Chapter Seven

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I slide into the passenger seat of Merritt's truck at 4:05. "Hey, guys."

Aside from the low volume of the radio, the only other noise is a couple of quite "heys" in reply, before Merritt backs the truck out of the driveway. It's like catching the end of an awkward conversation, with no way to get out of the silence that follows.

"How was school today?"

"Good," Nash replies. "We go on break for Christmas soon."

"Bet you're looking forward to that, huh?"

He nods. "I hope it snows. Merritt says it probably won't though."

Merritt's gaze flickers to Nash. "It's usually too warm here, kiddo."

Can't blame the kid for hoping though. We all used to dream of the same thing when we were his age. Heck, half the time in high school we would sit around trying to figure out if the chances of snow were good.

"Where are we tree shopping?"

"I thought we'd try the place on the highway. A guy at work got one from there and recommended it."

"The one with the blue lights?'

"Yep."

That's not a long trip at all. Just about fifteen minutes to get there from the center of Belden.

"What do you think of Douglas fir? Merritt asks. "And would you like a coffee?"

"To the first, I think they're nice. We have one this year. To the second, yes please."

At the gas station we file out of the truck and hurry in out of the cold air. I get the usual French vanilla cappuccino, Merritt grabs his coffee, and Nash gets a small cup full of hot chocolate. Not a bad idea, since we'll be in the cold for a bit later.

Once we're all settled in the truck again, Nash turns the radio up. A country rendition of "Let It Snow" plays through the little bit of static.

Merritt quietly drives and sips coffee, his gaze seeming to look past the road and traffic. It's not really any of my business, but a small part of me wants to ask what's on his mind.

I sip my coffee and swallow the question down with it.

"There they are!" Nash leans forward for a better look.

Trees stand in neat rows under the glow of blue Christmas lights. A few cars wait in the gravel parking lot to the right of the fenced area of trees. A white, square tent with one open side is off to the left, with people standing and sitting inside. A fire burns in a short metal barrel outside the doorway.

Merritt parks the truck and hops out, then walks around to open the passenger door. "I'll hold your coffee for you," he says. "Nash, put your hat on, please."

"Thanks." Gravel crunches under my boots. I take back my coffee cup and tuck my empty hand into my coat pocket.

Nash hurries ahead of us. Merritt calls after him with a gentle reprimand not to run.

"Gil always preferred to watch me trip just so he'd have good reason to laugh. But he's not that much older than I am, so I guess he thought I didn't need to be looked after."

"Are you sure you wanted to come with us today?" It's a quick-spoken question, not rude.

"Did you not want me to?"

He pauses at the edge of the gravel, and so do I.

"I just don't understand what...this is. I don't want to be a pity project, you know?" There's no scorn in the words, though he'd be within rights if there were.

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