By: Corinne Renee Fowler

Picture drawn by: Corinne Renee Fowler

What was my favorite Christmas tradition?

Well, I don’t have one in particular. I used to love everything when I was little: caroling throughout the neighborhood, making Christmas cards out of construction paper, writing letters to Santa Claus… I loved it all. That was because most of my memories come from my father, David. Nobody loved Christmas like he did. He would pile up the mountain of presents all around the tree. It was so big that it could have been Mount Everest… at least to a my four-year-old self. My father was amazing at Christmas.

He was a great father, but he was a lot older than most parents. He was technically old enough to be my grandfather. But he raised me all by himself. My mother, Grace, had died when I was a baby. So Dad had to raise me all by himself, with the help of my many aunts (and uncles), my grandmother, Maureen, who was, like, eighty by the time my dad turned fifty, and a neighbor named Bonnie Hunter, who was the sweetest person I had ever known. She was just a little bit older than me. She was seven years older than me. She was the coolest big sister a girl could have.

So, I guess my dad wasn’t alone, exactly. I had plenty of female influences, and Dad had plenty of males to hang out with, probably to occasionally remind himself that he was a guy. You know the saying, “It takes a village”? That was my family: one big, crazy village. And when my father died, that village was literally the craziness that saved my life.

My dad was my best friend, and I had lost him when I was thirteen years old. He had stage-four metastasized bone cancer. It was horrible to see him like that. (I still suffered from the nightmares.) But it was my aunt Lucille and my neighbor, Bonnie, who helped me get back to life.

You know about my family. Now, who am I exactly? I’m Jo…. Okay, my full name is Josephine Victoria Thomas, but everyone I know calls me Jo, I’m seventeen. I have two best friends, Mary Curtis and Dana Rose. The three of us worked together at a charity event in freshman year (you know, because we had to), and now the three of us are inseparable. We’ve led different lives, but no matter what, we always come back to each other.

It was actually Bonnie who suggested that I should do some community service and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. As I said, I had met Mary. She’s a bit of a religious person, but she’s so sweet. She has these gorgeous blue eyes and this wavy brown hair. She looks like a model in one of those picture frames, or whatever.

And Dana is just the coolest girl I know. Short, bouncy brown curls, big, playful brown eyes and really, really tall, Dana can be seen for miles. She comes from California, which explains her deep, rich tan and her wildness. Only, she’s not wild at first. She’s an introvert at first (sort of like me), but once you get to know her, she’s so cool, and completely nuts.

It was just after Thanksgiving vacation that the Christmas blues hit me, it wasn't easy seeing the Christmas decorations, or hearing the music with the still painful memory of my father fresh in my heart. Dana, of course, tried to cheer me up at school.

“Just think Jo the Christmas ball,” Dana said grinning ear to ear. “All them cute boys,”

“Oh, that’s right!” I exclaimed. I had completely forgotten about that damn ball. “I forgot to buy a dress. Maybe I shouldn’t go. I don’t have anything to wear, for Pete’s sake.”

“Hey we can go shopping, Mary still needs a dress,” Dana said.

“True,” I replied with a shrug. “I mean, she has mentioned that a little. Hey, where is Mary, anyway?” I asked, looking around.

“Still in her class probably,” Dana said. “She's gotta get A's in everything, don't you know,”

I shrugged. Even though I knew that Mary’s schoolwork was really important to her, I didn’t get the impression that she was obsessed with getting all A’s. So, I think Dana might have been wrong about that one. Or it could have just been that Dana was always struggling with school. She wasn’t stupid, or anything, not even a little. But I think the idea of just being confined in a small-ass classroom for six long, tedious hours drove Dana a little nuts. (Can’t say that I blame her, or anything.)

“Here she is,” Dana pointed. “Hey Mary,” she called through the crowd.

“Oh, hey guys,” Mary waved.

“Hey, Mary, what’s up?” I greeted her, quietly admiring that gorgeous hair of hers, or her beautiful blue, sparkling scarf that she bought from Kohl’s. God, she was completely gorgeous! Meanwhile, my messy blond hair was all over the place. My brownish hazel eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep, and my outfit looked like something out of a bad ’80’s movie: denim coat, ratty old red scarf, pink and purple polka-dotted leggings-- with ankle warmers-- and sneakers that should have been replaced two years ago.

“Mr. Robert assigned a big project just before class ended,” Mary told them. “Watch out when you get into history,”

“Oh, I have him later. God, I hate that guy!” said Dana, rolling her eyes.

“He’s not that bad,” I said, nudging her. “I mean, he kind of smells like Altoids and Old Spice cologne, but he’s not a bad guy.”

“I just don't like him,” Dana said. “He's always trying to put me in detention for something stupid,” Dana said.

“Neither do I,” Mary admitted, looking a little ashamed. “But, I mean, it’s… whatever, I guess.”

“Well, anyway, Dana was just thinking that the three of us could go shopping for the dance. I have something to do later today, but I’ll be right by the square anyway. I could meet up with you guys afterwards,” I said. I didn’t want to mention to my friends where I was going right after school. Every day, I would go down to the cemetery, and visit my dad. Sometimes, I would talk to him for hours, just like I used to when he was alive. Other times, I would yell at him for not going to the damn doctor, even though he had the best insurance that money could buy. But mostly, I would just stare blankly at the name carved on his headstone, and pray that he knew that, even though I was pissed off at him, I still loved him with all my heart. I never told my friends about my visits with him, because I knew it was awkward for them.

“I'm not up for the dance,” Mary said rubbing her arm.

“Ohh come on Mary,” Dana sighed. “Tell her how she's gotta go Jo,”

I just raised my eyebrows at Dana. Was this bitch out of her mind? There was no way in hell that I was going to tell Mary what to do. Especially since I could barely sort my own shit out. “Um… well, if nothing else, downtown has some really yummy hot chocolate we could guzzle down and scald our throats with,” I told Mary instead. “Besides, we’re not the Musketeers if you’re not there, Mary.”

“Well...I'll do it for the hot chocolate,” Mary said smiling slightly.

“Good enough,” Dana giggled. “So… what time should we meet up? Jo, I know you have some shit to do, so…”

“Damn, I don’t know. Four-thirty, maybe?” I suggested with a shrug.

“Take your time,” Mary said.

“Yeah you can always text us,” Dana nodded

“Definitely,” I replied. “Or I’ll do that video chat thingy. I’m still trying to figure it out, and maybe, the more I use it, the more I’ll know how to, or whatever.”

“Oh, for sure,” Dana replied with a sort-of nod of agreement.

“Good luck, I didn't even know about video call till Dana rang me up in the middle of Sunday serves. I thought my folks were gonna kill me,” Mary told me.

“Dude. How is it that we’re, like, sixteen, seventeen, or whatever, but we act like we’re in our fifties?” I asked, laughing a little bit. It funny, because was true. We were the only millenials that I knew of who could barely operate a damn tablet.

“We're old souls,” Mary smiled.

“Speak for yourself,” Dana snorted.

“Ohh Jerry,” she cried and hurried off.

“Ohh boy,” Mary said rolling her eyes.

“Oh, brother,” I whispered, shaking my head. If there was anything to be said about our lovely Dana Rose, it was that she was boy-crazy. I think Jerry was her third boyfriend that year, or something.

“Anyway, I gotta get to my next class. We'll see you later,” Mary told me.

“See you later, Mary,” I replied. I gave her a quick shoulder-hug, and went to my next class: Algebra II (what a bitch that class was).

After school, I did exactly as I said I would do: I went to the cemetery. The cool late November wind brushed through her hair as she stood in front of her father’s grave. Steering once more at the engravement. “What the hell, Dad?” I whispered, shaking my head, feeling once again, my heart breaking at the sight of that terrible headstone. What was worse, I had forgotten to buy a bouquet for him-- again. I kept on meaning to, but once again, I got side-tracked, and by the time I finally remembered, I was turning to the corner sidewalk, close to the entrance of the cemetery gates, and the nearest flower shop was all the way across town.

Then, something caught my eye, there standing against a tree, it was a shadow, standing there like a ghost. It was like he was haunting me. I swear to God, it felt like something out of a movie, or something. It was weird and freaky.

I jumped out of my skin, and turned to the shadow, but by that time, the shadow was gone. “Whoa!” I whispered. “What the hell!” I looked down at my father’s grave, and sighed. “I gotta go, Dad. I love you.” I leaned over the headstone, and kissed it gently, before I took a step back, blessed myself, and then ran to meet up with my friends. They had to know what just happened. They probably wouldn’t believe me if I told them, but I had to tell them anyway.

Dana and Mary waited in the bookstore food court for me to join them. Dana was skimming through a dress fashion magazine for dress ideas while Mary was browzing her favorite selection of books.

“We just order hot cocoa Jo,” Dana told me as I approached. “I told Mary you wouldn't be too much longer,”

“Dana Rose, you are a lifesaver,” I told her, and sat down beside her. “Wow! Your curls look really pretty right now. Like, they’re always pretty, or whatever, but right now, wow!” I said, and began playing with them. I don’t know why I do weird, random crap like that. Maybe I’m just easily amused. Who knows. But at that moment, the simpleton in me was having a freaking ball. “Boing! Boing!” I said, lightly pulling on one curl.

Dana chuckled at my silliness, “I love you Jo,”

“I got the cocoa,” Mary announced joining us carrying a tray of three cocoa's and three cinnamon buns. “They smelt too good to pass up,” she blushed.

“Genius!” I exclaimed goofily, and took a cinnamon bun. “You’re the best. Thanks, Mary.” Unceremoniously, I took a huge bite of my delicious pastry. “Oh!” I said. “You won’t believe what just happened to me before I got here.”

“You meet a tall dark stranger who's rich and will kidnap all of us and spoil us to a life of luxury and fine living,” Dana said looking off in a dreamy way.

“Wow Dana,” Mary sighed shaking her head. “Ignore her Jo, what happened?”

“Well, I met a stranger that might kidnap me, but I don’t think it’ll be to spoil all of us in the lap of luxury,” I replied, trying so hard not to laugh, and spit out all of my food all over the table. “So, I was at the cemetery, you know, doing my thing, or whatever. And out of nowhere I see this weird… like… shadow figure by that oak tree that my dad’s headstone is near. You know where I’m talking about? Sort of near the stone wall area near the entrance?”

“Josephine!” Mary frowned. “Why didn't you tell us you were going to the cemetery?”

“Yeah you know it's not safe over there,” Dana said dropping her silliness for a rear serious look. “We could of come with you. What if the jerk hurt you?”

Immediately, I clamped up. There was nothing I hated more than getting yelled at by my two best friends. “You… know I go there from time to time,” I mumbled meekly.

“We don't want to lose you, Jo,” Mary said a little softer hugging me gently. “I only get worried about you cause I love you. I mean, do you realize how many weirdos are around that area in town?”

“Well… I don’t talk about going there, because I know it’s awkward for you,” I replied, leaning my head against Mary’s shoulder, and nervously began fiddling with the ends of my hair.

“Jo, I understand, it's still painful. I remember when my nana passed. I went everyday for, like, two years straight. I'm sure it's the same with your dad,” Mary said patting Jo lovingly.

“Yeah I bet your dad was the best,” Dana nodded.

I sighed, and tucked my hair behind my ear. “Sorry I didn’t tell you guys,” I told them. “I mean, obviously, I didn’t stay long. I saw the Phantom of the Opera, and booked!” The girls laughed at that, and I was a little relieved. It sort of took away from the tension, which was what I was going for.

“Phantom of the Opera,” Dana snorted, shaking her head.

“That's a good one Jo,” Mary smiled. “Well let's just enjoy these delicious cinnamon buns and cocoa,”

“Sounds good to me,” I said, and held up my cup of hot cocoa. “Cheers, everybody,” I said.

“Cheers,” my friends echoed.

“Hey Jo, look at this dress,” Dana said quickly changing the subject and shoving her magazine in front of my face. All the dresses we're way too expensive for any of us to ever afford but it was what Dana liked to do.

“Yeah, it’s pretty,” I said, even though it was another black dress. Dana was always wearing black. Not in a creepy gothic sort of way, but usually in a weird sort of Catholic schoolgirl sort of way that was in contrast to everything else about her. Her attire didn’t match her wild behavior. It was kind of goofy.

“Kinda short,” Mary pointed out. “I mean, for a gown.”

“It's still sexy,” Dana retorted. “I saw one that would make you super hot Jo,” Dana said flipping through. “And it's your favorite color,” she said pointing out to me.

“Oh, jeez,” I said, covering my face. The last time she had suggested an outfit, it was something along the lines of lingerie and a mink coat that looked like whoever made it had just butchered the poor animal that day before it was “transformed” into a coat. Let’s put it this way: I would have rather eaten garbage than wore that horrible outfit. But I didn’t say that to her at the time. I think I said something along the lines that I couldn’t afford it, or whatever.

“No, seriously, Jo. You’ll love it,” Dana said, and patted my hand, and pushed the magazine closer to me. “Would I ever steer you wrong?” she asked innocently.

“Never, my love,” I replied, batting my eyelashes cutely, and looked down at the magazine to the photo that Dana was pointing to. I had to admit that the dress was kind of pretty. It was yellow, which is my favorite color. I never wear yellow because, shoot, I’m already a blond. Could you imagine yellow on yellow? Talk about goofy-looking! But this dress was a softer, more subtle yellow. It was elegant and almost Disney princess-ish with a floral design embroidered on the bottom. Judging by the model who was sporting it in the photo, the dress would have gone down to my calves, which was fine by me, because I didn’t want to trip and fall all over the place trying to walk around, or whatever. And I had to admit that my old-lady flat white shoes actually would have looked pretty with the dress. I had to say, I was impressed with Dana’s choice of dress.

“Dude, I like!” I said. “That is really pretty!”

Dana burst out laughing. “Well, jeez. You don’t have to sound that surprised, Jo!” she giggled, giving me a playful nudge. “I know what I’m talking about sometimes, you know.”

“Only sometimes,” Mary teased. Dana stuck her tongue at Mary and Mary playful snacked Dana's hand. “Well wanna get the torture over with?”

“Torture?” Dana frowned. “I'll only put in several thousand dresses,”

Mary and I chuckled a little. We both knew that this was really Dana’s playtime. Most of the time, she dressed like a freaking nun. She said it was comfortable that way. She could just get dressed and get going. Which is cool, I guess. I mean, I dressed like a slob most of the time anyway.

The three of us finish our drinks and head off to the best place to get dresses that we could actually afford. The Dress Shop had a good selection of all kinds of dresses for all occasions.

I browsed around away from the girls for a moment. I didn’t want them to distract me or persuade me one way or another. Whatever decision I made, I wanted to make on my own without the girls telling me which one would be better. (I guess that’s why I dress as horribly as I do, but I took the chance anyway.) To my surprise, there was a dress similar to the one I liked in the magazine. Only it had long sleeves and it wasn’t quite as frilly. It was perfect. I loved it. But since it was still hanging up on a hook, it was hard for me to tell how long it was exactly. It was still beautiful, in a more Spring Formal way, rather than a wintery way, but I think that’s why I loved it so much. Everyone else would be in some sexy shade of deep red or icy blue or black. I wanted to be a little different. The best part was it was within my spending budget (even if only barely).

Dana caught me looking at the dress, “Ohh I like that Jo,” she said squeezing my shoulders. “Like that one in the magazine,”

“Dana, leave Jo alone,” Mary scolded coming around another rack.

“Yes mother,” Dana sighed.

“Guys, it’s fine,” I chuckled, and looked at the dress Mary picked out. It was cute. A deep shade of pink with some sparkles on the hem. It kind of looked like a snow fairy kind of design. It was really pretty, I thought. “Sweet dress,” I told her.

“You don't think it's too much,” Mary asked pulling it to her chest, to show it off.

“No!” I snorted, and shook my head. “You look like a princess.”

“I do?” Mary asked.

“Yeah, you do. You’re beautiful, Mary,” I told her, and turned to Dana. “Don’tcha think?” I asked her.

“I like it,” Dana nodded. “I was thinking of this,” she said holding up a short black dress with a silver snowflakes around the bottom.

“Oooh!” both Mary and I chorused. Oh, yeah. The dress was definitely Dana. She loved black, that was for sure.

“I could do my hair all bouncy, as you call it Jo with some silver ribbon or something,” Dana smiled. “Jerry will love it,”

“Oh, you’d look so cute!” I exclaimed in delight.

“Well, now I'm broke,” Mary said. “Let's go check out,”

“Yep, me too,” I replied, and followed behind her. Dana followed not far behind, but I did notice she was looking at a pair of shoes. That girl had no concept of money sometimes. She was adorable and sweet, but she never kept track of her money, and she’d wind up in debt. Poor Dana.

The girls walked out discussing what they could do now, “Ohh Jo how's Bonnie doing?” Mary asked.

“Yeah have you seen her lately,” Dana asked swing her bag over her shoulder.

“Oh, Bonnie’s good,” I replied. “She’s actually in Paris right now. She has a relative there, I guess, who died. So, she has to go there to a funeral. But Bonnie didn’t really care for the relative, I guess.”

“Ohh I want to go to Paris,” Dana sighed. “Hey when we finish high school, we should go for a European tour,”

“Definitely,” I replied. “Bonnie’s complaining that she has to go. I’d give anything to go. Bonnie’s such a brat, isn’t she?”

“If she's going for a funeral, it's not much of vacation,” Mary pointed out.

“Okay, good point,” I said, rolling my eyes, feeling like a jerk. Mary had a way of doing that to me and Dana. I don’t think she meant to, but it happened a lot. It drove me freaking nuts.

“Man,” Dana sighed. “I was hoping we could hang out with her. Well how about your Aunt Lucille? Would she mind if we hung out with you?”

“She comes home on Thursday,” I told her, and smiled playfully at her. “You think you can hold out till then, girl?”

“I'll try,” Dana sighed dramatically.

“Aaww!” I said, and gave her a big hug. “I wuv you,” I told her in a goofy baby-talk voice.

“Aww,” Dana giggled.

“You two are so weird,” Mary said shaking her head. “We could come to my place for a while,” she offered.

“Sounds good,” I replied, and playfully tugged on a strand of Mary’s long wavy brown hair. “Let’s go, you guys, before this place closes.”

“Right,” Dana said following right behind me and Mary.

Mary's house wasn't too far from where we had been shopping. In fact we were all in the same neighborhood, not exactly neighbors but close enough to visit the other anytime. Mary's parents were nice, her father a little strict and her mother a neat freak but it was never too awkward.

One weird thing that kind of throws me off about her parents is that I think her dad is really cute. I never thought I’d have a slight thing for a friend’s father before until I met Mary. But everytime I see Mary’s dad, my hands get all clammy and I turn fifty shades of purple. It’s so weird.

“Hey Mary,” her father, Derek Curtis called. “Ohh hey Dana, jo. How's it going?”

“It’s going good, Mr.Curtis,” Dana spoke up. “We went to the dress shop for our formal this weekend.”

“Oh, good,” Mr. Curtis replied with a nod. “Well, I’m sure you girls will look very nice for the dance.”

I lowered my eyes, and focused on my shoes. Why did I melt everytime I saw that guy? He was, like, fifty years old, for craps sake! Like, what the hell?

“Well be in my room, what time is dinner?” Mary asked.

“Six-ish, you girls interested? We're having homemade meatballs and pasta,” Mr. Curtis asked.

“Ooh, nice,” said Dana, smiling wickedly. This was what Dana and I really had in common: our love for food. Anything that could go into our gullets was perfect for us. We didn’t care. (Actually, even though she didn’t like to admit it, Mary was the same way.)

“Thank you,” I said trying not to blush as Mary ushered us into her room.

“God, I'm sorry about my dad,” Mary sighed sitting on her bed hugging her puppy dog pillow.

“Sorry about what?” I asked, hugging one of her fluffy stuffed animals. I loved her stuffed animals. She had an assortment of them all over her room. This time, I was holding her stuffed kitten. It was my favorite. I tried buying it off of her once, but she smacked my hand away, and took it from me. That was a sad day, a very sad, sad day.

“For him being, I don't know my dad,” Mary sighed playing idaly playing with the floppy ears of her puppy.

“Well, he is a little strict, but he’s not horrible, or anything,” said Dana. “Trust me. You’re good.”

“So you guys have a clue about that history project. Tell a tale of a civil war hero, only I got stuck with the south side,” Mary sighed. “I hate the south, they wanted slavery,”

“Well,” I spoke up thoughtfully, “not everyone in the South did…. I mean, Stonewall was a hero in his own right, as was Robert E. Lee. But the guy that I’m studying is General Joshua Chamberlain.”

“I'll have to look them up, thanks Jo,” Mary nodded scribbling the names down.

“I'm doing Ulysses S. Grant,” Dana sighed. “I hate history though. I mean we already lived it, why do we gotta study it?”

“So we don’t repeat it,” I told Dana. I never got into history, but I always appreciated its purpose.

“Like the north and south would go to war again,” Dana laughed.

“With the way things are going now, it wouldn’t surprise me, to be honest. Only, it won’t be north and south. It’ll be Democrat and Republican,” I replied, shaking my head.

“That would be a battle, the elections are bad enough,” Mary said.

“Tell me about it. You know what’s screwed about the whole thing? The people who see things from both perspectives are either ignored, or made fun of. Like, I see where both sides are coming from, but if I told either Democrat or Republican that, they’d skin me alive,” I told my friends.

“It’s definitely a shame, to be sure,” Dana agreed with a shrug.

“Hey our last semester were doing that mock election. I'm kinda looking forward to that,” Mary smiled. “I've been studying the candidates so I can make my case why I'd choose them,”

“Oh, shoot! That’s right!” said Dana. “I completely forgot!”

Truth be told, I actually tried to forget, because politics were messy, and I wanted no part of it. That’s just how I felt about it. If people were going to go out of their way to disagree and be abusive, I wanted no part of it.

“I tried to,” Dana sighed. “but they want to make sure we vote when we turn eighteen, like I'm ever really going to,”

“You should. I mean, if you ever want things to change, you have to be a part of it,” I told her. “I mean, I’m going to vote like a mad person when I’m eighteen.”

“Politics lie no matter who you vote for,” Dana frowned.

“Let's just stop,” Mary frowned. “I rather you go back to the dance,”

“I agree,” I replied. “I can’t wait! Thank you, you guys, for cheering me up. I really needed it.”

“Of course, you got a man in mind?” Dana teased.

“It’s you, baby,” I replied, wiggling my eyes at her, and made purring noises. Both girls burst out laughing. Even Mary enjoyed some of my strange humor.

“I didn't know I was a man,” Dana chuckled.

“That's cause you haven't check lately,” Mary smiled.

“Ohh yea what about Robert?” Dana asked smiling at Mary. “I see you making eyes at him in science,”

Mary blushed deep and buried her head in her puppy dog, she mumbled something into it. Like ‘not good enough’.”

I smiled to myself, watching as my two best friends teased each other. Most people on the outside looking in would think that they were being spiteful toward each other. But I knew better. They teased out of love. That was what made our friendship so strong. We could torture each other, and then laugh about it afterwards. Most other friendships weren’t like that, especially in high school.

“Aww Robert is a good guy, he's pretty cool,” Dana said rubbing Mary's shoulder. “Tell her Jo,” she urged encouragingly.

“Actually, Rob’s pretty cool,” I replied with a shrug. Yeah, I knew Robert King. He was nice enough. I didn’t know him very well, but as I told Dana, I thought he was pretty cool.

“Hey what about Jo?” Mary frowned looking up. “Don't you have a crush,”

“I haven't figured it out yet,” Dana said tapping her chin thoughtful.

“That’s because I don’t like anybody,” I told my friends. “Everyone around here sucks. All they ever think about is sex. It’s gross.”

“Well it sounds like a thing that you do when your in love and it could be very fun,” Dana smiled.

“I don't blame you Jo,” Mary nodded. “I'm not ready,”

“It’s not just that. I mean, it’s literally the guys around here. They’re horrible,” I told my friends. “I did like a guy, Taylor, last year, but he moved back to New Hampshire over the summer.”

“I remember Taylor,” Dana smiled. “But not all guys are bow-chicka-wow-wow,” she told me.

Mary and I burst out into laughter. “Dana!” I squealed, and playfully swatted at her with the stuffed kitten I was still holding.

“Wow how old are you,” Mary sighed shaking her head.

“Three and a quarter,” Dana answered cutely in a babyish voice.

“Sounds about right,” Mary nodded.

I laughed, watching as my friends continued to tease each other. “You guys are so bad,” I told them.

“Maryelyn! Josephine! Danielle! Come down here! Supper is ready!” called Mary’s mother Suzanne, who had the tendency to call all three of us by our full names, which, we all hated, even Mary.

“Coming mom,” Mary called back as she stood. “Come, mother is calling,” she told us opening her door.

Dana and I snorted as we got up from Mary’s bed. “I hate it when she does that,” I whispered.

“Tell me about it,” Dana snorted.

“At least you don’t have to hear it every day,” Mary pointed out. “I officially hate my name, just so you guys know.”

“So don't we,” I replied as we went down the stairs. The table was set, Derek was placing a big serving bowl on the table and smiled as the girls came into sight.

“Hope your hungry,” he said.

“Starving. Thanks, Mr. Curtis,” said Dana.

“How about you, miss Josephine?” asked Derek, smiling fondly at me.

I lowered my eyes, my tongue tied. God, why did this guy have to be so freaking cute? “Um… yeah, actually,” I replied, forcing myself to be a little more talkative around him. It was hard, but it was either that, or Mary’s family would think I’m completely nuts (and they’d probably be right, too).

“School going good,” Suzanne said come in with a mix salad and some dressings. She set them on the table looking at the girls.

“Yep,” I replied. “We’re doing a history project on the Civil War.”

“Ahh interesting,” Suzanne nodded.

“Umm we just need the parmesan,” Derek said looking over the table.

“Well, go get it, goofball,” Suzanne replied, and shook her head. “Jeez!”

“Yes dear,” Derek nodded going into the kitchen. Suzanne sat sighing shaking her head.

The three of us giggled. They really were a cute couple. We all sat at the table with the delicious smelling dinner, Derek was a good cook. Having dinner at Mary's was the best. Derek served up the main course while Suzanne gave everyone a side dish of salad.

“Help yourself to whatever dressing. We got a good pick,” Suzanne waved.

“We sure do,” Derek agreed, taking the Ranch dressing.

The three of us ate, and chatted with Mary’s parents.

“Do you need a ride home?” Derek asked once dinner was done. Mary had gotten up to help put the dishes in the dishwasher.

“Oh. No thank you, Mr. Curtis,” Dana replied. “I have my car, and… unless Jo wants to go with you, or whatever, she’s always welcome to ride along with me.”

“Y-yeah,” I stammered. “I… I’ll just ride along with… um…” For a moment, I forgot Dana’s name. I felt like such an idiot! “With Dana,” I was finally able to finish, and shoved spaghetti into my mouth in attempt to cover up my brain cramp.

Derek only nodded not taking the stammer to any heart but sharp little Dana looked up and raised an eyebrow at me. But thankfully didn't say a word.

I just ignored her anyway. I was not going to explain that stupid move in front of Mary’s parents. Hell no!

After dinner, we got our stuff, and got ready to go. I turned to give Mary a hug. “Thanks for having us over, love,” I told her.

“Anytime,” Mary shrugged. “See you tomorrow,”

“Definitely,” I replied. “Bye, Mrs. Curtis and… um… Mr. Curtis.”

“Bye guys,” Derek waved.

“Take care you guys,” Suzanne waved too.

Finally, we could make our grand escape, so I could finally drool over Mary’s dad. The only person I could talk to about that was Dana. She was cool about it. She actually thought it was pretty hilarious. Can’t say that I blamed her, either. It was kind of silly.

In the car, Dana took her shoot at me, “You graverobber you, Mary's fricken dad dude,” she laughed as she drove me home. Maybe it was better I took the ride from Mr. Curtis.

“Oh, please. Like you don’t have a crush on Mr. Walker,” I teased. “He was your homeroom teacher last year, and you’re still drooling over the guy.”

“Not like you were tonight. And wanna act all up tight about guys wanting it. You so want it,” Dana laughed.

“Dana, if you weren’t driving, I’d literally kill you right now,” I told her, laughing. “I’m sorry, okay? Mr. Curtis is freaking gorgeous!”

Dana laughed at me again, clearly enjoying I couldn't strangle her. She shook her head, “Ahh see it now, Mary having to call you mom,” she snorted.

“Oh, jeez,” I groaned, covering my face with my hands. I couldn’t believe how much fun this brat was having at my expense right now. “You suck, Dana!”

Dana stuck her tongue at in a teasing matter and pulled into my driveway, “Hey you make it too easy,” she chuckled.

“You’re lucky I love you, Dana,” I told her. “Thanks for the ride.” I gave her a quick hug. “Wuv you.”

“I love you too, and don't worry I won't tell Mary,” she assured me as she patted my back.

“Thanks,” I said, and grabbed my new dress, before getting out of the car. My aunt Lucille was in the living room, watching Law & Order on TV when I entered the house. I’ve been living with her and my uncle Ben since my father died. It’s a good place to live. They didn’t try to be my parents. At least, not in the obvious way. Like, they would express concerns if I was acting particularly psychotic. But usually, they were cool about me hanging out with my friends. It was probably because they knew I hung out with decent people, and not drug-addicted morons.

“Hey, Auntie,” I greeted, and kissed Aunt Lucille’s cheek.

“Ohh Jo, hey,” Lucille smiled at me. “How was school?”

“Educational,” I replied with a playful wink, and hung my dress up in my room, before returning to the living room. I sat down on the couch beside my aunt, and watched TV with her for another hour, before I got bored. It was all the same anyway. It was heartbreaking.

I found Uncle Ben in the spear room working on a new puzzle, “Hey kiddo,” he greeted.

“Hey, Benny,” I replied, and sat down beside him. I studied the puzzle, and realized it was the one my dad bought him for his birthday the year before. All the pieces put together made an old black and white photo of World War II battleships. It was kind of cool, but Ben had been working on it since my dad bought it for him, and he still wasn’t finished with it. “You’re getting close to being finished, I think,” I told him, even though that was a lie. He probably would never finish, if I knew my uncle.

“I like to fiddle with it now and then,” he shrugged picking up a gray and black piece and eyeing it thoughtful before putting it where it fit just perfectly.

I smiled at him. Ben was my favorite uncle. He was the closest thing to a dad since my own father passed away, that I had out of all of my uncles. He seemed to get me. “Hey, Benny? Can I ask you something?” I asked, and sat down on his loveseat he managed to shove into this small room, miraculously without breaking the wall in the process. It was a soft loveseat, so I couldn’t blame him for wanting it, but he and my aunt Lucille almost split up over the stupid thing. (Don’t ask!)

“You just did,” he chuckled winking playful.

“Ha ha ha,” I replied, and stuck my tongue out at him. “Seriously, though. Um… Do you ever go visit Daddy at the cemetery?”

Been nodded, “Of course, every now and then. Are you okay honey?” He asked hugging me protectively.

I leaned my head against his shoulder, and sighed. “Yeah, I’m okay. I’ve just been thinking about him a lot lately,” I replied. “I hate Christmas.”

Been looked up surprised knowing Christmas was once my favorite holiday, “Ohh Jo, don't say that, you know you don't mean it. I know you miss your father, so don't I,”

“I’m sorry,” I told him. “But it’s true. It was Dad’s favorite time of the year, and he’s not here anymore. Without him, it’s like, what’s the point?”

Been sat back crossing his arms, “How about the good will? Or the charity towards other?” He asked. “You loved doing that charity work, right?”

“All that’s well and good, but…” I sighed, and lowered my head, feeling defeated. “I just don’t know anymore. I know it’s been three years since he died, or whatever, but… it still hurts.”

“It's bound to hurt,” Ben nodded. “You shouldn't give up hope so easily. Just try to take it all one day at a time. Maybe you'll find that spark again, and maybe you won't, but you know what? That's alright either way, cause there's no law saying you gotta love this holiday,”

I smiled slightly at him, and nodded. “Thanks, Benny,” I said, and kissed his cheek.

“Hey, I try to be useful every now and then, no matter what Lucille says,” he winked.

I burst out into laughter. I wasn’t expecting him to say that, that was for sure. “Oh, okay,” I replied, and kissed his cheek again.

“I need a break from this puzzle. Wanna go see if we can steal a piece of pie or something?” Ben asked. He knew he shouldn't have sugar but he loved it.

I giggled again. “You know, Auntie’s going to kill you if she catches you again,” I warned him.

“She should know better when she bakes then,” Ben retorted. “What am I supposed to do when the house smells of pie all day?”

“You’ve got a point. But isn’t that for the bake sale at the church, or whatever?” I asked.

Ben sighed, “Party pooper,” he said. He opened a draw on the desk he was working on his puzzle and grabbed a sugar free candy. “Okay you win,” he said popping it into his mouth.

I giggled, and gave him a nudge. “I still have some Snickers bars in my room, if you want one,” I whispered conspiratively with a wink.

“Can't have nuts baby girl but thanks,” Ben smiled.

“Oh, that’s right,” I replied, remembering his peanut allergy. “That would be cannibalism, considering you’re nuts!”

“Shhhh they'll take me away,” Ben winked.

I snorted. “Oh, okay,” I whispered, and giggled again. This was why my uncle Ben was my favorite relative. He was always so cool, even about his diabetes and his peanut allergy. I think he was allergic to other stuff, too. Plus, he had a bad heart. It was no wonder Aunt Lucille was so crazy about his eating habits.

“Is auntie still watching that law show? I swear she thinks it's a real life show and not a dramatized thing,” Ben asked.

“Yep. It’s on till, like, ten o’clock, or something,” I replied. “It’s depressing as hell, isn’t it?”

“Between that and ER she drives me crazy. Give me Nascar and football any day,” Ben said shaking his head. “I'm gonna find a place to put a tv in here next,” he said thoughtful.

“Yeah!” I laughed. “Good luck with that one, Benny. You bring home a TV, and she’ll pop your head off.”

Ben smiled, “Not if I sneak it through the window,” he winked. He said it like he had already thought this out which only spelt him trouble.

“Oh my god,” I said, and covered my mouth, trying so hard not to laugh too hard. He was a riot, I swear. “I could just picture that, too.”

“I just gotta catch the delivery guy before he rings the doorbell,” Ben said thoughtful.

“Oh my god,” I said again, and burst out laughing. “You’re so bad!”

“I get tired of listen to my shows through the radio, I pay the bills. I want a tv in here cause she hogs it out there,” Ben arrgued. “I don't got much other then this room, it's my space I don't bother no one,”

“Well, I could get you a laptop,” I told him. “You can watch your shows on that. It’ll be less bulky, or whatever.”

“Like I can figure out that contraption,” he said shaking his head. “Nope the TV be here by the end of the weekend. Got a good deal on it,”

“Oh, damn!” I said, wide-eyed. “Gee, I think I’ll be going over to Mary’s house then. Or Dana’s… anywhere but here anyway.”

“Sure run for the hills,” Ben smiled. “I don't blame ya,”

We both chuckled. “Why are we doing the stupid bake sale thing anyway? Auntie hates everyone on the committee, especially Judy.”

“Cause she likes to bake and possibly torture me with the smells,” Ben answered. “Ever since your dad passed she cracked down on my entire diet saying I'd end up just like him. I don't blame her, means she still loves me, even if she doesn't show it. And I'm not ready to go just yet, but I can't help I like everything that's bad for me,”

“That doesn’t make any sense, though. I mean, Auntie is Dad’s sister. You’re not his brother, at least not by blood. Where does she get this stuff from?” I asked.

“Where else?” he replied. “ER.” Ben gave me a smile and I went off to get ready for school the next day and went to bed.

Laying in bed, my mind went to the shadow I saw at the cemetery. Was it a ghost? Or was it some weirdo stalking me? Who knew? I wanted to go back to the cemetery, but I was scared that I might get murdered by whoever the dark figure was. I just prayed that the shadow would be gone by the time I went to visit my dad again.

At school, the teachers gave me enough to ponder over that helped push the nightmare shadow that haunted me that night. Bumping into Mary or Dana helped too. Thankfully Dana kept her word about not telling Mary about my crush.

“So, what are you guys doing after school?” Dana asked, turning the lock to open her locker.

“I have peer tutoring tonight,” Mary replied. “And then, I’m going to church. There’s a special mass tonight, and my parents are determined to get there early.”

“Wanna hang?” Dana asked me. “I can't do my parents alone right now,”

I thought for a moment. “Sure,” I replied. “We could go to the cafe, or something, and pretend to be hipsters.”

Dana nodded happily, “Sure,”

“Your folks fighting?” Mary asked.

“Jeez, when are they going to stop?” I asked, sensing how uncomfortable Dana was. Even a goofball like Dana needed comfort, and it was times like these that she really needed it. “I can buy you your favorite, if you want.”

“Thanks,” Dana nodded appreciatively. Her parents were on the verge of a divorce. They fought all the time. It was almost to the point where Dana’s mother was going to throw a knife at her dad. I remember the phone call like it was yesterday. I was sitting in the living room, watching Spongebob Squarepants, when the phone rang. I answered it, and Dana was in hysterics. It took a long time to calm down Dana, she now just did all she could to stay as far away from her parents. She swore she couldn't wait to be eighteen so she could move out.

Thankfully, her birthday was in February. She only had to put up with this hell for another two months, and then she was free.

“Let's go,” Dana said nodding appreciative.

“Okay,” I replied. Together, we walked to the one class we shared: art. It was a fun class, and I had to admit that I wasn’t too bad in it.

Miss. Francis was a character all her own. She believed in freedom of expression. She would set a theme everyday but let you explore that theme as you wished. “Today class, well do winter wonderland,”

“Really? Don’t you think that’s an overdone theme?” asked some guy in class. I didn’t know his name, but I knew he was a jerk.

“Well I thought to summer at the beach but thought the drama class wouldn't like that hanging around the set of their White Christmas play,” Miss. Francis answered smartly.

I snorted under my breath. She had a point, but it was just funny how she said it. So very matter-of-fact, as if she was surprised that we didn’t think of it sooner.

“Before Mr. Johnson interrupt. I was going to tell you this will be hanging around the stage of the theater room for our drama friends so make a nice wintery scene for the patrons to look at while their waiting for the play,” Miss. Francis told them all.

I was surprised that we were going to be responsible for setting the stage for the auditorium with our artwork. This was going to be a massive project.

“Man,” Dana sighed. “Just what I need,”

“Oh, come on, Dana!” said Miss Francis said, and patted her back. “Think of it as an adventure.”

“Can we not put our names on the front or something? I don't want a bunch of strangers staring at my work,” Dana asked.

“Well, I thought we could all sign our names on a mural,” Miss. Francis replied.

Dana sighed shaking her head, but didn't complain out loud. She took a few materials to start working.

I started working on some snowflakes. I began cutting out the piece of paper into a snowflake. Then, I went to grab some glue and some glitter. Yes, it was kind of a childish way of doing a project, but there was more to come. I was going to build a tree out of wood, and then put the snowflakes on the branches.

The class was quiet as they worked with Miss. Francis making rounds to try to help anyone who was struggling with the project. “Nice,” she mentioned as she passed me.

I began making my tree, humming “O Holy Night” to myself.

The bell rang and Dana sat back smiling at her work, she had made a sled scene with kids sledding down, she even put a snowman off to the side as if it was watch, cheering on the kids.

“That’s cool,” I told her.

“It took me a bit but I thought of sledding, remember that 'big’ hill when we were five?” Dana laughed. “Now it's a joke,”

“Shut up. It looks great,” I told her, giving her a sisterly nudge.

“Thanks,” Dana nodded. “Your looks good,”

I shrugged. “Eh. It’s alright,” I replied.

Miss. Francis came around collecting the art, “Tomorrow, we'll take it and try to fix it so it blends all together. Then we can see how it fits on the stage,” she announced as everyone packed up.

That night, I returned to the cemetery. It was cold out, and I wished that I had worn a warmer coat. There was a slight breeze, too, which made it a little worse. But I wanted to visit my father. I needed to. I don’t know why. I really needed to talk to him.

I approached his headstone, and sighed at the name carved on it. “Hey, Dad,” I whispered. “I miss you. How’s Heaven?” I chuckled, feeling a little ridiculous at the question. Of course, I didn’t get much of a reply, other than the light breeze that gently brushed through my hair. I sighed, and closed my eyes, wishing that I could hear his voice. I shook my head, and sighed again. “I love you, Daddy,” I whispered.

Just then, I saw that familiar shadow again. My heart pounded in my chest, my whole body throbbing with fear. I froze as the shadow approached me slowly. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Was this literally going to be the bullcrap way I was going to die? Oh, hell no!’ I thought, and bolted. I ran passed the massive tombs that only the rich could afford. I nearly tumbled over the other headstones that seemed to try to keep me away from my freedom away from this phantom.

“Hey, wait!” a voice called to me.

I turned, and realized, much to my horror, that the phantom wasn’t really a phantom. It was a man… just a man. Actually, that fact made everything even scarier. It wasn’t a ghost chasing me at all: it was a weirdo. Dana and Mary were right! Damn it. “Oh, craaaaaaap!” I groaned and continued running.

“Wait, please!” the man begged. “I promise. I won’t-- oof-- hurt you.”

“Get away!” I yelled, nearly knocking into every damn headstone that got in my way. Then, I tripped, and fell on to the damp grass beneath me, scraping my now wet hands. To my absolute horror, the man caught up to me. Oh, god, I thought in pure dread.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“What do you want?” I demanded.

“Listen, I swear, I”m not going to hurt you, okay? You’re not going to believe this… but I think I’m your brother.”

I looked up at the man, even though I was terrified. Was this guy kidding me right now? But when I looked up at him, he did have a striking resemblance to my dad. My father had sandy brown hair and gentle, doe-like brown eyes. This man had almost black hair, but my father’s eyes. It was weird. The man looked like my dad with a black wig, or something. Talk about bizarre!

And it wasn’t completely impossible, either. My parents had an eighteen-year age difference, and my dad was a bit of a man-whore. He had affairs when he was married to my mom. He had affairs before they married, and after my mom died. So, it wouldn’t have surprised me if I had a whole army of brothers and sisters. God rest his soul, my father was a pig. (Just saying.)

“Holy crap!” I exclaimed in utter disbelief. Even though I knew that my father was a man- whore, it was still difficult for me to digest. I mean, was this guy for real? But seeing the man before me now, I knew that it was. This was to really happening.

The man snorted at my reaction. I must have amused him somehow. Not that any of this was funny, mind you. I sure as hell wasn't laughing. “Yeah, I know,” he replied. “Look, I'm sorry I scared you. I really am. Believe me, this isn't something I'm used to doing, either.

Well, that's good, I thought. “So… what's your name anyway?” I asked, feeling awkward as hell.

“Terry,” the man replied quietly.

“I'm Jo,” I told him. “Josephine, technically, but everyone calls me Jo.”

“Hi, Jo,” the man said gently. With that, he helped me up carefully off the ground to my feet. “Are you okay?”he asked.

The truth was, I was sore from the fall, but I only nodded. “So… like… how old are you, anyway?” I asked, completely disappointed bat my lack of conversation skills at the moment. I must have sounded like an idiot, but I was impressed with how cool Terry seemed about it.

“Thirty-seven,” he chuckled.

Jeez, I thought. He would almost be my mother's age, if she was still alive. My mom would have been thirty-four right about now. She had me when she was super young, I guess. If I had to guess, she was probably nineteen years old when I was born. I just blinked aimlessly at him, and nodded. “Oh, okay,” I replied, not really sure what else to say.

A part of me was a little scared that this guy was going to butcher me alive, or something, but I ignored my fear, and faced him. He looked just like my dad. Those same gentle brown eyes, that endearing, awkward half-smile, as if he wasn't sure about himself (even though he was probably the cockiest dude in the entire universe) made me already really, really like him.

I had to admit that I felt a little bit awkward myself. I mean, here we were, trying to figure out what to do with ourselves in the middle of the cemetery. Again, my phenomenal powers if speech showed 0ff it's wondrous glory. “So… I began, just so there wasn't any more silence between us, “um… you want to go out for some coffee?” I asked.

I was surprised that I didn't scare him off with my awkwardness. But considering that the guy chased me around a place full of dead people, I figured I was probably fine.

Terry nodded, again, totally cool. “Sure,” he replied. “I'll tell you everything you want to know.”

I couldn't help but smile at him. I didn't care if he was a serial killer or not anymore. I just loved his face. “Sounds pretty good to me,” I told him.

“Dude, you have a daughter?” I exclaimed. Terry and I were at the cafe that I usually frequented with my friends, Mary and Dana. For the first time since going to the cafe, I was actually glad my friends weren't there with me. God, I could just imagine their reaction if they saw me with this guy. They would have thought I was nuts! Like, the fact that I went off with some stranger at all would have driven Mary close to insanity. She’s so weirdly protective like that. Like, she’s my mom, or something.

Terry just chuckled at my own reaction to the news that I was basically an aunt. “Yes I have a daughter,” he replied. “Her name is Rebecca. She's fourteen years old, and a brilliant young lady. But a total pain in the ass.”

Fourteen?!’ I thought. And here I was, seventeen. “Oh, dude!” I whispered in utter disbelief. And here I was, only seventeen years old, and I was this girl’s aunt.

I was relieved to see that Terry seemed to know where I was coming from as he snorted. “Yeah, I know this is a little weird. I never thought in a million years that I’d have a sister who was close to my daughter’s age, but I guess stranger things have happened, right?”

“Yeah, I guess,” I replied. “It’s sort of like that show, ‘Modern Family.’ Ever heard of it?” I asked. This whole situation made me think of the weird sitcom I’d just mentioned. For anyone who hasn’t seen it (and I can’t imagine there are many who haven’t), “Modern Family” is about this family that had a patriarch married to a gorgeous model (played by Sofia Vergara) who had a son from a previous marriage, I guess. The patriarch had two adult children-- one of whom was a man married to another man with an adopted daughter. The other was a woman with a very traditional family: a husband and two daughters with literally, nothing in common, and I think a son somewhere in there, too, but I can’t remember. And, oh, by the way, the patriarch had a young son with Sofia vergara’s character. And, basically, this “modern family” (hence the name) tried to make everything work out, but, basically, they were all completely out of their minds, and everything would end in a sitcom-like disaster. It’s hilarious! I’m addicted to it.

Terry snorted again. “Yeah, I’ve seen it,” he replied. “Rebecca and her mom are obsessed with the show.”

“Sweet. How long have you been, like, married?” I asked. Suddenly, I felt my face flush. How was it that I would constantly sound incompetent? I also worried that I was getting too personal with Terry. I mean, it was enough, just to have him meet with me without having my big mouth delve into every personal detail about him. “Um… sorry,” I stammered, lowering my head.

“No, no,” he replied, waving my apology away. “It’s totally fine. Clara and I… well, it was just one of those things, and Rebecca was the end result. Not that either of us have any regrets, mind you. Clara and I are still friends, but we’re not together.”

I nodded. “Well, that’s cool,” I told him. I decided that I really liked Terry. He just seemed so cool about everything, just like my dad was. And just think, I mused to myself, hiding a thoughtful smile, an hour ago, I thought he was going to kill me. Life is funny that way.

“So… can I ask you something else?” I asked him.

“Sure,” Terry replied, and took a sip of his coffee. “Ask away.”

“Well, how did you find out… you know… that you were my brother?” I asked.

Terry sighed, and leaned back against the booth, looking at me thoughtfully. “Well, here’s the thing,” he replied, scratching the back of his neck uncomfortably. “I grew up without a father. It was just me, my sister, Jenny and my mom. But then, Jenny… well… Jen died when she was sixteen. My mom and I tried to reach out to… well, our dad… you know, for the funeral. But then we found out that he had already met a woman who was close to my age, and… they started a family…. So, we decided not to bother him. My mother made the decision just to leave him alone.”

Oh, crap, I thought. My dad was already with my mom. I felt my heart sink. I was devastated for Terry. He’d gone through so much, and I was the end result of that. Jeez, life seemed to just kick Terry’s ass over and over, hadn’t it? Suddenly, I felt horrible, but Terry, thankfully, didn’t seem to notice. I didn’t want him to feel bad about that, too.

“After that,” Terry continued, “I didn’t want to have anything to do with him. He eventually did try to reach out, but I just ignored him. He wanted me to meet you, but… well, I was still grieving over Jen, and I was pretty nasty to him. Now, I wish I hadn’t.”

I sighed, feeling like the worst person in the world. This poor guy had lost his sister, and his own dad wasn’t even there for him, because of me. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered, my chest constricting with agony.

“Hey. It’s okay,” Terry told me, patting my hand lightly. “What I went through back then had nothing to do with you. I was a kid back then.”

I nodded, but I still had my doubts. I really felt for this guy. I mean, he’d gone through so much, and he must have felt so alone. “Does… Aunt Lucille know about you?” I asked. Since Aunt Lucille was my dad’s sister, it would have been weird for her not to know about him, but I figured I should ask Terry anyway.

Terry sighed sadly, and nodded. “Yeah. She wanted me to meet you after your mom died, but by then, Rebecca was born, and I didn’t want to confuse you by just showing up,” he explained.

“And plus… you had Rebecca,” I whispered. This was so complicated. Why did my father have to abandon this poor guy? It wasn’t fair.

Terry hesitated, but nodded. “Yeah,” he replied quietly.

“Why didn’t they ever tell me about you?” I asked.

“Because… I told them not to,” Terry answered. “I told Aunt Lucille if Dad ever told you about me, I’d kill him. Now, I wish I hadn’t said that.”

“I wish you hadn’t either. I think I would have loved you,” I replied.

He smiled slightly at me. “I would have loved you, too,” he replied. The pain in his voice broke my heart. It was like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

“I’m kind of pissed at Aunt Lucille now,” I said.

Terry snorted. “Aunt Lucille was just trying to do me a favor, that’s all.”

Again, taking in his words, I nodded. But, knowing what I knew now, I still had one very important question. “So… what made you come back?” I asked.

Terry sighed, and lowered his head. “Well, the truth is… I came back, because I miss my dad. And then I saw you, and realized who you were. So, I tried to reach out to you. But I guess I scared the beJesus out of you, because you just bolted like a bat out of hell.”

“But you chased me,” I pointed out. “Why did you do that?”

“I don’t know,” Terry admitted, and, again, scratched the back of his neck. “I guess it’s because… if I didn’t… then I would have never worked up the nerve to meet you.” Terry chuckled uncomfortably. “I probably should’ve gone about it a better way, but…” Terry shrugged. He didn’t say anything elst, but I pretty much got the jist of what he was trying to say.

I had to admit that it was kind of funny. We must have looked ridiculous, like something out of a stupid comedy. I mean, here we were, running around a freaking cemetery, just bugging out like lunatics.

“Yeah,” I replied. Honestly, I couldn't wait to tell Dana and Mary. They would have freaked. I mean, I knew they would, anyway, but I figured that Dana would have gotten a kick out of it. “So, your name is Terry Thomas?”

Terry rolled his eyes, as if to say Give me a break! Instead, he said, “Nope. My name is Terry McGill. I have my mother’s last name.”

“Oh…” was all I could say. After about a billion stupid questions, I ended my inquiry with that stupid question. Jeez, what an idiot I was! “I should probably go. Aunt Lucille is expecting me home at a certain time. She worries,” I explained.

“Okay,” Terry replied.

“Thanks for meeting up with me. Will I see you again soon?” I asked.

“I hope so,” he replied genuinely, which I really liked.

“Well… how about tomorrow?” I asked.

Again, Terry nodded. “Okay,” he said. “If it’s okay, though, could I bring Rebecca? It’s my week with her, and I want to spend as much time with her as I can.”

“Oh, sure,” I replied. If I was going to get to know this guy, I’d have to get to know the people he loved, too. I mean, that would make sense, right? Besides, I wanted to share the people I loved with Terry, too. We were a family now.

“Okay then,” Terry said. “See you tomorrow.” There was hope in his voice that I actually found endearing.

“See you tomorrow,” I echoed. And with that, I stood up, and payed for my coffee, before gathering my stuff together. I wasn’t sure if I should give Terry a hug because he was my brother, but I decided against it. Since I just met him, I kind of figured it wasn’t such a good idea, no matter how sweet he was. I turned to leave, but then I had a sudden thought, and paused. I turned to him. “You’re not going to, like, chase me again, are you?” I asked.

Terry chuckled. “Nah, I think I sprained something when I did that.”

“Good,” I replied, playfully pointing at him, before turning to leave again. As I left the cafe, I was glad that Terry Seemed to understand my humor, because I could hear him laughing a little on my way out.

“Josephine Victoria Thomas! Are you completely out of your mind?” Aunt Lucille scolded. I was in the living room, sitting in the recliner, looking up at my aunt, who was pacing back and forth with her arms folded tightly across her chest. I had just finished telling her everything that had transpired during these passed few days. I told her I’d visited my dad at the cemetery, accidentally letting it slip that Terry was chasing me around like a madman. (She didn’t take that part very well, that was for sure.) Finally, I ended the story by telling her how I met up with Terry at the cafe, and by the time I was finished telling her everything, I swear, I thought I saw a vein pulsing out of her temple. That was a good indication that she wasn’t too pleased with me. “What if that could have been a serial killer, young lady?”

“Auntie, I’m fine. Besides, I didn’t hear you deny that Terry was my brother,” I retorted, crossing my own arms defiantly over my chest.

“We are not discussing that right now, young lady. You could have gotten really hurt,” Aunt Lucille snapped, and sighed as she softened her resolve. “I love you, Jo. I want you to be okay.”

“Yeah, but, like I said, I was fine. I’m okay, I promise,” I told my aunt as gently as I could. The truth was, she was driving me nuts, but I guess the feeling was mutual. Aunt Lucille looked much older than her sixty-four years at the moment. Her curly gray hair was nearly sticking up on end. Her eyes looked tired underneath her blue wire-framed glasses. I must have really scared her. Now, I just felt so badly for her. I thought she was going to yell at me some more, but instead, she just nodded.

“So… you met Terry, huh?” she asked finally. “How did he look?”

“Just like Daddy,” I replied honestly. “I mean, if Dad wore a black wig, he would have looked just like this guy. I was surreal as all get-out.”

Aunt Lucille nodded. “Terry always did have beautiful black hair,” she mused. “When he was little, I used to just run my fingers through it, and sing to him. He used love that, I think, because he would just curl up, and…” I watched as tears welled in Aunt Lucille’s eyes, and the sight of her broke my heart. I just felt so badly for her. She must have really missed him. After a while, she blinked as if waking up from a daze. “Did he tell you anything about himself?” she asked me finally.

“Well,” I said, sitting up, and tucking a lock of hair behind my ear, “he’s got a kid… a daughter. Her name’s Rebecca, and I guess she’s in high school. She’s fourteen years old, I guess.”

“He has children? That’s wonderful,” Aunt Lucille smiled.

“Just the one,” I corrected her. “And, like I said, she’s hardly a child.”

“Jo, honey, once you hit my ripe old age, you’ll see that everyone’s a child,” Aunt Lucille told me with a chuckle. “That’s the joy of getting old, I guess.”

I supposed I couldn’t argue with her there. I wouldn’t know where she was coming from until I was in her shoes. “Well, anyway, I wanted to meet up with him tomorrow,” I told her, and looked at her carefully. “Would that be okay?”

Aunt Lucille hesitated for a moment, as if contemplating whether or not Terry was really her long-lost nephew, or just some weirdo. But finally, she nodded, and smiled gently at me. “I suppose that’s alright with me, baby,” she replied quietly. “ But Uncle Ben is going with you, just in case.”

I couldn’t help but groan. Just the idea of Uncle Ben tagging along with me made me cringe. I adored my uncle. As I’d explained earlier, he was my dad’s best friend, and I loved him to death. But I knew he would just use this time to regale stories of his time in Desert Storm (even though he was just a tank mechanic at the time), and I knew that he would just annoy me. Not that he’d mean to, or anything, but still. “Really?” I whispered under my breath.

“This is not up for debate, young lady,” Aunt Lucille told me sternly. Whenever her voice raised, even just a little, I knew better than to question her. I can’t say that I was ever abused by my aunt. (I’ll be honest: they throw that word around a bit too much these days, and it drives me a little nuts.) But on the very rare occasion, I have suffered the wrath of the back of my aunt’s hand.

I let out an exasperated sigh, and nodded. “Alright, fine,” I replied.

“Yeah, yeah,” Aunt Lucille replied, and walked away. This was going to be very interesting, that was for sure. I just prayed that Uncle Ben wouldn’t make it embarrassing, too. But my uncle would always keep us guessing.

“Yep, she’s lost her mind,” Dana said that morning before I was supposed to meet up with Terry. My friends and I were at the park, sitting in the gazebo with breakfast sandwiches. I bought Dana and Mary some coffee, but since I was going to the cafe anyway, I only bought myself a water bottle to go with my breakfast sandwich. It was cold, so we were completely out of our minds for just sitting outside, but we didn’t want to go anywhere else, so we just froze underneath the gazebo. Mary was going to church later anyway, and it was heated, so she would be fine. Dana would also be fine, because right after, she was going to her Journalism class at the Education Center, which also had good heating. I had told her, Mary and Bonnie, who had come home early for the holidays, everything that had happened. Not surprisingly, the girls had the same reaction as my aunt did. (Boy, if looks could kill, Mary would have obliterated me by now.)

“She sure has,” Bonnie chuckled in agreement, and patted Mary’s hand to defuse a potential argument. “I mean, it was kind of foolish, Jo,” she pointed out.

I looked up at Bonnie, admiring her big brown eyes, her gorgeous brown hair and her gentle, pretty smile, and only shrugged. Maybe everyone had a point. It probably was a tad bit irresponsible of me. “Hey, at least my uncle will be coming with me this time,” I pointed out. I ignored Mary as she rolled her eyes.

Dana sat back in her booth, and studied me thoughtfully. “Jo, look. I know you miss your dad and everything, but you don’t know anything about this guy,” she told me. “I mean, he still might be a psychopath or something. He could have a criminal history, he could be on the run from the police-- you just don’t know for sure.”

“We can look him up real quick,” Bonnie told us, and took out her phone. “All we need to do is type his name in, and this website can show a criminal record, or whatever. Here, I’ll show you.” Bonnie got to work, typing something up on her phone, and instantly, showed a map of our small town of who were known criminals in our area. Fortunately, I was relieved to discover that Terry’s name was not on that list.

“Hey, great idea, Bonnie. I’ll check him out on Facebook,” Dana volunteered.

“Okay, fine,” Mary sighed, shaking her head, and looked over Dana’s shoulder.

“Sounds good to me,” I told my friends, and I looked up on another website, just in case Bonnie’s might have missed something. But the information remained the same. I scrolled carefully down, looking through the names, and studying the faces on the mugshots shown on the site. I did notice a Connor McGill on the site, but the guy had orange-red hair and lots of freckles. This guy looked nothing like Terry. “He’s not here,” I told the girls, and showed my phone to the still-disapproving Mary.

“He’s on Facebook though,” Dana said, scrolling through her own phone. “There are tons of pictures of him… god, he’s cute.”

“Dana!” I laughed.

“What?” Dana asked innocently. “You’re brother’s a hottie. What can I say?”

“Oh, brother,” I groaned, but I had to admit that she was making me laugh. She had always been boy-crazy, as I’d said before. So, when I saw her practically drooling over Terry’s profile picture, I wasn’t the least bit surprised.

She continued to scroll down, and studied his profile page closely. “There are all these pictures of him with some girl.”

“That could be Rebecca,” I told Dana.

“Who’s Rebecca?” Mary asked.

“Derry’s daughter,” I replied, and went back to looking over Dana’s shoulder. I studied the girl’s features, and immediately noticed the similarities between the girl and Terry. She had his eyes… my father’s eyes. She had Terry’s dark hair, but it had blond and pink highlights. I was disappointed to see that her already-gorgeous face was caked with makeup. She looked a little snobby, but I still couldn’t wait to meet her.

“Could be,” Dana replied. “I can’t believe you’re an aunt, Jo.”

“Yeah, and to a girl practically my own age,” I replied, rolling my eyes.

Mary sighed, and put her phone away. “I’m sorry, Jo. I wasn’t trying to, like, ‘mother’ you, or whatever. I just love you, that’s all. I got scared. I’m sorry I’m acting like a bitch.”

I looked over at Mary, actually moved by the sincerity in her gorgeous blue eyes as she spoke. “I know,” I told her. “Tell you what. Why don’t you guys come with me and Uncle Ben?” I offered the girls.

“Ben is going with you?” Bonnie asked, and giggled. “That’ll be fun.”

I giggled. “Yeah, my aunt is making me take him,” I told her.

“Oh, then she’s good,” Dana told Mary. “Ben’s super protective over Jo. If anything goes down, he’ll take care of it, for sure.”

“Okay, good point,” Mary replied. “Never mind, Jo, you’re good.”

I giggled again, and shook my head. “Thanks, you guys,” I said.

Later that morning, I sat with my uncle at the cafe. We were both waiting for Terry and Rebecca to show up, when Uncle Ben was practically trying to murder me with all of his puns. “Hey, I feel cool,” he said, and gave me a thumbs up sign. “Didn’t know you were a beatnik, Jo. Do you have poetry readings, and snap your fingers?”

Oh my god, I thought. “No,” I told him. “We have coffee, and wonder what the hell we’re doing with our lives.” Now, if I had just said that to my aunt, she probably would have killed me. But Uncle Ben had a pretty good sense of humor about himself. He didn’t seem to mind my quips. In fact, my uncle laughed, and seemed to enjoy my sarcasm. I smiled, and rested my head on his shoulder.

It wasn’t long before Terry showed up with that same girl on his Facebook feed. And she looked moodier than she did in those stupid pictures. “Hey, Jo,” Terry greeted me. He sat down on the seat across from me and Uncle Ben. The girl sat beside him, but didn’t look up from her phone. She was probably playing Candy Crush, or texting to her friends, or posting on Twitter about how stupid her dad was. I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like her.

“Hey, what's up?” I asked.

“Well, I told you I'd bring my daughter, Rebecca,” Terry replied. He quickly snatched her phone, and smiled in embarrassment, blatantly ignoring the girl's scowling, and turned to my uncle. “Hey, Uncle Ben,” he greeted.

My uncle smiled fondly at Terry, and shook his long lost nephew's hand. “How's it going, champ?” he replied in kind.

Terry smiled sadly. “It's going,” he answered. “Hey, listen. I'm sorry for everything I said… you know.. before. I was emotional back then, and I was being an idiot.”

“Who isn't an idiot sometimes? Don't even worry about it. Believe me, I get it,” my uncle replied, shaking his head.


Okay, that was interesting. A big part of me desperately wanted to know what the hell Terry and Uncle Ben were talking about, but I decided not to go there. I mean, there must have been some painful history between Terry and Dad's family.

“So, Rebecca, tell us a little bit about yourself,” my uncle tried.

Rebecca sighed, and looked up at my uncle. “Um, well, what would you like to know?” she asked with forced politeness.

“Well, how about school? You like it?” Uncle Ben asked.

Rebecca shrugged. “It's okay, I guess. I have the lead in the school play.”

“What play is it?” I dared to ask.

“A Christmas Carol,” she replied a little coldly. “I will be playing as Belle. Okay, so it's not the lead, I guess, but it's still a pivotal role.”

Pivotal? Oh my God. How pretentious was this girl? Somebody had a high opinion of herself. I mean, don't get me wrong. I loved A Christmas Carol as much as anyone, and I loved the character, Belle. But “pivotal”? Seriously? Give me a break! I would have liked to “pivot” her off a balcony.

“Okay,” I said instead. “That's cool, I guess.”. What else could I say to her? It wasn't like I could tell my niece that she basically came off as a stuck-up jerk. I wanted to build a relationship with Terry, not alienate him completely.

“Do you do anything like that?” asked Rebecca, as if she was better than me for not putting on a fake corset and said a dramatic goodbye to a young Ebenezer Scrooge. Give me a break!

“Well, I tried out for the role of Susan B. Anthony when I was in middle school. I got a little nervous, so I never got the part,” I told her.

“I tried to get that role last year,” Rebecca told me. “I didn't get it.”

“That sucks,” I replied, not sure what else to say to her. “I guess it's a hard role to play… or whatever.”

Rebecca only nodded. “Yeah,” she mumbled, and looked up at her father. She seemed desperate to leave, as if she would have preferred to be anywhere else but here at the cafe. She was probably just desperate to get back on her stupid phone.

Terry only kissed her forehead, and returned to the intense conversation that he wanted to have with Uncle Ben. It was almost like Terry was just patting her on the head like a good little doggie, or something. It was kind of like he was mocking her. That was when I sort of felt sorry for her. It was a little embarrassing, too. My aunt and uncle had a habit of doing that to me. Like, a lot!

“So… what school do you go to?” I asked.

“Ashfield,” Rebecca answered.

I only nodded. I went to Ashfield High myself, but I never saw Rebecca around. Then again, I didn't pay attention to the popular girls at school, either, and I had a feeling that she was a Queen Bee. “What grade are you in?” I asked.

“Tenth,” she said, “but I take AP courses.”

Well good for you, I wanted to say, but I chose to keep that to myself. AP classes were the highest level of education in a public school setting. It was like University-level stuff. I wasn't in those courses. I guess I wasn't smart enough for that pretentious crap. I was barely in middle level classes. My level was known as C-level, which was basically Special Education in a normal sized classroom.

As much as I hated my classes, though, I know I would have hated being in AP courses. I couldn't stand the people in AP classes. They were so freaking stuck-up, and Rebecca seemed like just as much as a snob as the rest of them. But I couldn’t say anything like that to her. Rebecca was my niece, for crying out loud. I had to do right by her. Not really for her, but for Terry. I mean, it took a lot of courage to open himself up like he did. And, for all I knew, maybe Rebecca thought I was a snob. Either way, I could tell she was just as profoundly uncomfortable about all of this stuff as I sort of was.

Maybe she felt lost. I don’t know. Still, though….

“I have an idea,” my uncle spoke up. “How about you two spend Christmas with us?”

“Are you sure?” asked Terry, uncertain.

“Wait, doesn’t Mom have me for Christmas this year?” Rebecca asked.

Terry paused. “Actually, I”m not sure,” he replied, and turned to Uncle Ben. “I have no clue.”

“Well, get a clue, boy!” Uncle Ben chuckled. “We sure would like to see you.”

“I will definitely let you know,” Terry chuckled. “I want to spend Christmas with you, too.”

“I’ll text you the house number,” I volunteered, a little disappointed that our time was almost coming to a close (even if I was a little relieved, too). “Aunt Lucille is kind of weird about cell phones.” Rebecca looked over at me, confused, but I only shrugged. “Don’t ask. She’s cool, but she’s weird.”

“Oh, okay,” Rebecca replied, but I could kind of tell that she was a little annoyed.

“It’s okay. We’re not too worried. I have a thing about cell phones, too. We can use the landline if need be. Anyway, Becky, you want to invite Uncle Ben and Jo to the play?” Terry asked, almost a little too eagerly.

“Dad. I haven’t been ‘Becky’ since I was in the fourth grade,” she told him, rolling her eyes.

“Rebecca Ann,” Terry whispered, eying her sternly.

Rebecca sighed, and forced a polite smile. “Jo? Uncle Ben? Would you like to come to my play on Sunday?” she asked ever-so sweetly.

Okay, now I was really uncomfortable. I always hated it when my aunt would make me do something I didn’t want to do, like invite people I didn’t know to one of my functions. Again, I was starting to feel for the girl. No wonder Rebecca was a little bitchy.

“Sure,” Uncle Ben replied, looking a little uncomfortable himself. “Thank you very much, Rebecca.”

“You’re welcome,” Rebecca replied, and looked down at the floor.

“Well, on that note, we should probably get going,” Terry informed us. “I promised Rebecca I would take her dress shopping for the winter formal… again.”

Oh, that’s right!’ I thought. I’d been so obsessed over this Dad thing that I almost forgot. It was probably a good thing that Rebecca was being a pain today. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gotten back to real life, and my friends would have wondered where I disappeared off to, or something.

“Well, anyway… it was nice to meet you,” Rebecca spoke up.

“Likewise,” I replied, shaking her hand. I’m sure it was kind of a cold response. But I couldn’t take much more of Rebecca’s pissy attitude. It was getting really annoying.

“Don’t worry,” Terry told me and my uncle. “We’ll figure Christmas out.”

“Definitely,” I said with a smile, and gave my brother a hug. “See you soon.”

“Okay, hon,” Terry replied. He seemed a little surprised that I was hugging him. I had to admit I was kind of surprised, too.) I was going to wait to hug him, but now, here I was with my arms wrapped around him, before I could even stop myself. Jeez, how clingy could I be?

I cleared my throat, and quickly broke from his embrace, worried that I’d just made things weird. “Bye, Terry,” I said, and tucked my hair behind my ear.

“Bye, Jo,” Terry chuckled. Terry and Rebecca turned to leave, and I just watched, realizing for the first time that I really was in over my head. Terry was my brother and a dad, and now he was going to be a big part of my life. Like… huge!

Holy crap, I thought, suddenly overwhelmed. Was I really as ready for this as I thought I was? God, I really hoped so.

The winter formal had finally arrived. I wore my yellow gown and a pink flower barrette in my hair, which I had left loose. I think I might have looked a little too Disney princess-ish, but I didn’t care. In fact, I thought it looked great. Maybe I would wear it to the spring dance, too, just for the heck of it. I danced with my friends, Mary and Dana, to an Imagine Dragons song. Mary and Dana looked amazing. They both had a sort of Hollywood sparkle thing going on that I loved. Dana especially worked the Hollywood look for tonight’s event with her black, sparkly gown.

The three of us were having a grand old time, being pretty and jamming out to Imagine Dragons, Bruno Mars, Lorde, and a bunch of other bands, when I noticed from the corner of my eye, Rebecca. She looked adorable in her metallic lavender gown, her black and magenta hair tied back in a Bohemian crown of braids, and her makeup done just right. She danced with a boy, but she looked like she was feeling as awkward as I always felt when I danced with a boy. Maybe Rebecca and I had more in common than I originally thought.

She caught me staring at her, and blushed as she turned her back away from me. I was a little disappointed, but I could kind of understand. I mean, I must have come off as a weirdo just staring at her. Oops, I thought, and redirected my attention back to my friends, who looked very confused.

“Um, what are you staring at, silly?” Dana giggled.

I couldn’t come up with anything rational, so I gave my friends a goofy quip: “The universe around me,” I replied. The girls chuckled at my stupid pun, which actually saved me from years of embarrassment, and continued dancing.

“Hey, would it be cool if I went over to dance with Kyle real quick?” Dana asked.

“Never!” I exclaimed teasingly, and giggled. “Go on, goofball. Have fun.”

“Yeah, we’ll catch up with you later, Dana. I need to freshen up anyway,” Mary added.

Dana hesitated, even though she knew I was only kidding, but soon broke into her beautiful, playful smile, and nodded. “Okay. Catch y’all later!” she exclaimed, and skipped happily away to dance with some cute guy, who I assumed was Kyle.

Mary and I turned to each other, and burst out laughing. Boy-crazy Dana struck again. That was sort of my private joke with Mary about Dana. It wasn’t like we were talking bad about her, or anything. But Mary and I did get a kick out of Dana.

“Hey, listen. I’ll be right back. Like I said, I want to freshen up,” Mary said, and went into the women’s bathroom.

That left me all alone, which was fine, because I needed a second to get off my feet. I wandered through the crowded cafeteria filled with sexed-up teens, coupling together and dancing to an Ed Sheeran love ballad that I must have heard at least a hundred thousand times. Carefully, I made my way to the refreshment stand, and helped myself to some Hawaiian Punch. I took a sip, and realized it was spiked with vodka. Some idiot probably thought it would be funny to see a bunch of high school kids drunk off their gourds. Whatever. I wasn’t going to be a part of it. Thankfully, I didn’t have far to go, anyway. I only lived down the street from the school anyway. But I did make sure to throw away my cup of spiked Hawaiian punch, before I sat back down. I looked over, and saw Rebecca arguing with the boy she was dancing with earlier. She looked completely crushed as the guy just stormed away from her.

What a jerk, I thought, shaking my head in disgust. Call me juvenile if you want, but this was exactly the reason why I decided to abstain from sex for at least another decade or so: because I didn’t want to deal with this melodramatic bull crap. I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I watched as Rebecca was crying quietly in one corner of the cafeteria, while the boy she was dancing with was making out with some other girl, whose face was practically caked with makeup. I looked back at Rebecca, who was still crying, and I felt my chest constrict with sadness. For that moment, Rebecca didn’t look like the snob I almost punched at the cafe just a few days earlier. Right now, she just looked like a regular girl. Cautiously, I approached Rebecca, and sat down beside her.

“Hey,” I said gently. “Are you okay?”

“Oh, yeah, I’m great,” Rebecca replied bitterly. “My boyfriend of two years just broke up with me for some cheerleader, but I’m great! God, just go away, Jo!”

“Fine. To heck with you, too,” I fired back, standing up, and walked away. There was no freaking way in hell I was just going to sit there, and take that from a brat like Rebecca McGill. I went back to rejoin my friends, and danced for another hour before guilt finally took over. I looked over to see Rebecca still sitting there. Her shoulders were slumped as she was picking at a hangnail, and sniffling. She looked miserable. I felt like such a jerk for just walking away from her.

I turned to Mary and Dana, and smiled apologetically. “Listen, I’ll be right back, okay?” I told them.

“Are you okay?” Mary asked.

“Oh, sure,” I replied with a casual shrug. “I just need to do something real quick. I’ll be right back.”

“Okay,” said Dana. “Good luck.”

“Thanks,” I told her. I was going to need it, that was for sure. So, once again, I carefully approached Rebecca, who was still in tears. “Hey,” I said as gently as I did before, praying that she wouldn’t bite my freaking head off again.

She looked up at me, and sighed wearily. “What?” she asked hoarsely.

“Look, I’m sorry I stormed off like that,” I told her. “That wasn’t very aunt-like of me, was it?”

“God, give me a break, Jo. Just because you happen to be my dad’s long-lost sister, it doesn’t make you my freaking aunt. Get over yourself,” she snapped.

I bit back the urge to shove Rebecca’s head into the spiked punch bowl, and sighed. Yeah, that’s exactly what it means, but okay, Rebecca, I wanted to say to her her, but I knew what she meant. She meant that I had no real authority over her. Not in the way my Aunt Lucille had over me, that was for sure. “I know,” I replied instead. “I just want to help if I can.”

“How?” Rebecca asked.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Whenever I’m upset, though, it helps to talk to my uncle Ben. Maybe you could drop the attitude and talk to me. I mean, seriously, what’s the worst that could happen, Rebecca?”

Terry’s daughter sighed, seeming to take in my words, as if considering them. “Well, I’m ticked off,” she began. “Like, here I was, practically in love with Lucas, and he freaking dumped me!”

“I don’t blame you,” I replied. “The guy seems like a jerk. I’m sorry he did that to you.” My words seemed to make Rebecca drop her defenses just a little as she let out a sigh, and looked up at me.

“You think the hurt will ever go away?” she asked quietly.

“I wouldn’t know,” I admitted. “I’ve never had a serious relationship in my entire life.” I paused, and studied the sad expression on my niece’s face. It broke my heart to see her like that, as annoying as she was just a few seconds earlier. “I hope it does go away, though,” I continued. “Because I'm sure you’re actually really cool.”

Rebecca snorted. “You know, you really suck at these pep talks,” she said, shaking her head at me.

“True, but in my defense, I’ve only been an aunt for about a week, and you’re not exactly giving me much to work with here,” I pointed out. “Like, you’ve been kind of rude to me since we’ve first met.”

I thought Rebecca was going to jump down my throat again, so I braced myself. But instead, Rebecca just sighed, and looked down at her hands, which were folded neatly on her lap. “Yeah, I know,” she replied. “I’m sorry. It’s just that… my dad has been really irritating me lately. It’s like all he talks about is his dead father, and how you look just like him. ANd it’s been nothing but ‘Jo’ this, and ‘Jo’ that. But whenever I need something, he can’t be bothered. It’s pissing me off!”

I felt my face flush in embarrassment. I had no idea. That really sucked, if that was the truth. “That doesn’t seem fair,” I replied. “I’m sorry. Have you talked to your dad about it?” I asked.

Again, Rebecca snorted. “Yeah, right,” she replied. “My dad doesn’t care about me.”

“I’m sure that’s not true,” I told her. “I know he’s being a royal pain and all. But the guy loves you. I don’t know him completely, but I don’t think he’s doing that to you on purpose-- like, I just don’t get that vibe, you know? Try talking to him. If you need me to back you up, Rebecca, I totally will.”

Rebecca smiled a genuine smile at me for the first time since I met her. It was more radiant than I had ever expected. She seemed to light up the cafeteria, and I was so happy that I could do that for her. It was actually pretty cool. “Thank you, Jo,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” I replied. “Okay, enough of this serious crap. How about we get back to the dance, shall we? You can meet my friends if you want. Mary and Dana are cool.”

“Okay, sure,” Rebecca said, smiling broadly.

“Cool,” I replied, and led Rebecca back to my friends. I introduced her to them, and just like I thought, my friends immediately welcomed her into our group with open arms. Now, the three of us turned into the four of us, and together, we had a great time enjoying the rest of the winter formal.

It was a night I would never forget.

A week went by, and I was even closer to Rebecca and Terry. After the dance, Rebecca and I really connected. She and I called each other almost every day. And whenever I could, I’d invite her along with my friends. They loved her. It didn’t even matter that she was technically part of the “popular” crowd or not (because we sure as heck weren’t). We still enjoyed her company. Rebecca was actually sensitive and thoughtful, and funny, too. It seemed like she would crack us up with all kinds of weird stories about the captain of the girls’ basketball team. She had even invited me and my friends officially to her play, A Christmas Carol, which, of course, we took.

The night of the big play had a big turnout. The whole auditorium was packed with students, faculty and family members alike. Even some of the bored swamp yankees with nothing better to do with themselves went to the play. After all, it was a public event that happened every year. Everyone looked forward to the holiday pageant. Last year, it was a concert with the band and chorus. The year before that, they put on a holiday fashion show. The year before that, they put on a holiday-themed poetry reading. This year, it was a rendition of A Christmas Carol. The role of Ebenezer Scrooge was played by a kid I knew in my Intro-t0-French class, Jake. He was cool in his own way, but a bit of an old soul. He was definitely the suffering artist type. So, the role of Ebenezer was perfect for him, I think. The role of the younger Ebenezer who was dumped by his fiancee, Belle, was played by another student I didn’t recognize.

The one person I did recognize was Belle herself, played by my niece, who seemed to shine in the role. Real tears streamed down her beautiful cheeks as she said those famous, heartbreaking words, “Ebenezer, I release you,” which meant that she was done with Scrooge’s money-grubbing stupidity, and broke off the engagement with him.

But to me, when she was releasing, I didn’t see it as a sad breakup. I saw Belle hoping to move on with her life, so that she could shine elsewhere, breaking free from under Ebenezer Scrooge’s shadow. To me, it was about life going on, even though it was hard. I saw a new beginning for Belle, full of hopes and dreams that needed fulfillment.

And that was what Ebenezer needed to do. He was so tormented and currupt by his past that he couldn’t be with the present or look forward to his future. He didn’t seem to understand that he needed to move on with his life from then on, which was why Ebenezer became the “Scrooge” that everyone hated. It wasn’t until he was visited by his dead business partner, Jacob Marley or the three spirits afterwards, that he realized that life needed to be lived.

What could I say? I loved every version of this famous Charles Dickens story, but I think this school play, done by a bunch of high school kids was probably the best version I had ever seen in my life. When the curtain closed at the end of Rebecca’s scene as Belle, everyone stood up from their seats, and applauded with deafening cheers.

It was then that I realized that I needed to move on from the pain I felt every single time I thought of Christmastime. I was my own Ebenezer Scrooge, in a way. But my only issue was, how would I be able to move on? I had all this family now, but still now Daddy. He would have loved Terry and Rebecca. I knew it would be hard, and I wasn’t sure I would be up to it.

After the play, we were all walking toward our cars, when Terry wrapped an arm around my shoulders. “Hey, I just wanted to say thank you for being so nice to Rebecca after the way she treated you. She’s had a hard time with things lately, and she’s been kind of sad. And when she’s sad about anything, she tends to lash out at anybody who comes near her, you know?”

I looked up at him, and smiled. “Yeah,” I replied. “It’s no problem. Rebecca’s actually really cool,” I told him. “Sometimes when you don’t feel like you have anyone to talk to, it’s easy to get ticked off at the world. I know I was for a long time.”

Terry nodded, understanding. “So was I… till I saw you at the cemetery,” he replied.

“You mean after you chased me around like a psychopath?” I laughed, to which he laughed, too.

“Yeah, I’m never going to live that down, am I?” he asked.

“Probably not,” I replied, and the both of us shared a good laugh again.

“Crap!” he said, and shook his head. “Anyway, I’ll work on that. Are we still on for Christmas?” he asked.

“I’m still on, but you’d have to ask Aunt Lucille and Uncle Ben,” I replied.

“Of course we’re still on!” Lucille said from a distance. “Stop being ridiculous, or I won’t bake those shortbread cookies you like so much!”

I gasped melodramatically. “Go… without… shortbread… cookies?” I gasped, feigning utter heartache and agony, and pretended to swoon right into Terry’s arms. In my defense of this sheer silliness, my aunt’s shortbread cookies were amazing, and worth every bit of my theatricality.

Terry just laughed. “Aunt Lucille, I think you broke Jo,” he told her, and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing, which made Rebecca laugh, which made pretty much everyone else laugh. It was like something out of an early 1990’s sitcom, which might have looked a little cheesy to an onlooker passing by, but to me it was fun. It was actually pretty nice, and I couldn’t wait for Christmas to come.

The holiday season had brought out the best in everyone that beautiful December. Aunt Lucille had practically invited the whole neighborhood over for Christmas. With the exception of our neighbor, Bonnie, the only other people who came over for Christmas was Terry and Rebecca. My friends, Mary and Dana also showed up. Mary had arrived toward the afternoon, because she had church in the morning. We all exchanged gifts, while listening to old classic Christmas carols on my aunt’s record player. My uncle finally got the TV he had wanted for his man cave. It wasn’t a big one, or even a flat-screen. But my uncle was still happier than I’d ever seen him. My aunt really came through for him. I smiled to myself as I watched them embrace tightly. It was really romantic. Even with all of their bickering, it was clear that they still loved each other. It was beautiful to witness.

It was then that I also noticed outside the window, large fluffy white snowflakes falling from the sky. “Hey, look!” I exclaimed, pointing. “It’s snowing!”

Everyone turned, and smiles broadened on their already-jovial faces. “Let’s go outside!” Mary suggested, and led everyone out to the yard. We all started building snowmen and had snowball fights. (I won, by the way, if anyone asks.)

After a while, I took a moment to separate myself away from the rest of the group, just to take everything in. Everything was just so blissful. But a part of me was still sad. I wished my father was here with us to see all the goodness around us on this holiday season. But he was nowhere to be found. It just made me miss him so much.

“How ya holding up there, girly?” asked a voice from behind me. I turned, and there was my uncle Ben. He had a sad smile on his face. He was probably thinking about my father, too. After all, they had been best friends before my father died. It was clear that my uncle still loved my dad very much, even though he’d been gone for a good long time by now.

“Hey, Uncle Ben,” I said, hugging myself. “I’m okay. Just sort of deep in thought.”

“I can see that,” Ben chuckled, and approached me. “About what?”

I shrugged, struggling to put my thoughts into intelligible words. All I could say was “Daddy.”

Ben nodded, understanding, and opened his arms out. I went into them, and closed my eyes, comforted by the sound of my uncle’s steady breathing. It was nice to have my uncle to lean on. He really was the best. “Jo, baby… you’re bless, you know that? You’ve got your health. You’ve got Auntie and me. You’ve got your friends, and now you’ve got a brother and a niece. You’ve got everything you need right here.”

“I know that,” I whispered, my throat constricting a little. “I just miss him, that’s all.”

My uncle sighed, and rubbed the back of my head with a gentle hand. “I know, baby. But, if you think about it, your dad’s everywhere. He’s in the snow, he’s in your aunt and your brother. He’s in you. You are so much like your dad, Jo, it’s scary. Trust me on this, he’s not going anywhere. When you’re older, you’ll understand that.”

I knew my uncle was right. He often was. My dad was a part of everything I did. I had to learn to let go of the past, and finally say goodbye. At least for now. I mean, I still had the afterlife to look forward to, right? Not to get all theological, but stranger things have happened.

My uncle released me from his embrace, and gave me a wink. “Let’s get back to the party,” he suggested. “And, hey, just think: we have Auntie Lucille’s gingerbread cookies to look forward to.”

“I like her shortbread cookies better,” I told him.

My uncle laughed, and tapped me on the tip of my nose with his finger. “Yeah, they’re pretty good, too,” he said, and took my hand. He led me back to my friends, who were making snow angels and stomping on the snowmen they had just made like gladiators in the Colosseum. We went back to the house, and by that time, everyone had grown cold and tired from playing outside. My aunt was baking some bread and cookies for all of us to enjoy. She liked giving her guests little doggie bags to take home, too.

All in all, this was the best Christmas of my life. There really was so much to be thankful for. And even though being without my dad during the holidays was still bittersweet, this Christmas turned out to be the biggest adventure of my life, and I couldn’t wait till next Christmas.

The End

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Corinne Renee Fowler
See all posts by Corinne Renee Fowler