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Sinners, Saints and Thieves

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***

1990

***

When Joshua Alexander Wilson was five years old, his parents brought home a baby.

It was the worst day of his life.

“I don’t want a baby,” he howled, kicking his feet against the back of the armchair. He had hung upside down on that chair for the sole purpose of kicking his feet against it, since it had the springiest, bounciest back of any chair in the house. As an added bonus it was right beside the Christmas tree, so every kick made the brightly-coloured lights jump and dance.

“Don’t be silly Josh,” said Nan, flustered and unprepared for the dual challenges of baking and freezing two months’ worth of postnatal casseroles and wrangling an irate kindergartener who was endangering the holiday ornaments. “She’s a very nice baby, you’ll see! You’ll be best friends in no time.”

“We will not!” cried Josh, kicking with all his might. “I will hate her forever and ever and ever amen!”

Nan called this blasphemy, and sent him to his room until after the casseroles were safely tucked away in the brand new deep freeze. For years afterward, Josh would believe “blasphemy” meant something you were too busy to deal with right away.

Josh was not allowed to come down from his room until the headlights of the family station wagon brightened the snowy evening street. He pressed his nose and palms to the glass, watching the car turn into the driveway. He beamed at the sight of his mother and father getting out, then scowled as they both went around to the same side of the car and Dad carefully drew forth a bulky bundle with a handle on top.

He stomped away from the window and flopped across his bed.

“Josh!” Nan called. “Joshie, come downstairs and meet your sister!”

“Ngghn,” Josh mumbled into rumpled Ninja Turtles sheets. “Dunwunna.”

“Josh!” That was Nan’s sharp voice. The one she used right before she gave you a poke with her finger—and Nan wore her nails long. Josh heaved the sigh of the martyred and trudged down the stairs.

He reached the landing just as the front door opened. A gust of cold air swept Mom, Dad and the hated bundle into the front hall, where Nan was waiting.

“Oh, the darling!” Nan cooed. “Don, get her out of that thing and let me hold my granddaughter!”

“Sure, sure,” Dad said agreeably.

“Let us get our coats off first, Mother,” Mom laughed. “She’s not going anywhere.”

Then she looked up, and saw the sullen little figure on the landing.

“Josh, sweetheart!” she smiled. “Come down and meet Nicole.”

Those final ten steps were the hardest Josh had ever taken. He wouldn’t have gone down at all, except he was a little scared Nan might still poke him, and also he hadn’t seen Mom in two days.

As soon as he was close enough to his parents and The Bundle to touch them, he lunged for Mom, wrapping his arms around her neck and burying his face in the shoulder of her winter coat. She was cold and warm all at once, and she smelled like wind and snow.

“I don’t want it,” he whispered.

“Don’t want what?” she said, hugging him back and then holding him at arm’s length to pat his cheek, brush his hair with the palm of her hand and smile into his face. “The baby? Still?”

He nodded emphatically.

“Josh!” Nan scolded, but Mom only laughed.

“Well,” said Dad, squatting down next to Mom, “how’s about we take her on a trial basis, then? Maybe give it a week or two? See if you can get used to her.”

“And if I don’t want her still,” Josh clarified, “then we can give her back?”

Nan made a funny choking noise, but Mom only smiled. Dad nodded solemnly.

“Mind you,” he cautioned, “they may not take her back. We might have to offer her to the Salvation Army as a donation. But one way or another, we’ll send her away after New Year if you decide she’s no good.”

Empowered by this promise, Josh stuffed his hands in the pockets of his overalls and nodded.

“All right,” he decided, “I guess so.”

“But meanwhile,” said Mom, “maybe you should at least hold her a few times. Just so you can be certain of the decision you make.”

Josh couldn’t think of a fair way to say no to that, so he nodded again. Which was how he came to be sitting on the chair beside the Christmas tree with the object of his deepest and most passionate hatred to date laid out across his lap, wrapped in a pink and white blanket dotted with sugarplum fairies.

“Joshie,” said Mom, placing a gentle hand on his back, “this is Nicole.”

She was small and wrinkly, and she didn’t look like she’d be good for anything. Josh, watching her scrunch her face and stir in the light of the tree, was growing ever more secure in his conviction that as soon as the trial period was up, he’d be sending her straight on to whoever would take her off his hands.

Then she opened her eyes.

“Oh, Josh,” Mom’s smile filled her voice. “She’s looking right at you.”

And so she was. Baby Nicole was looking up at him, and Josh found he was looking back at her. He couldn’t look away.

She was still wrinkly and heavy and he was still sure she wouldn’t be good for anything, but suddenly that didn’t matter. Looking at her and seeing her look back, Josh realized that Nicole was their baby, his and Dad’s and Mom’s (okay, she could be Nan’s baby too) and somehow that meant more than the fact that she looked like an old wet sock and couldn’t help set up his Hot Wheels racetrack.

“Hi Nicole,” Josh whispered. Which was silly, because she was a baby, and babies didn’t know words or anything.

But Nicole stared at him so intently, it was like she was waiting for him to say more, so Josh heard himself add, “I’m your big brother.”

As if they were the words she’d been waiting all thirty-one hours of her life to hear, Nicole scrunched her face again, opened her mouth in the teeniest yawn Josh had ever seen, and settled back to sleep in his arms.

It was wonderful. It was terrible. It was terrifying.

“What do you think, buddy?” Dad wanted to know. “Gonna keep her around?”

“I don’t know,” said Josh. “I haven’t decided yet.”

It was such a lie.

***

1993

***

Three Christmases later, Josh regretted his decision not to send Nicole back when he’d had the chance. Not that he really believed Dad had meant it, anymore; he was eight, and he knew better. Plus, even if he could have talked Dad into it, it’s not like anybody would have wanted her. She was bigger now and while grownups always said what an adorable girl she was, all silky blonde hair and deep dimples, Josh knew better. She would go into his room without asking, she’d knock over his racetracks as soon as he got them set up, she painted his walls with all the goop from his Creepy Crawlers set, and when she didn’t get her own way sometimes? She’d kick him.

Hard.

Other times—like this time—she’d scowl, stomp her foot and run into the kitchen to tattle. Which was enough to make Josh wish she’d just swing her foot at him and get it over with.

“Mama, Brother won’t read to me!”

“Josh, will you please—”

“I read it to her five times already!” Josh shouted from his sulking spot in the living room chair. “She always wants the same stupid book.”

“Josh, please,” Mom appeared in the doorway, a smut of flour on her nose and red sprinkles smeared along her arm. “Just once more. You used to love the Berenstain Bears when you were her age! I have so much left to do, and your father’s gone off somewhere. Can you help me out, here?”

‘Can you help me out, here’ was Mom’s best weapon. She sounded so plaintive and helpless it was almost impossible to refuse her. When you heard that, you immediately remembered all the times she’d sat up with you at night when you were puking sick, and the way she would go back to the store even after she’d got all the groceries in the door, just because she forgot your favourite lime Jello.

Dad said it was dark magic she’d learned from Nan. Josh was never sure if he was joking or not.

‘Can you help me out here’ always worked on Dad. Josh was getting better at resisting, but he still had a way to go before he was completely immune. He scowled at Mom and kicked the bottom of the chair, but when Nicole squirmed around Mom to stand triumphantly in the doorway, book brandished in her chubby fist, he only beckoned for her to join him on the chair.

With Nicole appeased, Mom retreated rapidly to the kitchen. She’d been camped in there all day, cooking for the army of Wilson cousins who had suffered a fit of familial duty and called to announce they would be arriving en masse on Boxing Day for a meal. She was saying lots of bad words in there. Josh and Dad were keeping well clear.

Nicole, smug in the acquisition of her desire, clambered up beside Josh and dropped the book in his lap.

“Read, Brother,” she commanded.

“Okay first,” Josh said, “you’ve got to stop calling me Brother. I am not the bear in the book.”

Nicole jutted out her bottom lip and looked mutinous.

“You’re Brother,” she insisted. “I’m Sister.”

“I’m your brother and you’re my sister, but they’re not our names, Niccy!”

Read, Brother!” Nicole repeated, and thumped the book. Her angry scowl melted into uncertainty. “Please?”

Josh’s resolve wobbled and collapsed faster than his Hot Wheels tracks. Their mother’s ‘can you help me out, here’ couldn’t hold a candle to Nicole’s trembling bottom lip, wide brown eyes and hearfelt ‘please.’ That was some dark magic all its own.

“Fine,” Josh scowled, and opened the book.

“Do the voices too, Brother,” Nicole instructed, snuggling in against his arm.

“Fine,” Josh repeated. Because . . . well, because why not, that was why.

Because she was his sister, even when she was a pain in his neck, and when she said ‘please’ that way, there was no way he could say no.

While he read, Mom brought them cocoa with peppermint sticks. Dad came in from the garage long enough to say he couldn’t find the turkey in the deep freeze, so he was going to get another. Then he retreated, double time, and Mom went back to the kitchen. She said more bad words. Josh pretended not to hear.

Nicole rested her head against Josh’s arm as the story finished, and gave a deep, contented sigh.

“I like that one,” she said, and patted the book fondly.

“I know,” said Josh. He listened to Mom curse at the gingerbread for a moment, then thought oh, well, why not. “Want to hear it once more?”

Nicole’s answering smile was brighter than Christmas.

“Yes!” she cried, so Josh flipped back to the opening page and began all over again.

“Down a sunny dirt road, deep in Bear County . . .”

***

1995

***

When she was five years old, in the very last week of school before Christmas vacation, Nicole found out about Santa.

It was the worst day of her life.

Josh found out Nicole found out because his class was walking down the stairs to the gymnasium when Mrs. MacKinnon, at the head of the line, stopped walking and said “what are you doing here?”

The problem was Mrs. MacKinnon stopped so fast, her fifth-grade class couldn’t stop in time with her. Ryan Newman was in front of Josh and he didn’t give any warning when he skidded to a halt, so Josh stepped on the back of Ryan’s sneakers and sent Ryan smacking into Ashley Baker, who started shrieking that they were all trying to kill her. With all that going on, it took Josh almost a minute to realize what had startled Mrs. MacKinnon in the first place.

Nicole, tear-streaked, hiccupping and utterly miserable, was huddled on the bottom step, her arms wrapped around her knees.

“Niccy?” Josh said. She lifted her chin, saw him, and lunged up the stairs to fling her arms around his waist. Ryan Newman snickered, and Josh decided he was going to have to punch Ryan after school.

“Josh!” she wailed. Josh squirmed, pushing at her arms until he was able to get her to back up a bit.

“You gotta go back to class, Niccy. You shouldn’t be out in the hall.”

“You can take her back yourself if you like, Josh,” Mrs. MacKinnon offered. “We’ll be in the gym.”

Ryan Newman snickered again, and said “Aww, Joshie gonna walk wif his widdow sister?” so yeah, Josh was definitely going to have to punch him. Maybe push him into a snow bank, too.

“Okay, Mrs. M,” he said, then grabbed Nicole’s hand and hustled her back up the stairs to the Junior Kindergarten class.

“I don’t wanna go back,” Nicole whispered, dragging the toes of her sneakers.

“Well, you have to,” Josh answered, too busy trying to plan the logistics of his sneak attack on Ryan to bother cushioning the verbal blow he dealt his sister. “You can’t just run out of class when you like. What did you leave the room for anyway?”

“B-because,” Nicole snuffled, dragging her sleeve under her nose, “Kelly says there’s no Santa!”

Oh, no.

“Then Kelly’s a liar.”

The fierce dismissal did not calm Nicole’s fears. She bit her lip. Two fat tears traced an erratic path down her cheek.

“She says he’s not real. She pinky-swore at me that all her My Little Pony dolls were from her mom, not from Santa. Her cousin Jessie told her; Jessie said she even helps put out the presents for her little brother. There’s no Santa.” Nicole’s voice dropped to a damp, choked whisper. “It’s just parents.”

Josh did some rapid mental recalculating. Honestly, he’d always expected it would be Nan who told Niccy, because Nan had been the one who told him—he’d been four, and Nan had gone on about Santa being Satan with the letters mixed up. It had been a whole big thing for her that year, and basically ruined his Christmas.

He’d been sure she would do the same to Nicole. He hadn’t even considered it might be somebody from school who got there first. He had to reinvent everything he’d already planned to say, and he had to do it in all of six seconds.

“Listen, Niccy, if that’s all Kelly says she knows? I wouldn’t listen to her. “

“But what if it’s true?”

“What if it is?” Josh shrugged. “You’d still get presents anyway, right?”

“Y-eah,” Nicole said. She hunched her shoulders and pressed close to Josh’s side. “But . . . I don’t want there to be no Santa.”

Josh was starting to wish he could push Kelly into a snow bank, too.

“I know.” He let go of his sister’s hand so he could wrap his arm around her shoulders. He wanted to fix it, to make it all better, to promise her that Santa was real and Kelly wouldn’t know Santa from a hole in the ground. But she’d find out the truth eventually, and she would know he’d lied to her. Josh didn’t think he could handle that.

Instead, he hugged her a little closer as they stopped outside the Junior Kindergarten class. Then he knelt to look her in the eye.

“I’m gonna tell you a secret.”

Nicole paused mid-hiccup.

“A secret?”

“Yeah. But you can’t tell Kelly, because it’s too late for her to know, okay? And be careful who else you tell. Because it’s kind of important.”

The weight of such responsibility struck Nicole dumb. Her mouth pursed in a solemn little pucker, sealing all sobs inside. She wiped a lingering tear, and nodded with every ounce of sincerity she possessed.

“Good,” said Josh. “All right, here it is. The reason Kelly doesn’t get Santa at her house is because when somebody told her he wasn’t real, she believed them. And the reason we still do get Santa is because you still believe he’s real.”

Nicole’s eyes widened.

“So,” Josh pressed on, “that’s the secret, with Santa. He’ll visit the same house every year as long as there’s at least one kid there who totally, completely, honestly believes. As soon as that kid stops, Santa doesn’t come anymore. Not because he’s not real, but because there’s no point. You see?”

Nicole’s eyes were Christmas-cookie-huge in her face as she nodded.

“That’s why you have to keep believing,” Josh concluded, “for as long as you can. Because when somebody told me he wasn’t real, I believed her. That’s why we need you to know there’s a real Santa for the rest of us.”

For a second he thought he’d gone too far, that this was too much pressure to put on his sister who had turned five only one week ago. But when Josh finished talking, Nicole put her chin up and nodded, just once.

“Okay,” she said. “I will.”

“Thanks, Sister,” Josh said, and gave her a half-smile that was answered with a megawatt grin of Nicole’s own. Then she flung herself at Josh again, wrapping her arms as far around his neck as she could reach and burying her face in the crook of his neck.

“’Welcome, Brother,” she mumbled into his collar.

Josh let her hang on for a second, then gently pulled her loose.

“You really gotta go back now,” he advised. “I’m missing gym. And you’re missing . . . what are they doing in there?” He squinted through the glass upper half of the door.

“We’re making popsicle-stick sleds,” Nicole said matter-of-factly. “With glitter.”

That sure beat gym class. Josh found himself thinking he wouldn’t hate to be five again.

“You don’t want to miss that,” he assured her. “When you get to the graded classes you’ll do a lot less of that kind of thing. Make it count.”

“’Kay,” Nicole nodded. She reached for the doorknob, then at the last second turned back and threw her arms around Josh’s waist one last time.

“Love you, Brother,” she said. Then she turned, pushed open the door and disappeared into a sea of craft tables and sandboxes. Josh watched her go, and found his chest suddenly felt far too small for everything it was meant to contain.

***

1998

***

The Wilson family sort of half did the church thing. Sometimes the kids got the impression they’d actually be doing the church thing a whole lot more, if only Nan didn’t do the church thing so much. It seemed to have put Mom off everything that wore a robe and yelled at her from a pulpit.

The kids had been to Nan’s church, so they could see how that had happened.

Every year in the month leading up to Christmas, though, they went to a church where the parishioners didn’t pry, the minister didn’t yell, and there was a children’s choir for them to sing in. They played hide-and-seek in the Sunday School rooms, they ate cookies and drank fruit punch, and on Christmas Eve they sang at the candlelight service.

Which they were so going to be late for this year, if Josh couldn’t find his stupid tie.

“Hurry up, Josh!” Nicole shouted up the stairs. Her new tights itched, and she dragged the toe of her winter boot up the back of her leg to quell the prickly fire. “Mom’s in the car already. Dad’s saying bad words about the snow. You gotta come now.”

“I can’t find my tie!” Josh called back.

“Who cares? It’s just a stupid tie. Don’t wear one.”

“Ms. Lewis said if any of us forgets our tie she’ll make us stand in the back beside the tenth-grade kids, so nobody can see our necks. The tenth-grade kids will thump my head just for the hell of it. I need to find my tie.”

Honestly. Brothers.

Nicole stomped up the stairs, muttering under her breath in an excellent imitation of her father at his most irritated. She poked her head through the doorway of her brother’s room and looked at the mess he’d made. Bureau drawers hung open, their contents strewn all across the floor. Josh’s legs were sticking out of his closet, kicking ineffectually as he tried to reach the very back recesses.

“Mom will kill you when she sees this,” Nicole decided, brimming with eight-year-old arrogance and sisterly superiority as she surveyed the room.

“She’s gonna have to wait her turn!” Josh huffed. “You wanna help, Niccy? Start looking.”

Nicole did not join him in the closet. Instead she studied the room, searching for anything that hadn’t already been flipped over and turned inside out. She found it inches from her hand: Josh’s bathrobe was hooked over the door handle where he had chucked it after the morning’s shower. Lifting it, Nicole revealed a bright red necktie draped over the doorknob.

“Here it is,” she said.

She did not add you idiot but her tone certainly implied it.

Josh emerged from his closet, hair tousled, shirt collar sticking up and a sock clinging stubbornly to his black wool slacks.

“God, Niccy, I love you,” he gasped, ploughing through a jumbled pile of pyjamas and jeans to grab the tie in one hand, and Nicole in the other.

“Mmgph! Josh!” Nicole flailed in the grip of his one-armed hug. “Leggo!”

He did, but he kept smiling at her.

That was the last thing Nicole remembered clearly about that night—Josh’s smile. It all went foggy after that, from the time they started down the stairs together and everything afteward, until she woke up.

She knew when they went down the stairs she probably held the wall with her palm because the banister was covered in evergreens that prickled her hand.

She knew Josh almost definitely helped her down over the icy patch on the front step, like he always did.

She knew the air outside would have been bitingly cold, and the car, when she climbed into the backseat, would have been so toasty warm with the heaters at full blast that she’d forget how to breathe for just a moment, until her lungs balanced the hot and cold and started working again.

Mom probably warned her to clunk her boots together to get all the snow off. Dad probably turned around to give them his deep scowl and say “is everybody buckled up back there?”

And she was almost positive it wouldn’t have been a lie when she wrestled her belt over her thick winter coat, wedged the clip in as securely as she could and promised that she was.

But she couldn’t be sure.

Because when they hit the patch of ice, and the car spun out of control, and Mom screamed (Josh told her Mom screamed, and she thought maybe she did remember that, a thin clear knife of sound that split the hot air with cold fear) the belt popped loose.

Which was how Nicole got thrown through the air, through the car, into the glass.

She didn’t remember anything of Christmas Eve after Josh’s smile.

***

The next thing she did remember was waking up in a bed that wasn’t hers, with the first headache she’d ever had, to see her brother slumped across her stomach, sound asleep.

“Get off,” she told him, “you’re hurting my head.”

He jerked awake, cloudy-eyed and confused, and that was how she found out it wasn’t Josh hurting her head, because he sat up and her head still hurt.

“Unngh,” she said.

Josh leaned in, rumpled and concerned and, she noticed, no longer wearing his tie.

“Are you okay, Niccy?” he asked. “I mean—how do you feel?”

“My head hurts,” she repeated. “Idiot. I just said that.”

Then she went back to sleep, and had to take Josh’s word for it that he immediately ran from the room to find their parents and tell them Nicole woke up and they missed it.

The next time she woke, her head hurt less and her whole family was there. Even Nan, who started to pray over her until Nicole said it made her head hurt more, and Mom gave Nan such a Look that Nan got huffy, but stopped.

They told Nicole a little about what had happened, that the car had crashed and she’d hit her head, but that was all. They kept saying they didn’t want to tire her out. She wouldn’t find out the whole story until the fifth time she woke, the day after Boxing Day, and started to cry because she had slept through Christmas.

To cheer her up while they waited for Mom to get back from the cafeteria, Josh told her about the accident.

“It was icy all over the road, and that’s how Dad lost control. We went right into a phone pole and it bent one side of the car all in. They had to use this thing, this giant claw, to cut Mom’s door open.” He showed her with his hands how big it was. “It made the metal kind of . . . scream.”

“Cool,” Nicole breathed, sipping salty chicken soup and trying to pretend it was a whole Christmas dinner.

“It was,” Josh agreed. He was eating her peas off her plate, because she didn’t like them, and apparently being a thirteen-year-old boy meant you were hungry enough to like everything, always. “You were half on top of Mom at that point. You went kinda forward and over when we hit the phone pole. You knocked your head into the windshield and fell onto Mom’s lap.”

“Was I asleep?” Nicole wanted to know.

“Yeah, mostly. Mom kept shouting at you, trying to make you talk to her the whole time they were getting her loose. They cut through her seatbelt and everything, and they took you, and she just went mental. Started hitting them and screaming. They gave her a needle to calm her down.”

Nicole was sorry she’d missed that. Mom usually lost her temper much quieter than what Josh had described.

“What about Dad?”

“He got out okay. He waved down a car to stop. That’s how the ambulance and the cops found us, those people had a cellular phone and they used it to call for help. I waited in their car until the firetruck came.”

“There was a fire, too?” Nicole set her empty soup cup aside, eyes wide.

“No, but they came in case there would be. You know how in movies cars crash and explode? They were there for if that happened.”

By the time Josh finished fleshing out every detail of a night his sister would never completely remember, the meal was gone, and Nicole was tired. But her head didn’t hurt nearly as much as it had, and when Josh added “I saved all the peppermint bark for you, Sis,” she didn’t even hate lying in that hospital bed with a tube in her arm and a clip on her finger to track her heartbeat, because at least Josh was there, promising Christmas candy.

Then she got sleepy again, and told him so, and he said she could go ahead and rest, so she sank back into the pillows and let the drugs and her full stomach work together to lull her to sleep.

That year the last thing Nicole would remember clearly about the day after Boxing Day was also Josh’s smile.

***

1999

***

The next year, Mom got such a bad flu she went into hospital. Dad stayed with her, so Josh and Nicole spent Christmas and almost a week afterward in a church basement with Nan, whose congregation was waiting for Jesus to Rapture them at the millennium.

Josh taught three boys from the youth group how to play poker to pass the time, and that worked well enough until one of the mothers found them and started shrieking about Satan’s card party. They got kicked out just after midnight on New Year’s Eve, and had to walk home together.

Nan stayed behind, in case Jesus was running late.

The midnight air was cold and full of room to breathe. If there were muggers or drunk revellers lying in wait, Josh and Nicole didn’t encounter them, and for the first time in six days their world felt bigger than a church basement. They walked home hand in hand.

“Happy New Year, Brother,” Nicole said, as they reached their front door.

“Happy New Year, Sister,” Josh replied.

It was the only part of Christmas holidays that year worth remembering.

***

2001

***

Nicole slumped over in a hard plastic seat, and watched the battery on her GameBoy finally die.

“Josh, can I borrow—”

“Already dead, Nic,” he said, and turned to the final page of a magazine he’d managed to make last almost two hours. “Damn.”

“Language, Josh,” said Mom, but the admonition was a reflex with no real heart behind it. She looked up as Dad approached. “Well?”

“It’s getting bad,” he sighed, sitting down across from his wife, children and their small mountain of carry-on bags. “They don’t expect our flight will be able to take off until the weather lets up and they can get the runways cleared. It might be a few hours yet; maybe more.”

“So we’re stuck here?” Nicole’s voice came out higher-pitched than she’d meant it to, but the whine was a pretty good representation of her true feelings, so she didn’t apologize for it. “We drove for three hours to get here, we’ve been waiting six hours more, and now we’re stuck in a stupid airport in stupid Buffalo on Christmas Eve?”

“For now,” said Dad, “that about sums it up.”

“Jesus,” said Josh.

Language, Josh,” said Mom, and sounded like she might really mean it this time. At least, she sounded pretty pissed. But that might not have had anything to do with Josh swearing.

“If they can’t get things cleared in a few hours,” Dad said, “I’ll call around to see about a hotel. But for now I think we should grab a bite to eat and just try to get comfortable.”

“Which should be so easy,” said Mom, “given that we were not allowed to pack shampoo, contact lens solution or liquid of any other kind in our carry-on luggage!”

“Jesus, Kathy, we’ve been over this! We booked the vacation before September, and the refund penalties would have been through the roof by the time we finished arguing about it! And clearly,” Dad swung an arm wildly around the airport, crammed with stranded travellers, “it wasn’t the goddamned terrorists we should have been worried about anyway!”

A deadly, perfect quiet settled over the Wilson family following that observation. Dad flinched in the wake of his own words, and rubbed a palm over his mouth.

“Christ,” he said, “sorry. That was . . .”

“Yes,” said Mom. Then she clenched her jaw and said nothing more.

“Come on, Nic.” Josh stood, stretched, and grabbed his sister’s hand. “I’ve got some American money; let’s see how long the line is at the vending machine.”

The line for the first machine they found wasn’t bad, so they waited their turn as everybody in front of them made their selections, then inspected the remnant for something appetizing.

“This sucks,” said Nicole.

“What, the food?”

“Yeah, the food. And the rest of it too. I didn’t even want to go anywhere in the first place, but seriously, who wants to be in Florida for Christmas? Why not somewhere that’s at least got snow?”

“Niccy, would you let it go? We’re here, it is what it is, and . . . I don’t know. It’s just one Christmas.”

“This sucks,” Nicole repeated. “It just sucks.”

Then she made her selections from the machine, gathered up tiny bags of Crispers, Frito hoops and rock-hard chocolate-chip cookies, and glared at her Christmas Eve bedtime snack. “God does this ever suck.”

Josh made his own choices, stared at them a minute, and sighed.

“Yeah,” he said, “okay, it does suck.”

They didn’t rejoin their family right away. Nicole said she didn’t want to, and Josh said hey, if seventeen wasn’t old enough to wander around the airport without grownups for a while, then what was the point of him being seventeen anyway?

So they wandered, stepping over the legs of people curled up on the floor, munching on vending machine food and pressing their noses to the windows, trying to see out into the blackness of the snowy night sky.

“Think we’re going to get out of here before morning?” Nicole asked at one point. They were wedged against a wall between a businessman in suit, tie and overcoat and a family with four small children who all seemed to be leaking fluids from various parts of their bodies.

Josh shook his head.

“No.”

“God, this SUCKS.”

“Yeah okay,” he sat up, “it does, but since we can’t fix it, let’s not let it suck any worse, huh?”

“What d’you mean?” Nicole asked warily.

“I mean so we’re not at home and we’re not even in Florida, and we’re eating . . . over-processed food from cellophane bags. The whole thing is balls, I’ll give you that. But is bitching about this actually making you feel better? If it is, I’ll shut up and let you, but . . . is it?”

Nicole hesitated, then slowly, resentfully, shook her head.

“Maybe,” Josh pressed, “it’s even kind of making things worse?”

She scowled. He nodded.

“Right. So, here.” He tugged her away from the wall, toward a newly-vacated pair of seats. Settling her in one, he dropped into the other and held out an open packet of cookies. “Have some dessert.”

“I don’t want—”

Real dessert,” he pressed. “Just go on for a second and imagine, okay? Pretend they’re not what they are, pretend we’re not where we are, pretend everything isn’t what it is. Just for a second. Come on, Niccy. Say it with me: real dessert.”

She made a face at him, but took the cookie all the same and said it.

“Real dessert.”

Then she closed her eyes and took a bite.

There was no easy way to explain what happened next. It wasn’t a thunderclap or a lightning bolt from above, but swear-to-God, Nicole would say afterward, something happened. When she took a bite, the cookie was not the hard, dry, tooth-breaking monstrosity of confectionary it had been just moments before. It was rich and buttery, and as it melted on her tongue she’d have sworn it tasted like everything they wouldn’t have again until they got back home and raided the shortbread tin the way they always did on Christmas Eve.

“Oh my God,” she said, and opened her eyes.

Josh blinked, confused.

“What?”

“Josh, for serious, you’ve got to try it.” She shoved the cookie at him. “And say the same thing, too. Just in case that’s what did it.”

Josh, who had only been trying to put a positive spin on what he privately agreed was a totally shit situation, obediently accepted the rest of the cookie.

“Real dessert,” he said, and took a bite.

Then his eyes widened, and Nicole beamed.

See?” she said, and poked his ribs in her enthusiasm. “It’s like magic, or something!”

“Oh come on,” said Josh, but Nicole would not be dissuaded. They worked their way through the entire pile of snacks, murmuring “real crackers” and “real candy” and other variations on that theme, until every improbably delectable morsel had been swallowed, and only the empty, brightly-coloured cellophane packets remained to be bundled up and thrown away.

“What the hell was that?” Josh wondered, staring at the trashcan they had just dumped all the packets into. Nicole shook her head.

“Christmas miracle?” she suggested, then giggled.

Josh was about to laugh too, but the sound of Nicole’s good humour stayed his own. He looked down to find her smiling up at him. He smiled back.

“Maybe,” he said. “I don’t know. Maybe it was.”

“Oh come on, Joshie, I was only kidding,” Nicole rolled her eyes. But she linked her arm through his as they headed back to join their parents, and she was smiling again.

Sure, it wasn’t a big sparkling flashy kind of miracle; Josh didn’t know that he believed in things like that, anyway. But something that would light his little sister up like it was truly Christmas time, when by all rights she probably should still have been sulking like the angry eleven-year-old she had every cause to be?

That was the kind of miracle Josh could believe in.

(They never did make it to Florida. Nobody minded much)

***

2004

***

Nicole had a sleepover for her fourteenth birthday. It started mid-afternoon on a Saturday with five giggling, shrieking teenaged guests whose not-too-subtle attempts to flirt with him drove Josh, newly home from university, right back out of the house again.

It ended at ten thirty-six Sunday morning, when Nicole and her friends came down to breakfast sporting freshly-dyed red-and-green hair. The combined volume of Mom and Dad’s hissy fit yanked Josh from a sound, hung-over sleep and sent him stumbling into the bathroom, clutching his head.

By the time he got downstairs most of the girls were huddled together in the corner, sniffling, but Nicole stood squarely in front of her parents, yelling back at them.

“. . . besides, it’s MY hair, so what do you care anyway? I didn’t get anything pierced! I didn’t go out and—and got knocked up, I just dyed my hair, so what the hell do you care?”

“Do not speak to your mother like that, young lady!” Dad shot back, sticking his index finger at her. Nicole stuck her index finger right back.

“Don’t you shout at me!”

“Nicole!” said Josh, startled in spite of himself. She turned, thrown off-balance by remonstration from a new quarter, and stuck her finger at him too.

“And don’t you start!” she said. Then, seeming to think that settled matters, she stomped out of the kitchen, past her traumatized friends. The remaining girls looked around, sniffled some more, and hurried out after her.

“What was that about?” Josh asked.

“You mean you didn’t see her hair?” said Mom. Josh shrugged.

“Well sure, but don’t tell me all of that was over her hair.”

“She’s fourteen!” said Dad. “And only barely!”

Josh looked back and forth between them, confused.

“Yeah, but . . .” maybe it was the hangover that was making this so hard to follow. He shook his pounding head in an effort to clear it. “But I mean, it’s . . . red and green, so it can’t be any too permanent. And it’s red and green, sure, but . . . it’s just hair.”

“Thank you for your input, Josh, but I think we’ll deal with this,” Dad said tersely. Josh, who was mostly in search of a glass of water and All The Ibuprofen anyway, shrugged and shuffled out of the kitchen again.

Dad drove Nicole’s friends home as soon as they were dressed. He apparently made a personal apology to each set of parents, since he was gone for most of the morning.

Mom banged around in the kitchen a lot, which did nothing to help Josh’s head. He was dozing under both his pillows around midday when a light tap on his door pulled him from sleep.

“Uh-huh?” he said, passing a hand over his face.

“Josh?” Nicole spoke softly enough that he guessed she didn’t want Mom to know she’d emerged from her room. “Can I come in?”

“Unnh . . . yeah, sure,” he called back, propping himself up on one arm and dragging his palm over his eyes again. Nicole slipped around the door, and cast a considering look around the room.

“Has it been this clean since you actually lived in it?” she wondered. Josh had to smile.

“Don’t think so,” he admitted. “Hardly looks like the same place, huh? I mean, it’s got an actual floor and everything. But what’s up, Niccy?”

She shook her head (still half-red, half-green, divided along the part) and shrugged.

“Come on,” he said, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, “really. Did you think they were going to be thrilled about that?”

“No. Not thrilled, but I didn’t think they’d go ballistic. It’s not even permanent. And I’m fourteen, for Chrissakes!”

“Okay, but . . . you’re fourteen.”

“I just said—”

“I know you did. But you’re fourteen. That’s not old enough for them to see that you’re old enough. You seem younger to them than you seem to you, and I know it’s not great,” he sat forward, looking at her earnestly, “I get it. But you’re not stupid. You’ve got to see what it looks like to them, too; at least a little bit.”

Nicole scrunched her face, crossed her arms over her chest and refused to meet her brother’s eye.

“I know it’s just hair,” Josh allowed. “But it’s attached to the rest of you. You have to see why it would freak them out a little.”

Nicole shrugged, and rubbed her toe against a floorboard.

“It was still way over the top,” she said.

Josh nodded. “Yeah,” he agreed, “a bit.”

“Can you tell them that?” she pleaded.

“What, that it was over the top?”

“ If they hear it from you, maybe they’ll listen.”

Josh doubted it, but the expression on Nicole’s face twisted his stomach. Then, when she looked directly at him and said “please?” in that particular, terrible way . . . he found himself promising he’d try.

Considering how angry his parents still were, and how hungover he was, Josh would later marvel that he was even able to get through the conversation, much less make his point as succinctly as he did. Even so Mom and Dad didn’t like it, and went so far as to accuse him of interfering where he had absolutely no business doing so. Josh had to give them that.

“But it’s just hair,” he repeated. “And it’s her hair. If you don’t give her this, what next? Maybe she waits for a while, then tries something more permanent.”

“I really don’t think denying her some hair dye will actually lead to piercings and pregnancy,” Mom frowned. Josh shrugged.

“Okay, maybe not. But if that’s your frame of reference for disaster, I’d think you’d be grateful it was only some hair dye.”

That was the tipping point. Mom and Dad traded a glance that was more uncertain than it was upset, and Josh knew he had them. They talked for a few minutes more, but it was mostly pretense, and at the end they called Nicole in and apologized. They also told her she could keep the dye job, and promised to react more graciously the next time she chose to alter it.

They even agreed to run interference with Nan when she came over Christmas Eve, which made Nicole break down sobbing and hug them both in real gratitude.

The Wilsons didn’t see Nicole’s natural hair colour again for five years, but Josh counted that Christmas a solid win.

***

2008

***

After he graduated, Josh moved home and took a year off to work and figure out what he wanted to do next. At least, that was the plan: mostly he worked and dodged the varied suggestions of his parents and friends, none of which really interested him and some of which (Nan’s suggestion that he take the Gospel to the Muslims in downtown Toronto) actually turned his stomach.

“What about going overseas?” Nicole suggested. She was sprawled on his bed, watching Josh hunch over his laptop and comb through his bookmarks for the umpteenth time. “You’ve got a lot of international stuff on there, right? Schools and programs and shit. Maybe join a nonprofit of some kind, get some experience?”

“Maybe.” Josh considered the suggestion. “If it’s relevant to one of the programs I really want to get into, it would look good on my application.”

“Right?” Nicole bobbed up beside him, and reached over his lap to take control of the trackpad. “Here, let’s look at what’s available.”

She tapped the laptop with her forefinger, angled her head to get a better look . . . and Josh’s world inverted.

It was maybe kind of a bullshit overdramatic way to say it, but honest to God, that’s what it felt like. His whole world turned upside down.

The top of Nicole’s head (her hair still dyed a bright, poppy-red for Remembrance Day, with over a month’s worth of dark blonde roots showing through) brushed under his nose, and he caught the scent of her shampoo, all sharp, sweet, and citrusy. His face went hot, then cold, and his hands and lap were suffused with tingles.

Nicole yelped as he surged to his feet, sending the laptop crashing to the ground and nearly knocking her off the bed.

“Jesus Christ, Josh, what the hell?!”

His sentiments exactly.

“I don’t—I’m sorry, Niccy, I—I just think I need a break. I’ve been at this way too long. I don’t feel well. I feel . . .”

God. Oh God. He could not tell her what he felt.

“I need a break,” he repeated. “Badly.”

Nicole’s rage was eclipsed by irritation, then concern.

“Sorry,” she said, “I should have known this must be hell for you, stuck back here. It’s not easy, right? Living at home after you’ve lived on your own. I’ll leave you alone.”

Her concern made it even worse, the sickening flush of attraction and burgeoning arousal he had never in a million years expected to feel for . . . Jesus. He couldn’t even think it.

“I need you to go,” he said, his voice tight, strangled. “Now.”

Her concern was replaced by hurt, but all she did was nod, shrug, and pad out of his room in sock feet, pulling the door shut behind her.

Josh locked it as soon as she was in the hallway, then returned to his bed. He sat on the edge, pressed his face into his palms and fought the urge to throw up.

Jesus fucking Christ, what was wrong with him? She was his sister! Living away from home for four years shouldn’t have changed that; shouldn’t have meant that the moment she turned her head under his nose, he felt . . . God. Oh, God.

He needed to leave.

If this was what being at home did to him, if he felt this way about Nicole simply for being near to her, then he needed to get the hell away from there, as soon as was humanly possible.

He reached for his laptop where it had landed on the floor. By some small miracle the screen hadn’t cracked on impact, and he was able to call up a new search page.

VOLUNTEER, he typed. Then, AFRICA.

If that wasn’t far enough away, nothing would be.

***

Josh spent most of the holidays online, filling in every form he could find. He avoided Nicole to the point that the look of hurt confusion on her face every time he saw her made him feel even worse than he already did. Finally, trusting in at least one of the nonprofits to get back to him with a favourable reply, he announced his intention over dinner on Christmas Day.

“Africa?” Mom repeated. “That’s . . . well, I’m sure that’s commendable, Josh, but isn’t it very far?”

I just hope it’s far enough.

“A little,” was all he said. “But I think it’s important for me to go.”

“What brought this on?” Dad wondered.

“I think it will look good on grad school applications, and it’s a way for me to make a real difference.”

Neither of those were lies, but they weren’t the truth. either. Of course no chance in sweet fucking hell could he tell them the truth, so that had to satisfy them, and serve him right for feeling so guilty when it actually did; when they told him they were proud of him, and would help him out with anything he needed to get before he went.

Even that remorse, though, was nothing compared to what he felt every time he inadvertently glanced toward Nicole and felt the same rush of heat in his palms and face—sometimes his lap, too.

Within two weeks of applying he had heard back from three different groups. He signed up with the one that offered the longest term of service. The people he spoke with over the phone seemed genuinely delighted with his urgency, his desire to begin training as soon as possible, and his sincere—almost fervent—commitment to as many months as they would offer him.

His only regret was that he couldn’t leave sooner. With Nicole in the house, mercifully unaware of how he felt almost every time he looked at her but definitely confused and wounded by the way he kept trying to avoid her, the hardest part of leaving was just waiting to get away.

February couldn’t come soon enough.

***

2009

***

In spite what first prompted him to flee there, Josh rapidly came to love Ghana for its own sake. It was impossible not to, when the people he worked with were so determined, so enthusiastic, and so personally invested in their project. He revelled in being able to join them in that.

He kept in touch with his family sporadically. Citing his living situation was kind of a cop-out, since internet access and phone lines weren’t nearly as unpredictable as he made them out to be, but it was necessary. If he talked to his parents too much, if he talked to Nicole too much . . . well.

He just couldn’t. He’d left for a reason, and no amount of hard physical labour could make him forget that.

Unfortunately, neither could any amount of physical labour interfere with the fact that his parents wanted him to come home to visit. He put them off in the spring, when he flew home to renew his visa. Then he put them off a second time, and with some effort even a third, but with the stretch of time he had committed to the organization drawing to a close, with offers of a place in multiple postgraduate programs in hand, and with Christmas closing in, Josh finally ran out of escape routes and excuses.

He promised his parents he would come home for Christmas.

He knew it was a mistake before he even booked the flight.

He had seriously considered not going, begging fatigue and then finding a hotel room to hide in until he could be sure Niccy was back at classes and he could visit his parents alone, but when it came to actually speaking the words, telling his parents he wouldn’t come, his nerve failed him. So he bought his ticket, he bought some gifts, and he told himself he could handle this.

It was such a lie.

The week before he went home, he called ahead one evening to give them his flight information. He got a shock when Nicole picked up the phone.

“Niccy? Isn’t it noon there? Why aren’t you in the city?”

“You mean at classes? Flu. Not mine; the prof’s. I have a week off. Cool, huh? So,” he recognized her tone so well, could almost picture the getting-comfortable posture she would adopt as she spoke, “what’s going on with you?”

By his own design he had barely spoken to her in six months and had kept his e-mails ruthlessly brief, so there was a lot to tell. He ended up sharing nearly everything. He described the people he worked with, the medical centre they were building, and went on at length about the local women and children who would benefit from it.

“It sounds amazing,” Nicole said wistfully. “I think it’s wonderful, what you’re doing. You should be proud.”

He flinched.

“I really shouldn’t,” he said. “Honest to God, Niccy, I really shouldn’t.”

There was an awkward pause at that, which Josh stumbled to fill.

“Your turn,” he said with forced cheerfulness. “Tell me everything I’ve missed.”

“Well, classes are fine, I guess. Still dunno what I want to major in, but I’ve got time, right? Oh, and Mom and Dad went nuts this fall! They completely redid the house. Gutted it and everything. New floors all through downstairs, the whole kitchen’s different, plus the outside. Siding, shutters, shingles—the works. You’re not going to recognize it when you get here.”

“Naw, I’ll be fine,” he promised. “Long as you’re still rocking the crazy hair, how can I miss it? You’ll be like a second landing beacon, or something. Hey, have you thought about going all Day-Glo this year? That would probably help me find the place better than an actual map. Plus, Nan would flip her shit when she saw the Christmas card, so, bonus.”

“Idiot,” Nicole laughed, and for just a second she didn’t sound twenty thousand miles away. She could have been right there beside him, and the thought that soon she really would be made his chest hitch and release.

He swallowed, then swallowed again, but didn’t realize he hadn’t actually said anything for a minute until Nicole spoke.

“Still there, Brother Bear?”

“Yeah, I—look, Niccy, I gotta go.”

“Oh. Okay. Yeah, I’m sorry, this probably costs you a fortune, right? I’ll tell Mom and Dad your flight number when they get in, though. I promise.”

“’Kay, Sister,” he mumbled, and hung up.

He pressed his forehead to the wall by the phone, and waited for his stomach to stop churning.

***

Josh’s flight home was supposed to take seventeen hours.

It took thirty-nine.

He missed his first connection in Frankfurt, and the next flight they could put him on wasn’t for another twelve hours. He texted Nicole with the news of his arrival and gave her his updated flight numbers to pass on to Mom and Dad. Then he settled in to wait.

His flight ended up being twice delayed due to weather , then ultimately rerouted to LaGuardia just an hour before the airport closed for the night. They wouldn’t let him spend the night in the main terminal, but he didn’t want to miss his crack-of-dawn flight home, so that night he slept fitfully in a plastic chair downstairs and pulled his coat snugly around him as the after-dark temperature in baggage claim dipped to something that felt positively subarctic. The next day he stumbled sleepily back through security, bought a cup of black ink (the woman behind the counter swore it was coffee) and scratched at a couple days’ worth of stubble. He nodded off briefly waiting at his departure gate, then again on the plane, but woke just as they banked over Toronto.

The city lights glittered in the grey light of winter’s dawn, and by that point, he could see it only as a promise of home, and family waiting there.

He was too bone-tired to be apprehensive.

He hired a taxi to drive him all the way home, called the hideous expense of it his Christmas gift to himself, and fell asleep again in the backseat. When he woke, they had turned off the 401 and into the heart of town.

He sat forward and watched the shops, simultaneously strange and familiar, roll past his window. When they turned onto his street, his heart sped up.

He was rested enough to be nervous again.

Josh deliberately took his time paying the cab driver, stalling, trying to prepare himself for whatever he was going to feel when he walked in the door and saw his sister again. He hoped, prayed, wished against all reason that it would be fixed, this whatever-it-was; that nearly a year without seeing her in person had been enough to cure that fleeting, horrific attraction he still couldn’t explain.

That she could just be his sister again, he could be her brother, and that would be that.

When he turned away from the cab to really look at the house, he paused. Nicole had told him, but she hadn’t really prepared him. The siding was new, the shutters were a different style and colour and the walkway was paved with interlocking brick. The garden had been completely re-landscaped. All the carefully-sculpted cedars, dusted well with snow, were strange to him.

The front door was a rich, bright scarlet, and even the wreath that hung on it was new.

He caught the briefest glimpse of Nicole’s face in the glass, a brilliant smile shining out at him before she disappeared in a flutter of yellow curtain. Then the front door opened before he could knock, and his sister stood before him. She was wearing one of his old baseball shirts from university, and the brightest smile he’d seen in two days.

It was like looking at a stranger and his oldest friend all at once.

Josh stopped in his tracks at the sight of her, almost before he actually registered what was different—her hair. It was back to blonde again, her actual shade as far as he could tell, so no wonder he’d been thrown off. He remembered his joke to her on the phone; made a show of looking up at their redone home, then back at her.

“I must have the wrong house.”

Her smile brightened.

“Sister,” she reminded him, pointing a thumb at her chest.

That was when Josh realized how much he’d really missed her. His knapsack hit the snow and she flung herself at him, her arms twisting around his neck. He hugged her back, lifting her off the ground and giving her just a little twirl.

“Ohh, I missed you so much,” she mumbled into his ear. His chest hurt with the truth of how much he’d missed her, too.

“Good to know,” he said huskily. His breath moved the hair beside her ear, and he willed himself not to inhale. “Come on, Niccy, let’s get you back inside. It’s freezing out here.”

“You’re just saying that because you’re a wimpy tourist,” she teased, but allowed Josh to pull her and his bag over the threshold, into the front hall.

“Where are Mom and Dad?” he wanted to know, tugging off his hat and gloves. “Did you give them my message?”

“Yeah, but they didn’t really get what it meant. I tried to explain we could track your flight on the computer and we’d still see when you got in, but Mom kept saying maybe it would come earlier, and I was getting tired, so eventually I just gave up and went to bed. I told them I’d check the arrivals page this morning and put the coffee on when you were getting close; you know, let them sleep in.”

“Sleep in?” he echoed, following Nicole down the hall and into the kitchen. It had been completely redone as well, new countertops, new flooring, new backsplash—the works.

“Yeah. They waited up all night for you, you know.”

“It’s a long way from West Africa!” he protested. “I mean, obviously. Sorry, that was a stupid thing to say. But it’s far. Plus with everything else screwing up, of course it took me forever.”

“Didn’t matter to them. They were just terrified you’d show up and we’d all be in bed. Which, again, I tried to explain, but . . . whatever. Now go on; get caffeinated, and we can catch up properly.”

Josh started for the coffeepot, then stopped when he saw the red plastic tub beside it.

“What the hell?”

Nicole followed his gaze and flinched in sympathy.

“Right?” she agreed, hoisting herself onto the countertop. “You’ve got Nan to thank for that.”

“Seriously? What happened to all the coffee I sent over?”

“We enjoyed it just fine until Nan visited last week, and saw it in the cupboard. She lost her shit. Said there were probably pagan African spirits in it, and our home was infected or something.”

“Oh no,” Josh groaned.

“Yeah,” Nicole shrugged, “she stayed here until almost one in the morning, on a weeknight, praying at us and reclaiming the coffeepot for Jesus. Finally Mom threw it away just to make her leave. Then we had no coffee, so Dad had to go out at five thirty the next morning to get some.”

“What place sells coffee at five thirty in the morning?” Josh frowned. Nicole rolled her eyes.

“Almost nowhere, obviously. The only place open was this corner store that sold Folgers and something instant from Nescafe, so . . . yeah. Dad was so pissed when he came home, Mom and I just drank it and didn’t say a word. I’m pretty sure that’s the coffee with the evil spirits, though; it smells like peanut butter and tastes like battery acid.”

“Jesus Christ,” said Josh, but he was laughing, and after a moment Nicole smiled too.

Turned out he’d even missed Nan’s particular brand of batshit crazy. Who’d have thought? Still, the prospect of actually drinking that swill . . . he hesitated, then braced his palm on the counter, leaned in and drew a deep breath.

“Ah. Real coffee,” he said, with every appearance of sincerity, and hoped against hope for a returning spark of magic from that particular Christmas.

The squat Folgers tub remained the same. Its peculiarly peanutty smell didn’t change. But some of the magic found them anyway, because Nicole’s resulting peal of laughter sweetened the kitchen like sleigh bells. He turned to find her smiling at him from her perch on the counter, the unbearable joy of Christmas and having her brother home again lighting her face.

He smiled back, and ignored the way his chest tightened.

“Worth a try, huh?” he said.

“Maybe it’s too much to ask for two Christmas miracles in a lifetime,” Nicole sighed. She drummed her heels lightly against the kitchen cupboard.

“Or maybe not.” Josh bent to root through his backpack, crammed to the zippers with everything he’d been determined to bring home. “Pretty sure I didn’t chuck it out at the last minute . . . here!” He straightened to flourish a tiny canvas bag at his sister. “It was supposed to be a stocking stuffer, but I think ‘desperate times’ applies here. Not enough to last all year, but it should get us through Christmas.”

Nicole tumbled from the counter with a whoop and flung her arms around her brother’s neck.

“How fantastic are you?” she cheered, and planted a kiss on both his cheeks. Then she made a face. “Ugh. Not fantastic enough to shave. That was like kissing a Christmas tree. Maybe you should borrow Dad’s razor while you’re here.”

“Why?” Josh shot back. “Are you planning to spend that much of the holiday attached to my face?”

(shit. Definitely one of those things he’d kick himself for saying later)

Fortunately Nicole wasn’t thrown off by the question. She rolled her eyes, snatched the bag of coffee from his hand and brushed past Josh to dump the contents of the coffeepot down the drain.

“Weirdo,” she said fondly, refilling the carafe with water. “I missed you and all, Joshie, but you really are such a weirdo.”

You have no idea, Josh thought miserably, and leaned against the counter to wait for the coffee to perk.

It was a study in subtlety, both conversing with and avoiding looking directly at his sister. He was able to pretend he was focused on the percolator at first, chatting almost easily about her first year at university and which classes she liked while he watched the pot fill up. Once he actually got a cup of coffee poured, though, he’d have to look at her, and he wasn’t sure how long he could handle that without . . . feeling things.

Awful things.

Inspiration struck as he finished pouring the coffee.

“Here.” Holding the cup in one hand, he reached into his knapsack with the other and presented her with the gift he’d bought in Accra and wrapped in the airport while he was waiting for his flight. “I brought you something from far away.”

Jesus, Josh, you did not just say

But her eyes lit up, and she didn’t even tease him for saying something so stupid.

“Really?” She turned the little box over in her hand. He stole just one glance at her, then focused on the cup he held.

Nicole murmured “aw,” as she examined the wrapping. Just as he decided it was safe to take a sip of his coffee, just as he began to hope he could get through this Christmas without thinking things that would make him hate himself for all the rest of his life, she plucked the red bow off the box and pressed it to his shoulder.

He didn’t get it; even chuckled a little, and asked “what are you doing?”

Nicole, brimming with all sincerity and a depth of affection he knew he did not deserve, said “you’re my present this year,” and smiled.

Shit.

Fuck.

Shit fuck, Jesus why didn’t he know any worse words than that? Because the things he was feeling right now . . . there needed to be worse words for people who felt like that.

Thank everything he did and didn’t believe in, that was when Mom and Dad walked in. He almost lunged for Mom, wrapping his arms around her as much with frantic gratitude as anything else.

“Merry Christmas,” he said, and Mom’s happy squeal, Dad’s friendly hand on his shoulder, made him feel like the absolute worst kind of worm. There’s no way they’d be glad to see him if they knew what he’d been thinking about their daughter.

To cover his mortification, his misery at even nine months on a different continent not being enough to fix whatever was deeply, seriously wrong with him, Josh poured them both coffee and sat at the table to welcome their friendly, fond interrogation.

He could do this.

Of course he could.

He had to.

***

“At least you made here in time it for Christmas Day,” was Nan’s warm welcome when she arrived later that morning. By then Josh had napped, showered and shaved, so he felt equal to the task of beaming and throwing both arms around her shoulders.

“Good to see you too, Nan,” he said. “Come on into the living room.”

Mom, Dad and Nicole were already there, and Josh found with the added distraction of Nan grousing quietly about various things, he was able to feel almost normal as they passed around gifts, snacks and coffee (nobody told Nan it was of the spirit-infested variety, so she had three cups and even called one “delicious”) and basked in the glow of a dying fire.

“Weather system moving in overnight,” Dad announced, reading the script running across the bottom of the muted television. “Freezing rain. Could be messy.”

“I should head home soon,” Nan decided. “I don’t want to be on the roads when that hits.”

Dad and Mom made polite noises of protest, but stopped as soon as Nan seemed ready to actually heed them. They all saw her out to the door, wished her a Merry Christmas and stood waving until her car had disappeared around the corner.

“Better run a tub full of water,” Mom decided when the front door had closed. “Just in case.”

The next morning, the tub of water proved necessary: Josh woke to a freezing bedroom and a dark, quiet house.

“Power’s off,” Nicole announced, as he stumbled into the kitchen. “Mom and Dad are still asleep. Cereal?”

“Thanks.” He accepted the box, poured a bowl, and topped it off with milk pulled from a darkened fridge. “The storm did this?”

“Yup. The trees are covered in ice. One of them must have taken out a line, somewhere. I think the whole street is out.”

“Mm,” Josh said, and focused on his cereal. Nicole was wearing his shirt again. Did she sleep in it often? Jesus Christ, Josh, don’t dwell on that.

He scrambled for a change of topic.

“Phones?”

“Still working. I pulled the old corded set out of the basement to check. Water’s out, though. Hope you showered last night, or you’re going to be kind of gross to put up with.”

“I did,” he promised, “but what about you? I don’t want you stinking this place up, either.”

“I did too,” she said, and he looked up just in time to catch the full force of her smile. “I’m so glad you’re home, Josh.”

He ducked his head and poked at his cereal.

“Thanks. Me too.”

When he looked up again she was still watching him, this time with a frown.

“You’d tell me if something was wrong, wouldn’t you?” she said. He almost choked on a spoonful of Cheerios.

“Wrong?” he said. Nicole nodded.

“Yeah. I mean—don’t take this badly, but you’ve been so far away for almost a year, and now you’re back so that should be great but everything just feels different. Doesn’t it?”

He avoided her gaze.

“Not to me.”

“Oh.” She sighed and propped her head up on her hands. “Okay. Sorry. Must be just me, then.”

Which made him feel ten times worse, letting her think it was all in her head.

“No, Niccy, look,” he set his spoon down and looked across the table. “It’s not just you. Things changed even before I left. We just weren’t together enough since then for you to notice ‘til now.”

“But why?” Nicole looked so wretchedly hurt, so confused, that Josh, who had previously believed there could be nothing worse than the things he was thinking about his sister, the way he felt for her, now discovered just how wrong he’d been.

Making Nicole look that way because he felt those things: that was worse.

“Was it something I said before you left? Did I do something that—”

“No! No, it’s nothing to do with you, you didn’t do anything wrong. You—” he shook his head. Dragged his fingers through his hair. “You’re perfect. It’s me. It’s all my fault, it’s nothing to do with you, and I’m just sorry I ever made you think it was.”

“Oh. Okay.” Nicole looked at her own cereal bowl a moment, then back to Josh. “Can’t you tell me what it is? Even if I didn’t cause it, could I . . . fix it?”

God but he was a heel.

“No. I mean, even if you could, it’s not your job to fix it.”

“Right, but if I can help—”

“Jesus, Niccy, just drop it!” he cried. Then he lurched to his feet and stumbled out of the kitchen, into the garage.

The garage was freezing, even colder than the bone-deep cold of the house itself, but Josh wrapped his arms around himself and welcomed the shivers. They seemed like the very least he deserved, and he was fully prepared to ride them out with only the silent, ancient deep freeze for companionship, when the door to the house opened again and Nicole appeared.

“Josh,” she said plaintively. “Please.”

He shook his head and pressed his hand to his face.

“Please,” Nicole repeated. She came down the bare wooden steps from the kitchen door to stand beside him, and the nearness of somebody he loved more than anything, more than anyone, after she’d been too far away for too long . . . it was too much.

“Maybe I can’t fix it,” she said, “maybe it wasn’t my fault, or anything, but if it’s upsetting you, I want to know what it is. Because you matter.” She pressed her palm to his shoulder, and he bit the flesh of his own palm. “Because you’re mine. You know?”

He raised his head from his hand, and looked down into the full, gale force of her hurt and confusion.

He really shouldn’t have done that.

Before he could fully understand what his hands were doing, they’d moved to cradle her cheek, tip her face up to his and gently hold her in place when he brought his mouth down on hers.

When he’d been five and held her, the way she’d looked at him had been amazing. When he’d been thirteen and saw her wake up in the hospital bed, after the doctors had worried she might not wake again . . . that had been a miracle.

But the softest, most careful, most perfectly painful thing he had ever done was right there in their garage, in the near-total darkness, with the edge of the deep freeze digging into his hip as he slowly froze through his pyjama top and kissed his little sister.

When he drew back at last, Nicole’s eyes were wide and bright with new understanding in the dark of the garage.

“Oh,” she whispered. She pressed a hand to her lips, as if to verify what had just happened. “Oh.”

Josh, more revolted with himself than he had ever thought possible, said “sorry. God, Nic, I’m sorry. I’m just . . . so sorry.”

Then he turned, and stumbled back into the house.

***

The longest sentence he said to Nicole over the next three days was “please pass the potatoes.” She passed them to him, but he couldn’t read too much into that because they were all sitting down as a family, the power newly restored to the area, and he refused to even look her in the eye as he accepted them, so she could have been flipping him off with her free hand for all he knew.

She probably wasn’t. But he wouldn’t have blamed her if she had.

As he packed his bags at the end of his stay, he consoled himself that the one good thing to come of all this was that now at least Nicole would see why it wasn’t her fault, and maybe she’d be more comfortable at keeping the distance he’d worked so hard to put up between them.

He could only hope.

***

2012

***

Josh hung up the phone in early December with a dizzying sense of foreboding. The news from home, to an onlooker, would not have been good: Nan wasn’t doing well.

In truth, Josh didn’t know how he felt about that. Sure, a grandson in that situation was supposed to be devastated and concerned, but he had stopped speaking to Nan two years ago, after he’d dodged the issue of coming home for Christmas and she’d phoned him to invoke the blood of Jesus over his rebellious soul.

He let her get a few mini tirades in, finally interrupting somewhere between “this ungrateful boy whose heart has strayed far from You” and “help him overcome his rebellion, which is as the sin of witchcraft.”

“That’s great and all, Nan,” he had said, “but look. You can sling this bullshit at much more willing participants a lot closer to home. And I’m done with it. So don’t call me again.”

Then he’d hung up, and felt light and free for the first time in three years.

It lasted all of a day, but still. It felt good.

The next year he was able to put them off again. He called, he sent presents, and said he was really sorry. He cited exams, teaching assignments and the mingled stress and expense of holiday travel on top of those responsibilities as being more than he could cope with. They’d been crushed and he hated hearing it in their voices, but he didn’t see any help for it.

He’d kissed her. His sister. He’d kissed his little sister, who was the very best thing that ever happened to him. He had kissed the one person he was supposed to protect and look after above all others; the person from whom he’d always believed was supposed to chase every unworthy boy who thought about her that way.

The way he thought about her.

It was . . . it was . . . but descriptions failed him. In truth, it was so very beyond fucked up, he couldn’t even think of anything suitable to call it. So he didn’t call it anything, but he called himself a pervert and an asshole. He spent Christmas alone in his apartment, eating microwave dinners and watching the weather channel. There were no decorations in sight; he didn’t even allow himself a tabletop tree.

Decorations, he’d decided, and all trappings of the season were for people who deserved to celebrate Christmas. He didn’t think he numbered among those.

But this year Mom had called, and told him about Nan.

“Please, Josh,” she entreated. “We’re not sure how much time she has. This will probably be her last Christmas, if she even makes it that long. It would mean so much to all of us if you could just make the time to come home . . .”

He told her he’d think about it. But Mom kept pressing, and finally she’d started to cry: the soft, deep, brokenhearted sob of somebody pushed beyond her endurance.

So Josh said he’d come.

Once off the phone with Mom, he decided even if he did go home, he couldn’t stay there. Nicole would be staying there, and he didn’t want to do that to her, didn’t want to force her to see him every morning and pretend that everything between them was normal when in fact it was the farthest thing from, and would never—could never—be normal ever again.

He called around to high school friends until he got hold of Ryan Newman.

“Sure,” Ryan sounded surprised, but agreeable. “You can crash here. Sucks about your grandma; I was sorry to hear that.”

“Thanks,” said Josh and breathed a little easier when he hung up the phone.

A week before he was scheduled to leave for home, Ryan called him back. It was late Friday afternoon, the malls were a madhouse and Josh had his hands full of hard-won Christmas shopping, so he let it go to voicemail and listened to the message once he got home.

“Hey man, look, I can’t be there this year. We’re flying down to the States to be with Jess’s family. You can still use the apartment, if you need it. I’ll leave the key with the neighbours. Have a good Christmas.”

Okay, still manageable. He’d use the key, he’d hide out at Ryan’s place and only emerge for visits to the hospital when he could be reasonably sure he wouldn’t run into Nicole. This could work pretty well, actually.

And it almost did.

His first visit to the hospital was timed perfectly. Nan was awake and pretty close to her usual self, so Josh sat patiently through a combination of family reminiscences and combative prayer (Nan was a big believer in letting people know how they’d failed her by waiting until she had them alone, and then loudly asking Jesus to change those things about them) for just over an hour before his parents came to join him. They made apologies for Nicole, who was at work, and let Josh know they’d take the next shift in exchange for his promise to stop by their house on his way back to Ryan’s. They needed him to check on the stew.

Josh promised he would.

When he got in the front door, the house smelled better than he remembered. The pine and cinnamon scents of holiday decorating blended with the savoury smell of a beef stew simmering in the crock pot.

It smelled like home.

Josh had just lifted the lid to check the meat when he heard the front door open. “Aw come on, you guys didn’t think I could handle this on my own?” he called, laughing.

There was no answer. He looked up from the stove just in time to see Nicole walk into the kitchen.

The skewer in his hand clattered into the pot. Nicole made a sound of annoyance and crossed to fish the skewer out. He backed up as she approached, and watched her lay the metal prong carefully on a dishtowel.

Then she turned to face him.

She’d cut her hair. That was the first thing he noticed. Maybe it was a weird thing for him to see first, but it was so different. There was a long bang sloping over her forehead, and something vaguely sharp and layered about the rest of it, which fell just above her shoulders. She was wearing a burgundy winter coat he didn’t recognize, and of course he didn’t, it had been three years, but somehow it was the coat and hair together that really threw him off.

“Hi,” she said.

He cleared his throat.

“Hey.”

Then, because he’d had far too long to think about all the things he would say to her if he ever allowed himself to be in the same room alone with her ever again, they all started rushing out at once. He was pretty sure only a few of them actually sounded like English, and most of those were either “sorry” or one of its many near relations, but he couldn't seem to stop himself, and they just kept pouring out. Nicole let him go on like that for about forty seconds, then held up her hand.

“Stop,” she said.

He shut up.

“No,” she laughed, “I didn’t mean stop talking. I just meant . . . stop apologizing.”

He shook his head. “No, Niccy, you deserve it. Every apology I can give, for what I did? You deserve them. At the very least you deserve them. That . . . what I did, it was inexcusable.”

“The only thing you did that was inexcusable,” she frowned, “was leaving without asking if it was what I wanted you to do.”

He blinked.

“What?”

“You just assumed,” she said, “that because you felt like shit for—for wanting to do that, then I mustn’t want you to do it. Am I right?”

“Well, sort of, but—”

“Shut up. Just shut up right now. You wouldn’t let me say any of this to you for three years. It is so very much my turn to talk, it’s not even funny.”

So he let her talk.

“I’m gonna guess it’s been what . . . four years for you, huh? Since before Africa, you said. I had three years to work out what that meant, and just so you know, I spent a lot of time working it out. So after one year you come home, and you kiss me, and then, you fucking coward, you just turn and run without even talking to me about it!”

Josh blinked, but stayed silent.

“I mean from one viewpoint, you probably should have asked if I was okay, or something like that. But the way I see it, you also damn well owed it to me to ask what I thought about it.”

“What—” Josh began, swallowed, and tried again. “What would you have said?”

Nicole shook her head.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I mean, not right away. I probably would have told you I needed to think about it. But you didn’t ask, so I’ve had three years to think about it (and oh my God, Josh, you do the self-recrimination thing way better than Nan ever did, so way to go, you) and now, the first thing I need to say, is you idiot. And the second thing is you coward. And the third thing is, for the love of God, it’s been three years, and that’s too long to wait. I want you to kiss me again.”

It was just as well he was leaning against the counter, because by that point you could have knocked him over with a feather.

“Wh-what?”

She stepped forward and curled her fingers under the lapels of his winter coat.

“I said,” she repeated, shaping each word with exquisite deliberation, “I want you to kiss me again.” Then she smiled, half smirk, half sheepishness. “Go figure that it took a year of you running away to Africa and then one Christmas where you made a total ass of yourself for me to figure it out for myself, but there it is: it’s you. I think it’s always been you. I just didn’t see it, right away.”

She reached up, fit a palm around the back of his head, and tipped his face down to hers. “But now that we’ve both figured it out, I’d really appreciate it if we didn’t waste any more of each other’s time.”

Then she kissed him.

It was wonderful. It was terrible. It was terrifying.

Her mouth felt amazing, so much softer than he’d allowed himself to remember. He cradled her cheeks in both hands, gently enough that she could pull back if she chose, and traced the line of her jaw with his thumbs. She made a breathy, whimpering sound at the back of her throat as he pressed past her lips with his tongue, and when he slipped one hand around to the small of her back, when he tracked his fingers up her spine, she gasped into his mouth and curved her body to fit against his.

“This—” she paused, sucked in her breath as his other palm slipped down to unbutton her coat, “this—oh God, Josh that feels . . . do it again?”

He traced the curve of her breast through her sweater and all her breath rushed out between her teeth.

“Ohh  yes, just like—shit. Wait,” she pressed a palm to his chest. He stepped back immediately, concerned.

“We can stop,” he promised, “if you’re not comfortable, if this isn’t—”

“I know,” she said fondly, “I know. And I love you for saying that, Josh. But I don’t want to stop. I just think we shouldn’t be doing this right here in the kitchen.” She inclined her head toward the windows, most of which didn’t have curtains drawn. “Anybody could walk by and look in. We can do this, we just can’t do this here.”

So there was going to be a this and this was going to mean them and Josh couldn’t believe it, really, could hardly wrap his head around the fact that the little sister he hadn’t wanted in the first place had become the only person he wanted, the only person he ever wanted to do this with ever again . . . and that she wanted to, too.

“I have an apartment,” he remembered. “I mean, it’s not mine, but it’s mine to use. There’d be nobody there but us.”

And I have an apartment on the West Coast where nobody knows you’re my sister, he thought, but didn’t say it out loud.

Not yet.

“So you have an apartment,” she breathed, “I have car keys, and we’ve got at least a few hours to steal for ourselves before Mom and Dad actually wonder where we are.” She squeezed her brother’s hand and smiled.

“What are we waiting for? Let’s go.”

***

When Joshua Alexander Wilson was five years old, his parents brought home a baby.

It was the best day of his life.

***