"I appreciate this, Merritt."

"Not a problem." He secures his seat belt and backs out of the driveway.

I open the passenger side vents and flex my cold fingers in the hot air pushing through them. "What hours do you work today?"

"Scheduled for ten to seven. You?"

"Nine to eight. Holiday hours and then some. But I get Saturday off this week, so that's nice." Usually that's the shop's busiest day but Carla was pretty lenient when I asked for the day off, since Gil and Natalie are coming in for the weekend for Christmas. They'll be traveling Christmas Day, and it's the only day we could all agree on that worked. So the later hours have their perks.

"Is it all right if I bring Nash by later? I can pick you up if you need me to, plus find out ideas for what he wants for Christmas."

"No wish list yet?"

"It's never something we've done in my family."

I should know that, I guess, but I've always made it a point not to ask much about his home life because of what happened with his parents. Not that we're super close or anything anyway.

He must sense what I'm thinking because he's quick to change the subject. "Would you like a coffee?"

Tiny raindrops splatter against the windshield. We don't get much snow here, especially prior to Christmas. "I really don't want to make you late to work."

"I should be there on time. It's fine. I planned on stopping to get one anyway."

"Okay then."

The morning traffic is light, and by the time we're in a parking space at one of the gas stations, the rain has stopped again. We walk to the door together and hurry for the drink stations—regular coffee dispenser for him, cappuccino machine for me. I press the button for French vanilla and watch the frothy mixture fill the foam cup.

At the other end of the coffee station, Merritt pours a packet of sugar into his cup.

"How do you drink that?" he asks. "I can smell all the sugar from here."

"It's tasty."

He makes a scrunched-face and pops the plastic lid onto his cup.

"I don't like the bitterness of coffee. I just drink this for the caffeine, really."

When he moved back to Belden last year, we didn't talk much. We never had before either, come to think of it. But I wouldn't have expected to be discussing coffee preferences in a gas station to ever be a conversation we'd have.

Despite my protest, he pays for both drinks and a plastic cup of mini donuts.

The drive from Belden to Conley is a pretty one, a curvy main road leading from one town to the other. The view of the Christmas lights through the fog looks like something straight out of a holiday movie.

"Will you guys be doing anything for Christmas?" I ask, trying to think of something to break the silence for the rest of the drive.

Merritt shakes his head. "Not really. We'll probably just open presents and watch TV."

"Your dad's not coming in?"

"Depends on where he is. He won't get in a rush to get home either way." He sips from his coffee cup. "He doesn't have to work, or even be out of town, but it's what he chooses."


"Not your fault. I got used to it a long time ago. What about you?"

"My brother and his wife are coming in Saturday to spend the weekend. It's the only time we all can get together since they're going to her family's for Christmas Day. We'll still have a thing for friends and extended family though."

"Sounds fun."

I could invite them. If they want to come.

"Mostly it'll just be my parents' friends and my dad's family. Last year we traveled to see Mom's family, so we switch plans each year. But you never really know who's going to show up." Regardless, I'll spend the evening helping with the food and trying to keep arguments at bay. "If you guys want to come over, you can."

He considers the idea for a few seconds. "We might."


He pulls the truck into a parking space beside the building which houses the toy shop and an empty storefront that used to be a thrift store. "See you later, Lydia."

"Thanks for the ride."

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