Chapter Three

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The smell of cooking turkey has permeated the whole house. Everyone thinks cinnamon and vanilla are gingerbread are the smells of the holiday season, but really they're the rich scent of meals cooking and sweet things baking. And evergreen trees.

Gil and Natalie should be here any minute and our little Christmas celebration will begin. We'll eat and open presents and probably watch a movie. Something simple. Until they get here, I plan to stay up in my room and finish decorating the mini tree I bought last year. It's three feet tall, pink, and fits perfectly in the corner by my window.

I even have a bunch of sparkly ornaments to cover it, though right now they are scattered across the floor while I try to untangle silver garland.

Between my hands and the floor, I'm not sure how any glitter will be left for the decorations.

Christmas music plays through my laptop speakers in a mix of classic and contemporary, with a few of the quirkier songs tossed in.

A car horn beeps outside, interrupting a chorus of Nat King Cole.

I shut off the laptop and head downstairs. I shrug into my coat and head out to the car waiting in the driveway. Natalie waves from the passenger side.

"Hey!" I open her door and support her arm as she climbs out of the car. "How are mom and baby?"

"Mom is tired," she says, placing a hand on her belly, "and baby is not. All he does is kick! Gil says he's going to buy him a football but I think he's going to try out for soccer."

Gil shakes his head and leans against the side of the car. "It's football or nothing."

"Gil, babe, don't forget the stuff in the trunk."

"I won't."

He pops the trunk and reaches inside to grab the handles of two giant gift bags. I grab a casserole dish. "You know, Mom's got the food covered," I tell him.

"It's blueberry crumble!" Natalie says from the other side of the car.

"Then by all means, bring the casserole dish." Natalie makes the best blueberry crumble. The best. "I expect all of this is for me?"

"Only half. I get the rest."

"Not being very generous, Gil."

"Since when have I ever been generous?" He shifts both gift bags to his right hand and picks up a cloth shopping bag with his left.

"Never." I close the trunk for him and the three of us set off toward the door. The casserole dish will need to be popped into the oven to reheat. It'd be easy to sneak a few extra bites then...

Gil puts the bags of gifts under the tree in the corner of the living room and then returns to the door to help Natalie with her coat. He hangs her coat and hat on one hook and his own on the one beside it. His dark brown hair sticks up from static electricity. Out of habit, I take a step back. When we were little, we used to chase each other through the house trying to shock each other. We were easily entertained as children.

"I'm more mature than that now," he says, a laugh in the words. "I really don't think I'd risk the crumbles well-being right now."

I take the casserole dish to the counter and set it between the pecan and apple pies already there. Mom turns as soon as I set the dish down. Flour covers her Santa Claus apron.

"We brought more," Gil announces, handing over the shopping bag to Mom's waiting hands. "Specifically, stuffing and cranberry sauce, and a container of whipped topping."

"We don't need that much food." There is a grand total of five people. We'll be eating leftovers for all three meals and snacks for the next two days.

"You can never have too much food in December. The calories practically don't count."

For Gil, with his great metabolism, they probably don't. I am not blessed in that way.

"Go help your sister set up the dining room." Mom shoots Gil a pointed look, as if he's still a teenager living under her rules.

It works, because we both go to the dining room without protest. The room is practically ready, except for the dishes. A red tablecloth is over the oval-shaped table. Pretty centerpieces made from Christmas tree sprigs and pine cones and bits of ribbon sit in a row in the center of the table.

"Fancy," Gil says.

I hand him the plastic-wrapped stack of plates. "Open those."

"I expected something more elaborate."

"Well, using these means I don't have to do a lot of dishes. And look—they've even got pretty holly designs on the edges."

"Such sarcasm. I'm proud. Santa might not be though."

I grab the package of plastic cups, open it, and begin placing one at each chair. "So...what did you get me?"

"You'll find out."

Says the man who once checked the browsing history just to see what his presents would be.

"At least I tried."

One a plate, cup, and set of plastic cutlery is at each setting, we place the extras on the cabinet and sit down across from each other in the chairs that have always been ours at this table.

"So what's up?" Gil says, propping his forearms on the table. "You look like you've got something on your mind."

Dad's laugh echoes from the living room, slightly muffled by the wall that separates it from the dining room.

"Do you know the Kingstons?"

He squints, recalling the memory. "The neighbors?"

"Yep."

"I've been thinking about them. The boys."

"What happened?"

"Nothing, really. I mean, Merritt came back last year after that stuff happened with their parents, and I think they have a hard time. It's just the two of them. It's Christmastime. No one should be all alone, you know?"

Gil shrugs. "I've never known them very well. The oldest one was several grades behind me in school. I only heard through the rumor mill what happened."

"I don't know details and I haven't asked. I just know he came back to Belden last year to take care of Nash." I picked at the edge of the tablecloth. "I think they could use a friend."

"So be a friend."

It feels like it should be an easy thing to do, but I can't help wondering if I'm just being too nosy.

"Is that all that's wrong?" Gil studies me with a hazel-eyed gaze.

"They came into the shop the other day," I say, before quickly filling him in on what happened. "I think money's tight for them."

"Are you sure they weren't just trying to get money or something?"

I've thought about that since talking to Merritt. A lot of people around here have money problems—we've been in the same boat too many times to count. "I don't think that's it. I just—I think they could use a bit of cheering up."

Now that the thought is out in the open, it feels sort of...permanent.

Gil drums his fingers on the tabletop. "So what? You're going to play Santa Claus or something?"

"I don't know. Maybe."

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