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Shelter Us, Harbor Me

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December

It’s fucking December—the beginning of December, and there are goddamn fucking carolers outside. They crowd around Nigel when he’s trying to open the gate, smiling and ringing bells, and—

“Will you fucking shut up?”

The song grinds to a halt, drifting off in sections as the carolers nearest Nigel stop mid-word and shuffle nervously away from him, and the ones in the back take longer to get the memo. They all just stand there gawping at him, and he rolls his eyes.

“You’re about three weeks too early, and I’m not donating money to shit, now get the fuck out of here.”

A mother holding a small child’s hand shoots him a dirty look as she hurries past, muttering something about holiday spirit. Nigel’s about two seconds from telling her where she can shove her holiday spirit.

Fucking December. A rotten end to a rotten fucking year.

Nigel gets upstairs and tosses his keys into the little dish that Adam had bought him when he’d forgotten his wallet just one time too many. It fucking works—he hasn’t lost his keys, wallet, or phone since.

He flops down onto the couch and pulls his phone out. Clamps a cigarette between his teeth and lights it up, scrolling through missed calls. There’s one from that fuckhead Jason—still just as incompetent—and he ignores it. His head is killing him, and he’s not in the mood. He’ll fix whatever Jason managed to fuck up tomorrow. He tosses the phone on the couch and walks into the kitchen, opening the refrigerator out of habit. It’s practically empty, save for some bread, a bottle of mustard, and one of the shitty beers Cindy brought over last time she was here.

He closes the refrigerator door and opens the freezer. There’s a bag of frozen chicken breast sitting beside three sad boxes of Amy’s mac and cheese. They’re covered in a thick rime of frost, probably well past their expiration date, but he hasn’t been able to bring himself to either eat them or throw them away. He won’t tonight either. He ignores them and reaches for the bottle of vodka leaning on its side instead.

He considers a glass but in the end just shrugs and takes the bottle with him. He’s got no one to impress.

* * *

Nigel’s never been one for Christmas, but it turns out he hates it even more now. Even without the fucking carolers (who had been smart enough not to come back), even without a scrap of Christmas decoration in the house, everything reminds him of the kid.

It’s Christmas Eve, and he’s drunk off his ass thinking about hot chocolate and shy, skittish kisses—his little angel who was so prickly and so sweet. He should have done more. He shouldn’t have left him alone. He knew those sick fucks had their eye on him, and Nigel had just sat around with his thumb up his ass.

He gave the kid a fucking gun like it was enough—like that sweet thing would even be able to pull a fucking trigger—and then he went to move product and fucking left the kid alone.

Adam’s probably dead by now, he knows that. They probably fucking ate him. He knows it’s true, because that’s how life works and there are no miracles, and yet some stupid part of him refuses to believe it—the part that refuses to die no matter how many times he tries to drown it in fucking, fighting, and booze. The same part that keeps paying the kid’s rent and refuses to move out of his tiny apartment. Just in case.

It’s worse if Adam is still alive; he knows that too. If he’s alive, he’s probably suffering, and there’s a thought Nigel can’t even begin to cope with.

“You fucking moron,” he snarls.

He punches a hole in the wall for old times’ sake.

* * *

He’s woken by some annoying sound too close to his ear, tinny and loud. He groans and wills it to stop. There might be a God because it does, finally—only to start right back up again. Nigel curses and picks up on the fourth ring.

“What?”

“Hello to you too, motherfucker.”

Nigel sits up, groaning as the dark room spins around him. He must’ve passed out at some point, and whatever the fuck time it is, it hasn’t been long enough to sober up.

“Darko?”

“Yeah, who else would it be?”

“Not someone with any fucking sense, clearly. What time is it?”

“Half past one.”

Nigel does the math in his pounding head. “The fuck are you calling me at 3 in the fucking morning for?”

“To wish you a merry fucking Christmas and to make sure your sorry ass isn’t still moping. You sitting there being a sadsack, găozar?”

Nigel doesn’t dignify that with an answer, just uncaps the bottle of vodka at his elbow and takes a pull.

Darko sighs at the other end of the line. “Nigel, buddy. I love you like a fucking brother, but you’ve gotta stop doing this to yourself. You knew that fucking kid like, what, two weeks?”

“Three months,” Nigel grunts.

“Three months, I’ve got a fucking cabbage in my refrigerator older than that. You’ve got to let it go. It sucks what happened to your boyfriend, but you gotta fucking move on. Go find yourself some new pussy—or cock, fuck it, whatever you want; it’s a free country—just cut that shit out. You gotta stop, man.”

“Fuck you,” Nigel says, lighting up another cigarette. “What’re you, my fucking mom?”

“Fuck you too. I’m prettier than your mom.”

Nigel flicks the end off his cigarette, watches the cherry burn in the dark. They sit in silence, and the freeway hums in the distance.

“Thanks,” he says finally. “For calling.”

“Yeah, well. Don’t be a bitch about it.”

“Merry Christmas, Darko.”

“Merry Christmas, Nigel. Take care of yourself, man.”

 

December

Christmas in Uvita isn’t so different from Christmas in LA. It’s bright and sunny either way, with not a flake of snow to be found anywhere. It’s nothing like New York.

In the ways that matter, it’s nothing like California either. Where his apartment was barren and devoid of holiday cheer, their house in Costa Rica looks like Christmas spirit exploded and dragged its corpse all over the walls. Adam gets dragged into the holiday preparations, and there’s never even the possibility of saying no. Not that he wants to.

No one here asks about his dead dad. There’s a tacit agreement that the past is dead and buried—they’ll dance on hallowed ground, but they won’t dig it up.

Garlands are pressed into his hands, bright things made of gaudy golden tinsel, and he strings them over the doorways while Hannibal says higher or lower. He holds a ladder so Will can climb up to drape Christmas lights over the roof.

“What’s the point?” Adam asks. There are no houses for miles. “No one will see them.”

“We’ll see them,” Will says. “That’s what matters. We can watch them from the beach.”

“They’re pretty,” Adam says at last, and Will hums in agreement.

They drive to get a cypress tree from a farm further inland. The tree they find smells almost right, like sweetened pine mixed with something like pepper. It’s the closest they can get to a fir without driving more than an hour, and Hannibal keeps them in the field long after Adam gets bored, painstakingly inspecting trees for sparse branches and dropped needles until he finally finds one that passes muster.

They drive back with it strapped to the roof of the car.

Will turns on the radio and finds a station playing holiday tunes, saccharine songs that Adam remembers blaring in all the department stores all December long. Hannibal shoots Will a withering glare.

“I should make you listen to that,” Hannibal says as he reaches for the dial.

“Wait,” Adam says. Will turns to look at him, and Hannibal glances at him in the rearview mirror. “I want to listen to it. Can you leave it, please?”

“Sure,” Will says.

Hannibal puts both hands back on the steering wheel, and that means yes.

Sweet, easy melodies fill the car, and Adam sits in the backseat looking out the window, watching the coast roll by.

* * *

The table is heaping with platters of food, far more than the three of them can eat together.

“Why so much?” Adam asks. “It seems like a waste.”

“Because we’re celebrating,” Hannibal says.

“Our first Christmas together as a family,” Will says. He nudges Adam with a shoulder. “If you think this is a lot, you should have seen some of the spreads he made in Baltimore.”

This isn’t something they talk about much—their pasts, the before of it all—and Adam listens with rapt attention.

“You ate with him then,” Adam says. “Before you knew.”

Will inclines his head. “A lot of people did. His dinner parties were the talk of the Baltimore social scene.”

Adam tries to picture it in his head, Hannibal and Will at a dinner party, tricking everyone into eating human flesh. He finds that he can’t.

“I wish I could have been there to see it.”

“You really don’t,” Will says with a laugh that isn’t altogether nice. “They were tedious social affairs full of sycophants and morons. Hannibal didn’t even like his friends.”

Hannibal shakes his head and changes the subject. “In Lithuania, the Christmas Eve meal is called Kūčios, and it’s comprised of twelve distinct dishes for each one of the twelve apostles. Traditionally people fast all day leading up to it.”

“But we didn’t,” Adam says, and his belly gurgles in agreement. He’s still a little queasy from eating too many of the powdered sugar cookies earlier.

“I don’t find asceticism particularly interesting, even recreationally,” Hannibal says. “I see no reason to deny any of us anything when we’re meant to be celebrating—which is why we’ll be having roast lamb, although the traditional Kūčios meal is meatless as well.”

“Is it actually lamb?” Adam asks.

Will smirks.

“It is. I admit I found the symbolism too appealing to pass up,” Hannibal says. He hands Adam a tureen of blood red soup to take to the table.

“The Lamb of God,” Will says. “Of course you did. You would think it was hilarious to eat lamb for Christmas.”

Hannibal smiles with teeth. “God loves his jokes. Is it not fitting to make a few at his expense?”

“Arrogant,” Will says, but he smiles with the same teeth that eat Hannibal’s meat. He takes the platter of lamb out of Hannibal’s hands and sets it carefully aside before leaning in to kiss him.

Adam watches from the doorway and feels so drowned with love.

* * *

There isn’t Swiss Miss hot chocolate, but there’s wassail, spicy and hot and spiked with heady brandy. Adam sits on Will’s lap and lets Will feed him little sips while Hannibal pulls presents out from beneath the tree and distributes them.

“I’ve never done this before,” Adam says, warm and flushed and a little tipsy.

“You’ve never opened presents on Christmas Eve?” Will asks, tightening his arm around Adam’s waist and nuzzling into his neck with a teasing growl.

Adam shakes his head, giggling. “Not like this. We always waited until Christmas day, and there were never this many presents.”

There are a lot of presents, a small pile for each of them, and Adam had helped pick some of them out. He’d gone into town with Hannibal and walked through the stores, waiting patiently while Hannibal spoke with the shopkeepers in Spanish. He’d only understood about every third word, but he’d been content to listen to Hannibal’s voice—the way it turned into music when he could hear only tone and not meaning.

He’d stretched out in the bed with Will while he scrolled through Amazon, both of them pointing to things Hannibal might like, sometimes agreeing, sometimes vetoing each other’s picks, until they settled on a nice stack of gifts.

There are presents for him, too, boxes of various sizes wrapped in shiny red paper with pretty gold ribbons. He’d seen them sitting under the tree, but it didn’t occur to him until now just how many there are.

“You didn’t have to get me anything,” he says softly.

Will scoffs. Rubs his back. “Of course we did, sweetheart.”

“We wouldn’t make you do without on Christmas,” Hannibal says.

And Adam knows. He knows enough about them now to know that they’ve both had many Christmases where they’ve done without, and so has he. He thinks of Christmases spent alone in cold apartments, Christmases huddled around a space heater with his dad. He thinks of one bright Christmas where there were no decorations, but he laid on the couch with someone good and felt like nothing could touch him.

He looks up into the smiling faces of his fathers now.

He throws his arms around Will’s neck, and then Hannibal’s. His heart is so full.

“Open your presents,” Hannibal says gently, when Adam’s hung on just a little too long.

Adam slides to the floor and tears into bright paper while Will and Hannibal lean into each other on the couch, sipping drinks and watching. They all take turns unwrapping things, holding up shirts, trying out novelty items, saying thank you and kissing. Even the dogs get presents.

By the time the clock strikes midnight, Adam is sleepy and worn. There’s a pile of paper and bows scattered around the floor, and Will sets his drink down on the coffee table to chase Mia, who’s decided wire ribbon is more fun than her new chew toy. Adam yawns and starts thinking about getting changed for bed.

“You forgot one,” Will says when he returns, handing Adam a small package he’s sure wasn’t under the tree before.

Hannibal and Will share a look, and Adam glances between them, curious.

“Go on,” Will says. “Open it.”

Adam rips the wrapping paper at the seam. Below is a sleek, smooth white box with a recognizable logo and a colorful picture of a phone on top.

“You got me a phone?” He asks, confused.

“Consider it a promise deferred, finally fulfilled,” Hannibal says.

“There’s, uh, a phone plan for it and everything,” Will says. “All you have to do is set it up.”

Adam blinks, dumbfounded. He can’t seem to find the words.

“Merry Christmas, baby,” Will says.

And Adam decides he doesn’t need words. Not today. Not right now.

He tosses the box aside where it lands harmlessly on a pile of sweaters. The dogs sniff at it while he jumps on the couch, knocking the wind out of both his dads. He throws his arms around both of them together, taking turns kissing one and then the other.

“I love you,” he says. “I love you, Merry Christmas.”

And it doesn’t really matter who says it, because it’s true either way.

There’s not enough room on the couch, so they end up on the floor. They add more clothes to the pile of Christmas debris and find out how many ways they can fit together.

The phone lies forgotten because there’s no one to call. Not when he has everything he needs right here.