Stacy carefully picked up her ornament and studied it. It was large and round a heavy, a pretty shade of pink, and had her name written on one side in swirly silver script. Her mother had given it to her last year for Christmas, and she knew exactly where she wanted to hang it on this year’s tree.
“Renee,” she asked plaintively, hooking the ornament clasp on her index finger, “will you help me?”
Her older sister glanced down from the stepstool on which she stood; she was helping her mother arrange decorations near the top of the tree. Renee put her hand on her hip and looked put out. “Stacy,” she replied witheringly, “you’re too little. Here – let me have your ornament, and I’ll put it right here, next to mine.” She pointed to her own namesake ornament, the color of an emerald, which rested near the top of the tree with the other precious collectibles.
Stacy pouted, curling her hand into her chest and fixing her best stubborn glare on her sister. “I want to hang it,” she said stoutly. “It’s my ornament.”
Renee rolled her eyes, pressing both fists into her hips. “Mo-om,” she intoned, turning to where their mother stood, on the other side of the great fir tree.
Before their mother could respond, however, another adult intervened, sweeping Stacy up in his arms. “There now,” their grandfather chuckled, lifting her up loftily, “where did you want to put it?”
Stacy twisted in his arms, giving him her biggest, happiest smile. “Right next to yours, Grandpa.”
His eyes twinkled as he complied with her request, taking two steps around the tree and leaning forward, allowing her to carefully hang her pink ornament on the branch next to his blue one.
Stacy yawned, blinking rapidly as she adjusted the circle of her arms around her knees. She pressed herself back against the sofa, her eyes never leaving the screen. She loved watching Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, broadcast live from Vatican City. Everything was absolutely enchanting – the waves of celebrants from across the globe, attending in their traditional, cultural outfits; the arrays of flowers they brought for the Pope; the sweeping majesty of St. Peter’s Basilica. Even though she didn’t understand a word of it, she sat, totally enraptured, as Renee snored lightly on the sofa behind her.
It was one of her favorite Christmas traditions. She wasn’t yet old enough to attend the local service, and she usually found it hard to sit still in church anyway – but there was something completely magical about watching the Italian broadcast.
Stacy barely registered the front door of the apartment opening and closing, her parents and grandparents shuffling into the foyer on quiet feet. The adults murmured between themselves for a moment, before her grandfather entered the front room, gracing her with a small smile. He walked past her to check on Renee, ruffling her hair as she continued to sleep.
“Stace,” he whispered, sinking onto the floor beside his youngest granddaughter, “it’s time for bed.”
Stacy frowned. “But I want to watch this,” she whispered back. “It’s so beautiful…”
Her grandfather smiled indulgently, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. “I know, honey,” he replied, “but if you don’t go to bed soon, Santa won’t be able to come and leave presents for you!”
Stacy looked at her grandfather with wide, serious eyes. “He can still come,” she said swiftly. “I won’t go into the living room, I promise!” Her eyes drifted back to the TV, and she sighed contentedly.
Her grandfather gave her shoulders a squeeze and settled in beside her. “Do you understand what’s going on?” he asked pleasantly, gesturing towards the screen.
Stacy shrugged. “Not really,” she admitted, “but the Pope is a really good speaker – and his robe is so pretty!”
Her grandfather nodded. “Yes, it’s a special one…” In low tones, he interpreted what was going happening on screen, telling Stacy about the message the Pope was giving, as well as the meanings of all the hymns and solemn recitations by the other cardinals.
Stacy’s eyes began to droop as the mass wore on; she leaned heavily into her grandfather’s side as exhaustion finally claimed her. He smiled, bundling her up into his arms before standing up. As he slipped out of the front room, he paused briefly by the entrance to the living room, where his son and daughter-in-law sat grimly, nursing cups of coffee.
“You’re good to go,” he told them softly. “The girls are fast asleep.”
Stacy burst into her sister’s room, barely able to contain her excitement. “Renee, wake up!” she fairly shrieked, launching herself onto the bed and giving her sister’s shoulders a vigorous shake. “C’mon, c’mon, you’re the only one not up yet!”
Renee groaned, covering her face with her hands and rolling onto her side, away from Stacy. “What time is it?” she mumbled. “Is it even daylight yet?”
“Yes,” Stacy insisted, giving her another friendly shove. “It’s already after seven!” When this news failed to move Renee, she heaved a heavy, dramatic sigh. “Come on, Renee – you know we can’t open presents until everyone’s awake!”
“I’m awake,” Renee replied, her voice muffled by her pillow.
Stacy pulled on her sister’s arm. “You know what I mean,” she intoned impatiently. “Now, come on – Mom and Dad are making breakfast, and Grandpa and Grandma are already here!”
“Okay, okay, okay,” Renee relented, shoving aside her covers and struggling into a sitting position. She rubbed her bleary eyes and yawned, arching her back into a cat-like stretch. She glanced over her shoulder, trying to decide if she should be surprised by how excited her sister was. “I’m up.”
Stacy tugged at her arm again. “Then let’s go to the living room!”
“I think I want breakfast,” Renee countered, narrowing a curious look in Stacy’s direction. “And if you’re so hot to trot, you know you can open your stocking, right? We don’t all have to be there for that.”
Stacy’s smile was downright blissful. “But I want you to be,” she replied. She searched her sister’s eyes for a long moment. “Don’t you know what today is?”
Renee released a slow breath. “It’s Christmas,” she answered.
“And I’m thirteen this year,” Stacy reminded her.
Understanding finally dawned across Renee’s features. “Oh, yeah!” she said with a smile. “Lucky you. I want to see this, too – so just give me a minute, okay? I promise I’ll be right out.”
“Okay,” Stacy agreed eagerly. She hopped off her sister’s bed and tightened the belt of her robe around her waist. “I’ll wait until you’re there.”
She met Renee’s soft smile with one of her own before turning, exiting her sister’s room and continuing down the hall towards the living room. Everyone else in the family had already gathered; her parents and grandparents chattered lightly amongst themselves. They paid her scant attention as she picked up her filled-to-the-brim stocking and began to go through it.
She found the usual stocking stuffers – candy, a new toothbrush, a pocket calendar, new colored pencils, chapstick, lip gloss, a bottle of nail polish. She carefully extracted each item, her excitement growing as she neared the bottom. When her fingers brushed against a small velvet box, her heart skipped a beat.
Very slowly, she pulled it out, cupping the tiny black box in her palm. She knew what it was – she’d watched Renee open a similar present three years ago, which had prompted stories of the other young ladies in the family who’d received this special gift. And now, finally, it was her turn.
She glanced up, noticing Renee settling into her customary spot and giving her an encouraging look. The adults’ conversation had also dwindled down to nearly nothing, making Stacy feel even more like the absolute center of attention. She reveled in it for a long moment before prying open the box – and even though she’d been expecting it, she was still absolutely stunned by the gift.
“Oh, Grandpa,” she breathed, “it’s beautiful!”
Very carefully, she extracted a ring, a polished gold band set with a stunning wine red garnet. Her heart pumped a little faster as she slipped it onto her finger, admiring the way the gem twinkled in the overhead light. It was her birthstone, and the very first piece of grown-up jewelry she’d ever received from anyone.
Renee was in front of her before Stacy could place her. “Ooh, let me see!” she requested eagerly, reaching for her sister’s hand. She turned it this way and that, admiring the stone and its depth of color. The girls were so busy fawning over the ring that they were nearly startled out of their skin when their grandfather appeared at Renee’s side and laid a hand on each girl’s shoulder.
“Oh, Grandpa,” Renee gushed, “it’s really gorgeous. How do you always manage to pick the perfect thing?”
He smiled indulgently, giving their shoulders an affectionate squeeze. “Just lucky, I guess,” he replied modestly. “Of course, it helps that you girls were both born in a month with such a variable gemstone – I didn’t have to agonize about getting the same thing and having you two fight over it.”
Stacy’s eyes lit with understanding. “That’s right!” she noted with delight. “Renee, isn’t your ring a green garnet?”
“A Tsavorite,” Renee corrected her, placing her right hand next to her sister’s. The stone was a rich, ocean green color, a perfect, Christmassy complement to Stacy’s red one.
“These were the gemstones that were used in the crown jewels of ancient empires,” their grandfather told them. His voice grew tight with pride and his eyes misted over. “And now, my granddaughters can dress like royalty, just like my sisters, and my mother, and my grandmother before her.”
Stacy wrapped her arms around her grandfather’s waist and pressed a delighted kiss on his cheek. “Thank you, Grandpa,” she said, her voice soft with gratefulness. “I’ll treasure this always.”
Stacy stood in front of the half-decorated Christmas tree in her living room, her eyes pinned to a delicate blue ornament hanging near the top. I can’t believe he’s gone, she thought, tracing the swirly silver script that spelled out her grandfather’s name.
It had all been so sudden; in the space of a breath, her life – her family’s life – had been irrevocably altered. One day, her grandfather was fine; the next, he was gone. He’d had a silent heart attack in his sleep, and had slipped away during the night. From that moment on, Stacy felt like she’d been put on autopilot, going through the motions of life, of grief. The funeral was a standard, staid affair; he was buried in consecrated ground near the outskirts of the city.
Everyone dealt with the loss in their own way. Her grandmother visited him every week, laying fresh winter flowers on his grave. Her father had started the long and painful process of going through his father’s things, trying to help his mother decide what to keep and what to donate; every night he’d come home in tears. Her mother and her sister cried at nearly every opportunity, it seemed – when they heard the news, during the funeral service, at the gravesite. They talked and reminisced and mourned openly.
Stacy, however, felt numb inside. She hadn’t cried at all – not when her parents broke the news to her one day after school; not when Renee hugged her tight and blubbered on her shoulder; not at the funeral or the gravesite; not even when she looked at precious objects that reminded her so viscerally of her grandfather. Even now, she stared at his namesake ornament, willing herself to feel something – anything.
Why can’t I cry? she wondered silently. Heaviness settled in her chest, making it difficult to breathe. Her eyes ached, but still, no tears came. What’s wrong with me?
Stacy startled abruptly from her thoughts when she felt a warm hand clasping her shoulder. She glanced over, unsurprised to see her sister standing at her side.
“Are you okay?” Renee asked gently.
No, Stacy wanted to say – but instead, she heard herself replying tonelessly, “I’m fine.”
Renee gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “It’s hard, being around so many things that remind us of him,” she murmured sympathetically. “I know how you feel.”
Stacy hung her head. Do you? she wondered.
“Christmas is going to be especially hard,” Renee continued on, “considering what a big part of our celebration he was. So Stace – please know that it’s okay to cry for him. No one will begrudge you your tears – we all know how close you two were.”
“I know,” Stacy whispered.
Renee rubbed her arm soothingly before hugging her close. “You don’t have to do this, if you don’t want to,” she said softly. “Mom and I can handle decorating the tree this year.”
Stacy drew a tight breath. “I want to help,” she replied, shrugging out of her sister’s hold. She moved closer to the box of decorations, rooting around in it until she found what she was looking for. With a resolute look, she reached for her pretty pink ornament, hooking the clasp on her index finger and holding it up to the light.
“I know exactly where I want to put this,” she announced, turning back towards her sister. With another long look at her grandfather’s blue ornament, she walked around to the other side of the great fir tree, hanging her ornament as far away from his as she possibly could.
Stacy shook herself from her morose thoughts, glancing up from the sheet music she’d been half-heartedly looking over. “Yeah?”
Kenny studied her with quiet concern before exchanging a long, silent look with the others. “We’re trying to figure out the set list for our last concert of the year, before the big New Year’s Eve bash,” he said slowly. “We can’t decide without your input, you know.”
“Oh, just pick whatever,” Stacy replied with a dismissive wave. “I’m sure I’ll like whatever you guys choose.”
Richie and Devyn lifted their brows in surprise as they studied their bandmate. “Really?” Devyn tried. “Even if we want to play obscure seventies prog rock?”
Stacy shrugged. “Sure,” she answered. “I just have one request.”
“Yeah?” Richie asked doubtfully.
Stacy’s eyes swept up, flickering over each of them in turn before falling back to her sheet music. “Just don’t give me any leads, okay?”
Robin gaped at her, but before she could say anything, the others drew her back into the corner of the store room. They clustered together in a tight-knit circle, speaking in whispery tones.
“I’m worried about Stacy,” Robin said, casting a furtive glance over her shoulder at their erstwhile bandmate.
“Me, too,” Richie admitted. “I’ve never seen her like this.”
“She’s like a zombie,” Kenny agreed. “When has she ever turned down singing lead?”
“It’s more than that,” Devyn interjected softly. “Even when she’s felt down before, she’s always at least expressed it to us. I mean – don’t you remember how upset she was when she found out Ryan wasn’t going to be here for the holidays?”
The other three nodded slowly, their expressions filling with further worry. “Yeah, and he’s just her boyfriend,” Richie offered in grim reminder. “It was her grandfather who died. Has anybody even seen her cry about it?”
Devyn, Kenny, and Robin slowly shook their heads.
“So what can we do?” Robin asked helplessly. She was the youngest and newest band member; the others knew Stacy better than she did, and their seeming loss for ideas on how to help frightened her.
Devyn rocked back on her heels. “I think,” she finally said, crossing her arms over her chest, “that we need to find a way to get in touch with Ryan. He’s the only one who’s ever been able to get through to her when she’s depressed.”
“But isn’t his band traveling up and down the east coast?” Richie asked doubtfully. “How can contact him if we don’t even know where he is?”
Kenny sighed, pursing his lips as he glanced back at Stacy, who paged listlessly through her stack of sheet music. “It’s worth a shot, isn’t it?” he countered. “We have to help her. You know she’d do the same for us.”
“Kid!” Stacy protested with a hollow laugh as her best friend tugged her down a snow-covered sidewalk. “Where are we going?”
“I thought I’d buy you a malted,” the Kid replied, throwing her a cheeky grin over his shoulder. His glove-covered hand tightened around hers, squeezing warmth into her fingers. “Besides, it’s been ages since I’ve been in the P*lace!”
Whatever semblance of a smile that had graced Stacy’s face suddenly faltered. “The P*lace?” she echoed uncertainly. “Why do you want to go there? You know Riley isn’t around anymore – ”
“So?” the Kid cut in. “Surely the malted recipe hasn’t changed that much since I left.” When he noticed the seriousness of Stacy’s expression, he stopped. “What’s up, Stace? I thought you loved the P*lace – we practically lived there when we were kids, after all.”
Stacy averted her eyes to the sidewalk in front of her. “I know,” she said softly.
The Kid put his free hand on his hip. “So what’s the deal?” he prodded.
Stacy flushed, pulling her lower lip between her teeth. It was a stupid reason to avoid such a beloved locale, especially considering how much time she spent there anyway, performing with the band, but she didn’t like to hang around when she knew there was no chance that her boyfriend would walk through those double glass doors.
How was it that she could miss her boyfriend so ardently, and yet feel nothing but numbness at the loss of her grandfather? She’d cried when Ryan told her of his plans to tour New England with his band over winter break, but she couldn’t muster any tears to mourn her favorite relative? She’d been with her boyfriend for nearly two years, but she’d known – and loved – her grandfather for her entire life.
How was that right? How was that fair?
She felt like a rotten human being, selfish and guilty and awful to the core.
“Stacy,” the Kid said archly, breaking into her dark reverie, “I didn’t come all this way just to watch you hole up in your room and cry.” When she looked at him, he smiled. “I came here to take my best friend out for a malted!”
“I can’t cry,” she suddenly admitted, her words coming out in a rush.
The Kid furrowed his brow. “What?” he ventured uncertainly.
“I can’t cry,” she repeated, her eyes searching his wildly. “Not for my grandfather. Does that make me a horrible person?”
The Kid wrapped his arms around her, pulling her into a warm embrace. “Of course not, Stace,” he murmured, patting her back lightly. “Not everyone grieves in the same way. Some people prefer to remember the good times instead.”
“I can’t do that, either,” she choked out. “I’m just – stuck.”
The Kid drew away, clasping her hand once more. “There’s nothing a malted can’t fix,” he promised.
Stacy shook her head as the Kid turned away and began leading her down the sidewalk once more. Truth be told, she felt a little mystified at his insistence to buy her a malted. He’d just flown in from Chicago that afternoon – two days before Christmas – and she figured he’d want to spend it with his family, like any normal person would.
But no. There he was, standing on the stoop of her apartment building with a ready smile and sudden impatience to head for the P*lace with her in tow. She’d resisted the idea initially, but he was adamant – no big surprise, really; once he set his mind on something, it was nigh on impossible to dissuade him from his course.
“All right!” the Kid intoned as he pushed through the familiar blue-framed double glass doors.
Stacy couldn’t help the small smile that touched the corners of her mouth at his excitement – he looked like a kid in a candy store, staring wide-eyed around the front room as he took it all in.
“It looks the same,” he said appreciatively as they settled at the counter. He looked at Stacy. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, considering the new owner and all,” he confessed sheepishly.
“Flip’s pretty cool,” she replied absently, fidgeting restlessly on her stool. “He made his fortune in sneakers, and lavishes it on the P*lace as if it was his kid, or something.”
“Hmm,” the Kid mused. “If that’s true, then I wonder where he is? Riley would never keep hungry customers waiting.”
Stacy glanced around; with her own quick inventory of the front room, she realized that they were the only two people there. It’s no surprise, she thought to herself, swiveling back towards the counter and toying with the cache of extra straws in front of her. It is two days before Christmas, after all.
She barely registered the sound of the double glass doors opening behind her, but the Kid was a little quicker on the draw. “Maybe that’s him now,” he suggested, elbowing Stacy as he glanced over his shoulder.
Reluctantly, Stacy turned – but it was not Flip who had just entered the P*lace.
“R-Ryan?” she choked out, blinking rapidly, wondering if she had finally lost her mind completely. “Is that really you?”
“It’s really me,” he confirmed, slinging his snow-laden coat across the back of a chair before walking over to where she sat at the counter. He brushed errant snowflakes from his hair as he gazed at her plaintively, concern lacing his features. “Why didn’t you tell me, Stace?” he inquired softly after a moment.
She slid from her stool into his arms, pressing herself close. “I can’t believe you’re here,” she said haltingly, burying her face in his shoulder. Her breath constricted in her chest when his arms closed around her; her heart raced against her ribs, and her head began to throb with the heaviness of unshed tears.
“Where else would I be?” he returned, pressing a fleeting kiss to her temple. He smoothed her hair from her brow, his fingers tangling in her honey-blonde locks. “I came as soon as I heard.”
Stacy chewed on her lower lip as she curled her hands around fistfuls of his sweater. “How did you find out?” she asked, swallowing hard over the lump that had risen in her throat.
“From the Kid, actually,” Ryan replied. “He gave the band a call last night and told us what was going on.”
Stacy looked up, turning her attention to her best friend. “You did?” she questioned haltingly.
The Kid nodded. “Yeah. Pretty interesting story, actually – the Kids asked Flip for Riley’s number; they called him, and then he called me,” he explained. “Luckily, I know a couple of the guys in Ryan’s band, and I was able to get in touch with them after they landed in DC last night.”
Stacy’s chin quivered as she let go of her boyfriend and wrapped her arms around the Kid. “I can’t believe you did all of that for me,” she murmured, giving his shoulders a warm squeeze. “Thank you.”
The Kid returned her hug. “You’re welcome,” he replied with a smile. “This is what best friends are for, no?”
She chanced a small smile as she drew away. “Now I understand why you were so insistent on coming here,” she mused.
The Kid shrugged, tucking his hands into his back pockets. “What can I say? I’m a genius at this cloak-and-dagger stuff.”
“And modest, as always,” Ryan drawled.
The Kid laughed. “Well, I’ll take my leave now, since my job is done.” He pulled on his coat and gloves and headed for the front doors, but turned back at the last moment. “And Stace? I still owe you that malted.”
She nodded silently to him, leaning against her boyfriend when she felt his arms encircle her once more. She burrowed closer, resting her head on his shoulder and turning her face into his sweater. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply of his familiar, heady scent – a mixture of rain, fresh soap, and black leather – and concentrated on the steady rise and fall of his chest beneath hers.
After a long, silent moment, she burst into tears.
His response was swift and immediate; he turned her body into his, securing one arm across her back as his free hand rose to clasp her shoulder. When her knees weakened under the weight of her ugly, unrelenting sobs, he drew her close, lifting her up and depositing her on the stool once more. She clung to him, her arms locked around his shoulders, her tears soaking into the front of his sweater.
“Oh, God,” she blubbered, “I miss him so much.”
Ryan’s hand drifted into her hair, his fingers combing through the wavy strands closest to her scalp. “I know you do,” he murmured softly.
“But I’m a terrible person,” she sobbed. “I never cried for him – not when I found out, not even at his funeral – !”
“You’re crying now,” Ryan pointed out.
“Because I’m a horrible person!” she choked out.
Ryan rubbed her back in a slow, soothing caress. “Why do you think that?” he asked.
Stacy pulled back, just far enough so that her eyes met his. “Because why else would he leave me?” she burbled.
Ryan simply hugged her close in response, tightening his embrace around her. “It’s not your fault that he died, Stacy,” he said after a long moment. “I’m sure he didn’t want to leave you – he loved you too much.”
“But I – I didn’t love him enough,” she whimpered. “I – I couldn’t grieve with everyone else. I couldn’t cry, or visit his grave, or even talk about him like the others.”
“That’s okay,” Ryan assured her. “Everybody deals with loss differently. Everyone has to learn how to rebuild their lives again, and they have to do it in their own way.”
“How?” she choked out, fighting to catch her breath as her sobs began to subside. “I’ll never be the same without him. We did so many things together, especially at Christmas time…”
“I don’t know,” Ryan admitted, drawing away from her as her hands fell from his shoulders. “But a wise person once said that you can’t learn how to live through stuff like this – you have to find a way to live around it, instead.”
“I don’t know if I can do that,” Stacy said despairingly.
Ryan clasped her hands in his. “Of course you can,” he encouraged her. “You just take it one day at a time – one step at a time.” He squeezed her hands. “And I’m here for you, whenever you need me.”
She tugged him closer, bringing his forehead to rest against hers. “Thank you,” she sniffled, lacing her fingers through his.
He smiled. “This is what boyfriends are for, no?” he mused, tilting forward ever so slightly and pressing his lips to hers.