Some days after the accident were better than others. For the most part, Conner seemed back to his old self. He joked around, he went to work, and he could recite the details of the day they'd all officially met. There were moments sprinkled here and there that threw him off. He would go to Hayley's and when she asked, "The usual?" he would stare blankly.
So it wasn't entirely surprising, just disappointing, when Conner seemed confused by Ethan's presence on his doorstep early the morning of December tenth. "Dude, it's eight in the morning," said Conner, obligingly stepping aside to let his best friend in.
"Dude, it's Tree Day."
"Tree Day. Every year, we drive up to Briarwood to get a Christmas tree."
"Conner, was that the door?" Kira yelled from the next room over. "Oh, hey, Ethan. Obviously, we're not ready yet."
"Obviously," said Ethan.
"You knew about this?" said Conner.
"You didn't tell him?" said Ethan.
Kira looked chagrined. "I'm sorry, guys. I was going to bring it up, but I forgot. I'm so sorry."
"'Forgot.'" Conner looked back and forth between them. "Funny."
"Conner, why don't you go shower and get dressed?" said Kira, quickly pasting on an obviously nervous smile. "I'll go make us some breakfast."
"Okay," said Conner, looking uncertain, but shuffling off obediently.
Kira led Ethan into the kitchen and waited patiently for the sounds of the shower. "I can't believe I forgot to tell him," she said, collapsing onto a chair. "I don't know, I guess in the back of my mind I thought he'd just remember on his own. He does that sometimes."
Ethan paused in the middle of making coffee to see Kira with her head buried in her arms. "Hey, hey, it's okay," he said, patting her shoulder.
"Maybe we shouldn't do this," she mumbled.
"Yes, we should. The doctor said it wasn't going to be instantaneous, remember? We have to be patient and help him out. Us getting frustrated will just make him frustrated."
A few hours later, they were parking Dr. Oliver's borrowed Jeep in the lot of a tree farm. "I'm going to go look at wreaths," said Ethan. "Just an artificial tree in my apartment, but you gotta love the smell of pine."
"You can achieve that with an air freshener, you know," said Conner.
"Mr. Cynic," said Ethan, with a note of approval in his tone. "You sound like me." Judging from the boys' smirks, it was clear this had been an unscripted (and successful) attempt at levity, a nod toward their old rapport.
"Get out of here," said Kira. "We'll find you later."
"For the manual labor," Ethan said, rolling his eyes.
"It's why we keep you around." Kira looped her arm through Conner's. "Shall we, Con?"
"Sure," he said, to Kira's delight, actually taking the lead. They were all smiling as they split up, and Kira spent a content moment enjoying the slight chill to the air, the scent of pine (which was exactly as great as Ethan said), and Conner's easy chatter. It was the first time in awhile that Conner had seemed relaxed enough to get into small talk; normally the gaps in his memory made him anxious and made his attempts at conversation seem extra focused. Hearing him joke and chatter easily was like a Christmas present by itself.
But of course it couldn't last. "What do you want for dinner tonight?" Kira asked, stroking the branches of a Douglas fir thoughtfully.
When he didn't answer, she continued, "Conner? What do you--" and stopped mid-sentence, as she'd turned to look at him. Conner was standing still, silent, his mind obviously elsewhere as he stared at the tree behind her. He had that twisted, scared expression again, the one that made her want to cry. "Conner?"
"I don't know what kind of tree we get," he said softly.
"I don't know what kind of tree we get. I know we get the same kind, every year, that I have had the same kind of Christmas tree since I was a kid. I remember sitting under it, opening presents with Eric. I remember the year we got bikes. I remember crappy little Popsicle stick ornaments. But I can't remember what kind of tree it is." Conner turned that fearful gaze to Kira, and it was all she could do to keep from breaking down right there. "I can't remember, Kira."
"It's not important," she insisted, proud of herself that her voice was even and calm. "You remember Eric and your parents and the bikes, that's what's important, Con, not the tree."
"But it is," he said. "It's important because it matters to me. It's the same tree every year, it's part of my life. I want my life back." At this, Conner crumpled to the ground and buried his chin in his hands. "I want my life back."
"You'll get it," she swore, kneeling beside him. She felt the cold of the ground seeping through the knees of her jeans, and even though it wasn't that chilly, she still somehow felt like she would never get warm. "It's a tree, Conner, just a tree. I promise. We don't have to get one today."
"But it's Tree Day. We do it every year."
"All right, so we'll get a tree today. And by next Christmas, you'll remember again and we'll know for sure. And if you remember today or tomorrow or whenever, we'll come back and we'll get the right kind of tree then. I don't care if it's Christmas morning itself, we'll go out and we'll find the right kind of tree. I promise." She tugged at his elbow. "C'mon, get up. Do you want Ethan to see you like this?"
Ethan had seen him like that, several times, but it wasn't the point. Conner got to his feet, his mouth set in a grim line.
"Tell me a memory," she encouraged. "Any one." No matter what the doctor had instructed, she found that getting Conner to recite any memory that came to mind was a good jump-start for him. It helped him remember other things and it helped cheer him up. Kira never minded, if they were stories she'd heard hundreds of times or ones she was hearing for the first time. "Come on, Conner."
"My first kiss was Lisa Driscoll," he said, settling into it. "I don't think you know her. She went to West Reefside Junior High, but she moved in eighth grade. Anyway, she asked me to the Sadie Hawkins dance, but when we got there, all she wanted to do was hang out with her friends. I don't think we spoke. I hung out with the guys and kept staring at her like the creepiest guy. She was doing that whole thing where she'd look at me and then start giggling with her friends. I was beginning to wonder why she'd asked me at all if she wasn't even going to talk to me, then suddenly she comes over and plants one on me, in the middle of the gym. Well, the side of gym. Then she just kind of wandered off, and then Sarah Winston's mother came and picked up all of the girls and Lisa moved two weeks later. I was thirteen."
"You didn't get your first kiss until you were thirteen?" she said incredulously.
Conner glared. "You sound just like Ethan."
"Well, I'm surprised. You're Conner. Conner McKnight. You were, like, the poster boy for high school heartthrob."
"My first kiss was when I was twelve."
"So apparently you're a later bloomer than me," she said smugly.
"When it happens isn't important, Kira," he said, matching her smug tone. "What matters is how good it is, how good you are, and how many times you do it after."
"Oh yeah?" she countered, raising an eyebrow. "And how good was it, Conner?"
Too late, Conner realized he'd set himself up for the ultimate trap. You could talk about exes with your current girlfriend, so long as they were portrayed in a less-than-great light. "She was okay," he said. "She wore way too much lip gloss. Besides, Eric kept saying that she was only going with me because Jenny Hudson had already asked him."
"Well, Eric is obviously the better catch," Kira said, flashing him a grin.
"Not cool," said Conner, but his voice was less strained now, and he didn't look as worried. He touched the tree Kira had been examining. "This one looks good. We'll have to do some trimming. It looks a little tall for our apartment."
"You manage well enough."
Conner rolled his eyes, but then smiled. "Have I mentioned lately that I love you?" She had a feeling it wasn't because she'd commented on his height.
"I could do to hear it again," she said, feigning mild interest with a casual shrug.
Conner wrapped her into a hug, arms around her waist, lips against her hairline, her forehead. "I love you. More than..." He trailed off. Hard to make comparisons like that when you only remembered half of your life. Conner pressed his lips to Kira's briefly. "I love you," he repeated, firmly.
"Love you, too," she said, squeezing him back. "And Conner, you should know..."
"We get a Douglas fir every year. You led us here. You remembered." Kira threaded her fingers through his, holding tightly. Conner's smile was cautious but genuine.
"Dudes, nice tree!" Ethan enthused, coming up behind them with an enormous wreath in hand.
Kira swatted his shoulder gently. "Don't call me dude."
Conner stood in front of the tree, carefully wedged into the stand after forty-five minutes of work, holding a folded garland in one hand and a folded slice of pizza in the other.
"Bro, I know your brain isn't all there, but don't confuse the two of those," Ethan said, nodding at Conner's hands. "We did not order the tree with extra cheese."
"Why are you still here?" said Conner, taking an aggressive bite of pepperoni. "You don't live here."
"Conner, don't talk with your mouth full," said Kira from her spot on the floor, digging through a series of boxes. "And I hate to say it, but he's right. If you get greasy fingerprints on my grandmother's ornaments, I will have to kill you."
"What do you mean, 'I hate to say it'?" said Ethan. "What's so wrong about me being right?"
"So many things," said Kira, at the same time Conner said, "Everything."
Ethan gave a full-body sigh, with a dramatic slump of the shoulders. "I hate you both."
"Yeah, that's why you're here eating all our pizza."
"I helped you take in the tree. It's like helping someone move. You get free pizza."
"It is not like helping someone move," said Kira.
"Do it yourself next year, then."
"I don't have to. This is why I have Conner."
Ethan rolled his eyes. "What makes you think he'll be around next year? Dude could get his memory back, realize you're too good for him, and disappear into the night."
"I already know she's too good for me," said Conner, to which Kira let out a quiet 'aw'. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Even if you get your memory back?" Kira teased.
Conner stepped over the boxes on the floor, navigating around strewn tinsel, to press a kiss to her cheek. "I remember enough," he said. "Why would I ever leave?"