Chapter Five

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Certain rituals exist around the Conley Christmas parade. Nothing weird or extreme, but things that always happen. It always travels the same square comprised by four streets: Main, Poplar, Castor, and Third. The first people in the parade are the mayor and the school mascot, followed by the Conley High marching band. The last float is always the "Santa" one, with confetti and candy to throw to the onlookers. When Gil and I were kids, we would try to outdo each other in catching candy, but always ended up sharing what we got anyway.

Like most years, it's a chilly night for the parade. Natalie and I sit on a bench near the toy shop, each clutching a foam cup of hot chocolate with cold hands. The parade doesn't start for another twenty minutes, so we've still got time to wait. Mom and Dad have gone to find their place to watch, while Gil went back to the car to get a blanket for Natalie. It's kind of funny to see him worry over someone like that.

"This is only the second time I've been to this parade," Natalie says.

"Did they have one where you grew up?"

"Yeah. We went most of the time. My sisters were in band and almost always marched in it. I just liked watching."

I sip my hot chocolate and try not to shiver. "What time are you leaving tomorrow?"

"I think by noon. Gil wants to get home pretty early since he's working early."

As if on cue, Gil jogs toward us with the blue fuzzy blanket over one shoulder like some old-style cape.

"You're a gem, Gil."

"Well, thanks." He drapes the blanket around Natalie's shoulder. "Ready to find Mom and Dad?"

"You guys go ahead," I tell him. "I'm meeting someone."

"The Kingstons, right?"

"Yep. They should be here soon."

"See you later, then."

They cross the street and head toward Poplar.

The sound of the band practicing echoes off Main Street, two streets over. Everything is perfectly Christmasy, all bright lights and cold air and cozy decorations. The perfect night for a parade.

Half of me hopes Merritt and Nash will show up, but the other half is convinced they won't. I don't know why.

I take my hot chocolate and cross over to the parking lot of the library. The big lot it shares with the bank was blocked off for parade parking, and currently sits full. It's not an event that brings in a lot of tourists, but it does bring a lot of people over from Belden.

Including a familiar pickup.

"Hey!" Nash waves from beside the truck at the other end of the lot.

I wave back and walk toward them. "Good to see you. I've been waiting."

"Traffic," he says.

"We've got a few minutes before it starts."

Nash walks ahead of Merritt and me, an energetic bustle in a thick coat and bright orange sneakers.

"He found out one of his friends from school is here tonight too." Merritt clears his throat. "He's really excited."

"Do you guys want something to drink? The library's got a booth set up with free coffee and hot chocolate."

"Sounds perfect."

By the time we're all three armed with foam cups and walk over to Third Street to find the best viewing spot, I can hear the band gearing up for the real thing. It'll take a couple of minutes for the beginning of the parade to reach us, but already everyone is eagerly standing on tiptoe or eying the end of the street. Nash and his friend, a blond-haired girl in a yellow hat, stand at the edge of the sidewalk, just in front of Merritt and me.

"Do they still throw candy?" Merritt asks in a low voice. Little vapor wisps puff in front of his face.

"Haven't seen a year they didn't. That used to be my brother's and my favorite part."

"Really? Mine too."

I try to picture him here, but I don't think we ever saw each other at the parade. Funny how much you can bypass someone in a small town like Belden or Conley and never even realize it.

Finally, the mayor and the high school mascot—a wolf in a purple jersey—march toward us, holding a banner between them that says Merry Christmas, Conley! in big red letters. Smaller green letters beneath those declare it's the thirtieth annual Christmas parade. Behind them, the marching band plays "Joy To the World," accompanied by three baton twirlers in elf hats.

And then the floats.

A book-themed one from the library, featuring Ebenezer Scrooge and the three spirits. A nativity scene from one of the churches, complete with a few adorable little kids dressed up as sheep and a donkey. A snowman float from the grocery store. An elf workshop from the local toy drive. A firetruck decked with giants wreaths on the sides follows behind the floats.

Behind it, a big red truck follows, decorated in lights and garland. On the trailer behind it, "Santa" and "Mrs. Claus" wave from their sleigh. A couple of "elves" throw candy to the crowd.

I nudge Merritt's shoulder with mine. Nash and his friend both catch candy canes and mini chocolates in shiny wrappers.

"I think he's had fun." Merritt says. His brow wrinkles as he glances into his empty coffee cup.

"Are you?"

"Yeah." And he looks like he just might be. "It's nice to do something different for a change."

To our right, the last float turns the corner for its return to Main Street. The temperature is starting to drop again. Smaller groups break off from the crowd, shuffling toward the parking lots or into the warmth of the buildings around us. Most of the businesses on this street are closed because they're shops or lawyers' offices and real estate offices, but some—like the donut shop or the fancy restaurant on Main—are still open for business.

Our little group lingers on the sidewalk until we're some of the last ones still standing around. Nash and his friend sit on a bench, trading candies. Her parents make their way closer and call her over to them, and with a quick goodbye, she's off.

We're an awkward little trio again.

"Did you like it?" I ask Nash.

He fights with the wrapper of a candy cane. "Uh-huh."

"May I?"

He surrenders the candy cane and I peel the wrapper off for him. He accepts it with a quick word of thanks.

Merritt glances at his watch. "I think it's about time to get home," he says. "You've got school in the morning, kiddo."

It'll be a few minutes before my family meets up at the cars, so I walk with them toward the lot. Already, a significant number of cars have gone, making the lot look like it does on most Sunday nights.

"By the way," Nash says suddenly, "I like the ornament you gave me."

"I'm glad. I was hoping you would."

"Yeah. I'm going to put it on our tree when we decorate."

Merritt unlocks the passenger side door and helps Nash up into the seat. "Buckle up."

Nash is already on the task out of habit. "Do you want to help?"

I don't say anything, but instead shoot a hesitant glance at Merritt, who shrugs. "You're welcome to, if you want to. We're going to go get one Wednesday afternoon."

"I don't want to intrude."

"You've been invited." The corner of his mouth lifts in half a grin.

"I'll have to make sure I'm not working late. If not, then I'll be there."

"Great!" He closes the passenger door and walks around the front of the truck. "Do you need us to wait with you or...?"

"I'm meeting my family here in a few minutes. You can go on home."

"You sure?"

I nod. "Busy week coming up. Go get some rest."

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