested with a cheeky smile.
“A smock maybe. Or a potato sack.”
Gabriel chuckled, which made Milo laugh too. “See you in a bit then?”
“Yup!” I leaned in to kiss his cheek and then Milo’s before hopping up yet another flight of stairs.
The third floor was not a place I generally ventured. Far removed from the rest of the house, it was quieter, smaller, and not so lavishly decorated. In fact, the hallway stood relatively barren, some light fixtures on the walls and a painting or two providing the only feeling of it being lived in.
Gemma, however, had specifically selected a bedroom up here, arguing that she could concentrate better away from all the bustle.
I started to make my way down the hall, but paused when I noticed the bathroom door opening. Gemma stepped out, face freshly made up, but otherwise still looking sleepy with her wrinkled pajamas and disheveled hair. She froze when she saw me, her expression wary.
“Good morning!” I greeted with a cheerful smile. “Or, well, afternoon now. Did you just wake up?”
My smile faltered some. “Right! Um….” I hesitated, doing some quick thinking, but perked back up as I suggested, “How about I do your hair?”
Gemma’s cool, amethyst eyes narrowed in suspicion, her brow subtly arching. “Did Augustus send you up here?” she asked.
“What? No, I—”
“No!” I protested, surprised. “No one sent me. I offered because I thought it might be fun and I wanted to spend some time with you. We haven’t really had the chance to talk yet—not just us two, anyway.” Gemma’s expression remained unconvinced. I shifted from foot to foot. It wasn’t usually this difficult to talk to my sister—though somewhat aloof, she’d generally be more than happy to chatter away about school or her research, but this time was different.
I wondered if it had anything to do with why she’d been crying the other night.
I wondered if she’d feel comfortable talking about it with me.
I wondered how it was possible to feel like you were on such good terms with a person, yet barely know them at all.
I blinked, unsure if I’d caught the entirety of her response. “Fine?”
“Yes, fine. You can do my hair if you’d like.”
“Yes, I’d like!” I blurted out, and then blushed as I realized how idiotic that sounded. “I mean, I would like to. You definitely won’t regret it!”
Gemma brows rose in renewed skepticism, but she led me into her room anyway. It hadn’t changed much since Mom and I had decorated it for her in elementary school, with numerous posters pinned on the walls, sticky notes displaying jotted down equations, tall stacks of books, and bright bursts of hot pink wherever you looked. It’d always been her favorite color and she resented that there were people who seemed to view that as immature.
If it was touted as a so-called ‘masculine’ color, no one would ever call it childish, she always said.
Gemma took a seat at her vanity and passed a hairbrush to me over her shoulder. I shook my head, instead first loosening some of the worst tangles with my fingers. In response, Gemma handed me a bottle of detangling spray.
“It’s a mess, I know,” she said.
“It could be worse….”
“Sure. It could be on fire.”
I laughed, spraying some of the detangler and then handing the bottle back to her. Gemma’s curly hair was, admittedly, matted. She must have tossed and turned a lot while sleeping. After separating out the worst of it, I picked up the brush and gingerly began to run it through her hair.
It reminded me of all the times I’d done this for her when she was little. Her hair had been longer then, nearly down to her waist, and she’d always ask to have it woven into two neat plaits with pink ribbons tied at the ends. How was it that she’d grown up so fast?
“Did Augustus really not send you?” Gemma abruptly asked, watching my reflection in the mirror.
“Really,” I confirmed. “No one sent me. I’ve been wanting to spend time with you.”
I bit my lip, both because of a particularly difficult knot and my own nervousness. “I um, I did talk to Augustus though. I happened to see you the other night, with Mom, and I asked him what happened. He wouldn’t say because he wasn’t sure what you were okay with me knowing, so—”
Rains will pour down
“So, you offered to do my hair to find out?” Gemma asked, demeanor swiftly frosting.
“What? No! No, of course not. That—that came out wrong,” I stammered. “I only wanted to let you know that I’m here if you ever need anything. And I—I know that hasn’t always been the case, but I really am here now, and I won’t leave again.”
Gemma’s icy glare gradually slipped away from mine and down to her lap. Her jaw was set, her fingers entwined. Unsure, I lifted the brush again. She didn’t say anything, so I went to tackling another knot, occasionally glancing up to peer at her reflection.
“You don’t mention those days much,” she quietly said. “I figured you wanted to move on—pretend they never happened.”
I drew a sharp breath, feeling abruptly exposed. “I um, I think part of me did want that, but I’m realizing more and more that pretending doesn’t make it so—doesn’t make everything the way it was before. I’d only be living another façade and, well, I’m quite done with those.”
My sister didn’t immediately reply. I worked my way to another tangle, trying to keep my rising worries at bay. You’ve lost them for good. There’s no going back.
Gemma shifted in her seat. “I texted you all the time, you know. At first. You never answered, so I gave up. I figured you must not have given a shit.”
I swallowed around the tightness in my throat. “I know,” I mumbled. “Gus, um, said something similar.”
Waves will crash around
Gemma looked up at the mirror again, her searing eyes catching mine. “Why didn’t you answer?”
The words weren’t spoken especially harshly, but I flinched anyway. I’d never meant to hurt them. I’d hoped that I hadn’t. It was never clearer how foolish that had been.
I shakily lowered the brush to my side. “Lots of reasons, but…shame, mostly. I was ashamed of what I’d done and ashamed of who I’d become. I didn’t recognize the person I was anymore, and I didn’t want any of you to see that. I’d even convinced myself that it was for the best. That I wasn’t deserving of your love anymore.” An errant tear escaped my eyes. I hastened to dry it with the palm of my hand.
“I’m sorry, Gemma. I know those aren’t good excuses, but…I’m not trying to come up with excuses. It’s what happened. And I’m so sorry that it did. I should have been a better sister. One that you know cares about you; one that you can count on. It’s what I want to try to be now, even though I know I’m running out of time. I’ll keep trying anyway because you’re worth that. You always were. I never should’ve made you feel like you weren’t.”
Gemma let out a huff of air, her eyes overly bright. “You’re not running out of time,” she corrected impatiently, “and I—I don’t know—I could really use a sister right now.”
An unbidden sob escaped my lips and Gemma glanced back at me in surprise before getting to her feet and gathering me in her arms. I dropped the brush I was holding and hugged her back.
“You have one,” I managed to say, my voice quavering. “You do, and I promise I’ll answer all your texts. I’ll never miss a single one. I’m so sorry, Gemma. I should have answered them then too.”
“I’m going to send you a text at 4 in the morning as a test.”
“…And I will definitely respond to that as soon as I’m able….”
Gemma let out a tearful laugh, and I couldn’t help but laugh too, holding her close. I should have been there for her. I would be there for her now.
My sister took a half-step back, her eyes red and her messy hair only partly unknotted. “I’m afraid you’ll find I’m not exactly that little girl you left anymore.”
“I don’t expect you to be. I’ve changed a lot too.”
She slowly shook her head. I put my hands on her shoulders and squeezed them. “I really don’t, and I love you no matter what, okay? You’re my sister. That will never change.”
Gemma seemed to remain unconvinced, but that was okay because I knew that I’d have to work to regain her trust.
“No matter what,” I repeated. She nodded, and I pulled her back into a hug.
I wasn’t running out of time; I was taking it back.
“I love you too.”
But you will be safe in my arms
* * * * *
♫ They know that Santa’s on his way
He’s loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh
And every mother’s child is gonna spy
To see if reindeer really know how to fly ♫
♫ And so I’m offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety-two
Although it’s been said many times, many ways:
Merry Christmas to you ♫
The fire burned low, orange embers glowing amidst faintly crackling wood and a warm, sleepy haze falling over us all as we settled in the living room after dinner to talk. I tucked my legs in close and watched contentedly as everyone chatted and laughed amongst themselves.
My parents had taken their seats by the glittering Christmas tree, and Gabriel had sat with them, telling them stories about Milo as he dozed in his grandfather’s arms, unaware of any noise and entirely at peace.
I curled up amidst my siblings, who had pushed the coffee table out of the way and gathered on the carpet. Augustus leaned against the nearest couch, long legs stretched out before him, while Gemma rested her head on his stomach, eyes closed as he absently ran his fingers through her hair. It had wilted some since I’d styled it this afternoon, but still she looked as beautiful as a fairytale princess, her curls fanned around her head like a crown.
On the other side, Thomas lazily plucked and strummed on his guitar, while Tobias gushed about a girl he’d met at the end of the semester.
“Anyway,” he concluded somewhat sheepishly, “her name is Amber Jean and I love her.”
“Her name is what?” Gemma asked, peeking one eye open, while Augustus abruptly started coughing and had to turn away, covering his mouth with his fist. I looked up too, tilting my head in curiosity.
“Amber Jean,” Tobias repeated with a dreamy sigh, his eyes practically shining with stars. “She grew up on a farm in Riverblossom and she’s as pretty as a goldfinch.”
“Pretty as a what?” Gemma asked again, sitting up, but was unexpectedly drowned out by Augustus recovering and exclaiming, “How can you know you love her when you only met her a week ago?”
“I just do, Gus. I feel it, in here,” he said, pressing his hand over his heart. “Didn’t you just kind of know with Patrick?”
Augustus faltered, which Tobias seemed to take as a win, a self-satisfied smile rising to his face. It only served to annoy my eldest brother, who shook his head and finally said, “There’s no such thing as love at first sight.”
“Probably true,” I began, somewhat hesitant, “but I think it’s possible for there to be this…initial spark. A feeling of clicking with someone right away, which may or not be indicative of more, but is certainly exciting to explore.”
“Yeah! Exactly!” Tobias agreed, lighting up. “That’s exactly how it was! I mean, yeah, we just met, but we talked for like, an hour right out of the gate. Neither of us wanted to say goodbye, or at least, I for sure didn’t, but she had to get to class.”
“Did you get her number?” Thomas asked, putting his guitar off to the side.
Tobias smiled weakly and scratched his head. “No, I uh, kind of forgot to ask.”
Thomas clucked his tongue in disapproval. “No game whatsoever.”
“As if you’ve dated,” Gemma pointed out with a snort.
“I could if I wanted to! And you’re one to fucking talk. You—”
“Thomas!” Augustus snapped. My youngest brother looked at him in surprise and then clicked his mouth shut, the tips of his ears red.
“Sorry, sorry. I know.”
Gus nodded, tired, but Gemma appeared on the verge of spitting a retort anyway, so I turned to Tobias and hastily asked, “Do you think you’ll ever find her again?”
“Well, yeah,” he said, his cheeks somewhat pink. “It’s true love!”
Augustus scoffed in disbelief, and then squirmed uncomfortably as he realized everyone’s eyes had turned to him. “You just…can’t know that fast,” he muttered.
An awkward silence fell over our group, broken only by the sound of Mom’s chiming laughter as Dad told her and Gabriel a funny story. I caught my husband’s eye and smiled. His face softened as he smiled back. Maybe you couldn’t know that fast, but sometimes it felt like you could. Gabriel had made my heart beat faster from the start. I wished I’d paid more attention to him sooner. Instead, I’d been fixated by dreams of fame that never tasted as sweet as I’d imagined them to be.
“So, uh…why didn’t Patrick make it?” Thomas asked, breaking the lull. “Thought you were gonna invite him this time.”
Augustus kept his eyes downcast, uneasy under everyone’s continued attention. “He went to Twinbrook to visit his family,” he answered.
“You mean his foster family?”
“Does the specification matter?” Gemma inquired with an arch of her brow.
“Well…no. I don’t know”—he tsked impatiently, dismissing her comment— “I just mean, didn’t they ever adopt him?”
Augustus shook his head. “Not officially, no. They offered, apparently, but he turned them down—told them they’d done enough for him, looking after him all these years. They are his family though, even if it’s not on paper.”
“Huh,” Thomas remarked. “So, you two are, you know, cool, right?”
“What? Yeah, we’re—” Gus’ phone began to buzz. My brothers snickered as he snatched it off the floor behind him and checked the screen.
“‘Yeah,’ indeed,” Tobias teased, while Thomas smirked and added, “Whipped.”
Augustus didn’t seem to hear them.
“I’ll uh—” he started, still staring at the screen, “I’ll be right back.” He got to his feet and left through the backdoor, answering the call as soon as he’d closed it behind him.
Thomas watched him go and then raised an eyebrow at Gemma. “They are cool, right?”
“As far as I know, yes. They meet up all the time.”
“Can confirm,” Tobias agreed. “I always see them hanging out together on campus. Why?”
Thomas shrugged. “Just thought it was weird, how he got all up in arms about true love or whatever. I mean, not that he’s really into that stuff, but—I dunno, it was weird.”
Gemma grew pensive, small creases forming on her forehead and her lips parted as if to say something, but she seemed to change her mind as she closed them and shook her head before merely correcting, “It wasn’t true love that he got ‘up in arms’ about—it was love at first sight.”
“I said, ‘or whatever,’ didn’t I? What the hell?”
Gemma shot a withering glare in his direction.
Tobias smiled nervously and held up his hands. “Alright, you two….”
Seeing that the tension wasn’t dissipating, I cleared my throat and took a stab at changing the subject. “So, how’s school?” I asked.
My siblings swiveled their heads toward me, staring incredulously. I flushed and immediately felt like crawling into the basement. Such a stupid question. Gemma had already shared some about what she’d been experiencing at school, including being bullied by her classmates, and Thomas had recently been suspended. As for Tobias, I’d already overheard that he’d failed one of his required classes and would have to retake it the following semester.
I considered pretending to be violently ill, but Mom inadvertently came to the rescue by getting to her feet and clapping to get our attention.
“Alright, you guys!” she called out. “It’s getting late, so let’s get some pictures in while we’re all still dressed up!”
“I’ll go get Gus!” I gasped, and then fled before anyone else could offer instead.
As soon as I left the warm refuge of my parents’ home the cold stung my face, my breaths visible in little puffs of fog. Already shivering, I rubbed my hands and set off in search of Augustus.
I didn’t have to go far. He was standing at the edge of the crystalline pond, one hand in his pocket and the other holding his phone to his ear as he gazed up at the evening sky.
“Yeah, it’s um…it’s really cold, actually. Below freezing. It was snowing earlier, for a bit, but it’s clear now. I can even see some stars,” I overheard Augustus say. He quieted for a moment, listening, and then chuckled softly. “Lucky you.”
I slowed to a stop a few feet away, something in his voice making me pause. Augustus looked down at his dress shoes, which were buried deeply in the snow.
“I’m guessing though that you didn’t call for a Starlight Shores weather report….” He waited, a complicated expression working over his face as he heard the response. Confusion. Surprise. A whisper of pain?
“You’re right. I uh…I guess we never did get to.” He cleared his throat and closed his eyes. “Merry Christmas, Isaac.”
A soft breath escaped me, my brows furrowing. Who was Isaac? A friend from school? I’d never heard his name before. It felt, somehow, important.
Augustus let out a huff of laughter, quiet, but sincere. “It’s okay. You too. Enjoy your break and uh, take care…. Bye. I mean, see you, I guess. Well, not ‘I guess.’ I will see you. At school.” He winced, but whatever Isaac’s reply was eased his lips into a smile again. “Okay…. Bye.” Augustus lowered his phone and tapped the ‘end call’ button before slipping it into his pocket. He sighed hard enough that I could see it in the frigid air.
I realized only belatedly that he would turn around to head inside and nearly tripped over in my scramble to make it seem like I’d just walked out. Augustus looked up and jumped, having not expected to see me standing in the snow.
“Hi! Sorry, um, Mom’s calling everyone for pictures,” I said, my face warm.
“Oh. Okay…. Thanks.”
“Sorry,” I repeated, hunching my shoulders. “I didn’t mean to overhear. I just…um, was that…a friend of yours?”
Augustus hummed in assent and bowed his head, his hands returning to his pockets as he made for the door. I followed, my stomach turning. I shouldn’t have listened in. My curiosity had gotten the better of me.
“I won’t mention it if you don’t want me to!” I burst out as we neared the door.
Gus glanced at me from the corner of his eye, brows slightly lowered in question. “Mention what?”
“I—um….” What indeed? Why had I said that? He’d only been talking to a friend—talking about the weather and Christmas, no less. Why would I offer not to mention that? Why would that be a secret? I chewed my lip, unsure.
I supposed, for a moment, I’d thought—but no, he would never do that, and he and Patrick had always seemed solid. Solid, and very sweet. He would have mentioned if something was amiss, or Gemma would have brought it up, if only in passing. Both she and Tobias had confirmed that they seemed fine.
“Nothing,” I said with a shake of my head. “Never mind.”
“Yes. I—well….” A light snow had started again, the stars fading beneath rising clouds of gray. “Um, your friend…you two are close?”
Augustus’ eyes fell. “We used to be,” he answered, and then reached out to open the door for me. I stepped inside unthinkingly, only realizing as we ventured silently through the kitchen that it’d been a tacit end to the conversation.
It was an uncomfortable reminder that as much progress as I’d felt I’d made in reconnecting with my siblings, there was still so much I didn’t know—so much I hadn’t been around for.
I may not have been running out of time, but I had lost more of it than I cared to admit—time that could never be found again.
It would take at least as much as I’d missed to catch up.
♫ Although it’s been said many times, many ways…. ♫
♫ Merry Christmas to you ♫
* * * * *
Castles—they might crumble
Dreams may not come true
The next morning struggled to make itself known; daybreak obscured by thick swaths of stratus clouds that kept the light at bay. I clutched the cup of coffee nestled between my hands like a lifeline, Milo having woken Gabriel and I well before the sun had ever crested the horizon. Most of the household was still asleep, including Milo who was down for a nap, but my parents were up and had joined us at the table, spreading papers out before them as they discussed their plans for an upcoming Open House.
I resisted the desire to whine and pout, still unhappy at their decision to leave Starlight Shores. It would make it so much harder to stay close to them; it would make it so much harder to make up for the time I’d missed.
“I still don’t understand what’s so bad about here,” I couldn’t help but complain. “I mean, this house is already so remote. We’re constantly having to fend off paparazzi at our place—we even had to set up security cameras after Milo was born, but I haven’t seen a single paparazzo here.”
Dad looked up from the notes Mom had taken and pushed his glasses further up on his nose. “Maybe you haven’t, but not even a week ago the police were here because some photographer hopped the fence and tripped the alarm. Third time this month.” He picked up his tea and took a sip from it. “It’d be nice to live somewhere where you aren’t on a first-name basis with all the local cops because they’re called to your house so often.”
I let out a huff and dropped my gaze, but only because I could think of no counterargument to that. Gabriel and I knew several members of the Starlight Shores Police Department for the same reason. Still, in a small town, didn’t you come to know most people’s names anyway? Hidden Springs wouldn’t be that different.
“We won’t be so far away,” Mom assured, a knowing look in her warm, sparkling eyes. “It’s five hours by car, and only a little over an hour by plane, which isn’t that much further away if you consider traffic….”
I sighed, but she wasn’t wrong. With traffic, it did take well over an hour to cross the city, but still…not five. That was twice the distance to Bridgeport, and even that drive pushed my limits. Evidently, I would need to grow even more accustomed to flying.
“It’ll be okay,” Dad affirmed, and then offered me a bracing smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. I squirmed in my seat. I hadn’t meant to worry him again.
“Right,” I mumbled.
“There’s still always the possibility of us moving too,” Gabriel said quietly. Mom and Dad blinked in surprise, something close to hope lighting up both their faces.
“I don’t know,” I said, uncomfortable. “Starlight Shores is our home.”
I knew though that it wasn’t. Not entirely anyway. Our home was with the people we loved, and those people were in Bridgeport and soon, Hidden Springs too. I was also not blind to the fact that we’d eventually need a larger house anyway, but leaving Starlight Shores would be a step backward in our careers. It was awful enough that we hadn’t performed in months—moving away from the city where everything happened would only set us back even more.
Maybe I didn’t have any particular attachment to Starlight Shores, but I did to my singing career, and this city was, by far, the best place to be for that.
Gabriel’s phone rang, a ringtone I knew was reserved for Mrs. Fitch. I glanced at him, but he only excused himself and walked out into the living room. I drank some of my coffee, which had cooled while I’d sat and glowered at my parents.
There was nothing more I could say.
Five hours away, on a grassy bank at the mouth of the Zephyr River, the construction of a new house was already underway. It would be large enough for all of us, so even if we didn’t live there, there would always be an open space to welcome us if we needed it. It was a lovely sentiment, but whether it would pan out that way remained to be seen.
“I WAS JUST THERE!”
I jumped at the shout, coffee sloshing over the rim of my mug and onto the dining room table. Mom and Dad started too, heads snapping up as they stared toward the archway with startled eyes. I felt as though an invisible hand had reached out and grabbed my throat.
“SHE WAS FINE! I WAS JUST FUCKING THERE, AND SHE WAS FINE!”
I leapt from my chair, accidentally knocking it over as I rushed into the living room. My husband had his back to me, the lines of his shoulders rigid and his knuckles white as he grasped his phone. Ice sluiced through my veins, my heart freezing in my chest.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” he rasped, throat raw from shouting. “She was fine. Please, Mrs. Fitch. I can’t—”
Understanding punctured me like a needle to a balloon, hot tears burning at the corners of my eyes. I pressed my hand tightly over my mouth.
No, not this.
“She was fine,” Gabriel repeated, quieter, emptier. He collapsed onto one of the sofas, his face ashen and his body leaden. “She—please. Please, no. She was fine. She was—God, please, no.”
* * * * *
But you are never all alone
Camilla Micheli was laid to rest at the closing of the first week of the newly budding year. The sun was bright, the skies a periwinkle blue, but it was cold, and the wind whipped at our clothes as we stood to say goodbye to a woman who had seemed immune to time.
Even at the viewing earlier in the day, she’d appeared only asleep, which was how Claire had discovered her the morning after Christmas. Only, she never woke. The days that followed had been a blur, a meld of too many phone calls and too many tears.
Gabriel had barely spoken a word since.
It made my heart splinter, made it difficult to breathe, but it upset no one more than Milo, who kicked and screamed and couldn’t understand why we had to leave Daddy alone. It got to the point where I had to let him stay with my parents, who were helping me so much with the funeral arrangements that it’d fallen on the twins to look after him instead. They assured me that they didn’t mind, having often taken care of Thomas when he was little, and they were both good with him, but I couldn’t help but feel guilty that they were always there for me, even when I hadn’t always been there for them.
As if Camilla herself was attempting to provide what comfort she could to the people who’d loved her most, the day remained beautiful long after the service ended, friends and family gradually trickling out as they murmured parting condolences and prayers.
Gabriel received them with silent nods of acknowledgement while I thanked them and forced small smiles to my lips. Each one left me feeling a little more rundown. Not one made reality any easier to accept.
Camilla was gone, and all I could feel even surrounded by kindness and the beauty of the day, was the depth of her loss, pressing on me like the dirt shoveled onto her coffin.
What would I do? What would Gabriel do? My throat swelled, my eyes stinging in the wind.
“Hey. How you holdin’ up?”
I turned in surprise, having not heard anyone’s approach, though managed a smile as I caught sight of Ryan standing beside me. He was Milo’s godfather, and Gabriel’s best friend, but I hadn’t seen my husband say a word even to him. He only listened, standing mutely as Ryan spoke to him in hushed tones or merely stood by him, offering solace where he could and carrying with him a heavy grief of his own. Camilla had been like a grandmother to him too.
I slowly shook my head. “I should be asking you that. You knew her for so long.”
“Since I was a kid,” Ryan confirmed with a sigh. He looked over at her grave, where his mother, Mrs. Fitch, stood clasping Gabriel’s hand. She spoke to him earnestly, but too quietly to overhear. Sammy and Dante hovered nearby, busying themselves by rearranging some of the dozens of flowers that people had left. My family too, I knew, were still around, talking to some of Camilla’s friends from church or sitting on a bench trying to entertain Milo. Fewer and fewer remained.
Ryan dropped his gaze to his shoes. “I definitely thought she had a few more years, at least, but then again, in a few more years, I’d have probably felt the same.” He sighed again, longer, his shoulders falling with the sound. “It always feels like too soon, even when it’s technically not. She lived a really long life.”
I nodded in agreement and wiped a tear off my cheek. Ryan looked at me, understanding. “He’ll come around you know,” he said, his voice soft. “He always does.”
“I’m not so sure,” I admitted in a whisper. “He hasn’t spoken since. He barely eats or sleeps. I don’t know what to do.”
“Everything you’re already doing.” I opened my mouth to protest, but Ryan firmly continued, “I know it doesn’t feel like enough. I know it doesn’t, but it is. He’ll come around. He’ll be okay.”
“How can you be so sure?”
The corner of Ryan’s mouth lifted in a wry smile. “Because the grumpy bastard always is.”
A matching smile curved my lips. “He isn’t that grumpy.”
“Around you, maybe,” he relented.
I smiled again, but then looked away, uncertain. Ryan gave my shoulder a comforting squeeze. “I know I’ve said this before, but…you make him happy, Jo. That’s why I’m so sure he’ll get through this. He has you. Just don’t be afraid to push him now and then, or he’ll get stuck. Learned that the hard way, the first time.”
The first time—when Gabriel lost his late wife; when they’d lost a treasured friend, and at only twenty years old. She’d been taken from them, cruelly and unexpectedly. My stomach turned even remembering Gabriel tell the story. So much pain. I wrapped my coat tighter around myself.
“I can’t imagine,” I said sadly. “It must have been so awful—for all of you. It never should have happened. Not to anyone.”
“No, not to anyone,” Ryan echoed in agreement.
Words left us, the quiet of the cemetery rising like the tide to sweep us out. My toes were numb, the evening cold persistent in its advance. The sun had begun to dip below the horizon.
The shuffling sound of footsteps pulled us from our thoughts, our heads simultaneously lifting to see my family making their approach. Ryan greeted them with a friendly, albeit subdued smile, which my family returned. I made sure to smile too, not wanting to give my parents any further causes for concern. They’d already done so much for us.
“Heading out?” I asked.
Dad met my eyes, his features lined with worry I’d failed to assuage, worry that kept him lingering long after most had left. “If that’s okay?” he replied, uncertain. “If you need us to stay, we can check back in at the hotel—”
“Oh, no,” I interjected. “We’re fine and it’s a long drive home. Better to get going now before it gets even later.”
Reservation remained in my father’s eyes, but he nodded regardless, understanding. “Did you want us to take Milo with us? We don’t mind either way. He’s always welcome.”
“I…um—” I hesitated, my heart sinking in my chest. I wanted to take him, and knew Sammy and Dante wouldn’t mind if he joined us at their place, but I wasn’t sure if Gabriel still needed the extra space. We had a few days left in Bridgeport at the least, legal matters to attend to and Camilla’s house to figure out. We would likely have to ready it to put it up for sale, though I couldn’t see Gabriel wanting to rush to see that through.
I shifted uncomfortably and finally answered, “If you could, yes. I’d appreciate that.”
“Are you sure?” Ryan asked, catching my eye. “It might do him some good, you know—having Milo around again. He probably misses him as much as you.”
I felt my eyes well up some, my throat tight. “I um—well, maybe only for the weekend? We were planning on heading back to Starlight Shores on Monday anyway, so I can pick him up then, even if we have to come back again.”
“No problem,” Dad said. “Anything you need.” I nodded and glanced past his shoulder where Gemma was standing quietly with Augustus, a sleeping Milo enfolded in her arms.
I wanted to say goodbye to him; wanted to assure him that I’d see him soon, but I didn’t want to wake him, so I simply stepped forward and hugged my dad goodbye.
Mom hurried forward to hug me too and then, to my surprise, the rest of my siblings did as well, coming up one by one to offer their condolences. I even got to give Milo a kiss on the head before my family left, shoulders hunched against the cold as they walked toward the street.
By Camilla’s grave, Sammy and Dante seemed to be saying their goodbyes too. I caught Ryan’s eye and he nodded before we walked over, exchanging more hugs and farewells.
Eventually, only Gabriel and I remained, standing alone amidst flowers and rows of tombstones in various states of disrepair. Camilla’s stood as the newest, though her husband’s nearby was not all that much older. The graves of Gabriel’s parents were also not far away, and at the other side of the cemetery, I knew I could find Daisy’s as well. Too many people. Too much loss.
I wrapped my arm around Gabriel and leaned against his shoulder.
I didn’t ask if he wanted to stay longer.
I knew that he did.
I didn’t ask if he wanted me to stay.
I knew that he wanted that too.
So, I stayed—stayed as the shadows grew and as the day’s light faded. Stayed for as long as he needed me to.
Cause I will always,
Always love you
* * * * *
When the clouds will rage in
Storms will race in
He didn’t come around. Not for a long while. Not even when I brought Milo home, hoping that Ryan was right and that his presence would bring Gabriel some small measure of comfort. Instead, he barely seemed to notice, helping at times to tend to him in the middle of the night, but more often leaving me alone with him as he left the house for hours at a time.
I hired a babysitter and followed him once, out of my mind with worry and picturing the worst, but he only walked. For miles and miles, he walked down frigid streets, until I took a cab home and cried until I couldn’t breathe.
I pushed Gabriel to eat and pulled him to bed, and he’d lie awake, lost in memories, lost in pain. Milo grew fussier and crankier, but I didn’t know what to do. I doubted Ryan’s words, and I doubted I was enough. Camilla was all he had left of his family. Now she too was gone, following a long line of loss.
I worried, sometimes, that it was finally too much. The last drop in a glass already overfilled. I scrambled in my efforts to find more vessels to fill—to catch what spilled over and hold it for him.
I tried to remind him of what he still had. Me. Milo. My family. His friends. The sun that peered through the curtains at dawn. The moon that gleamed and the oceans that breathed. I sang for Milo, hoping it would soothe him. I sang for Gabriel, hoping it would do the same.
Sometimes, I’d think I saw the faintest impression of a smile at the corner of his mouth, but other times, I wondered if it’d only been a dream.
I held him when he did sleep, and tried to keep the nightmares at bay.
But you will be safe in my arms
* * * * *
Rains will pour down
Waves will crash around
It was late, the deep quiet of the night at odds with the frustration rumbling in my chest, with the despair that crept toward me like an oncoming storm. I tossed and turned, unable to sleep despite the undertow of exhaustion that left me lying in bed. I needed rest. Milo had finally drifted off to dreams, but he’d wake soon enough, and I would have to tend to him.
I shut my eyes tight. Anger rose on my tongue like sharpened daggers, poised to cut. I swallowed them down, but felt renewed anger surge.
Snap out of it, please! There are still people here who need you. Come back! Please! I can’t take it anymore!
Your grandmother never would have wanted this.
I flopped onto my back again, staring up at the canopy and attempting to soften the words that I needed to say to the man I needed to be by my side. Closing my eyes, I tried to rearrange the words and rediscover patience. This wasn’t his fault. He was grieving and all I wanted was to know how to help. My heart ached, and then abruptly shattered as I heard a broken sob from beside me.
“Gabriel?” I whispered. He had his back to me, his shoulders shaking and his body folding in upon itself. I rolled toward him and held him tight. His sobs worsened and I started crying too.
“I know, love. I know. I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “I’m so sorry. I’m here.”
He turned and gathered me in his arms, holding onto me like a life preserver in the middle of the sea. I cradled his head and pulled him close, silent tears streaking down my face.
“I’m here,” I repeated, drawing a shuddering breath. “I love you. I’m here.”
I’ll always be here.
But you will be safe in my arms
In my arms