13. Bailey

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We all meet downstairs Christmas morning, except Nick. Before our traditional huge breakfast, my mom insists we all get a picture together in our matching pajamas. We all groan but gather in the living room.

"Wait a minute, where's Nick?" She says as we're lining up.

"Nick! Get your ass down here!" Ian yells up the stairs.

"Language!" My mom scolds.

I hear Nick's voice at the top of the stairs before I see him. "Sorry, I didn't know if you wanted family time."

"Nonsense. Nick, we're taking a picture," my mom assures him.

Nick slowly walks down the staircase, taking one step at a time. He's wearing his plaid pants that match the rest of ours, and he has on a plain, white undershirt. His hair is sticking up in all directions, but he runs his hand through it before flattening it out. His eyes are sleepy and his cheeks are flushed. He still has his two black eyes, but they seem to have lightened overnight. He looks more vulnerable now than I've ever seen him—like the teenage boy that he is.

Once he reaches us, Ian wraps one arm over his shoulders, and one over mine before my mom sets the timer and captures our first Christmas morning as a family of five.

This year, I know Ian and I are both getting laptops as gifts because my mom told us weeks ago. She wanted to make sure she got exactly what we wanted since we'd be taking them to college next year.

There are few surprises, though. When my mom places a box similar in size to Ian's and mine in front of Nick, he stands up immediately and says he needs to get something. He runs upstairs and comes back a minute later, holding a plain white envelope.

He hands it to my mom, "This is...this is for both of you."

"Nick, you didn't need to do this," she says, taking it from him.

"Yeah, I did."

He takes a seat on the couch across from them. We all watch as my mom opens the envelope to a wad of twenty dollar bills.

"I know it's not much, but I emptied my savings account. It's all I have to repay you for letting me stay here."

My mom gasps. "Nick, no. We cannot take this. This is yours."

My dad grabs the envelope to hand back to Nick, but he puts his hands up. "Please. Take it. I need to give you something. You don't know how much you've helped me."

My dad looks at my mom with concern. They don't want to embarrass Nick, but if I know them at all, that money will go directly back into an account for Nick himself.

"Thank you very much, Nick," my mom says.

Ian, Nick and I open our gifts now in an attempt to change the subject. I look down at the computer that I had already seen online. "Thank you so much, Mom and Dad. I love it."

I go sit between them on the loveseat and hug both at the same time.

"You're welcome, sweetheart," my dad says, hugging me back. I try to hold back my laughter because I know for a fact that this the first he even knew we were getting laptops.

"Thanks, guys," Ian says. "It's perfect."

Then we all turn our attention to Nick. The opened package is sitting on his lap, but he looks stunned. It's a laptop similar to Ian's and mine.

"I...I..."

"I hope it's alright," my mom chimes in. "Ian helped me pick it out. I figured you'd need one for college next year, too."

Nick looks up at her, mouth still hanging open. "I can't believe this. Thank you," he says, genuinely.

"You're welcome," my mom and dad say simultaneously. We all laugh at them, and I'm grateful that the attention turned away from Nick. When I glance at him again, I swear I see tears in his eyes.

The topic of colleges comes up again later in the day during dinner.

"So, Ian, have you made any more decisions about where you're going?" My dad asks.

Ian got into every school he applied to, which we all knew he would. He's the valedictorian and plays football, basketball and baseball. He's also our class treasurer.

I, on the other hand, get average grades and only got accepted to one school. I am the captain of the cheerleading squad, but when your GPA is basically a B-minus, that doesn't help tremendously. Admittedly, I knew I wouldn't get accepted to most of the schools I applied to because of their high rankings, but I thought it wouldn't hurt to try.

My top choice was Southern Illinois, which just so happens to be where I was accepted. The campus is beautiful and only two hours from home. Far enough away, but not too far in case I get homesick.

"I've narrowed it down to Stanford or Princeton," my brother announces.

"You just can't wait to get out of the Midwest, can you?" My mom asks playfully.

"You know it," Ian says while shoveling mashed potatoes into his mouth.

"So, Nick, what about you? Any plans yet for next year? Or are you as indecisive as my son?" My dad asks.

Nick chuckles, "No, sir, I plan on sticking around here and going to community college for a couple years at least. Maybe try to work in the evenings and go to school during the day."

"That's not completely true," Ian interjects. "He may end up going to U of I."

"Really? That's fantastic," my dad says enthusiastically.

Nick shoots Ian a death glare. "I applied there, but I got wait-listed. I'm sure I won't get accepted."

U of I was one of the schools that rejected me.

"I didn't realize you got that good of grades," I blurt out before thinking.

"Bailey Elizabeth!" My mother says with an aghast expression.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that," I try to explain.

Nick smiles at me from across the table. I think it's the first time he's looked at me all day, and I can't help the butterflies now going crazy in my stomach.

"It's alright. I guess having a genius best friend staying up late to help me study after work actually does help," he says.

I break eye contact with Nick and turn to Ian. "Really? I don't think you've ever helped me with homework. Not once."

"That's because I don't like you," Ian says and throws a roll at me.

I catch it and throw it right back at him, pegging him in the forehead.

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