December 24, 2003
Hey Trina –
I got your emails. Sorry I didn’t get back to you. It’s been a crazy year. College is good though. Hard. But fun. SO MANY PARTIES!! How about you? Stanford everything you wanted it to be? I hope so. Mom said you stopped by at Thanksgiving. Sorry, I wasn’t there. I’m staying at school for the holiday. Which is a little lonely, but better than being with Dad. Anyway. I’ll try to be better about writing you back. I miss you. And it’s Christmas Eve and I’m suddenly hungry for a yule log. Later – Dean.
December 24, 2005
Trina squeezed into the party through a front door that could barely open.
“Sorry,” some guy said. He stepped out of the way of the door, but it still didn’t open too far.
The room was wall to wall with people. This was not the “little holiday thing” Dean had talked about in his email. She’d expected a dinner party. An open house kind of thing.
“Is this the right place?” Trevor asked. He squeezed in after her and they both stood against the closed door, sweltering in their winter coats and scarves. The cake box in her hand was suddenly ridiculous.
“Is this Dean’s apartment?” she asked a girl walking past with two blue plastic cups held up over her head so they wouldn’t get bumped and spilled.
“Yep,” the girl answered. She tossed back her blonde hair and jerked her chin toward the kitchen. “He’s at the keg.” And then she was gone. Swallowed up by the sea of people.
“Give me your coat,” Trevor said. “I’ll find a place to stash them.”
“I’ll… go say hi and get us some beers.”
They handed the box between them and shrugged off coats, all while elbowing people who didn’t seem to care.
“Lots of beers,” Trevor said, and kissed her on the cheek as she handed him her jacket. She loved Trevor, she did. He was capable and independent. He wasn’t intimidated by a room full of strangers. He even agreed to come to Laramie for a Christmas Eve party.
They were going to try and make it romantic. They had a hotel room in town. Dinner reservations for tomorrow. The deal was they could check their phones and emails three times a day. That was it. That was the deal.
He was perfect. Totally perfect.
Trina made her way through the throngs of people toward the kitchen. Convincing herself it was all the people, the wall of body heat that was making her hands sweat against the cake box.
But that didn’t really explain the butterflies in her stomach.
It had been years since she’d seen Dean, but they’d gotten better about emails. And when he’d emailed and told her about the party, he probably wasn’t expecting her to come. It was undoubtedly just one of those things people say: I’m throwing a Christmas Eve party for some people I work with and friends who aren’t going home. You should come.
She lived in Northern California, for crying out loud.
Stuck between the living room and the kitchen, behind some people who were moving the couch to make a better dance floor, she realized how stupid this was.
She’d travelled hundreds of miles, dragged her boyfriend and brought a freaking cake to some keg party thrown by a guy who probably didn’t even mean the invitation, all because Christmas Eve made her so crazy.
She turned and began to head back. She and Trevor could go back to the hotel by the highway—
The sound of her old friend’s voice made her smile. She turned back around and there he was, a head taller than everyone in the party.
“You came!” His smile did not indicate that she was not welcome, that she’d been stupid to drive. His smile told her this party just got better by her being there. No one—not ever—had looked so glad to see her. And it was shockingly intimate. She wasn’t used to seeing someone’s happiness brought on by her.
He didn’t have the same problem she did cutting through the crowd—people seemed to make way for him. And quite suddenly, he was there. Right in front of her.
“Awesome,” he said, and he leaned down a little and she got up on her tiptoes and they hugged. Hard. They never hugged, not even on graduation night when he got so drunk and wanted to egg his own house and she managed to stop him.
But they were hugging now. He had his arms around her back, lifting her up and into him. She was balancing the cake box behind his head. Totally unexpectedly, she was swept up by some kind of giddy nostalgia, a bright happiness to see him. She’d forgotten how big he was. Or maybe how small she was.
Because in his arms, she suddenly felt very tiny.
He smelled slightly of beer and sweat and deodorant and something that reminded her a little of elementary school. Or maybe that was just some kind of Pavlov’s response, since she’d gone to school with him every year from kindergarten to high school.
The music got cranked up, old Garth Brooks, and someone bumped into them and the hug was over, though Dean kept his hand on her elbow, pulling her and the cake box behind him into the kitchen.
His hand on her skin felt conspicuous, and she tried to ignore it. But the feeling spread, and soon her whole body felt awkward and strange. Not hers.
Finally they stopped in a quiet corner near a pantry door. “I can’t believe you came,” he said, smiling down at her.
“I guess it is a little crazy.”
“The best kind of crazy,” he said. “What’s in the box?”
“Something really crazy. Honestly, I’m not sure what I was thinking—”
“Is it for me?”
“Yes. I mean, I guess it was for the party. But it’s clearly not that kind of party.”
He broke the tape on the sides of the box and lifted it.
Stupid. Such a stupid idea. She closed her eyes and shook her head.
“This isn’t for me!” He laughed, that fond teasing laugh she’d forgotten about. “It’s for you.”
“Awesome,” he said. “I haven’t had a yule log in years. I’ll hide it behind the milk in the fridge so no one will find it.”
Someone walked past with a full cup of beer from the keg in the corner, and Dean grabbed it from the guy and gave it to her.
“Dean?” the guy yelled.
“There’s plenty, Mo. Be gone.”
Mo was gone. Trina took a sip of beer. And then another.
Dean went to hide the cake in the fridge and came right back.
“How have you been?” Dean asked, his dark eyes bright. “How is law school?”
“Good. Busy. It’s hard, you know. Sometimes harder than I thought. And sometimes harder than I think I can handle, but I just keep going.”
“You’re not thinking about quitting, are you?”
She laughed. “No, I never think about quitting law school. Instead I’ve quit sleeping and eating.”
“I thought you said you had a boyfriend,” Dean said. “How do you have time for him?”
“He’s pre-med and busier than I am.”
“Did you bring him?” Dean asked, like he couldn’t wait to meet Trevor. And he meant it, totally genuine.
“Yes!” she said, standing on her tiptoes, trying to see over the sea of heads. “He’s around here somewhere.” She didn’t see Trevor’s blond curls anywhere and stepped out a little from the small corner so he had a better chance of finding them. “How are you doing?”
“Same. I mean, not law-school busy, but I graduated—”
“With honors. Your mom told me. I don’t know why you skip over that part.”
“Right, well.” He was blushing. She couldn’t see it in the dark, but she knew. “I graduated and now I’m working a few jobs in the area.”
They grinned at each other like fools, and Trina honestly didn’t understand where this tidal wave of affection came from.
“What about your girlfriend?” she asked.
“We broke up,” he said. “She was not cool with my busy schedule.”
“It’s tough,” he said. “But there’s a lot of competition for good jobs. Operations are shrinking in this part of the state, and a lot of guys that have graduated end up working part time in some office somewhere.”
“Oh you’d die!” she said.
“Exactly. She did not understand that it was life and death, and she split.”
“I’m really sorry to hear that.”
“I will survive.” He flashed that easygoing grin and glanced out at the crowd.
“I’m sure someone here will ease your pain,” she said with a laugh.
From nowhere there was a pang in her chest. Not jealousy, not really.
She had Trevor, after all. And Trevor was perfect.
But Trevor never looked so happy to see me. Trevor barely looked up from his laptop when I walked in his door.
,em>Stop, she thought. That’s not fair.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Dean said. She looked up and met his eyes, and for a second it was like the party was gone. The years were gone.
And that pang in her chest got worse.
This is ridiculous, she thought. It’s just the reaction to seeing him again. Memories of some happy times.
Some bleak awful times, too. But they did not seem to matter in this hot party.
He leaned in closer and his breath touched her neck, the side of her cheek, and despite the heat the hair stood up on her arms. “I think about you every year at Christmas.”
“You mean you worry about me every year at Christmas.”
“That too,” he said.
His smile was gone and all that remained were those memories of theirs. And something different. Something sharp.
“There you are,” Trevor said, pushing his way through the crowd into their corner. He smiled at her and then up at Dean. “This is some kind of party, man,” he said.
“I know,” Dean laughed. “I had no idea so many people would be free on Christmas Eve. I’m Dean.” He and Trevor shook hands and made a little small talk. Trina handed Trevor her beer.
“I’ll get another one,” she said. She left Trevor and Dean, because she was in a weird place in her head and she didn’t want to compare the two. Because there was no comparing the two.
Trevor was her supportive, amazing boyfriend, and Dean was a very old friend she hadn’t talked to in years who happened to make her feel…silly, somehow.
She pumped the keg and sprayed beer into a blue cup.
There was a sudden pounding on the door, and there was something about that pounding that made Trina’s head come up and look over at Dean.
Trina had a dog when she was a little girl. King was insane about squirrels. Even when King got old and blind and was allowed to sleep in the house, he’d stand up from his spot at the bottom of Trina’s bed and bark with wild, predatory delight, every time there was a scuttle across the roof or past Trina’s window.
Dean had a similar look in his eye right now, that for some reason made her think of his father.
“Is that the cops?” someone asked, and the music was shut down.
“Nope,” Dean said as he made his way toward the front door.
Trina put the cup down and followed.
“What’s up?” Trevor asked.
She didn’t know. Not for sure. But there was that ‘squirrel’ look in Dean’s eyes.
The party had shifted, everyone crowding toward the wall, into the corners, and she was able to follow Dean without a problem into the living room.
Don’t be him, she thought. Don’t be him.
Dean opened his front door. A big man with silver hair and a blue cashmere coat stood there, giving off enough raging disapproval that half the party was blown right into the bathroom.
“Who is that?” Trevor asked, coming up beside her.
“Looks pissed,” Trevor said, finishing his beer. “You want one?”
Trina shook her head, unable to look away from the train wreck about to happen.
“It’s time to come home,” Eugene said, stepping into the room. He nearly had to duck under the door frame. “Your mother is beside herself.”
“My mother is fine,” Dean said. “And you’re not invited to this party, Dad.”
People were throwing on coats and streaming past Eugene in a single file line, their heads down, eyes averted.
Dean didn’t seem to notice.
“You’ve had your fun, your rebellion, but it’s time to grow up, Dean,” Eugene said, pulling off elegant leather driving gloves, one finger at time. “If we leave now, we’ll be back before the Rosemonts get there. They’ve offered you a job. A good one—a better one than you probably deserve.”
Trina’s hands clenched into fists.
“I don’t give a shit about the Rosemonts, Dad. Or their job. Or you—”
Eugene cuffed Dean across the mouth, a sharp, hard openhanded slap that turned Dean’s face sideways.
Everyone in the party gasped and looked away, embarrassed and freaked out.
Trina stepped forward, compelled to do something.
“I think you should leave, Mr. McKenzie,” she said.
Eugene glanced her way, and did what would have been a comical double-take if the air in the room didn’t have the potential of starting on fire.
“Trina,” he said, utterly neutral. “I’m surprised to see you here. I would have thought you’d have grown out of your friendship with my son.”
Before Trina could say anything, Dean was there, stepping up to his father’s chest. “Go, Dad.”
Eugene didn’t move, and the two of them stared at each other for a long, awful moment.
Finally Dean shoved him with all his might, and Eugene staggered back against the wall. “I said get out,” Dean yelled. “You’re not welcome here, Dad!”
Eugene shoved off the wall and looked like he was about to punch Dean, and she got right in the way.
“Jesus,” she heard Trevor mutter.
“I think you should leave, Mr. McKenzie,” she said, looking up into his eyes, so much like Dean’s. “Before something you both regret happens.”
Eugene chuckled and straightened the lapels of his fancy coat. “You’re a disappointment, son,” he said to Dean over her shoulder. “I don’t know why I expect anything different.”
And then he was gone, the door clicking shut behind him sounding like a slam. Trina turned, braced for the worst from her friend.
But Dean was just still, and quiet. Blood beading on his lip.
“You shouldn’t have gotten in the middle.”
“I should have let you two fight?”
“Yeah.” Dean nodded. “You could have been hurt.”
“I’m fine. You’re…you’re bleeding.”
His eyes were dilated and he was clearly ramped up. She wanted to get him out of there, into fresh air where he could walk and yell and get rid of this adrenaline. Somebody came up to him, the Mo guy from earlier, and handed him a shot and a plastic cup of beer.
“Parents suck, dude,” he said as he gave Dean the drinks.
Dean sucked back the shot and the beer.
Trevor was there suddenly. “Everything okay?” he asked, looking anxiously between Trina and Dean.
“Same as it ever was, man,” Dean said. He took a deep breath and let it out. “It’s a party. So let’s party.”
Someone cranked the music back up, and now that half the guests had left, there was room to dance and move around. All of which Dean did, with a wild-eyed fervor. He made out with two girls. Disappeared for a while with one of them.
“I think he’s recovered from that scene with his dad,” Trevor said into her ear when Dean walked back into the living room, clothes disheveled, lips red and swollen.
He looked like walking sex.
“Yeah,” she said.
But he wasn’t recovered.
And in a room full of friends and people he worked with, she had the feeling she was the only one who knew it.