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#StitchersSecretSanta2019

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1. The first time Cameron Goodkin could remember holding someone’s hand, it was his sister Sara’s. She was four years older than him, and when he, his sister, and his mom went out somewhere, his mom would say, “Now, you two hold onto each other tight. You don’t want to lose one another.” That’s when Cameron learned that people sometimes held hands to stay connected.

The second time, he was holding his mother’s hand. They were at the hospital. Cameron spent a lot of time there. Sometimes it was because his mom got called in and no one was around to watch him. Other times, he went to see his doctor, Dr. Go. Cameron liked him because he told him stories about dragons and sorcerers and let him use his stethoscope. (Cameron was the only kid in his kindergarten class who knew that word.) Most of the time, though, they were there visiting his dad.

His dad had been in the hospital for a long time, for as long as Cameron could remember. He was sick, but not in the take some cough syrup and feel better kind of way. He had to be watched by doctors all the time.

“Mommy, you’re a doctor. Why can’t you watch Daddy at home?” he’d asked.

“Well, baby, I’m not the kind of doctor Daddy needs. Like how I can’t give you your checkups and you have to see Dr. Go. Daddy has to see Dr. Cusik and Dr. Bauer,” she’d answered. 

“Why can’t you be the type of doctor Daddy needs?”

“It’s just not that simple, sweetheart.”

On that day at the hospital, before they went into his dad’s room, Dr. Bauer pulled his mom aside for a quiet conversation. He knew whatever they were talking about was important because his mom only said the things it was okay for him to hear out loud.

He was playing with his racecar when his mom finished talking to Dr. Bauer. (Cameron liked her too. She always snuck him candy when his mom wasn’t looking, and her name was pronounced like the sound dogs make.) She didn’t say anything, just picked him up and carried him over the nearest chair. He sat on her lap; she took his hand, brought it to her heart, and started crying.

Cameron remembered thinking it was strange because his mom never cried. He cried sometimes, when he fell and scraped his knee or when Sara would pick on him. She would often pull his hair, a whole fistful grab, no matter how many times Mom told her not to, but those cries never lasted too long, usually coming to a halt after his mom kissed him or made Sara apologize. Sara would cry sometimes too, when Mom brushed her hair too hard or when she didn’t get to do something she wanted to.

This wasn’t like those cries. Her sobs shook her body; her tears made his shirt wet, and he didn’t know what to do to make it better.

His Daddy died sometime during the night and that’s when Cameron learned that people sometimes liked to hold hands because it made them feel better. His Mommy held his hand a lot over the next few days, especially at the funeral. Cameron made sure to hold on tight.

The third time he remembered holding someone’s hand was when he started going to school. Sometimes he held hands with the kids in his class. As they were walking through the hallways, his teachers would have them link hands to stay together and stay in line, a daisy chain made of little humans. He always ended up between Benji Feinstein and Ximena Herrera because of alphabetical order. Benji’s hands were sticky; he liked to play in glue. Ximena, on the other hand, would sometimes pinch him. He never knew if it was an accident or on purpose, so he was glad when Duncan George-O’Toole joined their class and came between them. He did feel bad for Duncan, though.

He held other people’s hands, too, but it wasn’t like when he held Sara’s or his mom’s or Duncan’s or Benji’s. When they played Ring Around the Rosie or Red Rover, there was never any order. One day he got stuck between Tabby and Josh for both games, and the week before that, it was Sampson and Kareem. He didn’t mind having to hold their hands, but his favorite days were when he got to hold hands with Kirsten.

Besides his mom, Kirsten Clark was Cameron’s favorite person. She liked almost all the same things Cameron did, like peanut butter in his oatmeal, bedtime stories about astronauts, and spending hours together up in his treehouse.

When Kirsten held his hand, she never pinched him, and her hands were never sticky. They were kind of clammy and tended to be dirty from the “work”, but he didn’t mind. He liked the way holding her hand made him feel, happy and warm.

When Cameron was six, Sara got her first boyfriend. His name was Brad; he carried candy cigarettes around in the pocket of his jean jacket and pretended to smoke them. He used a lot of product in his hair and said cartoons were for babies. Cameron didn’t like him, but Sara thought he was the absolute best!

Every time he saw Brad and Sara together, they were holding hands, their fingers woven together like the layers of a blanket. When he asked why she said because she wanted to. Because “that’s what couples do”. That was when Cameron learned that people held hands because they liked liked each other. That was when Cameron learned that people held hands for more than just comfort or staying together. Holding hands made a statement: we belong together.

That was also the first time Cameron realized he liked liked Kirsten. Why else would he like holding her hand so much? Why else would he want to do it?

When Cameron was seven, his goldfish died. He’d won Fish from a ring toss booth at the fair that appeared every August like a ghost in the night, right before they went back to school.

Fish was the first pet Cameron had ever had. His mom was severely allergic to cats, and with his mom’s work schedule, they were never really home enough to have a dog. Fish might be the only pet Cameron would ever have, so he wanted to do this right.

He asked his babysitter, Quincy, to take him to the library the next day to research the best ways to care for a goldfish. He used his saved birthday money to buy a 40-gallon tank which was installed in the corner of his room away from the windows and vent. (He’d been saving up to buy a Death Star model kit, but this was more important. To make up for it, Kirsten had bought an underwater AT-AT toy for the tank.) His mom bought super-oxygenated water and Quincy paid for the filter, as a gift. He bought fish flakes instead of pellets because Fish wasn’t big enough to eat them yet. He made sure Fish was never fed more than two times a day, a pinch of food here and a pinch of food there. Cameron never got around to cleaning the tank because Fish was dead before he got the chance.

Goldfish could live up to ten years. The fact that his fish died within a matter of weeks had seriously made him sad; he couldn’t figure out what he’d done wrong. His mom wanted him to flush Fish down the toilet as soon as he got the chance, but Cameron thought Fish deserved better. So, he planned a funeral.

Everyone he cared about was invited: his mom, Sara, Kirsten, and her parents, Quincy, and Ms. Arnold, the librarian who helped him do all his research.

The ceremony took place on a Saturday afternoon. All who attended dressed, respectfully, in some form of black. Quincy provided the shoebox in which Fish would be buried in, a bright orange Nike box that reflected the fish within. He’d asked his mom to speak. She had a nice voice when she wasn’t yelling at him or his sister, and she always seemed to know the right words to say. Plus, he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to keep it together.

Everyone but his mom was standing in a semicircle under his treehouse around the hole he’d dug. His mom had her back to the tree with her hands clasped in front of her. Cameron stared down at the box already settled in the hole and felt the tears in his eyes already begin to well. He knew he shouldn’t be so sad. Fish was just a fish. Both his mom and Quincy had already offered to get him another one, but no matter how many times he told himself to stop, he couldn’t.

Kirsten stood next to him holding a dandelion between her hands, quietly listening to his mom speak. They were at the age where boys were supposed to think girls were gross; any kind of affection was grounds for teasing from his guy friends, but Cameron would never turn away or turn away from Kirsten; he could never think she was gross. She was his best friend, and in that moment, he needed her and wasn’t afraid to show it.

Whispering in her ear, he asked, “Kirsten?” She gave him a wide-eyed look. “Can I hold your hand?”

She nodded and wrapped her fingers around his. He immediately felt better. The ache in his chest was soothed, and his tears subsided. That was when Cameron understood that holding hands with someone you love was the only way to feel better. That was also the day when Cameron realized that he and Kirsten belonged to each other.

-------

2. Cameron hoisted his bag higher on his shoulder and spun the dial on his lock. Left, right, left. The lock clicked; he pulled the handle up and swung the door open. A piece of paper fluttered to the floor.

Bending over to pick it up, his hair fell forward into his face and his glasses slid down his nose. Standing up, he shook his hair out of his eyes, turning the scrap over, reading the message:

I’ve liked you for a really long time. I was hoping I could maybe take you out? *shrugs*

xo Meghan A

He stuffed his backpack in his locker and looked around slowly. Even though the hallway was empty, the sunlight shining in through the bank of high windows on the opposite wall, Cameron was expecting to see someone watching him, having the surreal sense he was in a movie.

This couldn’t be happening to him. This had to be some kind of joke. No one ever had a crush on him, especially not Meghan Amburn. They’d known each other for years, been in school together since second grade, and the only time she ever interacted with him was when she had to. 

And yeah, he enjoyed talking to her. She was cute, unbelievably nice, and super smart; she might be one of the only people in their entire class who rivaled him when it came to academics, but he would have never considered them close, not even friends.

They did have English together, and if he really thought about it, she had been smiling at him a lot more lately . . . And Meghan may have been finding more reasons to talk to him. She definitely had asked him questions she no doubt knew the answers to. Anytime Ms. Baptiste told them to pair up, he was the first person she would turn to even though her best friend Ayo was in class with them.

All the signs had 100% been there, but Cameron tended to have blinders when it came to girls. Not that he had a lot of experience with them. He’d been in love with Kirsten since they were kids, and probably even before that, so it wasn’t as if he were pursuing relationships with other girls. If anyone had liked him before this very moment, they’d never said anything to him and/or he was too oblivious to pick up what they were putting down.

Meghan was a first for him and he didn’t know what to do. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. He knew he needed to tell her no, he didn’t like her; he couldn’t like her, but Cameron had always had a hard time telling others no. He was a people pleaser. Once, when he was eight, he’d almost gotten kidnapped because he didn’t know how to say no to an older lady who said she was sad Cameron didn’t want to be her friend. The only reason he went home that night was because Kirsten physically dragged him away.

He’d been working on saying no, but it turned out to be a lot easier said than done, especially depending on the correspondence. If he was talking to someone via text or over the phone, it was much easier than when he was speaking with someone face-to-face. English was next period. The thought of having to look Meghan in the eyes and tell her no was making him nauseous. He could already imagine her usually cheery demeanor failing as he gave her the bad news. She would smile–but it wouldn’t touch her eyes–and say it was okay because she was just that nice of a person. But, sitting next to her in class for the rest of the year would be weird.

Before he could stop himself, he sent text Kirsten: Wanna ditch?

Who is this? Her reply was instant.

Cameron.

Proof?

Shaking his head, he snapped a quick selfie and sent it.

Are you dying???

No. Meet me @ my car in 5.

Grabbing his backpack, he slammed his locker shut and made his way across the courtyard to the back parking lot, hoping he wouldn’t get stopped by any faculty. The only person he passed was Coach Stinger who said nothing to him when they crossed paths, just nodded his head in acknowledgment.

Kirsten was leaned up against the hatch of his silver Range Rover with her arms crossed across her chest when he got there. Her eyes tracked his movements as he walked past. 

“What?” he asked, pressing the unlock button on his key fob.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” He opened the back door and dropped his bag in. She hadn’t moved, her brown eyes boring into him. 

“You sure?”

“Yes,” he said.

“So why are we ditching?” Her question came with an accusatory tone.

“For a sense of adventure?”

“Your sense of adventure leaves something to be desired,” she said, finally pushing away from the back of his car. 

“I wonder why that is.” He rolled his eyes as she slid into the passenger seat, immediately pushing the chair all the way back and kicking her Converse-clad feet up on his dashboard. (She’s the only person he would ever allow to do such a thing.)

“I’m fine, really. I just needed to get out of there because . . .” He handed her Meghan’s note and started the car, rolling down the windows to let out the captured heat. Backing out of the parking space, Kirsten said, “She finally told you.”

“You knew??”

“Yeah.” She folded the note back up and dropped it an empty cup holder. “In high school, there’s this thing that if you tell one girl, you basically tell all girls.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Stopped at the gate, he checked both ways before turning onto the main road. “As my best friend, you’re obligated to tell me these things.”

The sun was shining straight through the windshield. Digging her Aviators out of her messenger bag, she said, “I mean, when it comes to me, sure, but this wasn’t exactly my secret to tell.”

Cameron knew she was right but still. If he’d had an idea this was coming his way, he could have cut her off at the pass, let Meghan know he wasn’t interested before she even asked. 

“But since you wanna play the best friend card.” Kirsten turned her whole body toward him. He glanced over for just a moment, not allowing himself to get distracted by the patch of creamy skin on display from where her shirt rode up. Or by how wild and free she looked with her blonde hair flying around her face as they drove down the highway. “Why is Meghan asking you out freaking you out so much that you had to leave school?”

“You know how bad I am at telling people no.”

“But why, though? You and Meghan are, like, perfect for each other. You’re both nerdy but cute and really smart. I’m pretty sure she likes Stars Wars and Doctor Who and plays the cello. You guys could start a band!”

Slowing down for a red light, he looked over at Kirsten. He couldn’t see her eyes behind the reflective lenses of her sunglasses, but he knew she was staring directly at him, waiting for him to answer.

He wanted to say Because she’s not you. He wanted to say Because I love you, Kirsten Clark, but instead, he said nothing. He had no misconceptions about Kirsten’s feelings toward him; they were friendly, brotherly, and if that’s all he could get for right now, he would take it. He wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize it. 

“Having 3.5 things in common doesn’t make us perfect for each other. Meghan is sweet and chill, but she’s never made me feel anything.”

“Has anyone ever made you ‘feel’ anything? You’ve talked about your crushes on celebrities. Billie Piper, Evelyn Brochu, Angela Bassett, Selena Gomez, and whatnot, but, like, I honestly can’t remember you ever having a crush on a real person.”

And here was another opportunity to tell her. To say: Because I didn’t know how to tell you. To say: Because I know where we stand. I didn’t want my feelings to get in the way of this good thing we already have, but again, he didn’t say anything like that.

The light turned green; they continued forward. Cameron put on his blinker and merged right, knowing the turn was coming up in about half a mile.

“Of course, I’ve had crushes before.”

“Such as?”

He searched his brain for any female they’d gone or were currently going to school with, but the only name he could think of was, “Ms. Baptiste.”

“Seriously?”

“No,” he groaned, cursing himself for how bad he also was at lying.

“Look.” She pushed her sunglasses up into her hair. “If you’re not straight or have a non-hetero romantic preference, that’s fine–”

Cutting her off, he said, “That’s not it, I promise.” Turning into Sonic, he pulled up to a switchboard and parked, cutting the engine.

They frequented Sonic enough not to need to look at the menu, so before he pressed the button to signal that they were ready to order, Cameron turned in his seat. She’d sat up, so they were eye-to-eye.

“I have never taken the time to look into the different labels we have for differing sexualities, but I have a pretty good grasp on the main ones. I’m not gay, nor am I bi or ace.” He took a deep breath. Knowing this was as close to the truth as he was ever going to get, he continued, “I’ve only ever really had feelings for one person. I’ve never mentioned it because nothing has or ever will come of it.”

“Why not?”

“I know this is asking a lot, especially since I’m not giving you anything in exchange, but as my best friend, can you just trust me when I say it’s not something I want to talk about?”

She considered him, her eyes searching his face for an answer. After a moment, she nodded and said, “Fine, but at least tell me this: Do I need to kick someone’s ass for breaking your heart?”

Cameron smiled, thankful for both her respect and overprotectiveness. They were two of the many reasons he loved her. “No one has broken my heart, and even if they did, I don’t know if I’d tell you who. Not many people deserve to have the wrath of Kirsten Clark brought down upon them.”

“Anyone who hurts you does.” Her eyes blazed. The serious radiating from her gaze was a bit overwhelming.

He took a steadying breath and said, “Thanks for always having my back, KC, but this conversation is getting a little too deep for milkshakes, so you want a chocolate milkshake with extra whip cream and a cherry. Anything else?”

“I skipped lunch; let me get some chicken tenders and tater tots, too. Honey mustard and ketchup, please and thank you.”

Once their food had been delivered and Kirsten was happily sucking down her milkshake, she circled back around to the reason they were at Sonic in the first place. “So, I agreed to leave the topic of your overall love life alone, but we still haven’t discussed what you’re going to do about Meghan.”

He paused with a French fry dipped in vanilla milkshake halfway to his mouth. Not that he hadn’t expected to talk about it but that seemed like a conversation better suited for later.

“Umm,” he said.

“You just have to tell her.”

“You know I can’t.”

“Saying no to someone isn’t as bad as you make it out to be.”

“But this isn’t, like, being asked if I can help someone study for finals or something. This is an actual rejection, and then to have to sit beside her every day for the rest of the school year. It’s not like I can up and switch English classes, No,” he said, shaking his head, “I don’t think so.”

She sighed. “You can’t string her along.”

“I know . . . What if you told her?” he asked, pointing a fry at her head.

“Nope!” She popped a tot into her mouth. “You’re not putting that on me.”

“Okay! Okay! What if we dated?” The words were out of his mouth before he could even regret thinking them.

Her eyebrows arched so high; they almost reached her hairline. “Excuse me?!”

Cameron was going to try and take it back, act like he was joking, but thinking it over for a few seconds, it made sense and could work if he could get her to go along.

“Fake date, obviously. You could–”

“No.”

“Just hear me out!”

“No!”

“Kirsten, this is perfect. You can get back at Liam . . .”

Whatever she was about to say, his last comment had her mouth snapping shut. He took the opportunity to continue making his case, the plan unfolding in front of his eyes.

“It’s perfect. Everyone would believe us. People already think we’re dating anyway since we’re always together. We’ll just say because of our friendship, we wanted to figure things out on our own, see if there were real feelings here or just hormones before announcing it to the world, before everyone else could get in our business. And”–he took a sip of his shake– “this would be a big fuck you to Liam. Who better for him to see you happy with than me? He hated what we have.”

He could see the gears working in Kirsten’s head. She’d always been an analytical person, making decisions based on facts and not feelings, but sometimes–sometimes–invoking the right feeling was what it took to get a yes. Often, that feeling was anger. Ever since the “breakup”, whenever his name came up, Kirsten’s expression would become stoic, but Cameron knew every shade of her moods, what every shape of her face meant.

It was in no way his proudest moment, but this was also a bit for himself. He’d been looking at a way to get back at Liam that didn’t involve straight up hitting him in the face. This plan would kill three birds with one stone.

A few minutes passed before she met his eyes. “Before stating my decision, I would like to say what you’re asking me to do is really shitty just because you’re too chicken to tell Meghan you don’t like her. You understand that, correct?”

“Yes, I do.”

“But I guess I’m going to be equally as shitty because I’m in.”

“Yes!” Cameron fist pumped. “So, here’s what I’m thinking.”

>>>>>>> 

Cameron and Kirsten had sat at Sonic for another hour after Kirsten agreed to fake date him devising a plan.

They’d agreed, first and foremost, not to say anything specific to anyone except for Meghan and Liam if either of them asked. They would arrive and walk into school holding hands. Cameron would escort her to class, kiss her on the cheek before heading to his own. The day would proceed as usual, but they would make an extra effort to see each other between classes, granted they weren’t on opposite sides of the building.

Mouth-to-mouth contact was forbidden unless in front of Meghan or Liam, but they’d both agreed Kirsten would meet up with Cameron before English class so Meghan could, for sure, see them together. She said she would gauge the situation before deciding whether a kiss was necessary or not. (He watched her face while discussing the topic. She didn’t seem particularly repulsed by the idea, which was promising.)

The biggest question was how long to keep the charade up. If they “broke up” after a week, it would seem suspicious. Meghan could still see that as an opportunity to ask Cameron out again, and Liam may not believe Kirsten was honestly happy with someone else.

Breaking up after a month seemed feasible, but Cameron wasn’t sure his heart could handle doing the couple thing for that long. Because the idea of knowing he got to kiss Kirsten and hold her hand just for a day was already enough to set his heart racing. He’d been playing off his feelings for years, so who knows what would happen when he actually got to do it? He wasn’t sure if he’d be able to keep his heart in check.

There was a small part of him that hoped if they kept at this thing long enough, Kirsten would start to feel the same way he felt about her–that his life would play out like the romantic comedy it felt like it was turning out to be. However, the more realistic part of him knew his feelings were one-sided. He didn’t know if he could handle the heartbreak that was coming his way. Didn’t matter what he told his mind. His heart was going to feel what it was going to feel.

When he’d come up with the plan yesterday, he’d considered the possibilities, but he didn’t stop to consider the consequences . . . There was no time to reconsider, though. It was do or don’t, and he wanted to do.

The whole ride from home to school was quiet. Whatever Kirsten had playing on Spotify drifted through the speakers, but neither of them was paying attention. Muscle memory guided him through the streets, and before he knew it, he was pulling into his usual parking spot and cutting the engine. Still, neither of them said anything.

Grabbing his bag from the backseat, he circled the car, waiting for Kirsten to finish tucking her t-shirt into the front of her jeans, checking her reflection in his back window.

He wanted to tell her that she looked great no matter what, but he felt like they were teetering on an undefined ledge. He stayed quiet, waiting until she was satisfied.

When she turned to him, it was with a half-smile, and in that moment he knew whatever was about to happen, everything was going to be okay.

Holding out his hand to her, he asked, “You ready?”

Sliding her fingers into his, she said, “As I’ll ever be.” 

-------

3. What are you doing?

Nothing

Got anything important to do in the next 2-3 hours?

Nope

Can you be ready in 10 mins?

Yup

Pocketing his phone, Cameron checked his reflection, carding his fingers through his still-damp hair, debating whether he wanted to wear this shirt or not . . . The material was soft, and if he needed to unbutton it any further, he could.

Grabbing his keys and his wallet, he made sure he had his ID and cash and headed towards the kitchen.

His mom was digging through their stainless-steel refrigerator, setting an array of vegetables on the counter behind her.

He said, “I’m headed out, Ma.”

Her head popped up. Smiling, she said, “Okay, sweetheart. Please be on time for dinner. Remember, the Englesons are coming over.”

He flinched, and his mother's face fell. “Cameron.” Her voice was low with warning.

“Sorry.” He quickly threw his hands up in surrender before dropping them back at his sides. “But you know Camille and I have never gotten along, no matter how many times you try to throw us together.”

She turned back to the fridge and started stacking garden vegetables in her arms-potatoes, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and onions. “Cam, it’s been ten years-”

“I’m not just talking about my model airplane which she did deliberately smash-like, hoisted it over her devious little head with two hands and threw with all her might on the floor-smash, but let’s not forget the gum in my hair–”

The pile of vegetables looked like they were about to spill over. He took what was on the top and set them on the counter. Continuing he said, “There was the hot soup tipped into my lap. The last time they were here she brought dessert specifically made with cashew milk knowing I’m allergic, and let’s not forget the multiple times she’s pushed me in their pool fully-clothed.”

Kicking the refrigerator closed behind her, his mother said, “You two are both very clumsy, all knobby-kneed and wobbly like baby giraffes. Those were just accidents.”

He sighed. “You say that now, but you won’t be saying it when she ‘accidentally’ kills me.” 

She started to protest, but the time on the stove read 3:04. “I have to go, Mom. I’ll try to be back on time,’ though he was already thinking of reasons not to make it home on time.

“That’s all I’m asking,” she said to his receding back.

Climbing into his car, he thought If we’re finished by six, like planned, by the time I drop off Linus, it’ll be about 6:30. I could say the Ahluwalias invited me over for dinner because there’s no way I could drop off Kirsten without– 

The passenger door opened, interrupting his thoughts.

“Cameron,” she said, folding her red sundress underneath her before sliding in. The color was loud and vibrant against the neutral tones of his car's interior, but she looked beautiful as always with her hair falling in natural waves around her face.

“Kirsten.”

“Where are we off to today?”

“To pick up Linus.”

“And then?”

“You’ll see.”

Linus was sitting on the front steps of his split-level home when they pulled into the driveway about fifteen minutes later. He stuck his head inside the front door before jogging over to them. Sliding into the backseat, he said, “What’s up, KC?”

Glancing over her shoulder, she said, “Nothing much. Just wondering where we’re going.”

Backing out, Cameron can only describe the smile that unfolded across Linus’s face as a shit-eating grin. He winced, knowing exactly what that expression meant. If he wasn’t driving, he definitely would have punched him. Hard. 

“Cameron didn’t tell you? He lost a bet.”

“What kind of bet?”

“Remember when we were up on the roof at Derek Rosenberry’s party? I bet Cameron he wouldn’t jump off into the pool. He took it and didn’t do it, so here we are.”

With his eyes on the road, Cameron didn’t see the punch coming his way, only felt it when it landed on his bicep. “Ow-wuh!”

“That’s why you were on the fucking roof?! You said you were stargazing!”

“It was a party! And we were kind of drunk, but I mean, aren’t you always encouraging me to be more adventurous? To live a little??”

“Yes, but not by doing things that could potentially kill you!” Turning on Linus, she pointed her finger and continued, “And you! Betting him to do something so dangerous!”

“Kirsten, how many times do I have to say this? You have to stop mothering him! Cameron can do what he wants.”

“And how many times do I have to remind you that Cameron had-”

“Linus!” Cameron shouted, not wanting to interrupt Kirsten but also not wanting this particular conversation to play out between the two of them yet again. 

Linus would argue that life was too short to live cautiously. ‘He’s already almost died once!’ Kirsten would argue that’s why he needed to be more careful. ‘Cameron, unfortunately, doesn’t have the luxury of being as stupid as you, Ahluwalia.’ They would go back and forth, back and forth, and he would groan, and even though he wasn’t part of the argument, he still felt like the loser. 

“What are you doing for dinner?”

He could feel the weight of their gazes shift to him.

“What?”

“I said: What are you doing for dinner?”

“What? Why?”

“Do you think your parents would be okay if I came over?”

“Why?”

“And why has no one told me where we’re going?!”

"You’ll see. We’re almost there.” Cameron answered.

Kirsten turned back around in her seat, crossing her arms, staring out the passenger side window.

“You know my parents don’t care if you come over. Is your mom working tonight?”

“Quite the opposite. The Englesons are coming over.”

“Brooooo! You have to invite me over.”

Cameron put on his blinker and merged right so he could take the next exit. His brow furrowed. “Why?”

“Camille and I have this . . . chemistry.”

“Since when?!”

“Since the first time we met, man! What’s between us is magnetic. It’s explosive!”

Glaring at Linus in the rearview mirror, Cameron almost missed the turn into the plaza. “Not cool, dude.”

“I know you two are sworn enemies, but what Camille and I have is–”

“I don’t want to hear the next words coming out of your mouth. Now is not the time for this conversation. Help me find an open spot.”

Mid-afternoon on a Saturday, the Connor Plaza was pretty full. Target had signs up for some kind of Start of Summer Sale. Driving slowly down the third aisle, he finally found a spot beside a blue Kia Soul.

“You couldn’t tell me we were coming to Connor because?” Kirsten asked.

“Because if you knew why we’re here, you would’ve tried talking me out of it.”

They carefully made their way through the parking lot, Kirsten’s long stride matching his own. Linus was lagging, texting furiously. Knowing he was more than likely talking to Camille had his fist clenching in frustration, but with a deep breath, he tried letting it go.

The sun was high and bright as they weaved through and around the other shoppers. Katy Perry’s new song played from hidden speakers, and the bronze clock tower in the middle of the courtyard rung three times, signaling a quarter till.

Swinging through the food court to grab a bottle of water, they arrived at Black Eagle Tattoo at 3:55 PM.

Cameron held open the door, but Kirsten wouldn’t enter. 

“You are NOT getting a tattoo.”

“I am. I have an appointment at four. I’ve already paid a deposit. This is gonna happen.”

“Linus talked you into this?” she asked, her head swinging around to search for him, but he was nowhere in sight.

“He bet me to jump off the roof into the pool. I didn’t. He gave me two options: shave my head or get a tattoo, so here we are.”

“Your hair would grow back!”

“You’re not wrong, but this is my choice. If you don’t want to be here while I get it done, that’s fine; I’ll–”

“Of course, I’ll stay with you, Cameron, and of course, your mom is going to kill when she finds out,” she said, walking through the open door.

I know.The bell over the door jingled when it shut behind them.

The next thirty minutes passed by slowly. After getting the paperwork taken care of and Jeff, his tattoo artist, coming over to talk about and show the piece Cameron had asked him to draw up, all that was left to do was wait. (He made sure to step away from Kirsten before Jeff showed him. Cameron didn’t want her to see what he was getting until after it was done.)

He and Kirsten looked through the artists’ portfolios, commenting on their favorites and the one that concerned them as well as questioning the placement of some. Linus finally showed up and immediately began to attempt to explain his way out of why Cameron was just now hearing about his relationship with Camille, but Cameron wasn’t focused on his words.

He wasn’t afraid of needles, and the pain that was sure to come didn’t freak him out as much as it probably did others. But, the distinctive buzzing sound of the tattoo gun made him feel like it was already painting a picture across his skin, and he found himself clenching his jaw.

“You don’t have to do this, you know?”

Cameron startled at Kirsten’s voice in his ear. For the first time since Linus told her about what they were really doing on the roof, she didn’t look murderous. Her hand went to his knee which he hadn’t noticed he was frantically bouncing.

It was a small touch, but the pressure was grounding and what he needed to calm down.

Giving her a small smile, he said, “I know I don’t have to, but I want to. Not just to prove a point. I’m doing this for me.”

“Okay,” she said with a nod.

A few more minutes passed and then Jeff was calling him back.

The room he entered was maybe 10’x10’, more of a cubby hole, with purple walls lined with framed pieces of Jeff’s work. Some of the pictures he recognized from the portfolio. Others were of different mediums: charcoal, oil paint, ink, and marker, etc. A club chair sat in the back corner.

Cameron slid his shirt off and into the reclining chair. The vinyl material was all too familiar against his skin. The bright fluorescent lights suddenly felt too harsh on his eyes. Jeff used a paper towel to wipe isopropyl alcohol across his chest, giving him a small chill. Then, he carefully placed the stencil in the clean area, slowly peeling it back to make sure the ink didn’t smudge.

He knew tattoo parlors were sterile, that they had to be, but he never stopped to think about how similar the environment would be to a doctor’s office. The only big differences were the incessant buzzing and the French rap music playing loudly over the speakers.

He still wanted to do this, but these new factors made him realize he didn’t want to do this alone.

“Before we get started, can one of my friends come in?”

“Sure thing. Do you want your buddy or the angry-looking one?”

“The angry-looking one, please.”

“Can do. Be back in a second.”

Moments later, Kirsten followed Jeff into the room, her eyes quickly glancing around before landing on the outline on his chest. It was a picture she had drawn and given to him right before his heart surgery of the two of them sitting on the ledge of his treehouse, their legs dangling over the edge with big smiles on their faces.

Any tension she was holding in her body fell; her expression softened, and her shoulders sagged. Cameron’s heart melted. He didn’t know what kind of reaction to expect from her when he showed her his tattoo, but he hadn’t been expecting this.

“Is that–” she started.

“Yeah.” He nodded.

“You kept it all these years?”

“Jeff cleaned up the lines a little from the original, but yeah. It’s probably my most prized possession. Every time I look at it, it always makes me smile and reminds me to stay strong. I couldn’t think of a better piece to get permanently inked on my body.”

Her lip quivered and she brushed away a runaway tear with the back of her hand. “Cameron Goodkin, you’re such a sap.”

“I am, but I’m also a little more anxious than I thought.” Turning his palm up, he asked, “Hold my hand?”

Instead of answering, Kirsten pulled up the extra chair, interlocked her long, slender fingers with his, and held on tight.

_______

4. “I still can’t believe you got us tickets to Y2K Fest!” Kirsten’s head swiveled from left to right and back, trying to take in their surroundings. The flat landscape stretched for what felt like miles in front of them but was probably only a few acres, littered with party tents and food trucks. The smell of fried foods and gasoline couldn’t fully mask the aroma of freshly mowed grass.

When a rumor started that some of the biggest names of the late 90s and early 00s were getting together for somewhat of a reunion tour, Kirsten messaged him the link saying, “If this is really happening, we HAVE to go!”

He told her if the tour got greenlit, he would do whatever he could to get tickets for them.

He’d set up an alert on his phone to get notifications anytime the tour was mentioned in the news. For about a month, he received notification after notification about who was being added to the lineup–Maroon 5, Outkast, Alicia Keys, The Killers, Usher, NSYNC, and more–but there was never a definitive yes, this is happening or no, sorry for getting y’all excited.

Until a few weeks later, early one morning, Cameron was up studying at about 3 AM when his phone went off. “Y2K FEST IS A GO!!! TICKETS ON SALE NOW!!!” He’d had a long couple of days and was barely keeping his eyes open as it was, so at first, he thought he was hallucinating. But, shaking off sleep, he followed the link and purchased two tickets for the weekend of July 28-30 in the Colorado desert. Then, he promptly passed out.

Cameron woke the next morning to ten new text messages from Kirsten.

!!!!!!

IT’S HAPPENING!!!

I’m gonna try to get tickets. Wish me luck!

I’m in queue on my computer but looking for info on my phone. Can’t find any info on how much these bitches cost

DID YOU SEE THAT LAURYN HILL WAS GONNA BE THERE?!?!

Ughhh! I’m not getting anywhere

Someone posted on Twitter that tickets were $350 a person

😰😰😰

Idek what position I am in line. I’m afraid tickets will be sold out before I get through

😡This is bullshit! Why would they put tickets on sale in the middle of the fucking night?!

 The grey ellipsis popped up in their chat, signaling she was in the process of typing up another message, but before whatever she was going to say came through, he texted her back saying he’d gotten them.

Instead of a reply, a picture of her face came up on his display. She was video calling him. As soon as he answered, Kirsten was screaming, “ARE YOU SERIOUS?!?!”

He winced at his early morning reflection staring back at him from the corner of the screen. His hair was pointing in multiple different directions, and sleep crust ringed his eyelids, causing his eyelashes to stick together.

Clearing his throat, he said, “Good morning to you, too, Sunshine!”

“Camerooooon,” she whined.

“Yes,” he answered. “I was up studying when they went on sale this morning.

“Holy fucking fuck!” she exclaimed, slowly running her fingers through her hair. “This is going to be so fucking epic! Cameron Goodkin, you are the fucking best! God! I love you! I would kiss you right now if you weren’t on the other side of the country!”

He grunted, still trying to wake up. “You can text me how awesome you think I am. I have to get ready for class.”

That had been back in February. Now, they were soaking up the heat and the sun in Arizona. It was a perfect summer day. The sky was a perfect shade of blue with nary a cloud in sight.

All around them, other festival-goers were dressed in millennial memorabilia. Women were dressed in high-waisted shorts and halter tops, metallic spaghetti strap dresses of all colors, jean jumpers with jean jackets tried around their waists. Accessories included a wide assortment of chokers, platform shoes, and those backpacks that barely looked big enough to hold today’s plus-sized phones.

The guys were dressed in matching two-piece shirts and shorts. (They passed a tall guy in a black and white floral set that Cameron secretly loved.) He’d seen his fair share of Jazzy paper cup printed t-shirts, but there was a couple in matching rompers. Others were dressed in baggy graphic t-shirts and baggy jeans with every kind of sports team snapback. Skateboards were strapped across backs, and Cameron was one of many in a sea full of bucket hats.

The nostalgia in the air felt almost tangible.

Kirsten had opted for a black halter top, high waisted shorts and combat boots. She had a large plaid shirt tired around her waist and was wearing a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses and a backward cap.

“I still can’t believe you crimped your hair.”

Her shoulder bumped into his. “Says you, Mr. I’m too sexy for my shirt!”

Cameron was thankful his cheeks were already red from the heat. Glancing down at his short-sleeved Henley, he’d spent a solid five minutes this morning trying to decide how many buttons to button. He had a nice body if he did say so himself; he ate right and worked out. He wasn’t trying to show it off. He had a girlfriend who was cool enough to not get jealous that he was spending the weekend with girl best friend. He was mostly just trying to stay cool which meant showing a bit more skin than usual for him– not because he was trying to show off.

“I can’t help it that I look this good!” He wiggled his eyebrows at her.

Her eyes looked like they rolled hard enough to dislodge from her skull, but the smile never left her face.

“I like this confident Cameron. Nina looks good on you.”

Cocking his head to the side, he said, “Thanks, I think.”

“You’re welcome.”

Vendor stalls lined each side of the open area, selling overpriced merchandise for each artist in attendance. Sauntering by the stall for Snow Patrol, he could see t-shirts for $40 and blankets for $60. Caps cost $25 and bracelets were $5. On top of tickets and accommodations–if you opted for a hotel or an Airbnb instead of camping which they had–anyone could go broke here.

The stage loomed in the distance. Cameron could just make out bodies moving back and forth, setting up equipment.

Checking his watch, they had about forty-five minutes before they had to line up. He’d opted for VIP tickets. They’d get to participate in a meet-and-greet with five random artists each day. Kirsten had insisted she pay him for the full ticket, but he would only allow her to pay for the ticket itself. VIP access, he said, was a late birthday present.

“You wanna grab anything before we head up?”

“Yeah. I’ve been looking for the NSYNC stall, but I haven’t seen it yet. You’d think they’d have these in, like, alphabetical order or something.”

“Hopefully they’ll have merch from Justin’s Ramen-haired days.”

She threw her head back and laughed, full-bodied. “Oh my gosh! Yessss!”

The booths, it turned out, were grouped by genre, so by the time they made their way into the pop section, they didn’t have enough time to wait in line and make it to check-in, severely bumming her out.

“Well, get you one tomorrow, I promise,” he said, rubbing her back in small circles.

Hightailing it across the lawn, they made it to the VIP line just as the gates were opened. Large, muscular men stood on both sides. A woman checked wristbands as people filed in one-by-one.

Excitement vibrated around them. Air horns sounded off, glitter bursting from the bell. Their fellow fest-goers grouped together for selfies. People grooved to what had to be the top hits of the 90s as they inched forward in line. Cameron recognized “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls, “MMMBop” by Hanson, “No Diggity” by Blackstreet, and more. Currently, “Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith was playing. Kirsten was bouncing on the balls of her feet.

Nodding her head to the song, she asked, “Who do you think we’re going to get to meet?”

Cameron hadn’t put too much thought into what artists they’d get to meet over the next couple of days. He didn’t want to get his hopes up convincing himself he’d get to meet Santana only for it to be Nick Lachey. However, there was one person he was secretly crossing his fingers for.

“I don’t know, but, God, if Alanis Morrisette is here . . .”

“Dude!” Her eyes bulged. She swatted him on the arm with the back of her hand. “How could I forget your “You Oughta Know” phase?”

When he was about ten, Sara had been experimenting with different hair colors, but before choosing a particular color, she tried out wigs in the shades she was considering. There was a brunette one he would wear while singing that song which he was obsessed with for at least a month. Alanis’s whole Jagged Little Pill album, actually. To this day, it was still one of his favorites. Thankfully, though, most cell phones in 2002 couldn’t store large video files and the picture quality was bad enough that any that still remained looked like they could be Sara. The memory was only fond in his head.

“Because I strategically never mentioned it again.”

“But it was so good! If shes in there, you have to do it for her! I’m sure someone here will let you borrow their wig.”

“Oh my God, Kirsten, nooo!”

“Oh my God, Kirsten, yesss! Alanis might love it so much; she could invite you up on stage to sing with her! And you have a great voice!”

Rolling his eyes, they stepped forward in line; the security guards looked even bigger the closer they got.

“Yeah. No. Not gonna happen. Officially changing the subject from me: Who do you wanna see?”

“I think I might honestly die if Maroon 5 is in there. Well, Adam Levine specifically.” She closed her eyes, turning her face up to the sun. Her splayed hands raised to her chest. “Like, if I get to hug Adam, I really think that’ll be the end of my life.”

Kirsten had been passionate about a lot of things throughout her life–computers, advocating for those who couldn’t advocate for themselves, and health–but he didn’t think he’d ever seen her so boy crazy. “When’d you become such a fangirl?!”

“I mean, have you seen that man? Have you seen his smile and his tattoos? His voice is . . . melodic and soothing, and I know people said Maroon 5 kind of sold out from Songs About Jane to now, but I couldn’t care less. I’m an Adam Levine stan from here until I grow out of this phase.”

A girl in front of them with pale pink hair with a baby’s breath flower crown turned around. “Sorry to eavesdrop. They totally fucking sold out, but Adam Levine is too fucking fine for me to care. We can die in solidarity if he’s here.” She held her fist up which Kirsten bumped in earnest.

They spoke with the pink-haired girl, whose name was Eliza, until they were at the front of the line. She was originally from West Virginia–there was a slight drawl on some of her words–but was in college at Auburn studying environmental science, and the tickets she had for the festival were won by her ex-boyfriend. But he cheated on her, so she was there with her new girlfriend who was on the phone in front of them having what sounded like a very intense conversation in Japanese.

Eliza gave them a small before passing through security and heading inside.

Kirsten stepped up next, dumping her phone and keys in the plastic grey tub and stepping through the metal detector. He was right behind her. When they were both safely though, there was a short walk through a dimly lit tunnel before emptying out into a brightly lit room with a high ceiling and black walls. To Cameron, it looked an enclosed stage. The area wasn’t very big; the space was already crammed with those who’d entered before them; there had been dozens of people still behind them, but the air was on, rumbling in the vents above. His flushed skin sighed, grateful for the short-lived relief; he knew it wouldn’t last.

Their place in line had spit them out into the middle of the room. There didn’t seem to be a front or a back, but he knew Kirsten would want to get a better look. Wherever the celebrities were coming from, he knew they would need to be closer to one of the edges to do so.

As more and more people crowded in, Cameron sidled up to Kirsten’s side. It would be easy to get separated in here, and checking his phone, his signal was almost nonexistent.

His fingers ghosted over the soft skin on the inside of her arm. She looked at him, an eyebrow cocked in question. He leaned in to speak into her ear. “The service sucks in here, and I don’t want to lose you.” Holding his hand out, she wound their fingers together before he even asked. “Stay close to me,” he said, drawing her forward to wiggle their way through the crowd.

_______

5. Cameron had been in New York for three years now, having been accepted and chosen to complete the Accelerated Three-Year MD program at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine. In the past three years, he’d done nothing but eat, sleep, and breathe medicine. He only had half a year left–graduation was in June–but with Christmas a week away and him not having been home since 2019, his spirits were a little down.

His parents had planned on coming into the city this year, but due to some complications with Sara’s pregnancy, they were heading to Texas to be with her. Nina had been in Israel for the last five months working on her Ph.D. She thought she’d be able to fly in for the holidays, but financially, she couldn’t afford to, so she wouldn’t be stateside until March.

Over the last years, his cohort had become his substitute family. Most of them also weren’t native to New York, so they celebrated all their holidays and victories together, supported each other through the tough times, and offered encouragement through the rough. But, spending time with them wasn’t the same as being with his wife, his mom and stepdad and sister, the Clarks, Linus, and even Camille. She’d been less antagonizing since she and Linus had made it official.

The five-foot Christmas tree he’d put up in the corner of his apartment was way too merry and festive for how he was feeling at the moment. The four gift-wrapped boxes sitting underneath reminded him of how alone he was. They were a little off to the side, plenty of room left for the presents his parents were going to bring.

He wasn’t going to take the tree down, but he couldn’t stare at the lights any longer. Standing up, Cameron slid his feet into his slippers when a knock sounded at the door.

The time on the TV read 7:04 PM. He hadn’t ordered any food and didn’t think he was due for any deliveries until Monday.

Padding over, he peeked through the peephole, but whoever was out front was covering it. 

Undoing the bolt and turning the key lock, he hesitantly opened the door, sticking his head around the corner first, only to find Kirsten standing in the hallway.

He blinked a few times, making sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him. When she didn’t vanish or turn into anyone else, he said, “Oh my gosh!” and let the door swing open behind him. “Kirsten!”

“Surprise!” she said, her arms thrown out to her sides.

“What’re you doing here?!”

“I was going to come with your parents to surprise you, but then the thing with your sister happened. With Nina gone, I didn’t want you to spend the holiday alone, so here I am! You gonna let me in or what?”

“Sorry! Of course!” He stepped aside to let her pass, suitcases and all, her signature scent of jasmine drifting in with her.

Cameron shut and relocked the door. When he turned around, Kirsten was right behind him. She’d shed her coat and her arms were open once more, but this time they encircled his neck, pulling him into a tight embrace.

His arms wrapped around her waist, folding her into him. Though she’d just come in from the cold, her body was warm and familiar. Cameron didn’t realize how touch-starved he’d been until he realized how much he didn’t want to let her go. Nothing would ever compare to the touch of someone who felt like home.

Of course, there were pats on the back and awkward side hugs from friends and coworkers. Every once in awhile, he’d get an occasional hand squeeze from an elderly patient. With Nina doing her graduate work in the Middle East, he’d been more alone than he’d actively allowed himself to realize.

When she pulled back, she didn’t step out of his space. His hands rest on her hips; hers ran down the backs of his arm, coming to rest on his elbows. She was smiling at him, a certain brilliance in her eyes he, surprisingly, hadn’t seen before.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi, yourself,” he replied.

Her hands gave him a small squeeze. “I’m just really happy to be here!” Pulling him back in, she buried her nose in his neck, still a little cold from the outside, but he didn’t mind. “I’ve missed you so much,” she muffled into his skin.

“I’ve missed you too, Stretch.”

They held onto each other a few moments more, Cameron knowing he should step away first but finding it harder and harder to do the longer she was in his arms. Kirsten, thankfully, took the decision away from him, disentangling herself first.

Her eyes roamed around his apartment, from the big screen to the Christmas tree, from his shelf of collectibles to peeking back into his bedroom.

“This is a nice place,” she said, her eyes coming back to land on him. “I can’t believe haven’t been here since you moved in.”

“Me either.” He stepped around her, falling back onto his couch. “It doesn’t feel like two and a half years have gone by already.”

She was right behind him, sliding out of her boots, falling onto the opposite end. She kicked her feet up into his lap and shook her hair out of her face. She already looked right at home.

“No, it does not.”

Staring at each other from across the small space, Kirsten was just as beautiful as she always had been and always would be. Her hair was a little shorter than last time, right above shoulder length, but her smile was just as toothy and her eyes just as kind. Even though he’d long gotten over wanting to be with her, he was always going to be a little bit in love with her.

She cocked her head to the side.

“What?” he asked, unable to keep the smile off his face.

“You look tired, and your hair’s longer.”

Running his fingers through his curls, it was shaggier and a little greasy. He’d started using one of those elastic headbands to keep it out of his eyes, meaning go get it cut during his free time, but that came few and far between with this program. Most of his free time was spent trying to catch up on sleep or getting simple errands done, like laundry, grocery shopping, and paying bills.

“I tend to stay pretty busy. A haircut hasn’t been at the top of my priorities list.”

“Well, hopefully, not too busy to hang out with me while I’m here?”

“I will make time. When are you flying out?”

“If it’s okay, I was hoping to stay until New Year’s?”

“Of course!” Plans started forming in his head of all the things they could do over the next two weeks. All the restaurants he could take her to and the holiday activities that were happening throughout the city. “You know you’re welcome here whenever, for as long as you want.”

Her head fell back against the end of the couch. Rolling her neck so she could still see him, she said, “If I didn’t have a job to get back to, I would come and stay for like two months. Though, maybe not in this weather.”

“Oh! California girl can’t handle the cold?” He tickled the bottoms of her feet.

Squealing, she pulled them back to her. “No, I cannot! When you were explaining the bitterness of winter to me, I kind of thought you were exaggerating. Now, having experienced it, I’m like ‘Why would anyone ever do this themselves?’”

“I can think of a few reasons.”

“I bet you you could, but I’m telling you you’re the only reason I would bear this cold.”

“Aww!” He placed his hand over his heart. “That means a lot, Stretch.”

“It damn well better,” she said with no bite behind her words.

“It really does, and for that very reason, I won’t make you go out in the cold again. At least not tonight, anyway. If you’re hungry, I can whip us up some tacos.”

“Yes! I’m starving!”

“Can do!” Pushing himself up, he squeezed her shoulder as he walked past into the kitchen.

“What can I do to help?”

Throwing his head over his shoulder, he said, “Nothing.” She turned so her knees were tucked underneath her, her fingers curled around the arm of the sofa. “You’ve had a long trip. Just sit back, relax, and let me feed you.”

“And this is why we’re best friends!” she said before flopping backward.

Shaking his head with a smile, he glanced at his Christmas tree with what felt like new eyes before turning back around and opening the fridge.

>>>>>>> 

The biting cold air was filled with lights and laughter. People of all sizes, ages, and nationalities swirled around Cameron, all bundled up in their coats, scarves, and mittens, as he watched Kirsten scoot forward foot by foot–or skate by skate–trying to keep her balance. She wore the most determined expression, but her shaky knees didn’t agree. She looked like a newborn calf.

“Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” filtered merrily into the night air. Cameron swayed side-to-side to the beat of the music trying to hide his laughter from Kirsten, but his breath was coming out in little clouds.

Her eyes, full of mirth, flashed up at him. “Cameron! Stop laughing at me!”

“I’m trying! But you’re just too cute!”

A little girl in a purple puffer jacket who looked to be about ten years old blew past them, skating backward, yelling what sounded like “You can’t catch me!” if his Spanish was correct.

“Ughhh!” she groaned, crashing into him, her gloves bunching in the material of peacoat. Cameron turned his foot out to keep his balance. His gloved hand went to the small of her back to keep her steady.

Kirsten grinned up at him in a girlish way, all twinkly eyes and toothy. Her nose and her cheeks were rosy from the cold, and a few strands of her hair danced in the breeze. Tucking her hair behind her ear, he said, “Now, I know you’re a strong, independent woman who’s more than capable of achieving any and everything you want on your own, you know, given time which we currently don’t have much of. So, I’m going to ask you once more: Can I please help you?”

With another groan, her head fell forward. With all the noise surrounding them and her mouth facing down, he couldn’t make out her answer.

“What was that?” he asked even though he had a very strong feeling he already knew what she was going to say.

Her head popped back up. “Yes!”

“Thank you! So, first, I need you to release the death grip you have on my coat right now and give me your hands . . . Cool. Next, I need you to slightly bend your knees but keep them locked. Think obtuse angle. 160° . . . Perfect. And now, I want you to use your left to push off with your right. Good. Switch . . .”

It took a few tries for Kirsten to get the hang of it, but once she got the motions down, she was good to make a few laps on her own. Cameron was never too far away, always close enough to catch her when she stumbled. After making a full lap around the rink with no assistance from him or the wall, she yelled, “I’m done!” and made for the nearest gate. They switched out of their skates and back into their boots and headed out into the night.

Checking his phone, it was a little after ten and Cameron had nothing to do in the morning.

Gently bumping her shoulder, he said, “You up for doing anything else? Or do you want to head in?”

“Depends. What’d you have in mind?”

“There’s this late-night café down in Soho that you’ll love. They serve spiked apple cider, boozy hot chocolate, and Nutella crepes. It’d be a good and tasty way to warm up before going back to my apartment.”

“Um, yeah. That sounds fucking fantastic!”

Offering her his hand, he asked, “Shall we?”

Placing her hand in his, she said, “We shall,” and they walked off into the cold December night.

_______

+1. Kirsten had never been a religious person. Raised by scientists meant finding a logical and explainable answer for everything. The sky was blue because blue light is scattered in all directions by tiny molecules of air in Earth’s atmosphere. Planets make sounds because when charged particles are accelerated through the field, they give off radio emissions. Bodies take in oxygen because it’s needed to burn sugars and fatty acids in our cells to produce energy.

But nothing could explain why Cameron, her best friend, almost left her alone in this world. Yes, she understood that sometimes people died too young because of car crashes, cancer or other illnesses, and yes, she understood that Heart Valve Disease could be congenital (because she did a lot of research when they first found out he was sick) and nothing could’ve been done to prevent it. HVD explained why he had to stop and catch his breath after a game of tag. HVD explained why Cameron had to take two or three naps a day even after a full night of sleep. HVD even explained why Mrs. Goodkin couldn’t understand her when she ran crying into their house trying to tell her that Cameron wouldn’t wake up, but none of that explained why any of it had to happen to him.

So, she prayed because her friends who went to church said that when they didn’t have the answer to something, they prayed. She prayed to whoever would listen, asking that Cameron would be okay, promising to cherish every moment they would get to spend together if he made it through. 

She remembered visiting him in the hospital. Remembered the white walls and white tiles sporadically broken up by a blue one, the white coats, and the white lights. She remembered the smell of antiseptic. She remembered Cameron looking so small and fragile all bundled up in those blankets, wires, and tubes attached every which way to his body. She remembered the paleness of his skin, a far cry from the sun-kissed and rosy-cheeked boy she knew. She remembered wanting to stay with him until he opened his eyes and being told she had to go home.

Mostly, she remembered walking into that room two days later to find Cameron sitting up in bed, smiling, his green eyes full of light and life. He still had wires and tubes coming out of him, but they seemed less menacing since he was awake. 

Even though the doctor said he would be okay as long as he ate well and took his medicine, Kirsten vowed to treat every moment like their last. If he wanted to do something, she wouldn’t say no (within reason), and if she sometimes treated him too motherly, worrying over what he ate and what he did, it was because she cared. Cameron was her best friend, always had been and always would be.

But as of lately, she’s been thinking that maybe they were more than best friends? Nearly every important, exciting, sad, bad, or significant event had been spent with him, and when he wasn’t there, she was thinking about how soon she could tell him.

When they were six and she broke her arm by falling off the jungle gym at school, Cameron stayed by her side the whole time. He walked with her to the nurse’s office, refused to let the ambulance leave without him. He held her good hand the whole time and told her everything was going to be okay.

When they were thirteen, he was her first kiss. Sophie Smith had invited about half the eighth-grade class over to her McMansion. It was supposed to be “cool kids” only, a group which she never considered herself or Cameron to be a part of. 

They ended up playing a game of spin the bottle, and on her turn, all she’d really been hoping for was that it wouldn’t land on Jonathan Mayes because he was a bonafide asshole. She had never stopped to consider what if it was Cameron, but as the bottle slowed, inching closer and closer to him until it stopped, a myriad of thoughts crossed her mind. Like how the idea of kissing him didn’t totally gross her out, and how if she had to have her first kiss with anyone, she was kind of glad it was Cameron. She knew he'd be respectful and wouldn’t overstep her boundaries.

She watched him gulp, his eyes wide behind his large frames, his hair an unruly, curly mess. She moved first, but he was right behind her. They’d met in the middle, their heads bowed, and he said, “We don’t have to do this if you don’t want to, if this is going to be too weird,” just loud enough for the two of them to hear. It was his consideration that had her cupping his cheek and guiding his mouth to hers. Outside of the room full of spectators, it was everything she could have wanted in a first kiss: sweet and gentle and with someone she loved.

When they were sixteen and Kirsten’s first boyfriend broke up with her during third period via text message, she kept her cool. She went about the rest of her day as if nothing had happened, as if she didn’t feel like she was getting punched in the stomach over and over and over again. She wouldn’t say she had a reputation, but she was known for being the logical one, for not letting emotions overwhelm her.

Though, no matter how well she kept it together, she could never hide anything from Cameron. As soon as he saw her after lunch, he stopped everything he was doing and asked her what was wrong. She wanted to tell him right then and there, with his hands soothingly running up and down her arms and with his eyes seeing nothing but her. She told him she was fine and could tell he didn’t believe her, but he didn’t push. Just said he’d come to her if she needed him.

The rest of the day passed in a blur. Nothing anyone said to her stuck. She was just counting down the minutes to freedom. 

When the bell finally rang, Kirsten wasn’t sure if she was surprised to find Cameron waiting outside the door for her or not. It was so typical Cameron; she actually would have been more surprised if he wasn’t there. He took her bag, threw it over his shoulder, and guided her out of school, a strong, steady hand on the small of her back. 

The closer they got to his car, the more her resolve began to crack. She kept her head down, wiping away tears as quickly as they fell. He threw her a sympathetic look, one that said I don’t know what you’re going through but I’m here, and as soon as her car door was shut, he was backing up and speeding out the lot.

They drove a few miles down the road before Cameron turned off and parked. By that time, she was shaking with tears fighting to be shed. He pulled her body to his–the middle console such an inconvenience at that moment–and simply held her, rubbing small circles on her back and humming something soft and soothing. She knew she was soaking his shirt through, probably getting snot in places too, but he didn’t mind.

Kirsten should have known then. The amount of time and effort and care he put into taking care of her surpassed that of any friend, but she was too young and naive to comprehend the gravity of his feelings, possibly a little too scared. So, she thanked him by making him a batch of her famous Snickerdoodle cookies and threatened to kick his ass if he ever told anyone, even though she knew he never would.

When they were eighteen, in the days before Cameron was set to move to Washington, DC for college, Kirsten thought her heart might break into pieces. Consciously, she knew their separation was going to be temporary, but they’d never been apart for more than a summer. The idea of him not being there for everything was harder for her to handle than she thought it would be. No matter how many times she told herself Cameron was moving across the country, on the day of his departure the news weighed as heavy on her chest as the day he told her he was leaving. She may have held onto him a little too long at the airport, and she may have made him promise that they’d talk every day.

When they were twenty-three, Cameron bought a girl home. Her name was Nina and she was stunning, with warm brown skin and natural curls people would pay for. She had one of those smiles that was big and bright and got others unconsciously smiling, and when their eyes met, it was clear everything and everyone else in the room disappeared.

It was odd watching his eyes alive with a light Kirsten had only ever seen staring back at her. She was happy he was happy; if anyone deserved to be, it was Cameron, but there was something else, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on or a name to–something he noticed. She chalked it up to loneliness, missing having someone to spend the holidays with, unwilling to give life to thoughts that would lead to nowhere good.

When they were twenty-five, Kirsten finally admitted to herself she was in love with him. It was a Tuesday evening. Kirsten was visiting Cameron for a few weeks that summer. Nina was off visiting family for a few days. He was making them dinner, some kind of lemon curry that smelled like the inside of a spice cabinet. He was going on and on about some trials the research department was conducting on memory mapping, using all this medical jargon she didn’t understand, but the enthusiasm in which he spoke was so tangible Kirsten was excited for him.

Suddenly, he stopped and gave her a sheepish grin. He apologized for rambling and instead held a spoon out for her to taste, hand underneath to catch anything that spilled, but she wanted him to keep talking. She wanted to take their food and curl up on the couch, dig her toes into the cushions under his thighs, and listen to him talk and watch him smile as he did so. She wanted to hold his hand and lay her head on his shoulder. She wanted to fall asleep to the sound of his voice and to wake up wrapped in his arms. However, he was still with Nina; he was happy with Nina, and she couldn’t interfere.

When they were thirty, Kirsten packed up and moved to Boston. After deciding to go back to school, she’d applied and been accepted to MIT where she’d be teaching an intro level course on computer programming while also working on developing a portable quantum computer.

After spending that Christmas with him, it was an easy decision to leave her life in California behind. She had never seen herself teaching, but the research she’d be doing far outweighed any anxiety or doubts she may’ve had about leading a class. It put her closer to Cameron; Manhattan was just a three-hour drive.

He was married, though. He and Nina had tied the knot about three years prior. When the proposal was first announced, Kirsten distanced herself for a little bit, needing some time to come to terms with it. She never told him why she pulled away and she didn’t think she’d ever get over him, but through it all, they remained friends, best friends at that.

Mr. and Mrs. Goodkin had driven up on the weekend she moved into her apartment and helped her get settled. There was beer and bubble wrap, laughter and shattered glass, and despite the dull ache that sometimes still surrounded her heart, she was glad they’d both come.

They were thirty-four now. Cameron had finished his doctoral program and gotten divorced all within the span of a year and a half. After the split, he wanted to get away from the city, so he took a job as a neurosurgeon at Shriner’s. He was doing a lot more research than practice, but he loved what he did, helping sick kids as he’d once been.

Kirsten was glad to welcome him to this city that had become her new home. Even though they were living in the same place again, their schedules had kept them pretty busy. They met up once or twice a week for drinks, sometimes for dinner if time allowed. The few times their schedules aligned to where they simultaneously had time off, they would either barricade themselves in one of their apartments, eat pizza in their pj’s, and binge something new, or they’d take a trip. Manhattan always had something going on, and they’d discovered Martha’s Vineyard was wonderful to visit in the spring.

They did almost everything together. They were as close they could be to a couple without actually dating. Cameron had wanted to take a break from relationships after the separation, and Kirsten was satisfied with playing the long game. She was just hoping her patience would pay off.

It was early October. The leaves were just starting to turn from green to the burning colors of Fall. This was one of those rare weekends they both had free, so she asked him out. Told him to wear something nice and she’d pick him up at six. He joked that she was taking him on a date, and she laughed right along with him, not wanting to reveal that yes, she was indeed taking him on one. Three years had passed since the divorce, but she didn’t want to spook him.

When she pulled up to his apartment, he was waiting outside. She couldn’t take her eyes off him as he sauntered to her car. Dressed in a white button-up and a black suit, he was stunning. His hair was in its naturally curly state, and she knew the olive-green tie he was wearing accentuated his eyes before he was close enough for her to see. When he slid into the passenger seat, it was the roguish smile he turned her way that almost had her throwing their plans to the wind, telling him right then and there, and seeing where the night would go. But after a few deep breaths and some thoughts on self-control, she was good.

The ride to the restaurant was filled with their normal banter, things that happened at work and what crazy thing the news was reporting on today. Kirsten kept her eyes strictly on the road, but that only halfway helped. The night air had too much of a chill in it to roll down any windows which meant his cologne permeated throughout the car, and he smelled delectable. It was a clean but rich scent, and it was driving her crazy. Her foot pressed a little harder on the gas pedal.

When they arrived at the restaurant and the valet had taken her car, Cameron’s eyes slowly trailed down her body. She felt like she could feel his gaze, and when their eyes met, there was undeniable heat. With a small shake of his head, he said, “Kirsten, you look phenomenal.” She shivered.

She’d opted for a floor-length long-sleeved black dress with a low open back. Her hair was pinned back on one side and fell wavy and free on the other. Kirsten could only hope her cheeks weren’t burning brighter than the rouge she rubbed on them.

“Thank you.”

He offered his arm and they made their way inside. They were immediately escorted to their table, and like a gentleman, Cameron pulled the seat out for her and made sure she was situated before taking his own.

Damasiado’s was an up and coming Italian restaurant in Newton one of her colleagues had recommended to her. The air inside was warm and smelled of fresh bread. A series of small circular tables dotted the room, draped in white tablecloths. A singular tall, white candle and a small bouquet of red and white roses served as the centerpiece. From the ceiling hung a large fountaining candle chandelier, casting low and gentle light across the room, and what sounded like an instrumental version of “That’s Amore” was being played by a string quartet on a raised platform in the corner.

Their waiter, Paul, came to take their drink order moments after the host left. She ordered a bottle of Tempranillo at random and hoped it had a good flavor.

Once they had their drinks and some bread to hold them over until their food arrived, Cameron started, “So.” Taking a sip of wine, his lips temporarily stained red. “What’s the occasion?”

Cameron was looking at her like she was the only thing he saw. Years had passed since she’d seen that fondness, that tenderness, staring back at her.

Knowing tonight was the night she was going to tell him about her feelings, she’d been a bit nervous. Even though it was Cameron and they had shared practically everything for as long as she could remember, there was still this anxiety fluttering around in her belly. Because this wasn’t telling him about her pregnancy scare or when she accidentally burned his countertop. This was a confession of feelings, feelings he may not reciprocate, but the look in his eyes settled any doubts or fears about what she was going to say and how it would be received.

“I’m in love with you,” she blurted out. “I have been for quite some time now.”

“Oh.” His eyes were wide with disbelief. “That’s not what I was expecting you to say.”

That’s not what she was expecting him to say either, but she didn’t let that deter her.

“I know it’s kinda sudden, my telling you this, but you’re single; I’m single, and I’ve waited for so long to tell you this. It’s been three years since the divorce. You’ve been happier, lighter, so I just thought, you know, there’s no time like the present . . .”

His face gave nothing away when he asked, “How long?”

“Ten years almost. You and Nina were together, but you hadn’t gotten engaged yet. I wanted to tell you then; for a moment, I was planning on telling you, but you and Nina had a good thing. I didn’t want to come between you two.”

Kirsten watched his every movement. He took another sip of wine, carefully setting the glass down, but he didn’t remove his hand. His eyes were cast down at the table; he was thinking.

“You know.” His eyes flashed up to meet hers. “The big reason Nina and I got divorced was due to irreconcilable differences. As we grew up, we just realized we wanted different things out of life, but a small part of it was because I never got over my feelings for you. I knew it. Nina knew it. Hell, maybe you knew it too.

“Even with a continent between us, we’ve always been a definitive item: Kirsten and Cameron. Cameron and Kirsten. When you moved to Boston, it was like . . . pieces clicked together. The only thing that had seriously been keeping us apart was physical distance. But then, that distance wasn’t there, and no matter how many times I would tell myself ‘You have a wife who you love dearly,’ gravity kept pulling me back to you.”

“Oh.” Kirsten inhaled a short breath. “That’s not what I was expecting you to say.”

A grin unfolded across his face, laugh lines etched deep from years of smiling. She felt herself mirror his expression.

“This is really happening, huh?” he asked.

“Yes.” She placed both hands palm up on the table, and he slid his into hers and gave a small squeeze. “I realize I could have done this at home, but I wanted the fancy clothes and the romantic background to show you I meant business.

“I love that no matter how far I think back in life, you’re there in almost every memory. I love that you’ve always been there for me, no matter what. I love that you know me so completely and thoroughly, even better than I know myself sometimes. I love and have loved every day that we’ve gotten to spend together since you moved up here. I love that we don’t have to make plans to spend time together. I love that I can pick you up and take you out to a fancy restaurant on a Friday night, no questions asked.

“I love you, Cameron Michael Goodkin, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” She brought the back of his hand to her lips and pressed a light kiss.

He squeezed her hand back. “I don’t want to steal your thunder because I’m really enjoying this being romanced thing, but Kirsten, you have to know that I’ve loved you since before knowing what love was. The day it set in was the day we buried Fish; we have always belonged together. And, I mean, I could probably wax poetic about all the ways, but I feel like a few things are more prevalent at the moment. Might I make a suggestion?”

“Of course.”

“We should definitely get our food to go.”

“You’re definitely right. These people are going to hate us.”

When Paul came back letting them know their food was almost ready, they were vibrating with excitement. Asking if they could have their meals to go, he gave them a sly look, as if he knew exactly where this evening was headed.

They tried holding a conversation about anything, but they were both filled with too much exhilaration and anticipation to stay focused. Cameron kept throwing her personalized smiles. She kept her hands balled in the soft material of the tablecloth.

It felt like forever before the waiter was back with their to-go boxes. She thanked him and apologized for the inconvenience. He waved it off and said there was “a little something extra in the bag to top off the night”. Kirsten made sure to leave him a generous tip.

And then it was just the two of them, with everything and nothing between them.

This is my night.

Pushing back from the table, she stood up and cleared her throat. Holding her hand out to him, she said, “Cameron, would you like to come home with me?”

He laced his fingers with hers as he rose to his feet. “I would like that very much.”

“Good, but first . . .” Using their linked hands, she pulled Cameron to her. He stumbled just a bit, caught off guard by the motion, but then he was right on his feet again, mere centimeters away. Just like when they were kids, she cupped his cheek and guided his mouth to hers. In a room full of spectators, it was everything she could have wanted in a first kiss: sweet and gentle and with someone she loved.