JJ Maybank hasn’t grown up with terrible Christmases. The opposite is true, in fact. Christmas may not be glamorous, but it certainly isn’t a somber occasion even in the Maybank household. Neither of JJ’s parents are particularly religious, despite their deep seated southern roots. Luke especially isn’t in love with a holiday primarily dedicated to the concept of spending money, but Annie can mostly combat his Scrooge-like tendencies.
Annie Maybank is more enamored with the thought of Christmas than the actual day itself. She spends hours stringing lights and baking cookies, blasting Christmas music from a nearly prehistoric stereo she keeps propped up on top of the microwave. She spins around the kitchen, dressed in as garish an outfit as she can find, and she slides JJ a mug of hot cocoa when he gets home from school. On the rare occasions when the island is blessed with a little snow before the actual holiday, Annie drags both her boys outside, coercing them into helping her make a snow man. More often than not, those days devolve into a family snowball fight.
In contrast, waking up on Christmas morning always feels a little like disappointment. Even when she was young, waking up on December 25th was a reminder that she wasn’t as well off as other kids. Now, with a child of her own, that feeling seems to have only escalated. She wishes, more often than not, that she could give her boy any gift in the world. Waking up to a tree with a sparse population of wrapped presents is always an uncomfortable reminder of just how little she has to give.
Annie is nothing if not resilient, though. It seems like every year, she forgets that feeling of waking up on Christmas, and she revels in the little bit of Christmas spirit she can drum up in the month of December. It isn’t perfect, and yet she wraps her presents, hangs her ornaments, and covers the fridge in Christmas cards from friends and family. Annie makes do with what she has, and what she has is snowflake chains, candy canes, and a cheerful attitude in abundance.
She also happens to have tickets to the Nativity Scene at Our Lady of the Sea Church. Our Lady of the Sea sits on the tip of Figure Eight, right at the end of Main Street. It overlooks the water with giant, stained glass windows that seem to dance when the light reflects off the waves in just the right way.
In many ways, Annie treats Our Lady of the Sea’s Nativity Scene a lot like she treats Christmas. She is enthralled with the idea, but the actual execution always falls a little flat. The image she pictures in her head involves sitting in the cold winter air, shoulder-to-shoulder with the island’s elite, maybe for once in her life feeling like she belongs in the room with them. It never really ends up feeling that way.
The Nativity Scene is something of a mainstay for the wealthiest families on the island. The stage is filled with children around JJ’s age, but they’re mostly students from the private school, the children and grandchildren of the island’s elite. JJ recognizes only one of the kids on the stage from his classes, if only for her head of messy curls and the scowl she wears the entire time she’s performing. For someone celebrating the birth of the Messiah, she sure looks put off by the thought of being on stage.
Not that JJ really blames her. He’s not even on stage, and he’s already bored. He’s antsy enough that he’s contemplating tugging on his mom’s hand and asking to go to the bathroom, just to have something to do. Sitting and staring at the stage is mind-numbingly boring.
The girl from his class is definitely livening up the performance, for what it’s worth. She’s dressed as a sheep – or, it’s probably a sheep. The copious amount of cotton balls stuck to her white dress seem to be an ill-conceived attempt at a costume.
Frankly, she looks ridiculous, her long curls pushed back by a headband with white fluffy ears attached, her arms crossed and her face plastered in a grimace. It’s entertaining enough to make JJ sit just a little bit more still during the entire performance – until, inevitably, Sheep Girl loses one of her cotton balls to the leaf of a poinsettia.
JJ bursts out laughing. In the middle of church. During the Nativity.
Annie would be horrified if she weren’t laughing as well.
JJ likes Christmas a lot. His mom makes hot cocoa by the gallon, and they sing Christmas carols in the car on the way to the grocery store. Before he goes to bed, JJ and his parents sit on their couch and watch Christmas movies. Some nights, his mom lays in his bed and reads the Night Before Christmas to him until he falls asleep.
Even at school, it seems like the holiday spirit takes over. They make stockings to hang up in the classroom, and their math problems increasingly involve counting ornaments and reindeer. He likes all of the Christmas cheer, but he especially likes the way his teachers are just a little bit less likely to yell at him for being too rambunctious.
Take, for example, his art class. They’re supposed to be coloring a ‘winter scene’, whatever that means. JJ likes the assignment, but he doesn’t like the way the kid next to him keeps humming Christmas songs under his breath. He’s about to tell that John B kid exactly what he thinks of his rendition of Jingle Bells when he spots the girl from the Nativity scene sitting alone at the table. The Sheep Girl.
If he had gotten up in the middle of class during any other season, Mrs. Stuart would have yelled at him to get back to his seat. As it is, Christmas is in the air, and Mrs. Stuart doesn’t bat an eyelash as he bounces across the classroom.
“You’re the girl from the church thing,” JJ says as he comes to a stop in front of Sheep Girl’s table. She looks up at him, and JJ realizes that she was a lot less intimidating when she had cotton balls stuck all over her dress.
“Yeah,” she says like she’s challenging him. “What about it?”
It’s not an invitation to sit with her, but that doesn’t stop JJ. Before she can protest, he slides into the seat across from her. He contemplates his own drawing for a second, deciding there needs to be more green. When he reaches across the table to take Sheep Girl’s green crayon, her scowl deepens.
“I thought it was funny when you lost a cotton ball to that plant,” he says, half distracted with his creation. He spares her a glance for only a second, looking up at her and smiling so she doesn’t think he’s being mean.
“You took my green crayon,” she says in response, and JJ shrugs. He takes a second to look down at her drawing, which has a distinct lack of green. She’s part way through a picture of a family building a snowman that makes JJ a little self conscious about his own work.
“I needed it,” JJ offers back, gesturing down to his own drawing. “It’s a Christmas tree.”
For a second, it looks like she wants to argue, but eventually she smiles back at him.
“My name’s Kiara,” Sheep Girl offers after a minute, and it’s as good an invitation as JJ thinks he’s going to get. He nods, committing her name to memory.
“I’m JJ,” he says after a second.
Kiara nods but doesn’t make any further conversation, she just bears down on trying to color in her picture. JJ tries his best to focus on his drawing, using the stolen green crayon to try to emphasize the shape of the tree. He’s almost successful in his endeavor to focus, but JJ’s always struggled with maintaining any sort of silence. Given the chance, he’ll fill a pause with anything he can think of.
“So, what do you think about God?”
Kiara startles at his voice, looking up at him with a confused expression. JJ doesn’t know what to make of her look – he thinks it’s a reasonable question. She was just a sheep in God’s play, or whatever.
It takes Kiara a second, but eventually, she just shrugs. “Uh, he’s alright, I guess.” She says, before turning back to her drawing.
“What if he’s a hedgehog?” JJ blurts out, trying to stop Kiara from getting too wrapped up in her work.
“A hedgehog?” Kiara questions, finally giving JJ her full attention. “God is not a hedgehog.”
“How do you know?” JJ counters, putting his green crayon on the table. Kiara looks at him for a minute, her mouth open like she wants to reply to his statement but can’t figure out how.
“Why would God be a hedgehog?” She finally counters, folding her hands in front of her.
“Why not?” JJ shrugs. “It’s a perfect disguise.”
“Disguise?” She asks. “Why would God need a disguise?”
“To hide from the Devil,” JJ responds, as if that’s perfectly obvious. To Kiara’s credit, she just nods. “There’s a hedgehog that lives by my house.”
“Is it God?”
JJ shrugs, before reaching across the table and stealing her red crayon.
Nearly a week later, when school has finally let out, JJ sits on the floor of his living room as the Maybank family opens their presents. His presents aren’t exactly what he asked for from Santa, but then again, JJ doesn’t really know how he feels about the concept of Santa. A third grader had told him that Santa wasn’t real, but his mom was adamant that the boy was lying. JJ has yet to make up his mind.
Firstly, his house has no chimney for Santa to shimmy down, which makes the whole operation a little more confusing.
JJ’s also confused by Santa’s apparent favoritism. Last year, a boy on Figure Eight had gotten the exact dirt bike JJ had asked for in the letter his mom helped him write. JJ had heard him bragging about it while he visited his mom at work at the grocery store. JJ didn’t understand why Santa would ignore JJ’s letter while granting the other kid the same request. Maybe Santa just forgets about the kids on the Cut, like everyone else.
JJ might not know about Santa, but he knows exactly what to expect from his Christmas presents. He’s careful not to tear the paper as he opens his presents, knowing his mom likes to fold it up and save it for next year. He tries to muster as much enthusiasm as he can, even though he knows they are thinly veiled school supplies – a set of crayons and a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles backpack. Last year, when he asked about the bike he wanted, his mom had gotten really sad. She stayed that way until later in the afternoon, when they all had dinner together. JJ doesn’t want to make his mom sad, so he keeps his mouth closed about the action figures he asked for.
The last present of Christmas is a thin, rectangular package, wrapped in the same red and green paper as all of the rest. Instead of being addressed from Santa, the label reads From Mom and Dad . Again, he opens up the paper carefully, and again, tries to muster the enthusiasm. It’s a white, wooden picture frame with little fake pearls studded around the sides. It holds a picture of the Maybank family, standing on the beach in the waning days of summer. JJ is settled on his mother’s back, smiling wide enough that, even from a few feet away, the camera clearly shows his missing teeth. Luke stands next to them, his arm tucked around JJ’s back.
JJ remembers the day the photo was taken – a blustery day on the beach when the Maybank family decided to hold a reunion. Despite the less than stellar weather, and the tenuous nature of Luke’s familial ties, JJ had a good time that day playing with his cousins.
Even though the memories of that day are good, the picture doesn’t feel spectacular. JJ’s parents are always around the house, why would he need a picture of the three of them together?
JJ doesn’t ask that question, or any of the other questions about his Christmas presents that hang in his head. Instead, he smiles up at his mom, and her answering smile is enough.
Later in the afternoon, Annie will put on a meal that has no business being as good as it is. Luke and JJ will nap on the couch while she whips up dessert, and then they’ll all cuddle up to watch Elf again. Luke will grumble about it, no doubt, but he’ll be silenced by one look from Annie. Some things are just sacred Christmas traditions, and watching Elf too many times in one month is a Maybank Family Tradition. JJ will fall asleep on the couch, and Luke will carry him into his room. Annie will tuck him in, and JJ’s last distinct thought of the night will be I love Christmas.
Christmas is a particularly nuanced social occasion to navigate when you are in 7th grade and have three boys for best friends.
All the girls at school are giving out Christmas cards and she has to put up with JJ and John B daring each other to dig the biggest holes in the dirt of the yard with their bare hands, Pope timing them diligently on a stopwatch filched from science.
Even Mandy has gotten three Christmas cards so far today, and she is so innocuous that the teacher often forgets about her. The most memorable thing about Mandy is that she is always forgotten about. Her entire legacy is based around the fact that people have forgotten her so many times on trips or during activities. Being forgotten is her one identifier.
And still Mandy’s cards are displayed on the edge of her desk, offensive in their glittery charm. Kiara is tempted to take a pair of safety scissors to them, but considering they could barely snip a single strand of human hair (she’s tried that on JJ), she doesn’t trust her chances with reinforced laminated cards.
“What’s got you all in a twist?” JJ asks. He’s tossing a stone from hand to hand; peering at her thoughtfully. “Usually you’d be all don’t do that, JJ . Think of the worms, JJ. ”
“Don’t do that, JJ,” Kiara monotones. “The worms, JJ.”
JJ prods her in the shoulder with a stick. Kiara snatches the stick from him, snaps it in two, then throws it to the ground. Crosses her arms across her chest.
“What’s up?” JJ tries again. Kiara can feel her chin jutting.
“Mandy Miller got three Christmas cards this morning,” she mutters.
“Mandy Miller?” JJ clarifies. “Memorable Mandy?”
“Be nice,” Kiara reproaches. “But yes, Memorable Mandy. She got three. Today. Do you know how many I have in total? Do you?”
JJ looks hesitant. “...four?”
“Four? Four? I’d be overjoyed with four. None, JJ. None . That’s how many friends I have.”
Theatrics is usually a base covered by JJ and Pope. The three boys blink at her wordlessly.
“To be fair,” John B appeases mindfully. “I haven’t sent mine out yet.”
“You’ve never sent a card in your – ow! Yup. Me either. Just gotta get right on that card writing. Rest assured, Kie,” JJ’s voice drops. “You are right at the top of my list.”
“I don’t want a pity card,” Kiara growls. “I want – I want gifts. ” The idea comes to her in an instant. “We should do a gift exchange. A secret gift exchange.”
“Oh God,” mutters Pope.
“No – it’s good. It’s a good idea. It can be low budget – or homemade gifts, or baked, or whatever. We can draw the names later on.”
“This is gonna be the worst,” JJ complains.
“Baked?” John B queries. “You all get baked gifts?”
“Y’all get homemade gifts?” chimes Pope.
“Wait, y'all get gifts?” JJ pulls a pseudo confused face. Kiara fixes them all in turn with a stern stare. Only JJ doesn’t back down. He looks at her with one eyebrow quirked up.
“We’ll draw them tonight,” Kiara decides. “At the Chateau.”
There are mumbles of discontent, but they all agree.
"Now if you're all quite done with your glory hole," Kiara straightens up and dusts dirt from the seat of her pants. "We have class."
"I don’t think that means what you think that means," Pope mutters hesitantly as JJ and John B guffaw loudly about something.
"I think I know," Kiara sniffs primly. "Now let's go."
(She Google's it later on and - it's safe to say she definitely didn't.)
“So – say you got Pope,” JJ starts. “What do you think he would really, truly want?”
“Secret Santa, JJ.”
“I was just saying,” he pouts. “But... seriously.”
“You’re around the guy pretty much twenty-four seven. I’m sure you can think of something.”
JJ hooks his arms over the porch railings and wedges his feet on the skirting. “But you’re the best at this sort of stuff.”
“What, because I’m a girl?” Kiara straightens up from where she’s been trying to persuade new laces into her old converse. They light up and everything.
“No, because you’re the best thinker.”
Kiara mulls this revelation over for a second. “Fine. Probably something science-y. Or a book. Or maybe a worm thingy. The one where you can look through the sides.”
“Interesting.” JJ’s feet knock against the side of the chateau. “I’ll make sure John B gets you something good.”
“Secret Santa. Secret. ”
JJ grins toothily at her and jumps down from the porch. “Well, I’d best go see a man about these worms.
“Okay. If it’s from the store, remember to take the security tags off this time. Before the doors.”
JJ fixes her with a sharp look before he retreats.
A week later, they all sit in the living room in a loose circle. Big John’s made them all hot chocolates, but they’re not allowed to take them off the table ever since JJ knocked his over during one particular scuffle with John B.
Kiara looks around at the group she unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on the tide and the day) calls her best friends.
Pope’s gift is perfectly wrapped with sellotape along every seam. John B has also utilised tape in his wrapping. Potentially only tape. His gift looks unpentratable to anyone not in possession of a sharp knife. Meanwhile, JJ seems to have foregone tape entirely in favour of the scrunching method. He keeps tucking loose ends under the bottom of his gift in vain.
And thus, through persistence and out of spite for Memorable Mandy, the annual Pogue Secret Santa is born.
Whatever magic JJ feels around Christmas as a child all but withers away as he grows older. Without his mom, it’s never the same. The hot chocolate, the movies, the Christmas joy – it all becomes distant, and it’s not like him and Luke are going to continue any of the traditions that his mom held dear. Most Christmas memories, like all memories of his mother, are detached and tinged with blue, and JJ doesn’t like to dwell on them for too long.
There’s still some things he likes, though, and one of those things happens to be the Pogue Secret Santa. Kiara had insisted that they keep up the Secret Santa, make it a tradition of sorts between the four of them, and the boys weren’t about to complain. It was fun last year, and it brought a little bit of wonder to JJ's otherwise dull Christmas.
It would be better, really, if he had money to spend on gifts like Kiara did. When he pulls John B’s name out of the hat, he wants to buy John B something awesome, like a new boat or maybe a private island. His best friend deserves it.
As things are, that’s not financially feasible, especially for 13 year old JJ. It does kind of put a damper on the whole occasion, try as he might to get over it. It’s not like the other boys were any different – they all seemed to be in the same boat. Like she could sense the threat to the Pogues Christmas cheer, Kiara keeps reminding the boys that they could make homemade presents, or they could do something baked.
And, well. JJ takes that literally. A couple of texts to his cousin, a solemn vow to cover a few babysitting shifts, and one freezing cold bike ride later, JJ has his Christmas present for John B.
When it’s his turn at the Pogue Secret Santa party, he presents it to John B with a flourish, a mess of red and green wrapping paper and tape. All the same, John B’s eyes light up when he opens it.
“Dude, JJ,” John B says, astonished, and JJ sits back against the couch. He knows he looks smug, but he is smug. Low budget Christmas presents? He’s got it on lock.
“It’s my cousin’s stuff,” JJ explains, and John B’s eyes grow even wider. John B knows the stories of JJ’s cousin. Everyone knows the stories of JJ’s cousin. He’s something of a legend on the island.
“No way,” John B says, holding the little baggy of weed up in amazement. John B stays like that for a second, his expression still astounded, before he cuts his eyes quickly to his dad’s room. There’s a low buzz emitting from Big John’s room, the background static of the crappy television he keeps propped up on his dresser. Big John has been holed up in his room all night, watching a rerun of some show he’s seen a million times, trying to give the kids some space.
“Do you think…” John B trails off, nodding his head back towards his dad’s room and then to the backyard.
“No!” Pope says a little too loudly, causing the others to shush him. Since the Pogues had discovered weed, Pope had been less than enamoured with the idea. “You’re dad is right there!” he says, quieter this time.
JJ looks at John B, who just shrugs back at him. “Big John doesn’t care.”
Pope makes an exasperated noise, turning to Kiara for some support. She looks conflicted, flitting her eyes between the boys and Big John’s door. JJ raises one eyebrow at her, and she looks like she might be about to agree with him. After another second, though, she sighs and shakes her head.
“Pope’s right, guys,” she says, as JJ and John B groan and Pope mutters thank you. “Big John might not care, but my parents can’t pick me up from a house that smells like the inside of JJ’s sock drawer.”
“How do you know what the inside of my sock drawer smells like?” JJ challenges, daring to look offended.
Kiara levels him with a look. “Where do you keep all your weed?”
“Touche,” JJ nods, conceding the point.
“Alright,” John B says, sounding more than a little disappointed. “We could save it for later?”
“Save it for later?” JJ says, aghast at the suggestion. “You want to shove my Christmas present in your sock drawer?”
John B blinks back at him. “I mean, it was already shoved in your sock drawer, so I don’t know how another sock drawer could be offensive."
JJ shakes his head, rejecting John B’s logic. “Nope, it has seen the last of it’s days in a sock drawer,” JJ says with finality, standing up and grabbing his coat off the back of the couch. “Hey, Big Man!” JJ yells into Big John’s room. Big John responds with a grunt. “We want to go watch the sunset on the beach. We’ll be back in a few hours.”
“You taking my other son with you?” Big John’s baritone voice rumbles across the Chateau. JJ’s smirking, looking at John B who just rolls his eyes.
“You got it,” JJ says, reaching over to clap John B on the back. “Don’t worry, Big John, I’ll look out for him.”
Once Big John grants his approval, JJ is all but dragging the four of them out of the Chateau. He hands John B his jacket, shoves a hat on Kiara’s head, and tries to calm Pope down with the promise that everything will be fine. None of them are all too enthusiastic, but they don’t put up a fight.
“Where are we going, JJ?” Kiara demands, and JJ turns to see her wrapping her scarf tighter around her neck. They’re stumbling along the road that runs parallel to the water, the wind whipping across the waves and turning his cheeks red.
JJ points behind him, and Kiara follows his motion to find an old, weathered sign barely discernible among the vegetation. Any car passing by would miss it, but the four of them can see it, clear as day, signifying the entrance to Rixon’s Cove.
JJ’s pretty proud of himself for coming up with it on the fly. It’s going to be cold and damp on the beach, but it’s a hell of a lot better than getting in trouble with Big John or Kiara’s parents. It’s infinitely better than leaving the weed in John B’s sock drawer.
He leads the way, crouching through the underbrush that surround the cove, until they all emerge on the other side of the treeline. Rixon’s Cove is small, mostly sand dunes and rough waves, but it’s one of the few places on the island that the tourists never touch. Honestly, JJ doesn’t blame them. If they’re coming to the Outer Banks for a nice beach to swim at, Rixon’s Cove is not it. Rixon’s Cove is a medley of turbulent tides and steep dunes, the combination of which can sometimes make even JJ a little uneasy. It may not be the calmest beach on the island, but JJ has fond memories of camp fires with Big John and John B along this stretch of coast.
And tonight, it’s the perfect place to try out John B’s Christmas present.
JJ’s still new and unpracticed at rolling, and his attempt at a blunt comes out a bit messy, but it’s not like any of them care anyways. It’s less about finesse and more about the experience.
JJ lights it up, letting John B take the first hit, and then they are passing it around. Kiara coughs after her first hit, but over all, they are getting better at the whole smoking thing. Except for Pope, of course, who refuses to even touch it.
They sit perched on a few large pieces of driftwood scattered around the remnants of a campfire. Until a few minutes later, when Kiara takes the blunt from JJ’s fingers, her hands shaking so violently from the cold that she almost drops the blunt.
“This wasn’t the best idea,” Kiara says, her teeth chattering together.
“I could start a fire,” JJ offers, gesturing to the set up they are occupying. Kiara considers it for a moment, which is a testament to how strong the weed is.
“No fires while intoxicated,” Pope says, but from the tone of his voice, he already knows he’s fighting a losing battle.
“Exactly,” John B says, nodding his head in agreement and shocking everyone. “And look who’s not intoxicated! I think you are in charge of our fire, bro.”
Pope reaches out and pushes John B’s shoulder, shaking his head. “No way,” he says. “We don’t even have a permit.”
“Who needs a permit to build a fire?” JJ says, standing up and brushing some sand off of his pants. Kiara had antagonized him last week when he had worn his cargo shorts in sub-freezing temperatures, and she looked far too pleased with herself when he showed up in actual pants today. JJ will never admit it, but he’s thankful he did.
“Everyone!” Pope yells, waving his hands around. “Literally everyone! Kildare has a bylaw-”
“Bylaws, schmylaws,” JJ declares, sliding his way down the sand dune. “I’m going to try to find some wood to start a fire.”
It’s silent for a second, and when JJ turns back towards the driftwood, Kiara’s getting up and following him.
“Kie!” Pope scolds, but she just shrugs her shoulders.
“It’s cold,” she says in way of explanation, sliding down the dune, nearly knocking JJ over. He reaches out his hand, catching her before she faceplants in the sand, giving her a second to right herself before he draws his hand away.
When Kiara’s not in immediate danger of falling and Pope looks pretty much defeated, JJ nods his head over to the treeline behind him.
“We’ll be over here.”
Pope looks like he’s going to protest, but John B just claps him on the back, pointing to the other side of the beach. “Let’s go, bubba.”
Picking up twigs and branches isn’t exactly the most exciting of endeavors, but within a few minutes, JJ’s got enough kindling for a small fire. Enough to keep Kiara and the rest of them warm, at least. He’s about ready to give up, to call it a day and head back to the campsite, when Kiara gasps loudly, dropping all the branches she had gathered to the sand.
“JJ!” She yells, the wind carrying her voice to him. “JJ, come here right now!”
JJ stumbles his way through the sand quickly, coming up next to her in no time. She’s staring into the trees in amazement.
“What?” JJ demands, and Kiara grabs his arm, shushes him, and tugs him down so he’s at eye level with her with her. JJ looks to where she’s pointing, and he can just make out a little animal crawling along the forest floor. His jaw drops in shock.
“It’s God,” Kiara breathes out, her eyes wide and, wow, the weed must be hitting JJ pretty hard, because that’s somehow the funniest thing he’s ever heard. He giggles out loud, taking a few steps forward to get a better view of the hedgehog.
“I told you!” He says in between giggles. “He follows me.”
“I can’t believe we found him!” Kiara exclaims, and JJ senses her taking a few careful steps forward until they are shoulder to shoulder again. “Aren’t they supposed to be hibernating?” she whispers as they get closer.
“It’s a Christmas Miracle,” JJ whispers back. “God woke up from hibernation.”
Kiara gasps in amazement, watching with wide eyes while the poor little creature tries to maneuver it’s way around the undergrowth. “Should we say something to Him?” she questions after a minute.
“Hey!” JJ says, whisper-yelling at the hedgehog. “Could you tell me if Angela Reilly has a crush on me?”
Kiara shoves him a little. “You can’t ask Him trivial things like that!” She scolds, but she’s hardly able to get the sentence out through her giggles. JJ’s laugh is even louder, enough that the little creature scurries farther into the woods.
“No!” Kiara whines, reaching her hand out. “God, don’t leave us!”
“God has abandoned Rixon’s Cove,” JJ says sagely, and Kiara laughs so hard she snorts.
“God abandoned Rixon’s Cove a while ago.”
They spend another couple of seconds staring into the woods, willing the hedgehog back into their lives, but it’s a fruitless effort. Then, a gust of wind blows across the beach, and Kiara’s teeth start chattering again, and JJ decides that’s enough of that.
“Come on, let’s head back and see what we can do about not freezing to death,” JJ says, turning around to pick up the sticks Kiara dropped. When he crouches down, he notices the unmistakable outline of a shark tooth laying in the sand. He picks it up, fiddling it between his fingers for a second, before holding it over his shoulder for Kiara to see.
“A shark tooth!” Kiara gasps, grabbing for it. JJ’s quick, and he pulls his hand away before she can catch it. She pouts and holds out her hand anyway.
“What are you going to do with a shark tooth?” he says, but he’s already dropping it into her palm.
“I’m gonna grind it up and smoke it, become shark girl,” Kiara says, and JJ barks out a laugh as she starts her way back to the driftwood they had been sitting on before.
JJ drops the wood on the remnants of the campfire, reaching into his back pocket for his lighter as Kiara sinks down to sit in the sand, still shivering. When Pope and John B reappear, Pope unceremoniously drops his armful of twigs on top of JJ’s pile.
“Are you guys okay?” He asks, clearly exasperated.
John B stumbles in the sand behind him, depositing his collection of brush in much the same manner.
“We heard yelling,” John B explains.
“Yeah, we’re good,” JJ brushes off the question.
“Yeah,” Kiara says nonchalantly. “I just saw God.”
JJ looks up at Kiara, and she’s looking right at him, her eyes bright with mirth.
“JJ,” Pope says carefully, and JJ turns his head away from Kiara. Pope’s eyes are bugging out of his head. “How strong was that weed?”
It’s not like Kiara ever intended for the Kook indoctrination to work.
It’s just – she never understood the power and influence of money until she was surrounded by it. Until Sarah Cameron took her shopping and said oh, put it on my account to the shop assistant in a boutique Kiara had no right to be in but was anyway. It was the way she said it too; with the assured confidence born straight from money.
It’s the year Kiara upgrades from swimsuits to bikinis; it’s the summer she stops wrapping her arms around her stomach at any male attention; it’s the summer she starts to feel less like one of the guys, and more like an actual girl.
It’s also the year Sarah Cameron smiles at her during their first roll call and Kiara forgets her name for one short second. Forgets her friends for one short year.
It’s the pool in Sarah’s back yard and her own study where they can do their homework. It’s the environmental club at school that can make an actual, legitimate difference, rather than just Kiara making posters and shouting at people to recycle. They discuss how best to use the environmental grant – whether solar panels on the science block would be most cost effective and productive, or a singular wind turbine that would need extra fundraising but then produce more than the school can use.
It’s the debate club and how these extracurriculars are a badge of success rather than something to be ridiculed.
It’s that Pope pulls a face of longing when she talks about debate club, and JJ says so what were you debating today – what colour is the stick up Sarah Cameron’s ass? It’s off-handed and barely even directed her way, which made it sting all the more.
It starts as an uninterested comment. Sarah asks why Christmas Eve is always so boring. Kiara makes some reference as to it being the reason why she always used to go down Rixon’s and smoke. Sarah’s eyes light up and sometimes – sometimes Kiara realises that despite the maturity and self-assured way in which Sarah handles herself, she is still pretty sheltered from reality.
“We have to,” Sarah enthuses. “C’mon, Kie. Live a little.”
Kiara half wants to point out that it’s her who’s established this tradition; that it’s her who actually has any experience with weed. It’s her with the baggy in her bedside drawer and rolling papers and a grinder. Denying Sarah Cameron anything she wants always seems like a pointless exercise, so Kiara Carrera finds herself once more at Rixon’s on Christmas Eve with a joint between her fingers.
Kiara isn’t in the habit of being mean. Blunt – she’ll accept. To the point. But there’s something about Sarah Cameron playing at being high which rankles. Something which makes her kind of want to trip the other girl into the sand. She doesn’t, obviously. But - Sarah’s spinning around in circles and stopping occasionally to hiccup. The weed’s kinda stale, definitely not potent, and Kiara has rolled this joint particularly weak just for this exact scenario.
At the beginning when Sarah Cameron started paying her more attention and let her have free rein of her closet – when Sarah referred to her as best friend . There is something in the depth and power of female friendship that makes it all consuming. Heady and intoxicating and just so freeing-
Until she’s sitting in the sand at Rixon’s and observing the scene before her with a vague detachment.
Mark, Sarah’s current boyfriend, is watching his girlfriend with a fond look. Just last night Sarah had been on Facetime to Kiara pulling faces about Mark’s latest texts. Sighing I just think he’s getting too attached when another message came through.
Now, Sarah has her arms around Mark’s neck. Is swinging around and shout-singing and looking every iota a Kook hot mess with her expensive dress and her expensive pastel yellow jacket unbuttoned and hanging off her elbows. She stumbles on her platform heels because she’s one of the only people to insist that she’s stronger than sand, damnit.
Kiara holds smoke in her lungs and tries to be less of a bitch.
Sarah holds her hands up to the sky and yells “I FUCKING LOVE LIFE!” which does make Kiara laugh.
Kiara’s friend – her best friend, probably – crashes down next to her. “I’m so glad you’re in my life, Kie,” the blond haired girl says reverently. Her face is close. Kie can smell her strawberry conditioner.
Sarah is within kissing distance and to be honest, Kiara is impressed with her own resolve. Should maybe be perturbed by how often her resolve is apparently being tested around her distinctly female friend, but she figures that’s a dilemma for another day. Definitely not for when said friend’s boyfriend is in the vicinity.
“You too, boo,” Kiara pats Sarah’s shoulder briefly instead.
Sarah smushes their cheeks together. Takes one of them laughing. Presses her lipstick-tacky lips to Kiara’s cheek. Throws her phone to Mark and demands he takes a picture of them jumping from a sand dune. Sarah’s finally kicked off her shoes – she has Mark lying in the sand to get the perfect shot. Has Kiara leaning on her shoulder like the support model on a cover shoot.
There’s something from the corner of her eye – something dark and vaguely human shaped. It’s a familiar shape. Someone who makes Kiara’s gaze snap directly that way, attention diverting from the photoshoot in hand.
But there’s no one at the crest of the sand dune. No one standing amongst the trees. Kiara blinks away the feeling of being watched and smiles once more into Sarah’s phone’s camera lens.
The Christmas brunch is the Kookiest thing imaginable. All the girls dress in red or gold or green like they’re Santa’s elves and the boys bring out their kitsch-y Christmas jumpers. Everyone politely laughs at the same sweaters as last year. Housewives drink too many mimosas and end up pulling at the collars of their dresses (or the collars of shirts on men who are distinctly not their husbands); kids end up trying to swap their gifts from Santa with another, or declaring their novelty gifts superfluous and trampling them into the carpet. And there’s always a table full of bored looking teens attempting to swipe glasses of champagne or make predictions about their Christmas gifts.
It’s the second year Kiara’s ever attended, but the first she's actively engaged with. The first year she was a server, pitching in to help when they were short on staff. It had taken Sarah a whole week to persuade her to attend this year as an actual guest.
“It sounds kind of cult-y,” Kiara protested over lunch. “Everyone dressing up and going to a fancy-ass place on Christmas Eve. Why isn’t everyone at home?”
“Once again.” Sarah smacks her lips together and slides the lipgloss stick back into the tube. “Not a cult.”
Now, Kiara can see her mom’s hopeful glances from where she’s managed to snag a seat at the not-quite top table of Kook parents. Sarah Cameron is a vision in a fitted gold sequined dress. Kiara tugs at the hem of the red velvet playsuit Sarah insisted she just had to wear. It has long sleeves but short legs; she’d had to shave and coat her legs in cocoa butter last night just so they were acceptable to be in public.
Her mom’s kind of strict about drinking in public – about maintaining the facade of societal expectations and niceties. The orange juice tastes watered down and Kiara hasn’t got faith in the quality of the food – any mass catered event is inevitably a disappointment. Her table is filled with Tiffany and Sarah, Topper and Kelce. Mark has to go visit relatives on the mainland and is auspiciously absent. There are some other members of their homeroom which Sarah has hand selected this week. Kiara doesn’t want to be disloyal to her best friend – but Sarah’s choice in friends changes every week. The only constant so far this year is Kiara.
Kiara had it pegged, right from the off. It’s definitely a cult.
“Ma’am.” A server lowers a tray in front of her. The tray is filled with delicate champagne flutes, each containing a healthy portion of mimosa. Kiara frowns slightly as she notices chipped cufflinks in the shape of hedgehogs haphazardly placed through buttonholes on the cuff of the white shirt. Follows the arm to the server.
JJ’s gaze is steady on her face. There’s a cut on his temple – a couple of days old, maybe, with bruising along with it. Kiara’s heard they’re scrapping more frequently now, her Pogues. Wading headfirst into trouble.
“Ma’am,” he repeats, and this time there’s iron in his voice. His gaze, which had been vaguely interested, has slid into the realms of cool regard. Mechanically, Kiara takes a glass from the tray. Sarah’s engrossed in a conversation to her left; she’s got a hand laid on Topper’s upper arm and is laughing prettily. No one’s noticed the blonde haired server lingering; offering alcohol to a minor.
“JJ,” the syllables are slow to form. “What are you doing here?”
“Well, I sure ain’t eating overpriced and overcooked eggs.” The words are derisive and quick. The tray shakes ever so slightly – something akin to a wince crosses JJ’s face as he brings his arm closer to his front. Re-adjusts his stance. “Besides, it’s better than being at home, so.”
Sometimes JJ mixes in fact with fiction. Often in a way which succeeds in completely disarming her. Like now. Now she can just stare with a champagne glass in one hand, wearing a playsuit that's probably worth more than a whole month’s of JJ’s wages.
“JJ,” she starts.
The iron’s back in his eyes and he half shakes his head. “It’s cool. Know your place, right?” There’s a half second of pause – a half second where Kiara’s eyes flicker ever so quickly to Sarah to check her friend's still engaged, to check this encounter still has some semblance of privacy.
“I saw you down at Rixon’s,” JJ carries on, and now he’s looking over the top of her head, looking somewhere else. “Looked like fun.”
There’s a feeling in her stomach. A sort of iciness that spreads up her throat. She places one hand on her collarbone; digs her fingertips into her clavicle.
“Don’t,” she near whispers.
JJ’s mouth ticks up at the corners. Not with amusement. JJ can be sunbeams and belly laughs and wildly inappropriate sexual innuendos that never fail to break the ice. But JJ can also be an immovable object or dried out tinder, just waiting for a spark to ignite. Kiara rarely sees the second one – rarely sees the JJ that her mom would describe as trouble – but she thinks she can see a glimpse of him now.
He says, “Merry Christmas, ma’am,” and then he takes the tray and leaves. Goes right over to a table full of parents because some ruddy cheeked man literally clicks his fingers. He’s walking carefully, almost gingerly. Drags his right toe ever so slightly over the carpet.
“Kiara?” a familiar voice asks. Kiara looks up from where she’s been staring at the tabletop, one hand curled around the thin chain of the necklace Sarah got her for Christmas but gave her back in November because apparently, she can’t keep a secret. “You okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, sure. Fine.”
“JJ Maybank sure grew up fast.”
The whole table turns to consider the boy in question. JJ is holding a tray deftly with one hand. Is tugging at his bowtie with the other. There’s a loose, vague smile on his lips which fades as he glances their way. There’s just that awful blankness as he meets her eyes and looks away.
Condensation from the outside of the glass rapidly cools her hand. Kiara tips the champagne down her throat in one fell swoop.
“JJ!” Kiara calls from the living room of the Chateau. Her voice echoes off the walls and finds its way to JJ, who’s cocooned in a mess of blankets on top of Big John’s old bed. JJ’s all but taken up ownership of the bed, yet he still can’t bring himself to call it his bed yet. Maybe he never will.
“No, Kie,” JJ groans, flipping around as best he can in his blankets. He should probably be more concerned with the fact that Kiara is waking him up, given that, as far as his drowsy brain can remember, she hadn’t stayed over the night. Most likely, that means that John B has already left for work and, in his infinite wisdom, he left the door unlocked. Whatever time it is, it’s late enough for Kiara to already be at the Chateau.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter. It’s too cold for JJ to get out of bed to investigate, so Kiara’s appearance in the living room will remain a mystery. It’s not quite freezing on the Outer Banks yet, but it’s pretty damn cold, especially in the drafty rooms of the Chateau. JJ’s like a furnace, always running hot, but even he’s not willing to leave his blanket fort.
He hears Kiara’s footsteps scamper across the creaky floorboard. “I just need help putting the lights up!” Kiara says, and JJ cracks open one of his eyes to see Kiara peeking her head through the doorway of the bedroom, her eyes bright with excitement. She lifts up her hands, showing him the pile of Christmas lights she’s holding.
“You can’t do that yourself?” JJ mutters, the question running together to the point where it sounds like one word.
“No, I can’t reach the top of the tree,” Kiara sighs, gesturing behind her to where the Christmas tree stands in the living room. JJ and John B had put it up last weekend, and frankly, as far as JJ was concerned, that was enough Christmas labor for him. Getting the tree through the front door of the Chateau had been something of a herculean effort. “Can you get your freakishly long limbs out of bed and help me, please?”
JJ flops around in his cocoon of blankets until he’s no longer facing Kiara. “First you need my help, then you insult my limbs? Kie, if you are trying to lick my boots, you’re doing a terrible job.”
Kiara makes an aggravated noise, muttering under her breath something that sounds a lot like ‘I’m not trying to lick anything’ as JJ hears her stomp away into the living room.
“Use a chair or something! The tree isn’t that tall!” JJ yells after her, ready to settle into his puddle of blankets and fall asleep again.
He’s almost successful – he just barely registers the sound of the chair scraping across the floor of the kitchen, already halfway comatose.
That is, until he hears Kiara yelp, followed by a crash as something falls to the ground.
JJ’s out of bed like a shot, tripping over himself as he tries to exit the tangle of blankets he has wrapped around himself. His left foot gets caught as he scrambles out of bed, nearly sending him face first into the door of Big John’s closest.
“Kiara– ” he says as he all but slides into the living room, grabbing the wall to keep himself upright.
JJ expects to find some kind of disaster, but he’s met with Kiara standing above a pile of old magazines and books strewn on the floor, looking decidedly unharmed. She has her hands on her hips, a smirk playing on her lips.
“Jesus Christ, Kie,” JJ says, taking a deep breath. His heart feels like it’s trying to beat out of his chest. “Did you seriously fake falling out of a chair to get me out of bed?”
“Did you seriously fall for it?” Kiara says, bending down to pick up the mess she made in her charade. “I only gave it a 50/50 chance of actually working.”
JJ grumbles at that, turning around to head back to bed. He doesn’t need to take this shit so early in the morning.
Kiara, of course, has other ideas. She bounds across the room in a few steps, grabbing his arm and halting his movement.
“No, no, no,” she says, using all of her strength to try and drag JJ back out to the living room. He doesn’t move an inch. “You are not going back to bed. We are decorating. ”
JJ sighs, looking up at the ceiling for a second, like it’ll give him strength. It doesn’t.
“Can you give me some space, woman?” JJ says, trying to shake his arm free. “Let me put on a pair of sweatpants, at least.”
Kiara drops his arm quickly as she comes to the realization that JJ is currently clothed in a pair of boxers and a blanket that’s somehow managed to remain draped over his shoulders. She clears her throat, and then looks him in the eye for a second, like she doesn’t trust that he won’t just crawl back into bed.
“What, do you want to watch?” JJ teases her, and Kiara rolls her eyes.
“Are you gonna go back to sleep, or are you actually going to get dressed and help?”
JJ shrugs a shoulder, smirking at her. “I give it a 50/50 chance either way.”
Kiara doesn’t look like she likes those odds, but she relents anyway, walking out of the door to allow JJ some privacy.
JJ stares longingly at his bed. His blankets are still all too inviting, but he knows it’s a lost cause at this point. He’s already fully awake, and Kiara won’t stop bothering him until he helps her out. He sighs, reaching into his pile of probably clean laundry to pull on something that might be an acceptable amount of clothing.
He exits his room for the second with a lot more grace. Kiara’s sitting on the ground, surrounded by her Christmas lights. She’s plugged them in, and even though only about half of them lit up, they cast a soft glow over her corner of the Chateau. She looks up and smiles at him, looking like a goddamn Christmas card.
“Alright,” JJ grumbles, before she can get too excited about the fact that he chose not to go back to bed. “What are we doing?”
“We are getting in the Christmas spirit,” Kiara says, launching herself up from the floor and dragging JJ towards the tree.
“I’m plenty in the spirit,” JJ says, and Kiara shoots him a look. She doesn’t even bother offering a response, she just looks around at the tangle of lights below her.
“Now, if I could just find a way to untangle these…” she mutters under her breath, turning around in a circle.
“They aren’t even untangled?” JJ scoffs. “You expect me to work in conditions like this?”
“Alright, Scrooge,” Kiara says, unplugging the lights from the wall and handing them to JJ. “Can you help instead of complain?”
JJ doesn’t argue, but he’s decidedly sulky as Kiara pushes him towards the tree. He’s also incredibly unhelpful. He mostly just holds the lights while Kiara stumbles around him, trying to figure out how the hell they ended up as tangled as they did.
It’s not bad, at first. Untangling the lights isn’t fun, per se, but Kiara’s attitude doesn’t seem to falter. JJ compensates for his lack of assistance by making occasional jabs about Christmas and the stupidity of decorations.
“Honestly, Kie, half of these lights don’t even work-”
Kiara turns around to admonish him for being completely useless in this endeavor, her cheery attitude only just starting to crack. It probably would have been fine, but she steps the wrong way into the pile of Christmas lights, the heel of her foot coming down directly onto the pointy part of one of the plugs.
Kiara yelps in pain, jumping backwards and swearing. She hops around on one leg, grasping at her other foot to assess what kind of damage a wall plug can do. JJ kicks the lights out of the way, stepping towards her and reaching out an arm to steady her when she almost falls over.
“Well, what can I tell ya?” JJ says after a moment of silence, once he’s sure she’s not going to contract tetanus. He steps away from her, dropping his arm. “That’s what you get for being dumb about Christmas.”
“Can you shut the fuck up, JJ?” Kiara bites back, dropping her foot and turning around, reaching for another box of decorations.
“This is pointless, Kie. It isn’t going to fix anything.”
The second Kiara turns to look at him, he can tell that he didn’t phrase that sentence quite as carefully as he probably should have.
JJ meant that the Christmas lights aren’t going to make John B happy, they won’t bring Big John back or suddenly create a sense of Christmas that the Pogues are desperately lacking this year. But with the shadow of her Kook Year still looming over them, that’s not what she heard.
“Whatever, JJ. If you don’t want decorations, I’m just going to leave.” She shoves the box of decorations into JJ’s chest before marching over to the door.
“Kie-” JJ starts, but she doesn’t stop. In fact, she barely hesitates to put on her shoes before slamming the front door of the Chateau closed behind her.
Since Kiara’s return from her sabbatical, JJ feels like he’s walking on eggshells with her. Not because he’s scared she’ll leave again – truthfully, he doesn’t really fear that at all, given the death glares he’s seen her throw Sarah Cameron’s way. But still, there’s something off with the way she treats all of them.
And he gets it, really. When Kiara first came back a few months ago, it wasn’t pretty. JJ sometimes still cringes at some of the things he said to her the first couple times she showed up at the Chateau. John B had forgiven her quickly, but Pope and JJ – well, they were more stubborn. Sure, since then, they had all apologized and moved on, fell into some semblance of normality that felt comfortable if not different. Everyone said they were over it and that it was in the past.
Then, shit like this happens. Sometimes, he says things, and he forgets that there’s a brand new layer of implications under every word that he has yet to figure out how to navigate. He knows Kiara remembers every single cruel word he spat at her all those months ago as well as he does.
This time, though, JJ didn’t mean to be cruel at all. With Big John still missing, JJ’s not really feeling the Christmas spirit. Something about Kiara trying so hard grates on his nerves.
Kiara’s never decorated the Chateau for Christmas, and that’s just one in a long line of new things she’s suddenly championing since coming back. It’s like she needs to make up for lost time, and the loss of Big John, by going overboard any chance she gets. At first it was meals at the Wreck and bags full of snacks she would sneak into the cupboards whenever she came around to the Chateau. Then it became mandatory movie nights every week, Power Hours at Rixon’s, and a strict regimen of surfing days. For Pope’s birthday, she had baked him a three layer cake. From scratch. There’s still leftovers in the freezer now – and his birthday was in October . Then last month, Kiara had toiled away for hours in the kitchen preparing an honest-to-god Friendsgiving dinner – for three boys who high-key think instant ramen is a gourmet meal.
And it’s just… none of these are things Kiara would have done before her Kook Year. Even though it’s nice to have movie nights, birthday cakes, and a fancy-ass Friendsgiving dinner, it’s all tinged with the reminder that Kiara’s only doing all of it because she feels guilty. Honestly, sometimes JJ feels like he only has half of Kiara back. The other half is too busy trying too hard to make herself worthy of the Pogues.
JJ sighs, looking at the pile of decorations in front of him. All that being said, he’s still been an asshole to her, and he knows it. He crossed a line, and now there’s only one thing he can do.
JJ wouldn’t call himself happy as he stands there in the scratchy, terribly ugly Christmas sweater he found in the depths of John B’s closet, but it might be the most Christmas-y he’s felt in years. He hates to admit it, even to himself, but he thinks Kiara may have a point.
“I can’t believe you did all of this,” Pope says, sitting back on the pull out couch and gesturing to JJ’s handiwork. He leans back in, puts the back of his hand on JJ’s forehead. “Are you alright? I’m a little concerned.”
“Fuck off,” JJ says, swatting his hand away.
There’s no denying it, though. As he takes a good look around, JJ’s inclined to agree. After Kiara left, he told himself he’d just put up the lights on the tree and call it a day. Somehow, it all escalated until the entire Chateau felt like it belonged in one of those Christmas-themed snow-globes.
It’s not great. It definitely won’t be featured in any design catalog anytime soon. The tree is sparse, crammed in between the wall and the kitchen table. Technically speaking, JJ’s pretty sure it’s what one might consider a fire hazard. Kiara’s lights are finally strung across its branches, but JJ’s not at all confident they won’t all go out before she even gets here. Untangling the lights had been one thing, but it was a whole other matter to find the ones that actually worked. In the end, JJ had barely enough to cover the tree.
He doesn’t know what possessed him, but after he finished putting the lights up, he had taken it a step further. He hadn’t made a snowflake chain in years, but he had vague memories of hanging them up when he was younger. With a little help from google, he had created something passable, if a little asymmetrical at times. Using a bag of microwavable popcorn and an old (slightly rusty) sewing kit, JJ managed two feet of popcorn garland and stabbed his fingers about a hundred times before giving up. He strung it up across the tree half-heartedly.
Still, it’s more decoration than the Chateau has seen in its entire existence, and JJ’s gotta say, something about it feels nice – even if it took him a few hours.
When Kiara comes through the door, her eyes wide in amazement, JJ decides that, yeah, maybe this was all worth it.
“Oh, wow,” she says, taking in the decorations. She places her Secret Santa gift, a small box covered in Charlie Brown wrapping paper, on the coffee table, still staring up at the decorations. “You guys did all this?”
Pope points a finger at JJ. “It was all him.”
“He poked himself about a hundred times making the popcorn string!” John B shouts from the kitchen, where he’s bent over the stove, carefully concocting the perfect batch of hot chocolate.
“It’s a garland,” JJ corrects him, before he turns back to see Kiara staring at him. She has a look on her face that JJ can’t quite decipher, and he’s not sure he wants to.
“JJ-” she says, and he just shrugs at her, waving off whatever emotional garbage Kiara might want to delve into today.
“Only minor casualties,” he says, holding his hands up and waving his fingers at her. Almost all of them are covered in bandaids. Kiara’s unreadable expression doesn’t waver.
“Yo, Kie, JJ, hot chocolates up!” John B says, placing two mugs on the kitchen table. “Pope, man, you’re gonna have to help me figure out this weird milk thing.”
“Honestly, it’s not that difficult, it’s just oat milk,” Pope explains, heading to the kitchen as John B asks him about the process of milking an oat.
JJ reaches across the table, dragging the two mugs of hot chocolate towards him, trying valiantly not to spill anything. He’s mostly successful, and he hands one of the mugs to Kiara, who’s still staring at her surroundings in disbelief.
“It kinda looks like Buddy the Elf threw up in here,” Kiara says, clutching her mug in both of her hands.
JJ smirks, nodding. “That’s precisely the vibe I was going for.”
“Were you also going for the Preschool Arts and Crafts vibe?” Kiara queries, reaching up to tap one of the more misshapen snowflakes he had made.
“I spent hours on this, thank you very much,” JJ says, sipping his hot chocolate. “True art work is never appreciated.”
Kiara rolls her eyes, tapping the snowflake again. “You didn’t have to stay up all night to do this,” she says after a minute, looking away from him.
“It wasn’t all night. Don’t give me too much credit, Carrera.”
Kiara snorts. “I’ve seen you with a pair of scissors before. This definitely took you all night.” After a second, she hesitates, turns to look him in the eye, and he freezes. She drops her gaze to her feet, covered in fuzzy socks with gingerbread men on them. “I know I was a little crazy yesterday.”
“Nah, it’s cool,” JJ says, shaking his head and moving to prop himself up on the edge of the couch. He takes a deep breath, looking at her again. “It wasn’t the absolute worst thing ever.”
“Oh really?” Kiara says, her voice thick with sarcasm.
“Yeah, really,” JJ shoots back with the same tone. “Really got me in the Christmas Spirit.”
“I think all it got you was tetanus,” Kiara says, gesturing down to his hands covered in bandaids. “I didn’t even know John B had a needle and thread.”
“There’s a sewing kit in John B’s closet,” JJ shrugs. “Thought I’d put it to good use.”
“By repeatedly stabbing yourself with it?”
“Your lack of appreciation for my decorating skills is astounding for someone who was begging for my help yesterday.”
“I was not begging for your help!” Kiara says incredulously. “I just needed help putting the lights up.”
“And the lights are up,” JJ says, gesturing to the slightly misshapen Christmas tree that is, in fact, fully decorated. “Yet I still haven’t heard a thank you.”
Kiara looks at the tree kind of sideways, as if she’s trying to decide whether she wants to critique it or not. She shrugs her shoulders after a second. “They are up,” She says before turning to him. “Thank you, I guess.”
Kiara says it like she’s teasing him, but JJ thinks there may be some weight behind the platitude.
“No problem,” JJ says smirking, and Kiara shakes her head. JJ shifts on his feet for a second, before spinning to face the kitchen. “Hey! Are you guys almost done in there?”
It turns out, they aren’t. It takes another ten minutes for Pope and John B to figure out the oat milk/hot cocoa situation, and a few more for everyone to settle into the living room, a radio station playing Christmas carols in the background.
It’s silent for a second, an air of unease settling over all of them. The Secret Santa had been a Pogue tradition for a few years, but for obvious reasons, it had been different last year. Kiara wasn’t there, and even the boys had been less than enthusiastic to participate. Now, Kiara’s back, and although things should be almost back to normal, there are times where they are all reminded of the year they spent without her. Like when they are staring across the coffee table in the living room of the Chateau, trying to remember how they used to start the gift giving.
“I’ll go first,” JJ says, shooting up and dispelling any awkward tension as quickly as he can. JJ grabs a small, poorly wrapped package from underneath the Christmas tree and tosses it to John B. “My man, JB.”
John B manages to catch the flying present with one hand, narrowly avoiding spilling his hot chocolate.
“Aw, babe, you didn’t have to.” John B says as sets his hot chocolate down and tears into the package. No one is surprised when he produces a little baggie of weed, holding it up to show both Kiara and Pope. “I love it.” He says, clutching the bag close to his chest.
“I thought you might,” JJ says, smirking as he resumes his spot on the ground, his back to the couch, Kiara sitting on the couch just up to his left. She scoffs when he sits back down, moving her knee to tap his shoulder.
“Typical,” she says under her breath, and JJ lets his head fall back onto the couch, smiling brightly up at her. She rolls her eyes at him, like she’s annoyed, but her smile is almost as bright as his. He moves his shoulder a little bit, shoving her knee in retaliation.
“Alright, my turn,” John B says, bringing everyone’s attention back to the Secret Santa. John B reaches behind him, picking up a present and tossing it to Pope. “Your present, sir.”
Pope barely catches the present, fumbling with it for a second before it falls into his lap. Pope tears open the paper, producing a bright hawaiian shirt. The shirt has blue, yellow, and white flowers scattered across a red background, and it looks like exactly the type of shirt John B would wear in the summer, styled with exactly one button done up and a mismatching bandana. It looks like the type of shirt Pope hasn’t ever worn.
“A hawaiian shirt!” Pope says, holding the shirt up so JJ and Kiara can plainly see it. Pope’s face is somewhere between confused and appreciative as he stares at the bright fabric. JJ can feel Kiara trying to hold back a giggle at his expression, but JJ has no such social graces. He barks out a laugh, and Kiara bursts into giggles not a second later.
“Really spices up your wardrobe, bro,” JJ says, and Pope narrows his eyes a fraction. JJ just shrugs his shoulders in response, still laughing at the sight of Pope holding up the shirt.
“That’s what I was going for!” John B exclaims, pointing at the shirt. “I know you like all your boring clothes, but once in a while, you gotta spice things up, Pope.”
“Thanks, man,” Pope says, folding the shirt into his lap before reaching his hand out to John B.
“No problemo,” John B says, smiling at Pope, matching his movements. They slap their hands together and snap, some weird handshake that had all but become a Pogue tradition. “Your turn, bubba.”
Pope nods, placing his present on the coffee table and sliding it until it sits in front of Kiara. “Kie,” he says with a flourish of his hand.
“Thank you,” she says, grabbing the present and carefully tearing into the paper. “Oh my god, Pope! I love this.”
Pope had gotten her a friendship bracelet kit, with copious amounts of embroidery floss and some beads. Pope shrugs off Kiara’s excitement as she turns the box over in her hands.
“I know you already make all of us friendship bracelets, and maybe it’s a little childish, but there’s, like, a book of patterns and stuff. I don’t know, I thought you might like it.”
“Pope!” Kiara exclaims, standing up off the couch and reaching out her arms to hug him. It’s a little awkward, because they have the coffee table in between them and Pope’s still sitting in his chair, but it works well enough. “I love it! Thank you, dude.”
Pope shrugs again, but he’s smiling wide, clearly excited that Kiara likes her present so much. “No problem,” Pope shoots back at her with a wave of his hand.
“Alright, if I’m not mistaken, we just have one present left,” John B says, waving a finger between Kiara and JJ. JJ’s confused for a second until he realizes that John B is right. By power of elimination, Kiara had picked his name in the Secret Santa. Kiara, clearly, isn’t as shocked by this revelation as JJ is, and she taps him on the shoulder with her box twice.
“Merry Christmas, Scrooge,” she says, smiling down at him while he takes the box out of her hand.
“Alright, alright,” JJ says, trying to wave off the attention. He runs his finger under the wrapping paper, careful not to rip it. Old habits die hard, and all that. The wrapping paper reveals a little jewelry box, which JJ’s skeptical of until he opens it.
JJ takes a deep breath. Hanging off a leather cord, wrapped in wire, is a shark tooth - and not just any shark tooth. JJ’s not sure how he knows it, but he’s pretty sure it’s the one he had found at Rixon’s a few years ago. He knew she had taken it home that night, but he didn’t know she kept it all these years. He definitely didn’t think she kept it during her Kook Year, when she purged her closet of anything resembling the Pogues.
“Uh, is this…” JJ’s voice trails off, because he needs to confirm his suspicions.
“Yeah,” Kiara says, clearing her throat. “It’s, uh, the shark tooth from Rixon’s. The night we saw God.”
JJ nods. “Cool, cool.” He picks up the necklace, dangling it to show John B and Pope. “It’s cool, Kiara.” JJ curses himself, wishing he could come up with a word that wasn’t cool. This necklace is a lot more than cool.
“You like it?” Kiara asks hesitantly, and JJ turns to look at her. She looks like she doesn’t believe him.
“Hell yeah,” JJ says, unclasping the necklace and bringing it around his neck. He struggles for a second, trying to figure out the clasp, until Kiara’s fingers find his.
“Here, let me,” Kiara says, brushing his hands aside, taking the ends of the necklace. She clips the necklace into place, and JJ looks down at the shark tooth, his hand reaching up to fiddle with it. It’s quiet for a second, and JJ realizes he’s been staring at the necklace for longer than normal.
“Dope, huh?” he says, looking over at John B and Pope and pointing to the necklace.
“Yeah, man,” John B says, nodding along. “Makes you look like an actual surfer.”
“Fuck off, I am an actual surfer,” JJ retorts, balling up some wrapping paper and throwing it at him. John B ducks his head out of the way before popping back up, shrugging his shoulders noncommittally.
“I don’t know man, the jury's still out,” John B proclaims, and JJ smiles at him with a challenge in his eyes.
“Want to go settle that jury?” JJ questions, and John B looks over his shoulder, out the window of the Chateau. It’s grey outside, the wind blowing and the air temperature below freezing. Even the marsh, where the waters are normally calm, looks blustery today.
“No,” Pope says, at the same time John B shrugs and says, “Sure.”
Pope looks like he’s about to argue, to tell them that surfing on such a cold day is a bad idea and they should just stay in to watch a movie, but JJ doesn’t give him a chance. He lifts an eyebrow up at John B, as if to challenge him, and then suddenly the two of them are jumping up, running around like mad men, trying to find their wetsuits in the general disarray of the Chateau.
It’s a little disconcerting for a few minutes, but then JJ finally emerges from Big John’s bedroom, fully dressed in a wetsuit and ready to go. Kiara and Pope are standing in the kitchen, dressed in their winter coats with a thermos standing on the counter between them.
“You guys aren’t surfing?” JJ challenges, tucking his new shark tooth necklace into the top of his wetsuit. Kiara catches his eye and smiles.
“Hell no,” Pope says, grabbing the thermos off the counter and heading for the door of the Chateau. “I didn’t even want to go to the beach at all.”
“I convinced him it would be fun,” Kiara said, and then she shrugs her shoulders. “We gotta keep up the Rixon Cove tradition, right?”
“Alright, Pogues, are you ready for some Christmas surfing?” John B says, finally appearing from behind his bedroom door. JJ high fives him, Pope rolls his eyes, and Kiara pulls her hat down over her head.
“Let’s go, dumbasses,” she says, turning towards the front door.
“Jesus Christ, JJ.”
“No,” the boy says with an air of patience. “Wheezus Christ.” He shakes the proffered paper in Kiara’s general direction.
“Okay.” Kiara pauses and considers. “I have questions.”
“Go for it.”
“Firstly: what the fuck?”
“Wheezie - Jesus - Wheezus. Next.”
“Secondly: why the fuck?”
“Too many sad feels. We need to be hopping off this sad train and right onto that Polar Express. It’s Christmas, Kie. The season of goodwill and happiness and shit.”
“Interesting. Thirdly: how the fuck?”
“Thirdly? Thirdly? How many more are there? Wheezus Christ. I may have befriended that one janitor – you know the one who’s obsessed with chewing gum? Yellow hair? Kinda smells like burnt toast? – and I may have snuck into the tech lab and I may have watched like, an hour's worth of YouTube tutorials, and I may have had to stalk Facebook for a weird amount of time and now – well – voila.” JJ brandishes the paper once more.
Kiara takes the page and starts smoothing out the creases. JJ’s like an over eager golden retriever with paper – anything handed to him ends up all creased and gummed up, no matter how good his intentions are. But this page is only slightly crumpled, like he’s tried his absolute best.
Wheezie Cameron’s head is superimposed atop an image of Jesus.
“This is surprisingly good,” she admits begrudgingly.
“Why thank you.”
“I’m also pretty sure this is like, ten levels of blasphemy.”
“Pretty sure murder is also blasphemy, so I think we’re just about even against the Cameron’s.”
Life has a habit of reminding her none too gently of all they’ve lost. Christmas is usually filled with socialising and forcing the boys to sit down for five minutes with a pair of scissors and some paper to make snowflakes. It’s about drawing names in the Secret Santa and having to redraw them approximately a hundred times because Pope can’t keep a secret. It’s about JJ giving a baggy of weed every year to his unfortunate recipient. It’s about John B ringing her in a flap the evening before because he can’t decide whether Pope will prefer a yellow or a blue hat. It's the boys never thinking of having to buy gift wrap and coming up with increasingly imaginative alternatives.
“Good point,” she concedes.
JJ takes the superimposed picture carefully with a smug look.
“So you’re making photo manipulations of Wheezie Cameron because….?”
“Oh. She’s coming over for Christmas.”
“She’s doing what now? JJ – have you been at the glue again?”
“She’s alone, Kie,” JJ protests vehemently. “All alone, at Christmas. And it’s her birthday. It wouldn’t be what Sarah wanted-” the words die in his throat. Not dramatically; they just kind of ease to a gentle stop.
“Maybe not,” Kie makes a conscious effort to soften her voice. Not too much, because JJ has been volatile (more than usual) about the whole John B missing situation. “But we’re hardly the most popular in Kildare right now. We can’t just go and acquire a minor. Even if she’s lonely.”
“Her dad’s a murderous asshole. Her mom’s conked out on Prozac and whatever the fuck else. Her sister’s got the whole maybe-dead vibe, and her brother’s got the whole should be dead vibe. Kie, sometimes – sometimes you gotta work with what you’ve got. And we're, right now, what she’s got.”
She’s not sure whether JJ’s ever figured out that she finds it particularly hard to say no to him. And now, with him standing next to the worn out pullout that has hosted countless movie nights and sleeping Pogues – the pullout that usually contains a hungover John B, or a JJ and John B pile.
All she can say is, “fine, okay. But I am not responsible for any fallout. And if anyone asks, I do not condone this.”
A year ago, Kiara Carrera did not think she’d be sat in a mostly empty Chateau with JJ and Wheezie Cameron on Christmas Eve. Pope drops around for an hour to join right at the critical moment when JJ is pinning Wheezus Christ in pride of place on top of the branch he wrestled through the porch door and is strenuously declaring their Christmas tree. The tinsel wrapped around the spindly branches goes a little way to cheering the small room.
There are a few gifts under the branch and some wonky paper snowflakes taped haphazardly to the ceiling.
It's a potentially sad gift exchange of just the four of them and although the Pogues’ full remit is usually just four – there's a gaping hole in the fabric of their gathering. John B's absence is a chasm in the Chateau. Wheezie's presence serves as a reminder of all they've lost or are missing.
Kiara would have put money on JJ descending into some jingle bell induced funk, but instead he's got the weird hat he has to wear at the grotto pulled determinedly over his hair and keeps blaring Slade at a moment's notice.
They sit on the floor for the gift exchange. Kiara sees the customary hastily wrapped in tin foil gift from JJ with Pope's name scrawled on the front in black marker. Pope has Wheezie – Kiara can recognise the neat handwriting on the tag anywhere. Then Wheezie presents a gift to Kiara with sincerity.
The necklace inside the green tissue paper is made of different coloured beads. The small card that comes with it says it's by Elsie Frieda and the clasp is gold, gliding smoothly open and shut when she flicks at it.
It's also an almost exact replica of the necklace she's been wearing for years - the one that's been fixed three times, and keeps losing more beads each time it snaps.
It's the most perfectly her thing that she's ever received as a gift. It makes her miss Sarah for one sharp minute. The depth of female friendship and the act of being so instinctively known is something she's tried to emulate with the boys. But this girl, the sister of her once friend, has captured her essence with one single gift.
The room is quiet, Slade playing frantically on repeat in the background.
"Do you like it?" Wheezie asks eventually with the lack of self awareness only afforded to the rich and youthful.
"Oh, good." Wheezie heaves a sigh and clambers across the circle. Takes the necklace from Kiara's unprotesting hands. "It's all old vinyl beads and ethically sourced from Guantanamo or something."
"Ghana," JJ pipes up, and he's leaning back on his arms and looking like he's suppressing a shit eating grin.
"Definitely nothing ethical about Guantanamo," Pope agrees. Kiara glances at him. Finds him staring at JJ.
"JJ helped me," Wheezie admits. She's pulled Kiara's hair back over her shoulders through the necklace. Touches one finger to the colourful beads. "It's to match your other one. He said you're really sad it keeps snapping."
Any semblance of humour quickly drains from JJ's face. In an instant he ducks his chin to his chest, then pulls himself quickly to his feet. Looks around at the small group and claps his hands. "Hot chocolate, anyone? Hot chocolate? Kie – rum hot chocolate? Pope – got any of your weird ass milk? Wheez, you're not having alcohol. Sorry, bud."
Wheezie juts her bottom lip out. "But Sarah's missing."
"Good try kiddo. But we are not aboard the sad train today."
"I'll just have normal milk." Pope hasn't stopped looking at JJ like he's an ant under a microscope.
"Well, don't come running to me when you're shitting through the eye of a needle."
"Don't poop and run," Wheezie agrees gravely. The moment is shattered – Pope snorts with laughter, JJ grins ferally.
Once they're all settled back in the circle with mugs of hot chocolate, the gift giving resumes. JJ's customary baggy of weed is accepted with a sigh by Pope. Kiara gives Pope a framed da Vinci illustration of the human anatomy, complete with scientific names.
Wheezie unwraps a matching hat and scarf in multi coloured wool. Immediately wraps the scarf around her throat.
Pope has to leave because his parents haven't learnt to stop smothering him, yet. Kiara also suspects that being here, the place so strongly associated with John B, is just all too much sometimes. She thinks that, at times. Her eye gets drawn to the door of his room. She automatically adds a double cheeseburger with extra gherkins to every takeout from The Wreck.
Instead of dwelling on the ghosts of Christmas past, they watch Die Hard. Then JJ brings out several small gifts all wrapped in tin foil, hands them to Wheezie nonchalantly.
Inside are presents which are the antithesis of Christmas. There's fancy lip balm (the palmable size, Kiara thinks idly), a new-with-tags Pelican Marina t-shirt. A baking book with a slightly peeled cover, like it's from a second hand shop but has been pressed under weight to straighten out the pages. A Wheatus CD with the cover art removed and replaced with Wheezus.
Kiara presents her with a journal embossed with Wheezus Christ Superstar on the front. Wheezie laughs a perhaps unreasonable amount at it.
"JJ helped," Kiara confesses as the boy in question wrestles with the oven.
"You make a good team." It's an idle enough comment, but there's something in the way the girl's looking out the corner of her eye to gauge a reaction.
As a supposed appetiser to the main event, JJ brandishes a piece of driftwood which has been languishing in a kitchen cupboard for an indeterminate amount of time. Personally, Kiara thinks it's been there for convenience and not for culinary purposes. It's still crusty with salt and maybe a little sand. On the board's rough surface are three partially unwrapped babybels, a white block of something, a couple of slices of hamburger cheese, a cheese string and some artfully scattered goldfish crackers. There's a small blob of something which looks suspiciously like peanut butter.
Wheezie and Kiara appraise the proffered board with trepidation.
"JJ," Wheezie enquires politely. "What's this?"
"Clearly," the boy trots back from the kitchen with napkins and two knives. "It's a cheeseboard. A Wheezeboard, if you will."
The girls blink at the revelation.
"Well," Kiara decides brightly. "It looks…"
"Interesting," Wheezie supplies.
"Isn't it what Kooks eat?" JJ queries around a mouthful of goldfish and peanut butter and cheese. "Christ, this is a mild brie."
Wheezie takes a knife and cuts a slice of cheese. Sticks out her tongue to lick it experimentally. "That's because it's butter."
"As I suspected," JJ nods sagely. Then, "it's good, guys. Promise."
Wheezie and Kiara share another look. Then they submit to the goldfish butter babybel experience. (He's right. It's pretty good).
The one thing at least that JJ and Kiara can mostly agree on is that Christmas is the time for the best musical throwbacks.
So okay, the turkey (which was definitely just a big chicken – JJ – god you've been duped there) (but aren't turkeys just big chickens anyway?) was kind of drier than the Sahara and the gravy was lumpy yet watery and the carrots were boiled. (It was at this point Kiara could take no more and waded in with a rescue mission which mostly succeeded).
But the playlist. The playlist is a thing of beauty.
It's also because Wheezie kind of gets stuck in her own head – especially when Kiara brings out the cupcakes with a candle sticking out the top and they both sing Happy Birthday with a harmony that actually sounds pretty good, shit, when did JJ learn how to sing-
So it's easy to crank up the volume and grab Wheezie's hands and run through the basics of a waltz. Because they're both daughters of the Country Club, they both know the basic steps. Kiara leads Wheezie through the steps slowly, then they pick up pace.
Can't Take My Eyes Off You plays loudly, their feet slamming on the worn floorboards. JJ sings along vaguely from the kitchen as he washes the dishes, the odd muffled curse interrupting his falsetto.
Wheezie spins under her arm just as Kiara shouts one, two, three, four and starts playing an elaborate air trombone – Wheezie jumps up and down and headbangs wildly.
Kiara's hair is in her face as she spins back around, socked feet sliding across the floor. She turns just quickly enough to catch JJ off guard; to catch him leaning in the doorway to the kitchen with a longing look on his face. He's staring right at her – at the hair caught under the collar of her scratchy Christmas sweater, at the way she stops still and frowns at him in comprehension. He's usually an open book for her to read but this, this is something new and unschooled.
Her breath heaves, shoulders rising and falling. "C'mon," she holds out a hand. "Let's teach you how to dance Kook."
"You'll never make an honest man of me, Carrera."
He takes her hand, his palm warm against hers.
JJ has good arms. He sends both Kiara and Wheezie spinning out before reeling them back in. Their feet fly over the floorboards, Kiara counting loudly to try and keep some semblance of order to the dance. Her gaze keeps catching on JJ’s face. He’s frowning with concentration, looking at Kiara’s and Wheezie’s feet to try and keep up with the steps.
But because he’s JJ goddamn Maybank and he excels at anything physical, he picks up the steps in a matter of minutes.
Four songs later, Kiara interlaces their fingers and Wheezie counts them in with a slightly deranged look on her face, insisting her ankle is sore. She sits on the couch with her foot elevated grandly upon a cushion and picks the songs for them to dance to.
Be My Baby by the Ronettes is next. Kiara takes a deep breath.
Later on, once they've delivered Wheezie home and are down at Rixons' with their phone flashlights and a blunt each, Kiara enjoys the reprieve. JJ has wrapped a tiny bit of glittery streamer around hers in the world's most crooked bow.
"You've really gone all out this year," Kiara observes as JJ flicks his Zippo to life and brings it to the end of the joint between her lips. It's cold out – cold enough for puffer jackets and scarves and hoodies.
"In the name of Wheezus Christ," JJ tells her solemnly. They're arm to arm and there's an inordinate amount of fabric between them, but the weight of his shoulder against hers is strangely intimate. "Plus you really like Christmas and shit despite it being a corporate sell out, so."
Kiara feels justified in linking an arm over JJ's shoulders. He doesn't move a muscle for a moment. Then he leans down, ducks his head onto her shoulder.
"The necklace was a good touch. Thank you."
JJ shrugs a shoulder, careful not to dislodge her. "Gifts are easy when you're loaded. Barely have to think. Can get whatever you want."
Kiara hums lightly. Looks at the stars. There's barely a cloud in the sky in the way that promises to be a cold, cold night. JJ sniffs next to her.
"They're probably looking at the same moon right now," Kiara theorises. Not that she wholeheartedly believes the theories they share. Not anymore. But it's Christmas, and what is Christmas without some cheer?
"Yeah, probably." His breathing is suddenly in her ear, like she's cupped a shell to her face. His lips smack obnoxiously against her cheek. "Merry Christmas, Kie." There's the briefest scratch of stubble against her cheek before he pulls away.
"Merry Christmas, asshole."
“It’s really not that bad,” Wheezie says, looking JJ’s costume up and down and barely suppressing a laugh.
JJ grumbles, grabbing his obnoxious green elf hat out of his locker. “I can’t believe you talked me into this.”
“You said you needed a job for the winter,” Wheezie says, shrugging. “There’s worse ways to make a few dollars.”
JJ huffs. He feels like a goddamn idiot, dressing up in a garish green elf costume, complete with the pointed hat, ready to go stand in the middle of Kildare Commons Shopping Plaza. There’s gotta be something worse than this, but JJ’s having a hard time coming up with it.
“Let’s get this over with,” JJ says, shutting the door to the locker that the Commons had provided him with for his temporary position. Wheezie’s smile only grows, and she flounces out of the employee area, her elf skirt twirling around her.
JJ rubs his temple and tries to come to terms with this reality. He had agreed to take the job with Wheezie when he was spectacularly high after Friendsgiving Dinner a few weeks ago. He hadn’t meant it as a blood oath at the time, but Wheezie had demanded that he kept his word.
He follows Wheezie out to the Plaza, trying not to feel fantastically stupid as the bells on his elf shoes jingle. It’s almost painful, being dressed up like an elf. He just about quit when his supervisor handed him the costume. But Wheezie was standing right next to him, practically humming with excitement, and JJ couldn’t bring himself to let her down. He thinks back to last winter, when John B and Sarah were still presumed dead, how inconsolable Wheezie used to be. John B and Sarah are alive and safe, now, back in the Outer Banks. Yet, JJ still sometimes feels the need to go overboard for Wheezie’s sake. He sees a little too much of himself in her – the way everyone seems to forget about her all the time, the way she doesn’t seem to quite know how to express her feelings. Their home lives might be very different – thank fuck – but there’s certain things that seem too familiar to be a coincidence.
“Elouise! Johnathan!” Jerry yells, his face bright red to match his green elf costume. “What are you two doing over there? Your shift is about to start!”
Wheezie and JJ look at each other, rolling their eyes. Jerry’s the manager of the Kildare Commons Winter Wonderland display, a portly man who’s perpetually stressed out. JJ’s pretty positive the man is going to keel over from a heart attack any day now. He spends all day huffing around the Commons, yelling at JJ and Wheezie to be more festive or less annoying and consistently refusing to address them as anything other than their full given names.
“Don’t you worry, Jerry,” Wheezie says, breezing by him. “Santa’s favorite helpers are here!”
Jerry visibly relaxes once JJ and Wheezie get to work, handing out candy canes to the kids who visit Santa. There’s something distinctly nostalgic about it, something JJ hasn’t experienced in years. Maybe it’s because his favorite part of visiting Santa was always getting a candy cane and running back to his mom. Whatever it is, he doesn’t have to fake a lot of enthusiasm.
It’s all well and good, and JJ might even say he doesn’t regret his decision to work as an elf, until he hears Kiara’s voice behind him.
“Wheezie wasn’t lying about the elf thing after all,” Kiara says, and JJ turns around to see her smirking. She’s holding a couple shopping bags, dressed up in a jacket and hat that look too Kook-y for her normal clothes. JJ doesn’t see Anna around, but he’d bet money that Kiara got dragged Christmas shopping with her mom. On one of the days he’s working, nonetheless. JJ had kept his work schedule a secret from her for this exact reason.
Kiara had managed to contain her laughter for a fraction of a second when Wheezie first mentioned their new part time job. She teased JJ about the elf costume relentlessly, and now that she’s seeing it in person, it’s only going to get worse.
“Hey Kie!” Wheezie says brightly, holding out a candy cane. Kiara takes it and does absolutely nothing to hide her shit eating grin.
“Thanks, Wheezie,” Kiara says, turning her attention fully back to JJ. “Love the costumes.”
“Yeah,” JJ says, his voice suddenly far grouchier than it was when he talked to the toddlers. “Real fucking cheery.”
Kiara snorts, hitting one of the bells on JJ’s feet with the toe of her converse. She laughs even louder when it jingles.
“This is… iconic,” Kiara says, fully taking in the outfit in all its glory. “Can I have a picture?” she asks, already holding her phone up in her hand.
“Wheezus Christ,” JJ says, turning away from Kiara. “I’m going to commit scooter ankle.”
Kiara blinks in surprise, like she’s trying to process JJ’s last sentence. “Commit … scooter … ankle?” she says after a minute.
“Yeah,” JJ sighs, pointing a finger at Wheezie. “It’s her thing.”
Kiara raises an eyebrow and turns to Wheezie, who just nods, as if that type of statement were fully normal. “Scooter ankle?” Kiara questions.
“Have you ever taken a scooter to the ankle?” Wheezie says sagely, handing a candy cane to a kid who walks by.
“Yeah, of course,” Kiara says, wincing at the memory.
“Then you understand the severity of the situation.”
“I… really don’t,” Kiara says, flicking her eyes back and forth between the two elves in front of her. JJ can’t help but smirk at her confused expression.
“It’s not quite as serious as committing toaster bath,” Wheezie declares. “But it’s definitely up there.”
“Toaster – JJ, what the fuck?” Kiara says, turning to him.
“What can I say?” JJ shrugs. “The kid’s a fucking genius.”
“Language!” Jerry yells, appearing from behind one of the plastic snowmen that dot the plaza. “This is a Winter Wonderland, not the set of a Tarantino film!”
“Sorry, Jerry,” JJ says, not very convincingly.
Kiara opens her mouth like she’s going to say something else, but her mom calls for her from across the plaza. She’s coming out of a local jewelry store, her arms laden down with more bags than JJ could ever imagine needing. Kiara sighs loudly, then turns back to JJ and Wheezie.
“I’m about to be subjected to at least three more hours of shopping. One picture in the elf costume for my sanity? Please?” Kiara nearly begs, and JJ tries to say no. He really does. But Kiara’s pouting and, for whatever reason, he finds himself nodding reluctantly.
“One fucking picture,” JJ says as Kiara smiles brightly, handing her phone to Wheezie so she can take it for her. Somewhere in the distance, Jerry yells, ‘Language!’
“You did that to piss him off,” Kiara accuses, tucking herself under JJ’s arm as he stands up a little straighter.
“You wound me, Carrera,” JJ says out of the corner of his mouth as Wheezie raises the phone.
They both smile for the picture as Wheezie snaps it, and then Kie takes his elf hat and puts it on for another picture. JJ’s about to ask Wheezie if she wants to jump in on one of the pictures, but Kiara’s mom calls her again.
“Here, I think some of them came out good,” Wheezie says, handing Kiara back her phone. Kiara grabs it, flicking through the pictures quickly. She laughs louder, covering her mouth with her hand.
“These are perfect!” Kiara exclaims, already starting to take a few steps towards her mom. “I’ll see you elves at the Secret Santa!”
“Bye, Kie,” JJ and Wheezie say in unison, JJ resisting the urge to flip her off. Jerry would have a field day with that one.
They both watch her go, meeting up with her mom and heading off in the direction of some of the higher-end stores.
“You should tell her,” Wheezie says off-handedly, and JJ almost agrees with her until he realizes what she said.
“What? Tell her what?” JJ says, turning to look at her.
Wheezie hits him with a look. “I’m not blind, bro.”
“Shut up, Squeaky.” JJ says, shoving her shoulder.
“Pope, man,” JJ groans, holding his head in his hands.
“What?” Pope says, his tone bordering on panicked. “JJ – don’t do this to me. Mom said it would be a good idea!”
“Your mom…” JJ trails off. He shakes his head for a second. “Dude, you can’t give Kie a bath bomb.”
“What do you mean?!” Pope says, throwing his arms around. “JJ, she’s going to be here in fifteen minutes! You couldn’t have mentioned it earlier?!”
“Mentioned it earlier – Pope, I didn’t know you had Kiara until literally just now!”
Pope starts pacing in front of JJ, interlocking his fingers behind his head. “This is a disaster, this is a disaster. I knew I should have asked you or Sarah, or even John B.”
JJ’s tempted to make a comment, to say something petty like you need help picking out a Christmas present for your girlfriend?
Not that Pope and Kiara are actually dating. Or, at the very least, Kiara keeps telling people they aren’t dating. Pope definitely acts like something is going on between them, even though JJ’s pretty sure nothing changed since she kissed him on the dock over a year ago. Between Sarah and John B being presumed dead, and then finding out they weren’t dead, and then the whole legal thing with the gold, there wasn’t a lot of time for Pope and Kiara to figure out what they meant to each other. If anything, in the intervening months, they have only become more awkward and tense around each other, like they are constantly on the precipice of a conversation neither is interested in having.
Or, at least, Pope doesn’t want to have it. He’s talked JJ’s ear off about Kiara’s mixed signals or whatever, and JJ nods along with him. JJ’s been tempted to tell Pope that Kiara’s signals aren’t mixed, he’s just not reading them right, but he’s held his tongue so far. It’s not his place to comment on his friend’s (lack of) relationship.
Whatever, it doesn’t really bother JJ anyways.
“It’ll be fine, dude,” JJ says, getting up from the pull out couch and clapping Pope on the back. “I’m probably wrong. She’ll love it.”
A part of JJ wants to add and maybe hell will freeze over, but he resists the temptation.
“John B - does Kie like bath bombs?” Pope yells loud enough so that John B can hear from behind his closed door.
John B opens his door and pokes his head out, only half changed into the matching pajama set Kiara made all of them buy. “Bath bombs don’t really seem like a Kie thing. Why?”
“I hate everything,” Pope says, hanging his head back and groaning. John B raises an eyebrow at Pope’s display of emotion, before he looks at JJ for an explanation. JJ just waves him off. There’s way too much for them to unpack there.
It’s only a few moments later that they hear Kiara’s heavy winter boots stomping up the steps of the porch, clomping across the floorboards before she throws the door open.
“Merry Christmas, boys!” she greets, coming into the room with a flourish and brandishing a red and green wrapped present. Behind her, Sarah and Wheezie come into the Chateau, carrying their own gifts.
“Merry Christmas Kie!” the boys chorus from all different parts of the house.
“What, no Merry Christmas for me and Wheezie?” Sarah says, and John B all but sprints out of his room at the sound of her voice.
He stops at his doorway, his pajamas finally fixed, and just kind of stares at Sarah for a moment. “Merry Christmas, Sarah,” he says, a little breathlessly, and Wheezie pretends to gag. JJ looks at her and rolls his eyes at the lovesick couple, kind of like can you believe them? Wheezie laughs at his expression, shaking her head.
“Happy Birthday, Wheezus,” JJ says, reaching over and ruffling her hair.
“Thanks, Jimbob,” Wheezie says, reaching up to try and return the favor. Problem is, JJ’s a good foot taller than her, and she can’t quite reach the top of his head. JJ scoffs, batting her hand and pretending to be annoyed.
“Jimbob?” Kiara says, looking between the two of them.
“He calls me literally everything except my name-”
“Wheezie isn’t even your name-” JJ interrupts, but Wheezie is undeterred.
“So I’m going to give him a nickname.” Wheezie says, and Kiara opens her mouth to respond.
“Did you know there’s hot chocolate in the kitchen?” JJ interrupts again, shooing Wheezie in that direction. Wheezie scowls up at him, but moves into the kitchen as he directs.
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” Wheezie accuses, and JJ brushes it off.
“Of course not!” He says, and he can tell she doesn’t believe him. He just points at the hot chocolate sitting on the counter, urging her to get a mug. She sighs, muttering something about a double standard before she turns away from him.
JJ waits a second before he turns back to Kiara. “I swear to God, Kie, if you tell her about Jedge Jog, our friendship is over.”
“Do you mean you swear to hedgehog ?” Kiara says, her eyes lit up like this is the single funniest thing she’s ever witnessed.
“What, you don’t want her to know about the God is a hedgehog conspiracy theory?”
“Kiara, this is serious.”
“So I shouldn’t show her the youtube videos you made about it?”
“I made one youtube video, and it was funny!”
“Yeah, it was hilarious, to the eight people who watched it.”
JJ shrugs at her response, turning around to make sure no one is paying attention to their conversation. “Yeah, and one of those eight people was you,” he reminds her.
“I’ll admit, it had its moments. Really loved when the hedgehog bit you.”
“So I’ve done some things to piss off God in my lifetime, sue me,” JJ says, holding his hands up.
“You pissed off God?” Sarah interjects, pulling herself out of the conversation she had been having with John B. “On Christmas?”
Kiara snorts and JJ rubs his hand down his face. “Yeah, on Christmas and most days, apparently.” He clarifies, and Kiara laughs outrightly at that.
“Alright, Pope, your turn, bud,” John B says from his spot on the couch as Sarah settles back down to sit next to him.
Halfway through the Secret Santa, and they’ve already gotten to the part JJ is dreading. Honestly, from the second Sarah had gotten up from the couch to give her present to Pope, JJ had been planning his exit from the living room. He loves Pope to death, but god, he will not be able to look Kiara in the eyes when she opens that present to find a fucking bath bomb. There’s no way he can make it through that without making an ass of himself. Normally JJ wouldn’t care – making an ass out of himself is kind of a daily occurrence – but he can’t make the situation between Kiara and Pope more awkward. They’ve already done a lot of that themselves.
JJ tries not to outwardly cringe when Pope hands his present to Kiara.
“For me?” Kiara says, smiling politely in the way she has smiled at Pope for the last year.
“Yeah, you know,” Pope says, sitting back and rubbing his hands on his thighs. “Luck of the draw.”
JJ snorts at that, covering it up with a cough, and deciding that yeah, okay, that’s his cue to leave. Everyone turns to look at him, and he brushes off the attention, standing up to go to the kitchen.
“Just need a glass of water, don’t mind me.”
Blessedly, no one – not even Pope – gives him a hard time as he goes to the kitchen, and he makes a show of grabbing a glass and filling it up with water while Kiara takes her sweet time opening the present. He takes a sip and then nearly spits it back into the sink when Kiara says ‘A bath bomb! Thanks’ with barely contained disinterest.
He waits a second, a little more conversation passing, before he decides it’s safe to re-enter the living room. He’s just crossing the threshold when Pope speaks again.
“It’s lavender,” Pope offers helpfully, and Kiara nods at him far too enthusiastically. JJ almost loses it all over again.
“Lavender,” JJ says, cause he can’t help himself. “Kie’s favorite.”
Kiara shoots him a glare Pope can’t see, and JJ’s about to backpedal when John B interrupts.
“Alright, Kie, you’re up!” John B says, and Kiara only drops her glare to give John B her Christmas present.
“You couldn’t have told him?” Kiara bites out the word in a whisper, holding her hot chocolate up to her lips and taking a sip.
“I have no idea what you are talking about.” JJ knew exactly what Kiara was talking about.
Kiara whips her head around to look at him, her glare stern. JJ nearly snorts his hot chocolate up his nose.
“You don’t know what I’m talking about?” she says slowly. “How about the fact that Pope got me a bath bomb?”
JJ shrugs, his smirk only widening. “Oh, yeah,” JJ says, and Kiara rolls her eyes. “I think I remember that.”
“You’re incorrigible, ” Kiara seethes out, and JJ just shrugs.
“For the record, I didn’t even know he had you.”
“That’s kind of the point of a Secret Santa, Kie,” JJ reminds her, shifting on his feet.
“You are enjoying this way too much for someone who had no part in it,” Kiara accuses, sweeping her eyes around the dining room of the Wreck. Technically, the Pogues celebrated Christmas yesterday, but the holiday spirit has leaked over into the Carrera’s Christmas party at the Wreck. It is a yearly tradition, when the Carreras have all the Wreck’s staff and some friends over for food and drinks and games, and this is the first year the Pogues have been invited.
“I swear to God, I didn’t know until, like, fifteen minutes before you got there,” JJ says, holding his hands up in defense even though his smile doesn’t drop an inch.
“I swear to God I don’t believe you,” Kiara bites back and JJ’s about to respond when Wheezie pops up next to his shoulder.
“You guys do realize you’re under the mistletoe, right?” Wheezie says, and JJ steps back, clutching his heart.
“Jesus Christ, Little Cameron,” he says.
“Wheezus,” Wheezie and Kiara correct at the same time.
“Did someone say something about mistletoe?” Anna says, taking a brief break from spinning around the party, entertaining all her guests.
It’s unfortunate timing, really. JJ hasn’t seen Anna so much as sit down since the party started. She’s been flitting around at a light jog the entire night, and if JJ’s luck were any better, Anna could have easily missed Wheezie’s comment. As it is, she’s in the perfect place to butt into the conversation.
Wheezie points up to the ceiling, and Anna moves her eyes between the mistletoe spring to where JJ and Kiara are standing several times.
“Oh,” Anna says, her eyes a little wide. She had told everyone that she was just waiting to catch two people under the mistletoe, but her expression makes it clear this was not what she was expecting.
JJ can feel Kiara look at him, but he’s too busy staring at the bottom of his cup of hot chocolate to really discern her expression.
“Oh, you know, silly old traditions,” Anna says, recovering a little bit, smiling at the three teenagers. “Who really believes in wives tales, anyways?”
Anna doesn’t wait for a response. As quick as she’s crashed into the conversation, she exits it. She doesn’t need to watch whatever the aftermath of that is going to be.
JJ lets out a nervous laugh. “That wasn’t awkward.”
Kiara snorts, but she doesn’t seem to relax at all. “My mom is so obsessed with all these stupid traditions.”
“Stupid traditions?” JJ says, bringing up a hand to his chest in mock offense. “I mean, bad luck? You don’t want to risk that.”
Kiara stares at him in disbelief for a second before she rolls her eyes. “Shut up, JJ.”
“Hey, I’m just saying. You’re the one who believes in all the manifestation shit – you’re really going to risk the bad karma?” JJ says, his smirk only growing as he speaks.
“Manifestations and bad karma are not the same thing,” Kiara says, and JJ can see how hard she’s trying to lessen the awkward tension of the situation. Honestly, it only makes the whole thing more humorous to him.
“You can’t risk it, Kie,” Wheezie adds, still standing a few feet away from them. “You guys don’t need any more bad luck.”
“Right on, Little Cameron,” JJ says, holding his hand up for a high five.
“Get out of here, Wheezie,” Kiara says, crossing her arms over her chest. Wheezie high fives JJ before walking away, eyeing them and the mistletoe suspiciously.
When Kiara turns back to look at JJ, she narrows her eyes at him. “Stop looking at me like that.”
“Like what?” JJ says, lifting his hands up. “I’m not even looking at you.”
“You were definitely looking at me. Just – stop.”
“I didn’t do anything!”
Kiara sighs loudly, pointing in the direction Wheezie has gone. “You agree with the gremlin.”
“Wheezus has a point, Kie. Can’t risk the bad luck. I’m almost out of my nine lives.”
“You aren’t a cat, JJ. You don’t get nine lives.”
“Oh yeah?” JJ says. “Tell that to my cat like reflexes.”
“Cat like reflexes? Doubtful.” Kiara tuts back, ready to turn and walk away from the conversation, when JJ shoots out his hand and bops her on the nose. Kiara turns back to him, looking completely stunned for a minute.
“Catlike,” JJ says, as if to prove his point.
“Not exactly,” Kiara says, reaching out a hand to shove his shoulder, but he anticipates and dodges her attack.
“Strong words from someone who can’t even catch me.” JJ shoots his hand out again, tugging on one of Kiara’s curls and narrowly avoiding her retaliation. “See, catlike.”
“Don’t be such a child,” Kiara says, but she reaches out a hand to swat at JJ’s incoming attack anyways.
It quickly degenerates – both of them trying to shove or poke or tap the other. Despite Kiara’s valiant effort, JJ’s the clear winner, but he knows she’s in too deep to ever admit defeat. It’s all fun and games until she reaches for his hat, and JJ catches her wrist, and suddenly they are way closer than when they started this conversation. The laugh dies on Kiara’s lips as she shoots a glance at the mistletoe, and then back down at JJ. He flicks his own eyes up as a reflex and yes, of course, they are still smack dab under the decoration.
He looks at Kiara, and he could swear he caught her looking at his lips.
JJ can see the soft edges of Kiara's baby hair framing her face. The slightest furrow in her brow as she looks up at him.
Someone’s laugh booms across the party, and JJ’s drawn violently back into the present. He drops her wrist like it burned him, taking a step back, rubbing his hand over the back of his neck. Kiara clears her throat, and JJ feels the awkwardness settle over them like a blanket. He thinks she may look a little disappointed.
"You got way too close to me, Carrera," JJ deflects. "Personal space much?"
There's a beat. The furrow between her brow grows deeper, then she pushes his shoulder and he stumbles back with a smile. "You're an asshole," she decides.
"That's why you love me, though."
Kiara pauses for a second, her face blank, and JJ thinks he might have fucked up – overstepped, whatever. But then Kiara recovers, a smile breaking out on her face.
“As if,” she says, rolling her eyes and crossing her arms.
JJ smiles in kind. He takes a quick step backwards, winking at her once before turning around to join the rest of the party.
“The bad karma’s all yours, Kie.”
Hallmark would have you believe that Christmas is about snow and wood burning stoves and hats pulled down over ears.
Sitting on a beach in Australia in the height of summer is not how Kiara Carrera anticipated Christmas to be. There’s the remains of a whole turkey next to the BBQ and the gentle swell of Australian accents all around her. Children play in the sand and the sea, the sun heavy on bare shoulders and legs. Even though the sun is slowly sinking over the horizon and painting the sky a kaleidoscope of pinks and purples and blues, the day doesn't feel complete.
The smell of suntan lotion isn’t something she usually associates with Christmas. And though she tries to stay in the moment and not check her phone, sometimes it’s an urge she cannot resist.
Kiara’s phone buzzes to life in her palm. JJ’s contact picture is currently the darkest most out of focus picture of the Chateau's back yard. There’s the faintest of whitish reflection bouncing off the water and what JJ insists is a spiked animal in the corner of the image.
"The one and only."
He's a particularly hard person to track down when there's thousands of miles between them. He appears in the back of facetime calls with John B but their main form of communication is JJ spamming Kiara with meme's at some ungodly hour.
“You never call.”
There's a silence that Kiara's not sure what to do with. Then JJ exhales gustily. "Well, I need someone to keep me in line. Thought I’d better remind you not to abandon your roots. Remind you of us lesser beings stuck at home." There's a pause and Kiara likes to imagine him scuffing his toe in the sand. "Besides, it's weird at Christmas without you."
"Are you using that super strong shit from your cousin again?" Kiara accuses.
"Wheezus, what's a guy gotta do to catch a break. I reveal my innermost self –- my darkest secrets –- and suddenly I'm a raging crack addict."
"But are you?"
"It's Christmas, Kie. Of course I am."
Kiara smiles widely. Draws her legs up to her face to press her cheek to her knee. "There we go."
"Remind me again why I ever missed you?"
"All I'm getting from this conversation is that you really, really miss me. More than air, more than life itself-"
"In the name of Wheezus Christ and all things holy, shut the fuck up," JJ cuts her off cheerfully. "Also –- I think God's dead."
"Are we going metaphorically or literally here?"
"Not seen any in a while."
"Probably 'cause they hibernate, dumbass. It’s winter.” Not that it currently feels it, with the Australian sun still making its impact known.
“We saw one on Christmas Eve in 2016.”
“It was 2017. And that was a Christmas Miracle, obviously. This year, God’s taking a break from miracles.”
"That could be it," JJ acknowledges amenably. "There's hope yet. News just in: God may still be alive."
"Keep me posted."
“Oh, I will.” JJ exhales once more. It’s just a gust of breath down a phone line, but it reminds Kiara sharply of home and familiarity.
Going around the world always seems like a great idea until you’re away from everything and everyone you hold dear at a time most commonly associated with being together. She’s always considered herself a lone wolf; an independent soul. But now -
She’d probably give everything she has to be home. To be sat amongst her boys (one boy in particular, maybe – maybe) and her family.
“So, what you got for Christmas?”
“Besides a loving father?”
“Joking, joking. Uh – John B got me deck wax.”
“Filth, Carrera. Board wax.”
“But it is cherry scented – so maybe it’s multipurpose. I’ll try it out and report back.”
“Nice to know your high standards are being maintained.”
“Gotta keep things spicy somehow. Anyway, I gotta go now. Some of us have to actually work for a living.”
“You’re saying that as if you didn’t ring me-”
“I get it, you miss the sound of my voice, I’m the best, etcetera.”
“You’re the most annoying. But fine. Goodbye. I hope you have a good Christmas. Don’t miss me too much.”
“I’ll try not to,” his voice is dry. Then it softens. “Hope you had a good day, Kie.”
“Bye. Love you.” The words slip out before she really thinks about them. Before she thinks about anything, really.
There’s a long, long pause. “Uh. Yeah. Bye, Kie.”
Oh, fuck. The call ends. Kiara throws her phone into the sand and her head back towards the sky.
Wheezie is not sure when she became aware of the situation she has dubbed Project Mistletoe . She was young when she realised that the way JJ looked at Kiara was definitely not the way friends do. And when she realised it may not be as unilateral as JJ may think. But Kiara Carrera and JJ Maybank may also be the two most stubborn people in the world, so it’s not an easy fix or matter for light maneuvering.
A few Christmases ago, when Wheezie left them dancing in the kitchen of the Chateau, she was sure they would get together. It was one of the most romantic things young Wheezie had ever witnessed, and she couldn’t believe it when they didn’t even kiss.
Later, when John B and Sarah made their miraculous return, Wheezie heard her sister recounting the kiss between Kiara and Pope to John B. Wheezie was confused by that – as far as she was concerned, Pope and Kiara had all the sexual chemistry of two water biscuits – but it did make the incident in the Chateau make a little more sense. If there was something weird going on with Kiara and Pope, there was no way JJ would make a move. Wheezie chalked it up to that, deciding that once Pope and Kiara figured themselves out, it’d all be sorted.
And, well, it hadn’t happened that way. Wheezie tried to shove them together the next Christmas, after nearly a year of resolution on the Pope and Kiara front. She had goaded Ms. Carerra into putting mistletoe in every corner of the Wreck, and then subtly forced Kiara and JJ into one of those corners.
And the two idiots stood there and looked at each other. Wheezie nearly threw a hissy fit.
Wheezie had big plans for the next Christmas, but Kiara fucked off to Australia and broke both Wheezie and JJ’s hearts. When Kiara finally got back, Wheezie redoubled her efforts, turning Project Mistletoe into a year long scheme. It became a culmination of all of Wheezie’s best skills: reverse psychology, snooping on Sarah’s conversations, and manipulating every situation to the best of her ability.
Wheezie Cameron is definitely playing the long game with these two.
She is not about to let Sarah get in her way.
“Don’t touch that,” Wheezie kicks at her sister’s outstretched hand with the tip of her toes. Almost over balances but catches herself at the last minute.
“What is it?”
The sisters regard the mess of wood and nails. It’s kind of a square-ish shape with a hole cut out the middle of one side.
“It’s a hedgehog hotel.”
“Oh – well, obviously. Does Kildare even have hedgehogs?”
“There was one breeder one time apparently, then they let them all go when she died. Now they’re technically an invasive species but they’re also super cute, so. JJ loves them. Hence – hotel.”
Sarah looks at her shrewdly. “So do you… like JJ?”
“What – no! What?”
“You’ve made a hedgehog hotel. For JJ?”
“You really think I made this? I would have hammered the nails all the way in at the very least. No, Kie made it. Her and JJ have each other for Secret Santa.”
Sarah narrows her eyes. “You drew the Secret Santa names.”
Sarah walks slowly around the wooden concoction. “This side’s alright.”
“That side fell off, so I had to fix it.”
“I see.” Sarah nudges the side, but a lot softer now. “Her woodwork is about as good as her welding.”
“It’s about the implications ,” Wheezie insists.
“Should we try and fix it up a bit? Sand these bits down, maybe?”
“Once more, it’s not about the aesthetic of the woodwork. It’s about the meaning. It’s, here – I know you love hedgehogs. Here’s something to keep the things you love safe and warm.”
“Oh shit . Oh, shit. It all makes sense now-”
“Well, obviously,” Wheezie sighs patiently.
Sarah sits on the end of Wheezie’s bed and crosses her legs at the ankle. Rests her clasped hands loosely on her knees. “JJ always goes to all her rallies-”
“-always laughs at her jokes even though some of them really suck-”
“-she’s pretty funny, but go off I guess-”
“-and she’s never had anything serious and always seems to be waiting for something-”
“Someone,” Wheezie corrects. “Honestly – when you were gone,” there’s always a falter in her voice when she says this because really, it was the worst time of her life. Losing her sister and her father (and, by extension, her mom) in one fell swoop. “We had a Christmas and they were – well, it’s been Project Mistletoe since then. And this year is the final countdown.”
“Okay. I’m in.”
“I’m in. I’ll help. Project Mistletoe.”
“Sarah,” Wheezie says with gravitas. “This is a delicate process. This is a budding romance which needs nurturing with a gentle hand. You can’t just go in there running your mouth and making things all awkward.”
“Ye of little faith,” Sarah scoffs. “I’ll have you know I have a gentle touch. I can do subtlety.” Her sister sniffs, as though punctuating her point. “So, what’s your plan?”
Wheeze taps the wooden mass. “This is it.”
“This is your plan?”
“The seeds are planted. They have germinated. They just need to be cultivated.”
“I’m loving the horticulture references, but objectively, your plan sucks.”
“The plan is: get them in the same room. Facilitate a nice, easy friends Christmas. Make them succumb to their blatant chemistry. And obviously I made sure JJ has got Kie but he's denied any assistance with his gift and insists he's got it under control. So there could be some damage limitation there – it better not be weed. Oh God. What if it's weed?"
"Kie would appreciate weed," Sarah assures her.
"Actually if it's weed they can go down to Rixon's. Good thinking, batman."
Sarah looks pleased despite her limited contribution.
It takes two of them and a lot of cursing to lift the hotel into the back of Kiara’s dad’s SUV to drive it over to the Chateau. Kiara sits in the back, one hand hovering protectively on the wooden roof. She sucks in a deep breath through her teeth every time Wheezie takes a corner above ten miles per hour.
(Okay, so she might be a little gung-ho about cornering. It’s a big steering wheel, okay?)
They have to lift it from the base and waddle carefully around the side of the house. Wheezie thinks she gets approximately a hundred splinters from the roughly cut base, but she persists in the name of love.
“Make sure your hands are out the way,” Kiara warns. “Maybe it should be more under the light?”
There’s one working floodlight directly above the porch door. Wheezie looks at the misshapen wood. “Maybe over here,” Wheezie suggests, nodding her head towards the darkest corner. “So it’s… More undercover.”
Kiara brightens at the suggestion. “Good thinking. Okay, put it down on one, two-”
There’s a crashing as the splinters finally become too much and the monstrosity slips through Wheezie’s fingers. It lands on it’s side and, with credit to Kiara’s carpentry, looks like it does more damage to the porch than the porch does to it.
“Ooops,” Wheezie chirps brightly. “Still, no harm.” They both tip it back upright (or at least Wheezie thinks it’s upright. The writing’s the right way up, anyway) and step back to appraise their work.
One of the sides detaches itself and falls off with a gentle thud against the porch floor. They both studiously ignore it.
“Maybe this is stupid,” Kiara frets. “I just thought it was kinda funny – and he really does love hedgehogs.”
“It’s good!” Wheezie insists. “It’s… charming. Rustic. Like a log cabin in the woods.”
“People get murdered in log cabins.”
“Well, not in this one they don’t. This is a homicide free hotel.”
Kiara has her chin in her hands and keeps staring at the wood. “I just want it to be good.”
“Kie.” Wheezie’s tone is grave. “I can assure you that JJ is gonna buzz off his tits about a hedgehog hotel.”
Kiara’s lips press into a thin, indecisive line. “Well, if you’re sure. Not much I can do about it now anyway. Drink?”
“Seventeen tomorrow. So… drink?”
“Only if it’s vodka. On the rocks.”
“Wheezus Christ, you’re a badass.”
All the Pogues and recent cling-ons settle into the living room like they always have, like it’s every other Christmas, but Wheezie can feel it. Her plan is going to fall into place, she knows it.
It only takes light conspiring between her and Sarah to get JJ and Kiara next to each other on the couch, but even that seems shockingly inconspicuous. It’s not exactly a surprising turn of events for these two idiots to sit next to each other. Wheezie’s pretty sure that even if her and Sarah didn’t nudge them together, they still would have ended up next to each other, because that’s just the way they are. Wheezie is also positive that every aspect of Project Mistletoe is a delicately choreographed ballet, and she doesn’t need John B and Pope, with their two left feet, messing with her years of work.
“I’ll go first!” Wheezie says, before anyone else can even attempt to derail her efforts. Wheezie knows the exact order of gifts, and has planned for this moment since John B had said ‘ yeah, sure’ to her offer to take over the Secret Santa planning. Wheezie will give her gift to John B, who will give his gift to Sarah, who will give a gift to Pope, who then, in turn, has Wheezie.
And who does that leave?
JJ and Kiara.
Some might call her plan foolproof.
It goes exactly as Wheezie intends, all of them exchanging gifts until Pope gives Wheezie another hat and scarf combo, and John B says “Oh, look, it’s only JJ and Kiara left.”
Wheezie’s ready to go again, she’s ready to somehow intervene and continue her efforts, but JJ beats her to it.
He pulls a box from below the Christmas tree, and Wheezie’s heart nearly stops when she realizes that it’s not JJ’s typical poorly wrapped baggy of weed – whatever it is, it’s a thin, rectangular package, and it’s an unknown variable. He hands it to Kiara with a small smile, and Wheezie’s ready to explode.
Wheezie doesn’t like unknown variables, and she’s halfway through concocting a plan to interrupt this particular exchange when Kiara rips through the paper and she realizes it is too late.
And honestly, Wheezie’s happy it’s too late, because when Kiara unwraps the present, it’s a picture frame. A simple white, wooden frame with little fake pearls studded around the sides. Wheezie can tell, even from a distance, that it’s the picture of JJ and Kiara she took a few years ago, at the Winter Wonderland display. Kiara’s wearing JJ’s silly elf hat, smiling brightly at the camera, and JJ looks like he wants to be upset, but he can’t quite manage it.
“Is this…” Kiara trails off, running her fingers around the edge of the frame, and JJ nods.
“Uh, yeah,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. “It was, uh, from my mom.”
“JJ, I lo-” Kiara corrects herself quickly. “This is great.”
“Yeah?” JJ says hesitantly, and Kiara looks up at him nodding.
Wheezie feels like a bottle rocket, like any second she’s going to shoot through the ceiling and enter the stratosphere. The only thing grounding her earthside is Sarah’s hand, which flies out and attaches itself to Wheezie’s forearm with a dull whack . Sarah looks at her with wide eyes, her mouth agape, like she’s only just realizing how right Wheezie truly is. Wheezie wants to scream.
So much better than weed.
A beat of silence falls over the Chateau, and before Wheezie can even truly bask in the glory of her success, JJ’s already looking awkward and uncomfortable. Wheezie can’t have that – if JJ thinks too much or self-sabotages this entire operation, Wheezie’s going to commit scooter ankle. She needs him to remain calm.
“Hey, Sarah, want to go put on some hot chocolate?” Wheezie says suddenly, shattering the tension in the room like a fragile Christmas ornament.
Sarah looks at her, her expression confused as she tilts her head to one side. “What?” Sarah asks.
“Go. Put on. The hot. Chocolate.” Wheezie says through her teeth, and Sarah looks at her weird for another second before her eyes go wide with understanding.
“OH.” Sarah says. “Oh, yeah, we’ve got to go put on the hot chocolate! Uh- Pope, John B...” Sarah turns to look at Wheezie for confirmation. Wheezie nods her head minutely. “You guys want to get it started?”
“Cuddle bug,” John B says, gesturing to JJ and Kiara. “Kie’s got the last present.”
“Yeah, it’s actually outside,” Kiara explains, pointing over her shoulder in the vague direction of the Chateau’s backyard, looking even more awkward than JJ was a few seconds ago.
“An outside present, Carrera?” JJ says with a smirk, and Wheezie breathes out a sigh of relief at the fact that JJ’s not flipping out. “Oh, you got me something good, didn’t you?”
Kiara rolls her eyes, turning her head away from him, but Wheezie swears to HedgeHog that her eyes are literally sparkling. Literally sparkling. Wheezie feels like fainting.
“Oh, we can all go outside,” John B says, but the Cameron sisters shut that idea down with authority.
“No!” Sarah yells, and everyone looks at her in astonishment for a second.
“Outside?” Wheezie says, scrambling to come up with a little damage control. “In this economy? None of us can afford healthcare, you know, so we really shouldn’t risk pneumonia-”
“I heard pneumonia is really bad this year.” Sarah agrees quickly, nodding her head along.
“Pneumonia is bad every year,” Pope points out, and Wheezie stares at him blankly for a second.
“Pope, what’s that weird milk you like?” Sarah says, putting her hand on his shoulder and guiding him into the kitchen. John B, the lost puppy that he is, follows her into the kitchen without question.
“It’s really not that weird, it’s just oat milk,” Pope explains, and Sarah pats his shoulder as they head to the fridge.
Wheezie watches them for a second, making sure they aren’t going to turn around and attempt to sabotage what may as well be her life’s work. When she’s confident in their departure, she turns back to JJ and Kiara, who are sitting on the couch looking at Wheezie like she has three heads.
“You two better get Kiara’s present over with, you know?” Wheezie says, smiling. “I’m going to go help with the hot chocolate, but we really shouldn’t let this hold up the party. I’m running a tight ship this year.”
“You need four people to make hot chocolate?” Kiara says incredulously, raising an eyebrow at Wheezie.
JJ smirks at Wheezie for a second, before he reaches out to nudge Kiara’s foot with his own. When Kiara turns to look at him, JJ raises one of his eyebrows.
“Come on,” JJ says after a second, standing up and holding his hand out for Kiara to take. “Wheezus is right.”
“Damn straight,” Wheezie reminds him, and he pokes a finger at her.
Wheezie sticks her tongue out at him, but she doesn’t miss the fact that he has yet to let go of Kiara’s hand.
Fifteen minutes later, with the hot chocolates made and rapidly cooling, John B's curiosity finally gets the best of him. Sarah tries in vain to distract him with a few rounds of rock, paper, scissors, but he soon loses interest after failing to beat his girlfriend four times in a row. (Not that it was a surprise –- he only ever went for rock).
"I'm gonna check they haven't fallen and died," John B announces. He springs from the couch with vigor beguiling his usual stance. Sarah leaps up after him, hands clutching thin air as she grabs. Wheezie is stuck on the bean bag on the floor like some woodlouse, arms and legs frantically windmilling.
"I'm sure they're fine-" Wheezie babbles as her leg collides with the side of the shack with a clatter.
"Yes, no point in all of us being cold-"
"What if they've fallen over or fallen in the swamp? They could be hurt. Or maybe they have got snow confusion or something."
"It's not snowy, so I'm sure they're fine-" Wheezie attempts. She throws Sarah a desperate look, barely concealing her panic.
"Baby!" Sarah near yells. "Look!" And in one fell swoop, she lifts her sweater and her cami and her bralette.
From that point, everything happens at once.
Pope rounds the corner as he innocently traipses back from the bathroom and lets out an ungodly shriek as he's treated to the show front and centre. Claps his hands over his eyes and turns quickly away. In his haste to escape, he collides directly into the wall and falls backwards, tripping over Wheezie's extended legs where she is still being held hostage by the bean bag.
John B yells, "Sarah!" And dives towards his girlfriend. Also trips over, feet catching on both Wheezie and Pope. Sarah catches him and they tumble to the floor with dual oofs .
Wheezie announces, "I'm scarred. Wheezus Christ Emmanuel. This is it."
Pope chants, "it's just boobs, it's just boobs, it's just boobs," from the floor with his hand still over his eyes.
John B says, “did you slip? Are you okay? Are you too hot? Too cold? Do you have snow confusion? Cuddle bug? Sarah? Sarah?”
When JJ and Kiara enter the Chateau again, Wheezie’s still staring at the wall in abject horror, trying to calculate how many years of therapy this particular incident is going to add to her lifetime total.
She’s almost too horrified to realize that JJ and Kiara are a combination of blushes and messy hair and secret giggles as they come through the door. Almost.
If Wheezie had to pick a word to describe them, she’d say they are smitten , standing far too close to each other for Wheezie’s fragile heart. Whatever trauma she had just encountered is quickly pushed aside for pure, unadulterated joy.
Neither of them really notice the absolute shit show the Chateau has become until JJ, who’s too focused looking back at Kiara, almost trips over John B’s feet. He lurches forward, and Kiara instantly grabs for him, throwing her full body weight into keeping him upright.
They stare around the Chateau, taking in the scene. Sarah has barely managed to pull her sweater down, John B is laying half on top of her asking about snow confusion, and Pope’s still laying on the floor and muttering something about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Kiara laughs, looking around the room. “What happened here?”
“Nothing!” Sarah says quickly.
“I was traumatized,” Pope adds.
John B rolls over, nearly taking out JJ again, and Kiara reaches out to keep him upright once again, laughing at John B’s antics. JJ’s giggling along with her, his face split into an enormous smile. Kiara’s movement tosses her hair over her shoulder, exposing a dark bruise at the base of her collarbone. Wheezie can’t truly be sure of what it is, but, uh, she’s got her suspicions. It definitely wasn’t there when they went out to see the hedgehog hotel.
Wheezie watches JJ’s eyes catch the same patch of skin she was looking at, and she sees his face fall into a little bit of a panic, his hand reaching out quickly to fix Kiara’s hair. Kiara looks at him weirdly, and he says something that makes her face fall, only to immediately break out into laughter again. When Kiara starts laughing, JJ relaxes, laughing and rolling his eyes, his arm going around Kiara’s neck to effectively hide the mark. JJ says something else, and Kiara laughs even louder.
The Chateau is complete chaos, Sarah and John B only just getting to their feet and Pope unable to even attempt to stand up, and no one notices JJ and Kiara’s interaction. No one except Wheezie, who’s buzzing with energy and the pure adrenaline rush of success.
Still riding high on the intoxicating fumes of romance and Christmas magic, Wheezie insists they all ice the gingerbread men cookies Sarah baked the night before with likeness of all the Pogues.
“This is bullshit,” JJ complains as he holds a comically small icing tube in one hand. He applies too much pressure to the plastic sides, and green icing jettisons up the counter.
“You need to be gentle,” Wheezie insists. They’ve made the icing into a competition but due to lack of space, only two entrants are permitted in the kitchen at once. Distantly Wheezie can hear something about John B doing exercises to limber up his wrists.
The gingerbread man Wheezie is attempting to ice in a likeness of her own sister is more akin to Frankenstein’s monster. She glances quickly at JJ’s who immediately shields it with his hand.
“Hey!” he whines petulantly, “no cheating!”
“If that’s supposed to be Kie,” Wheezie proposes neutrally. “Then she probably needs some mark on her neck about here.” Wheezie taps her neck in the approximate location of the hickey. JJ’s head snaps towards her, eyes wide. Icing spurts over the counter as he grips it tightly.
“Don’t what?” Wheezie maintains an innocent expression. “Don’t mention the big, raging-”
“Snotball-” JJ warns.
“Or the fact that you’re icing a cookie in her likeness-”
“Or that she made you giggle earlier?”
“I did not giggle - ”
“It was a Christmas and birthday miracle rolled into one,” Wheezie confirms.
“Wheezus Christ,” JJ tips his head back to the ceiling and rolls his shoulders. “Do you ever stop?”
“Nope. Always hustling.”
JJ continues butchering the likeness of Kie with dark green icing for her hair.
“We’re taking it slow,” he mutters after a long moment.
Wheezie nearly chokes on thin air at the admission.
“You’re what? You’re what? Jim-bear you better speak up-”
“Shut up, swine,” JJ swats at her hand where it’s grabbed his sleeve in desperation. “Me and Kie,” he admits after a second. “We’re taking it slow.”
“You’re taking it? Taking it? Also –- I would say three years is probably slow enough. Shut up and bang already.” A slow, red blush begins at JJ’s ears and spreads across his cheeks. “Oh, my God,” Wheezie squeals. Then she readjusts herself as JJ shoots a furtive glance towards the doorway. “You hussy,” she mutters in admiration.
“Slow,” JJ reminds her. “Super, super slow. John B getting in contact after sinking a boat in a storm kind of slow.”
“She made you a hedgehog hotel.”
JJ frowns at the counter and his cookie. “I appreciated the sentiment, I really did. But, objectively-”
“There is no room for objective in the course of love-”
“I won’t hear a word against it. I won’t. Do you know how many splinters I had to pull out of that poor girl’s fingers? Do you? The answer is too many.”
“-objectively, that hotel really sucks.”
“I won’t have it.”
“I swear to Wheezus Christ-”
“The side fell off. Whilst we were stood right there.”
“Uh-huh. Sure. Stood . Was it the right or left side?”
Satisfied that her carpentry skills are more durable than Kiara’s, Wheezie sucks in a breath. “It’s art deco,” she defends.
“It’s a heap of wood and nails.”
“Don’t you dare – it’s postmodernist architecture. It’s a feat of engineering.”
There’s a soft smile on JJ’s face that he seems determined to hide by staring at the counter. The latest ream of icing completely misses the cookie.
“It’s art ,” Wheezie insists.
“It’s shit,” JJ assesses. “But I shall display it with pride. If any poor creature decides to take their life into their own paws and pass through the entrance – well. Maybe we should get homeowner’s insurance for it.”
JJ scrunches his nose at her and Wheezie tries to suppress a victory dance.
Hours later, she’s back on her spot on the bean bag, Sarah and John B cuddled on the couch and Pope slouched down opposite them.
"Hey, has anyone noticed Kie and JJ this year?" John B comments mildly. Everyone but JJ and Kiara are in the living room because something about Kiara weilding a ladle and muttering darkly about gravy with flour smeared in no less than three locations upon her person puts the fear of God upon everyone but JJ. "I think that could be a thing, at some point."
Heads swivel towards John B. He sits grandly, satisfied with his deductions.
"Jesus Christ, JB," Pope mutters.
"Oh lordy," Sarah confirms brightly. "It's a good job you're pretty."
"He didn't give her weed," John B points out. "Maybe he likes her."
Wheezie can't help but groan, "give me strength."
Pope grumbles something which sounds suspiciously like, "damn straights."
Wheezie doesn't mean to spy. But if people are going to be doing things in public – they can't complain if they're seen.
From her vantage point (leaning to the extreme left around the doorframe so she can peer into the kitchen. But subtly, of course), Wheezie can see the top of JJ’s blonde head. He’s ducked down towards Kiara, who’s leaning back against the counter with her head tipped back towards him. Their positioning is yin and yang to each other.
“So, do you still hate Christmas?” Kiara asks quietly. Wheezie has to really strain herself to hear the quiet tone.
“Hate is a strong word.”
“But do you?”
“Eh. It’s never that bad if you’re enjoying it with the right people.”
Kiara’s lips part in shock, her eyes searching JJ’s face. He’s focussed on a point over her shoulder rather than her face. Finally his gaze reverts to meet hers, and she smiles softly. Leans forwards to rest her head against JJ’s shoulder. His arms fold around her automatically.
“That’s what she said,” Kiara says into the fabric of his ugly Christmas sweater. JJ laughs, then drops his chin to the top of her head.
Wheezie can’t help the world’s smallest victory macarena, hip wiggles and all. The movement catches JJ’s eyes and he looks over, careful not to jostle Kiara. Flips the bird at Wheezie who grins brightly back and does two elaborate finger guns.
Wheezie dances back out of view of the kitchen, heading back into the living room where Sarah’s sitting with Pope, waiting for John B to come back in from taking out the trash. Sarah looks up at her with wide eyes, tilting her head to the kitchen. Wheezie nods sharply, giving a discreet thumbs up.
Just when everything’s settled down and Wheezie is still basking in the warm afterglow of her own genius and overwhelming success, there’s a shout from outside. A loud crash and a bang. All heads snap towards the doorway, and John B emerges through the porch door holding a splintered piece of wood in a manner more easily attributed to troops in trenches than a man returning from putting the trash out.
“So the good news,” John B recalls cheerfully, “is that I am unharmed. I have escaped with my life and my limbs, and we should be grateful. The bad news is – well. There’s this really weird wooden thing out here and I may have – ah. Sat on it. And I’m not entirely sure it was created for that purpose. So it may have collapsed just a teeny bit.”
“Wheezus Christ,” Wheezie laments mournfully. “Merry fucking Christmas, everyone.”
The untimely destruction of the love letter from Kiara to JJ is but a small hiccup in the scheming and thrill and relief. Wheezie can rest easy in her beanbag, safe in the knowledge that after three long years, Project Mistletoe was finally a success.
As JJ once told her, it ain't easy being Wheezie. But sometimes it's worth it.