Christmas shopping mall crowds should have been just as annoying and aggravating as any other crowd – the overloud holiday music that rang persistently in his ears, the battery ram of shopping bags that assaulted his legs from people rushing by, not to mention the cloying smell of pine and peppermint that infused every decorative display they passed – but something about the combination of it all hit him differently and Aaron was at a loss to explain why or how.
He was privately pleased when, upon arrival, Andrew had promptly herded Kevin and Neil into Sport Check and waved off Aaron and Nicky to do their own shopping. “You know they’re not leaving before closing,” Andrew said, with a long-suffering sigh that Aaron didn’t buy for a second. He knew better now, how capable Andrew was of drawing boundaries and walking away if he was truly bothered.
Still, Aaron had to wonder what world he was living in if his twin’s idea of a good time was supervising two stickball idiots clamber over an entire store’s exy inventory like two slathering scavengers looking for hidden gems or irresistible deals.
‘Twas the season of miracles, he supposed.
Running into Matt had been a surprise. He and Renee had come alone to secretly shop for their respective girlfriends, which had Nicky squealing and demanding to see their chosen picks. When Matt revealed only a sensible sweater and Renee confessed she hadn’t browsed many pendants yet, Nicky declared Matt a boring heterosexual and looped elbows with Renee to drag her off to Pandora.
Matt shook his head good-naturedly as they left. “Think it’ll take a gingerbread latte for me to earn back my ‘sensational human being’ status from last week?”
Aaron shrugged, still uncomfortably off-foot whenever the conversation turned to Nicky’s brand of ‘gay humour’. He was getting better at swallowing down his knee-jerk reprimands, usually by switching topics.
“How’d you earn that one in the first place?” He asked.
“Grabbed him water and clean underwear after he slept on the sofa. Remember the Vixen’s party?”
He did but he also didn’t remember Nicky getting so drunk that he crashed on the sofa, probably because he and Katelyn had ducked the party shortly after it began. He nodded anyway, grateful that Matt had been there for Nicky with kindness the morning after, when Aaron hadn’t been.
The earrings he had bought Katelyn were suddenly burning a hole in his coat pocket. He tried to shove the feeling away and huffed, “You’d think he could find his own bed from there.” The words were scathing. He didn’t mean them to be.
Matt gave him an odd look, as though maybe he knew Aaron’s words were doing things he didn’t want them to. “Oh, he could. But he stole a bottle of rum from the party and then went and spilled it all over his sheets.”
Maybe the burning from earlier hadn’t come from Katelyn’s earrings, because now something was squirming under his ribs and gnawing at his ventricles. The edges of it felt like guilt.
“Actually,” Matt said, voice bright and jovial, “I just remembered my idea for Nicky’s gift. Wanna come with?”
Sure. With Katelyn covered, it wasn’t like he had a Christmas list of his own to check off.
Maybe that’s what it was about Christmas shopping mall crowds, he thought, as they swam and weaved through the masses of people. Everyone here was so obviously busy thinking of someone else with everything they picked up to inspect, with every store they entered. It should have reminded Aaron how bitterly alone and uncared for he felt and... it did, but somehow that wasn’t a bad thing.
Fucking Christmas magic.
Matt ducked into a Game Stop, which earned him a point of approval in Aaron’s mental tally. Perhaps he could find something worthwhile for Nicky too, like a new controller that hadn’t worn out its thumb grips.
“Ah-ha!” Triumphant, Matt swung around to show Aaron a pre-played copy of Nintendogs: Chihuahua + Friends.
“...What?” It wasn’t what he had expected. Most games Nicky and Aaron played were of the first-person shooter variety, and even the tamer racing games weren’t nearly so... childish. “Why are you buying that for him?”
“Cuz he told me he’s never owned a pet before,” Matt said, as though this were common knowledge and not a brand-new revelation to Aaron. “We aren’t allowed pets in the dorms, and it’s always weird to gift people living things anyway, but a simulated pet can’t be bad for a first-timer!”
He was beaming from ear to ear, looking so proud of his solution. Aaron considered retracting his earlier point. “It’s a glorified Tamagotchi, is what it is.”
Matt let out a bark of laughter, as though Aaron had said it to be funny instead of critical. “Don’t think I didn’t consider it. Did you know they’re still making those?” He shook his head, eyes back on the game case. “The Chihuahua’s funny, right? Nicky doesn’t have some secret dream of owning a Dalmatian that I don’t know about?”
Aaron checked in on his posture after shrugging once again – they were really getting a workout today. “Not that I know,” he said. There had been one Halloween Nicky had dressed up as a ‘sexy firefighter’ but that struck a little too close to that gay humour area that Aaron was still learning to navigate.
“Great!” Decided, and happy, Matt moved to the check-out line, leaving Aaron to muse over the Dalmatians + Friends copy he had left on the shelf.
Kevin and Neil were still in the middle of capsizing the Sport Check and all its employees when Aaron rejoined Andrew, passing him a juice. Andrew took it without comment or hesitation. Aaron didn’t know if that should earn Andrew a point or lose him one – some days Aaron just didn’t know who he wanted his brother to be.
“In all those homes,” he started, painfully aware that he had never broached the topic of their pasts outside of Dr. Dobson’s office. “Were there any pets?”
Andrew took a long slurp of his juice before he answered. “A few dogs, in the early ones, and a rabbit. I was too loud for them, so they didn’t like me.”
Aaron flinched at the impossible idea of Andrew ever being loud and subtracted many, many points from his own approval tally. Then he wondered if Andrew had been talking about the dogs or the adults.
He almost said, ‘That’s more than I had,’ but he hadn’t asked the question so that they could compare sufferings. So instead he said, stupidly, “You want a fish for Christmas?”
Andrew drove an elbow into his ribs. “I have enough dependents already.”
Looking at the outright storm of opened shoe boxes and exy racquets that littered the two strikers in front of them, Aaron supposed he had to concede the point.
It was a stupid idea, giving Andrew a weapon like this. Even stupider to be warring with himself over it, at 3:35am on Christmas morning, standing in front of their tree with two tightly wrapped packages in hand, an third already down and labelled ‘To: Nicky’.
In all the years they had known each other now, this was the first gift he’d bought for his brother, the first time he’d picked something up in the store and thought of his twin and the tally between them. His calculations at the time had pushed him to purchase and while he waited, he threw in some stock black-and-white wrapping paper to his total.
But now his calculations were at as frozen as the frost creeping in from Columbia’s sleeping suburban neighbourhood.
It wasn’t a gift Andrew would appreciate. It wasn’t expensive, like the gifts Neil liked to foist on Andrew, or particularly symbolic, like the gifts Andrew gave carefully, thoughtfully, and rarely.
No, this gift was all himself – impulsive, mishandled, and probably asinine.
Ah, he thought, that’s what it is about those Christmas shopping crowds, the ones in which he disappeared because he belonged there perfectly and not because no one could see him past the everyday sensible world they wanted to believe was there. ‘Around this time, everyone’s just like me.’
He returned to bed at 4:12am, hands empty of parcels. Andrew could put him out of his misery if he hated his gift tomorrow.
Aaron tried to sleep in past breakfast. Given his mid-night crisis, it ought to have been a breeze, but then Nicky came knocking on his door and wafting the smell of bacon under his door and he was only a starving pre-med college student.
Breakfast was normal, save the mix of Christmas music Nicky had playing on the normally-silent radio. Aaron tried to focus only on his pancakes and bacon so he wouldn’t stare at his family. Had they noticed the packages added since last night? Did they know how badly he wanted to be someone they wanted?
All too soon, Nicky jumped up and declared, “Present time!!” and the group of them shuffled (with coffee mugs and bellies full) to the tree. Nicky appointed himself as Santa, complete with a jingle-belled hat, and began divvying up gifts to each recipient. Neil tore into his pile without permission or finesse, sometimes moving on without knowing what he had unwrapped, a manic Butcher's glee warping his face as he yanked ever harder; Kevin took care to preserve as much paper as he could, folding it into neat squares to set aside once the gift revealed itself; Nicky kept a running commentary of guesses as he unwrapped, like he was engaged in a solo game of charades where every package, no matter its size or shape, must first be socks.
Andrew was sitting quietly, black and white tightly wrapped box in his lap, and staring down at the words ‘From: Aaron’. He hadn’t touched any of the other gifts yet.
Aaron reached out and nudged his knee. “I have one too,” he muttered, holding out his twin box to demonstrate.
Andrew frowned at him. “You bought yourself a –”
“It’s an ant-farm! It’s a rocket ship! It’s... a pet rock??” Nicky did a double take, flipping through the discarded paper to find the tag. “Aaron!” He cried. “Why did you get me a rock??”
“Your first pet,” Aaron intoned, tearing his own paper away to reveal an identical box, proudly advertising ‘PET ROCK’ on the side. “Matt got you a virtual dog, but I thought he was too optimistic.”
Nicky wailed and sputtered, but his face didn’t fall. Aaron breathed a sigh of relief and gave himself a single mental point.
“Wait,” Nicky said, finished with the non-meltdown of it all. “Why do you have one??”
He opened his mouth to explain when someone else said, “They’re a family.”
Aaron whipped his head towards Andrew – he was holding an identical Pet Rock box, fingers clutching a little less tightly than before, perhaps having decided the box didn’t require rough handling. Staring Aaron down, Andrew finished, “Obviously.”
It was stupid. They were three stupidly overpriced unspecial rocks with googly eyes glued to them.
It didn’t matter at all that when they found a home for the rocks – snug behind the kitchen sink, where they’d be seen and watered often – Aaron’s got placed in the middle.
(It didn't matter that, a year and a half later, they all took their respective rock to new homes after graduation.)
(It didn't matter that they had a family thread separate from the others, reserved purely for pet rock updates, including inquiries about pet rock sitters.)
(It didn't matter that all their rocks eventually lost some eyes and got bashed around by Andrew's cat, Aaron's dog, and Nicky's chinchilla.)
(It didn't matter how asinine it was.)