December 24, 2013
Dean wasn’t sure where he should go. Which door was the right door? Why didn’t they mark these things better?
But when he ran past the emergency room, the big glass doors opened, so he took that as a sign and sprinted in.
It was warm in the emergency room. And quiet. The only sound was a tiny motion-sensor dancing snowman on the front desk to his left. It started singing “Jingle Bell Rock” the second he walked in.
“Anyone here?” he called. It was the damn emergency room—where were the doctors?
A nurse showed up behind the counter, wearing scrubs with wreaths on them. She had earrings wrapped up like presents.
It was Christmas Eve.
Briefly, because he couldn’t help it, because it was what he always did on Christmas Eve, he wondered where Trina was. If she was okay.
“Can I help you?” the nurse asked.
“I’m looking for Marion McKenzie. I’m her son.” The words were torn from his chest. He’d been a very bad son to his mother this last year.
“Well, officially visiting hours are over, but since it’s Christmas and all.” The nurse dropped her voice and smiled at him. “I don’t think anyone will mind. Just follow the red arrows.”
“She’s okay?” Dean asked, feeling like something was short-circuiting in his brain.
“Well, she broke her wrist and the doctors are worried about a concussion.”
“Doctors are keeping an eye on her. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Well, it sounded like doctors were worried about a concussion. He rubbed a hand over his face and the snowman started up again.
Holy hell, he was going to tear that thing’s head off.
As if the nurse knew, she pressed a button on the decoration, and the silence was blissful.
“She’s on the second floor. Room 214. Go on up. She’ll be happy to see you.”
Dean followed the red arrows to the elevator and punched the Up arrow. And then again, because the elevator was so damn slow. And then one more time, because it kind of felt good and he had a lot of fear and stress that had no place to go.
Finally the silver doors opened. He stepped inside, then jabbed at the Close Door button.
“Hold that! Excuse me. Hold the door.” He shoved his arm in the way of the closing doors, and they popped back open. There stood a woman in a silver ball gown. Something slinky and long that hugged a compact, strong body.
Trina’s compact, strong body.
“Dean!” She blinked at him, her arms full of soda cans and little bags of nuts and chips and licorice from a vending machine. “You’re here.”
In jeans and T-shirt, in shapeless winter jackets, naked as a jaybird, she was and always had been the most beautiful woman in the world. And in that sexy, sophisticated dress she nearly dropped him to his knees.
The sight of her was like getting bucked off a horse, a weightless sense of falling. And then a bone-jarring impact.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Your mom fell,” she said, looking at him with wide eyes. “Didn’t you get the messages?”
“I got the messages.” Three from his father. Two from Trina. He’d been cleaning his stuff out of Holly’s and missed the calls. “But you were fired.”
“No. I quit. Big distinction. One your brother isn’t so keen on making clear.” The doors bounced back away from his arm again, and a buzzer started. “You gonna let me in or do I have to take the stairs?”
He stepped out of her way.
“You’re not family,” he said, and she blinked, stepping into the corner, like he’d put her there. “The nurse gave me a hard time about visiting hours, but you’re here and you’re not family.”
“The nurse said it didn’t matter. Christmas Eve and everything.”
Pretty lax around here with the rules, if you asked him.
He reached past her and pushed the button for the second floor, and the silver doors slowly slid shut.
I should have taken the stairs.
It was claustrophobic and close in the elevator, and every breath he took tasted like her. No matter where he looked, he caught the flash of her dress in the corner of his eye. A mirage. He leaned back against the far wall as far from her as he could get.
“Four months ago.”
“But I heard—”
“Josh has been telling everyone I was fired.”
He told himself he didn’t care why she quit. Or why Josh was telling people she was fired. It was bullshit. Of course he cared.
He looked at her and he…he just wanted her. And now, right now, he just wanted to grab onto her and hold her tight. And it hurt, a lot, that she didn’t want him. Not really.
A piano version of “Silent Night” pumped out of the tinny speakers.
He wanted to ask her if she’d played at the party, but he kept his mouth shut, the question stinging his lips.
“They hired a harpist,” she said, watching the numbers switch over on the digital screen above the door. “She was good.”
“Only the best for my folks,” he muttered with a darkness he couldn’t seem to control.
She wrapped her arms over her chest as best she could with her hands full. He saw goose bumps on her shoulders and arms. And concern for her was a river he could not stop. No matter how hard he tried.
“Where’s your coat, girl?” he asked.
“Upstairs. I thought you’d be there tonight,” she said, over her shoulder at him.
“At the party?”
She nodded. Her creamy skin just a little pink.
It would be nice to pretend, even for a second, that she’d dressed for him—in the hopes she’d see him. But he’d fallen victim to that kind of false warmth before. It was dangerous, that false warmth. It came right before hypothermia.
“My invitation must have gotten lost in the mail.”
The door slid open and she walked out of the elevator, leaving him in an eddy of her perfume. He’d never known her to wear perfume. It was nice. She smelled like rich flowers. And he wished he didn’t notice those things. Wished he could turn off the way he felt for this prickly, awkward woman who never ever looked at him the way he could not stop looking at her.
The thin straps of her dress left her back bare, and he watched those thin muscles under her skin shift as she walked away.
He followed her down a short hallway to a slice of light falling across the marble floor from an open door. She stepped ahead like she was going to push open the door, but he stopped her, his hand briefly touching her elbow. Just that, his fingers against her bare skin for a second, and electricity zipped between them.
“Do you know what happened?” he asked.
“Just your messages. The texts. She fell?”
“Ice on the steps. She fell, broke her wrist and hit her head. I found her—”
“She was unconscious, just for a minute.”
He took a deep breath and let fly with his worst suspicions. His darkest thoughts.
“Was inside the party. He didn’t…he wasn’t there. He’s not like that with her.”
Dean knew that, but he lived with the fear that would change. That without Dean there to bully and slap, Dad would turn on his mom.
“Fine. Really. Hungry.” She lifted the snacks she was holding in her arms.
“Yeah, sorry. Let’s go.”
Trina pushed open the door ahead of them. “Look who I found,” she said in a bright voice as Dean followed her into the small hospital room.
Mom sat up in the bed, surrounded by pillows, wearing a blue silk robe from home. It was a run-of-the-mill hospital room. Pale yellow with nondescript pictures. But Mom turned it into something special. Something slightly regal. A queen’s sitting room, perhaps.
“Dean!” Her smile was the same one she’d given him since he was a child. All warmth. All welcome. “You didn’t need to come out in this weather.”
“Mom.” He leaned down to kiss her cheek, careful of her head and her arm in the sling. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here earlier. I got the messages late.”
“Well, it’s a lot of fuss for nothing if you ask me.” She still wore her hair, white and snowy, up in a bun from the party. He touched one of the glittery pins that held it all in place. Her fancy hairdo seemed as out of place as Trina’s ball gown.
“You would say that,” he said.
Trina put the cans of soda and the junk food on the small rolling table beside Mom’s bed. “Here,” she said. “Let me get my stuff and you can have my seat.” She began to gather up all her things. A long cashmere coat. Black shoes. A purse.
“No, honey, stay,” Mom cried, and Dean wondered when Trina became honey. “You were so hungry.”
“I can grab something—”
“It’s Christmas Eve. Nothing is open.”
“Well.” Trina glanced over at him with unsure eyes.
“Don’t leave on my account,” he said with just enough attitude that his mom cut him a surprised look.
“Sit. Eat,” Mom said, and then looked over at him. “And you. Be nice.”
“I’m nice,” he said, and sat down on the other empty bed. And once upon a time he’d been very nice to Trina. “Where’s Dad?”
“Still at the party.”
“What?” he cried, looking to Trina for confirmation. She’d cracked open the Cheetos bag and her fingers were covered with orange powder. She shrugged. “He let you come here alone?”
“I’m not alone. Trina is here.”
“You know what I mean.”
“There are two hundred people at our home tonight, Dean. Someone should be there.”
“Yeah, and he should be by your side.”
Mom sighed, heavily. “Open up those almonds for me, would you, Trina?”
“Why are you acting like this is no big deal?”
“Because there is no arguing with you about your father.”
“That’s not Dean’s fault,” Trina said, shaking almonds into Mom’s open palm.
Dean stared at Trina, surprised to hear her stepping up to his defense.
“No,” Mom said with a sigh. “I don’t suppose it is. I swear, since the moment you were born, the two of you found something to fight about. If I put you to bed, you went down so sweet. If he tried bedtime it would be three hours of screaming and wailing. From the two of you.”
He sighed, rubbed a hand over his face. He’d been a hearing a version of this story for as long as he could remember.
“He’s the father,” Trina said, still staunchly defending him. “The adult. If anyone should rise above it, it should be him, don’t you think?”
“Of course I think, but there’s no convincing Eugene of that.”
Dean dropped his hand and stared at the two women. What was happening here?
“I don’t think it’s fair to blame a child for something an adult didn’t do,” Trina said. She had a red blush climbing up from her neckline.
“True,” Mom said. “But he’s not a child anymore, is he?”
“You know I’m sitting right here,” Dean said. “I can hear you.”
“Then hear this,” Mom said. “Your father is just a man, like any other. And the only power he has is the power you give him.”
“That might work in your marriage, Marion,” Trina said. “But Eugene is Dean’s father. For years, he had all the power.”
Mom sat back against the pillows, staring at Trina like she’d never heard her language before.
“Would you like some ginger ale?” Trina asked him. “Or Coke? That’s all they had except for that gross vending machine coffee.”
Dean felt a little bit like he had slipped down a rabbit hole. “Do you have anything stronger?”
“Sorry, she said. “Spiked hot chocolate is your forte.”
She was smiling, slightly. A careful smile. A tentative one.
Remember? her smile said. Remember how close we used to be? Remember that awful night when we trusted each other more than anyone else on earth?
The reminder was unnecessary and bitter.
“Don’t,” he said, and the smile dropped from her face. Last year, he could smile and pretend. This year, in his mother’s hospital room, he didn’t make nice.
Mom was watching them, her shrewd eyes taking in all the things he didn’t quite have the power to hide tonight.
“Trina? Can I see you outside?” Without waiting for an answer, he got up and walked into the hallway.
There was a limit. And he’d just hit his.
It wasn’t like she didn’t know what was waiting for her out in that hallway. Dean was mad. Furious. And frankly, he had every right to be. And she’d had this stupid plan, which of course had gone wrong. Because really what she should have done was call him. Months ago.
But she’d wanted to get rid of some of the stuff between them. Some of her stuff.
“Just tell him, honey,” Marion said.
Trina patted the woman’s hand and followed Dean outside. Her feet were nearly numb from the cold floor, but anything was better than the devil shoes she’d been wearing most of the night.
She found him in the little waiting room at the end of the hallway, pacing between walls covered in watercolors of cowboys and dogs.
“What the hell is going on?” He spun on her when she stepped into the room.
“I didn’t think your mother should be alone.”
“That’s great, but when did you get to be honey?”
She blinked. This wasn’t quite the conversation she’d been expecting.
“She’s been really good to me. Always has been.”
He pulled off his hat and tossed it on the chair. His hair was all clumpy and sticking to his forehead. If she’d done things right, if she hadn’t been so angry and scared and dumb, she would have had the right to unstick his hair from his head. She could ruffle it and feather it back.
She could touch him the way she wanted.
Because he would be hers.
“Your mom’s been helping me since I left your dad’s company. I’m still fighting the pipeline. I’m just doing it away from your brother, who, I might add, is worse than your father could ever dream of being.”
“How is my mother helping you?”
“Money. Logistics. Making introductions to the right people. You’d be surprised by how politically connected your mother is.”
“Nothing about my mother surprises me.” His voice was cold. Hard. Don’t tell me about my mother, it said.
“Of course,” she said, uncomfortable and awkward. “She’s your mother.”
This was not how this all was supposed to go. There had been a plan. A dress. A fancy hairdo. She’d anticipated champagne. Olives. Not Cheetos fingers.
It was actually kind of amazing how awful she was at this. How every step she took was wrong.
“Those things…you said in there. About me.” He shook his head. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter.”
“No. Of course it matters.” She took a deep breath. “You matter, Dean. You’ve always mattered.”
“What am I supposed to say to that?”
“You don’t have to say anything.”
But please, please say something.
Only he took her at her word and turned away from her, to stare, silent and broody, out a dark window to the parking lot below. She twisted her fingers together and took a step closer to him. In the window she could see the reflection of his face.
He was watching her.
But from a distance. Or an angle.
It was just another way for both of them to hide. And she didn’t want that. He might reject her. He might laugh in her face and tell her she’d missed her chance, but she wanted to look him in the eyes when she told him.
She’d spent enough time hiding from him. Hiding from her feelings.
“Could you please turn around?” she asked, wishing her voice was stronger.
He did what she asked, his hands in his jeans pockets. His thick wool sweater pulled taut over his shoulders and chest. He had always been so big and so able to hold her up, take on her weight and her problems. She’d wanted to do the same for him. Just a little.
“I asked your mom for an invitation to the party because I wanted to see you.”
He shrugged nonchalantly with one shoulder, as if that was all the effort that was required. “You could have seen me anytime,” he said.
“I’m going to check on my mom.” He grabbed his hat and headed back toward Marion’s room. She got in his way. Frowning, he stepped to the right to get around her and she stepped with him. He stepped left and she was still in his way.
“What are you doing?”
“Telling you I’m sorry.”
“I’m done with apologies from you, Trina.” Again he tried to step past her, again she stuck to him, refusing to let him by until she had her say. “What? Are you ten?”
“I wanted to call you back a thousand times,” she said. “Once I was done being mad, I felt stupid because you were right. Your father had good intentions hiring me. He did. But your brother just wanted to use me as a tool to gather up land, including my father’s.”
“And you thought what? I was going to rub your face in it? Look, I’m really sorry about the situation with Josh. You deserve better. You’ve always deserved better. But it’s been two years, Trina.”
“I’ve been spending a lot of time with my dad,” she said. “This year. Since I quit, really.”
“Trust me, I know. It’s all he talks about.”
“You got him to stop drinking.”
“I just poured out the rye. He did the hard part.”
She still fought the instinct not to give her father any credit. But he’d been sober for the better part of a year, and sometimes she had to remember that. She had to work hard to see the man he was trying to be and not just the man he had been.
“We go to church together,” she said. “Have coffee after. It’s not great, but it’s good. Frankly, I’m still mad a lot of the time, but we’re trying.”
“That’s nice. I’m glad.”
“Thank you.” She wished her voice was stronger. “Thank you for giving us that chance. You were right. Last year, what you said at the gas station, that I don’t forgive or forget. You were right. And I’m working on it,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been doing this year. Working on that. On me, I guess. Trying to be the kind of person who deserves a guy like you. I wanted to call you—see you again, when I was the best version of myself.”
His eyes went wide. His mouth fell open a little bit.
“I had this big plan tonight. I made sure your mom put the instruments down in the foyer—”
“We haven’t played together in years.”
“Right. That was pointed out to me. That’s why the harpist was hired. But I was going to ask you to play with me. I was going to tell you how much that meant to me when I was a kid. How I never felt as close to anyone as I did while playing those songs with you. Except for that morning…three Christmas Eves ago. When you made me look at you while—”
She cut off her rambling mouth, blushing. Really, Trina. You’re in a hospital.
“I remember,” he said quietly. Warmth kindling in his eyes. He took a step closer, and then another, and her knees nearly buckled with relief. Was this working? Was this actually working?
“What I want, more than anything, is to feel that close to you again. So I went to that party. Hoping you would be there. Hoping you would see me in this stupid dress—”
“Hey now, I like that dress.”
“I wanted you to see me in it and I wanted you to want me.”
She sucked in a breath, blood pounding in her cheeks.
“But then, when everything happened with your mom, all I could think about was how hard this would be for you and I couldn’t stand the idea of you being here all alone.”
“You didn’t want my mother to be alone.”
“I didn’t want you to be alone.” A tear slipped from her eyes and she didn’t brush it away. She was done hiding from him. “I’m here for you. For my friend. Because you’ve always been there for me.”
He grabbed her hands in his, squeezing them so hard they nearly hurt. Her breath shuddered. The look on his face…she’d never seen him so intense.
“I don’t want to be your friend,” he said.
“What?” she breathed, pain rippling through her.
“It’s not enough. Not anymore.”
She swallowed. The strap of her dress slipped down her shoulder. “That was what I was scared of. Because it’s not enough for me either. It’s not nearly enough.”
With shaking hands, they stroked back each other’s hair. And she felt impossibly open to him. Like she’d been unzipped somehow and was standing in front of him with everything showing. And it was the same for her with him.
She’d always seen him so clearly. The vulnerability he guarded with jokes. That physical ease that hid an emotional want that never got answered. Never got fulfilled.
And she’d been a part of that. She’d hurt him. With her own fear. Her own vulnerability. Probably in ways she didn’t even know about.
I’m sorry, she thought again.
But instead of saying it, she slipped her hands across his cheeks. Holding him still. Looking him right in the eyes, she didn’t hide. Or look away.
This is me, she thought. All of me. Wanting all of you.
He sighed, said something soft she didn’t hear or understand, and his hands gripped her waist, the strange fabric of her dress sliding between them, amplifying every touch, broadcasting it all over her body.
Hey! Dean is touching me now!
She rose up on her toes. He bent down. They met halfway.
His lips were dry. He smelled like pencil lead. She wrapped her arms around his neck and held on as hard as she could. For as long as she could.
I won’t let you go. Not again. Never again.
“Let’s go check on your mom,” she said.
“And then what?”
“Will you come with me?” she asked, pulling away from the kiss.
His eyes, his touch, everything about him said yes.
“To my house.”
“I’ve never been to your house.”
She wrapped her arm through his, pulling them into motion. “Well, you are in for a very short, very boring tour.”
“What are we going to do there?” he asked.
“Talk,” she said.
“I think we have a lot we need to say,” she said. “I know there’s a lot I want to tell you. About how sorry I am and how much I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too.”
“I remember when we were kids and you said that this place would poison us. That our parents would.”
“They almost did, Dean. They almost took all this away from us, and I think we need to get out all the poison.”
“Okay. Get out poison. Then what?”
“Well, then I imagine we’re going to be so emotionally wrung out and exhausted that we’ll fall asleep.” Now she was just having fun with him. And she wanted to keep having fun with him forever. She wanted it to never end.
“Nap. Got it. And then?”
“Monkey sex, Dean. Then monkey sex.”
“We got time, boy. We got plenty of time.”
He stopped and pulled her in close, breathing kisses across her face. “Merry Christmas, Trina,” he said.
“Merry Christmas, Dean,” she whispered back.
They stepped back into Marion’s tiny little hospital room and were both brought up short by the sight of Eugene, in a big black overcoat, leaning over Marion’s bed, pressing kisses to her forehead.
She felt Dean’s entire body tense up. And she wanted, badly, to get him out of here before something happened between Dean and his father.
“Sorry,” she said in a low voice, but the two adults jumped back as if they’d been caught necking.
“Trina,” Eugene said in his deep voice. “Thank you for taking care of her.”
“It’s no problem. None at all. Let me just get our stuff.”
Dean stepped out of the shadows with her and Eugene’s eyes beneath the bushy white eyebrows went wide.
“Dad,” Dean said with a short nod of his head while he grabbed his jacket off the bed.
Trina nearly rolled her eyes. The testosterone was so thick she could barely see.
“Glad to see you could make it to your wife’s hospital bed,” Dean said while shrugging into his coat. “Had to finish that last cigar, I suppose.”
“Your mother asked me to stay at the party,” he said.
“Because that’s what Mom does,” he said. “Mom says that kind of thing.”
“And I mean it,” Marion said. “Stop, Dean.”
Trina had her feet wedged into her shoes and her coat and purse over her arm. She went back to Dean and put a hand against his chest. “Let’s just go, Dean,” she whispered.
Dean’s eyes went from his mother to Trina and she wasn’t sure what he was thinking. And she had that strange sensation of knowing him both really well and not at all. Not really. And instead of making her daunted or worried, the thought was a happy one. An exciting one. Getting to know all the parts of this man would be happy work. That would make for happy days.
He touched her hair, pushed it behind her ear. “Maybe I need to do some work to deserve you,” he whispered for her ears alone.
“Is there something happening between you two?” Eugene asked, pointing a finger at Trina and Dean.
“If it is, I can only say it’s about damn time,” Marion said, holding his hand. “Wish them a merry Christmas and let them go back to their evening.”
Eugene seemed slightly baffled, as if he’d walked into the wrong room.
“Merry Christmas, Dean. Trina,” he said with a sort of head bow.
“Merry Christmas, Dad,” Dean said, then wrapped his arm around Trina’s shoulder and led her out of the room.
“That was strange,” she said. “Did you think that was strange?”
“Things are always strange with my dad,” Dean said. “I’ll drive. We can come back to get your car in the morning.”
“But that was stranger than usual, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah. We didn’t fight.”
“Right,” she said, with a smile. “You didn’t fight.”
“It’s a Christmas miracle.”
“Wait,” she said as they stepped into the elevator. “Why are you driving?”
He pushed her back into the corner of the elevator, pressed his body full length against hers. Hips to chest. His arms around her waist. “Because I want to make out in my car,” he said into her mouth. “Because I don’t want to let you go for as long as it takes to drive to your house.”
“I like the sound of that.”
In the end they had hot monkey sex. In the truck. And on her couch.
Then they talked. They talked until the sun came up.
And it was Christmas Day.