It was that feeling of being late when you want to get somewhere. Really want to—not like work where they’ll sigh and lower their eyes to their keyboards. “Late again?” someone would ask. “Traffic,” Hank would lie.
No, this was the Event. Hank’s sister’s friend’s cousin’s ex worked security for the Texas Theater. He’d scored tickets for the premiere of year. More accurately, the first premiere of 2022. Hank couldn’t believe it. The star, Olivia Sloan, was coming, in person, to the red carpet. Punctuality mattered
Hank was ready. Cool shirt, nice jacket, pressed pants, cool shoes. And sitting in traffic in the canyon when his mother called.
“You need to come get your brother.”
“What?! I’m on my way to the premiere. Olivia will be there.”
“You need to come get your brother. He can go too.”
You didn’t say no to Henry—to Hank’s mother. You didn’t ask why. You just said fine.
“Fine. But we can’t be late. Have him ready.”
“Thank you, Henry. The app says you’re two miles away but 20 minutes out. He’s waiting for you.”
Hank’s little brother Jeremy, twenty years younger, was Hank’s cousin, adopted when his mother lost her battle with cancer not long after his father had been killed in a car accident. Henry—Hank—had been the youngest until he became an older brother.
The traffic cleared quickly—onlooker slowdown for an upside-down semi that had spilled its milk load—and Hank made it to his mother’s house in 10 minutes. Jeremy was ready all right, but ready for what? He wore a bright orange Christmas sweater, the kind usually reserved for ugly day. It had flashing lights, not a few, on a just-cut fir tree hauled in a red pickup. Hank’s heart sank. It was too late to wrangle a change.
“Y’all pick up Whataburger for supper.”
“Sure, Mom.” Hank knew there was no point in telling her that’s what he’d had for lunch. Jeremy beamed and slid into the front seat, peppering Hank with questions. “What’s the movie about? When is it over? Can we get popcorn? How close can we sit? Wanna share a drink?”
Hank drove with determination but replied: “Zombies. 8:30. Yes if Mom sent money. Not very. No.”
Jeremy didn’t care what the answers were, particularly, just smiled, and started singing “Feliz Navidad.” Hank couldn’t help himself and hummed along. In another 10 minutes they were at the Texas. Parking karma is a real thing and Hank didn’t have it. But somehow, there it was—a spot just around the corner.
“Come on, Jer. It’s a miracle. We’re going to be on time.”
Sure enough, the crowd had formed around the red carpet, lots of photogs with their big lenses and black bags over their shoulders. This wasn’t Hollywood, so there weren’t but four, but the crowd was young and enthusiastic. “Here they come!” someone shouted.
Sure enough, three limos were turning on to Jefferson. Not limos, really. SUVs. This was Dallas, after all. They pulled up to the curb. Olivia was the first one out. She was in a sky-blue sequined gown. Stunningly beautiful. Even for Hollywood. The crowd went wild. “Liv-vy, Liv-vy, Liv-vy!”
A boy’s voice rang out: “Olivia, Hank and I are over here!”
She turned toward the sound and saw a frantically waving boy, lighted shirt flashing. “Hey, you! Hi, Hank! Merry Christmas!”
And she smiled. Beauty. Smiling at Hank and Jeremy. “Merry Christmas!” Hank shouted. Olivia smiled ever more brightly and waved back.
How It Happened
A beach for Christmas had sounded lovely—warm not snowy, bright not dull. Jilly had lived in Bethel, Alaska for 30 years, teaching grade school math. She hadn’t expected Paris on the Kuskokwim; the recruiting brochures cleared that romanticism. Coming from deep East Texas with its piney woods, she knew the winters would be long and dark, but she hadn’t realized what it would be like to go for months without the sun. an exaggeration, of course, but the idea of heat on her face in December felt ecstatic.
Luckily, Jilly brought her own husband. Jake was a writer and made a good living in the greeting card and paint naming worlds, when he wasn’t working on the Great American novel. One Christmas, though, he went on a trip to research glaciers since obviously the GAN needed an Alaskan perspective by a Texas. He never came back. Park rangers found his gear close to a moulin, the opening to an underground ice river. You fall in, you’re gone. They said it would’ve been quick.
Jilly sighed and cried. Nothing to do otherwise, but she imagined his horror not so much at his impending death as at the realization she’d never know. She’d have no goodbyes, nothing to bury. Jilly imagined him slipping, falling, hollering “Jillian, I love you…sorry!”
Five years later, she was a young 65, independent and capable and suddenly retired. Going back to Texas was an option but just seemed like too much trouble. “Let me get through one more winter,” she thought. “Maybe then.”
Among the comforts in the years past had been regular calls from Jake’s friend Liam. Every few months, he’d called and asked after her health, the weather, her plans for Christmas. So when he told her he was going to a friend’s condo in Cabo San Lucas and wondered if she’d like to meet him there, she wasn’t really too surprised. They’d laughed and joked during those five years, after all. The friend had plenty of room, the price was right, and the thought of 85 degree days and a 75 degree ocean appealed. Getting there, well, not so easy, but doable.
The two weeks flew by. Conversation at dinners, snorkeling lessons, new friends and friends of friends. A tan, of sorts. Jilly thought she could bear the months until summer and floated a realistic plan for moving back to Texas. Liam was silent, oddly for him, and looked out into the gulf.
For the last party of the trip, Jilly chose her favorite blue dress. She knew Liam liked it—it matched her eyes, he’d said. It wasn’t flirty, exactly, she reasoned. They walked along a rocky path near the water. Suddenly a gull flew over and behind her head, startling her. Jilly turned quickly, lost her balance, and fell into the ditch, just a foot deep but enough to startle them both. Embarrassed but determined not to complain, Jilly apologized. She was going to need help getting up and out.
Liam took Jilly by the hand and pulled her up. One sandal had slipped off, so she kept his hand while she bent over to slip it back on.
“There,” she said.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
Off they went to the inn. Liam did not let go of Jilly’s hand, and that is how it happened.
Lovely dinner, she thought, but how had she missed the white elephant part of the invitation? the most fun and laugh-y time each year, after memories shared of other parties with sometimes-scandalous and therefore memorable gifts and she only had two grapefruit in a Christmas bag for the hostess so slipped them under the tree—thank goodness the bag was cute even if recycled and she was way down on the numbers so might not get to pick herself and didn’t have to tell she brought it anyway, right? and when someone opened a candle, jam selection, and bodywash package—she thought she might like to steal it and people would get suspicious if she actually took the grapefruit although she felt bad about them, who wouldn’t? and someone remembered to bring the Real White Elephant, a little ceramic number trimmed in gold when someone else opened another, even nicer one so there had to be discussion about whether to have a double-elephant tradition or what since finding a place for it was always a hassle since you had to remember where it was since no one would steal it, but was that an actual rule? no one knew and other gifts were stolen if they were pretty good like the Texas Roadhouse gift, as if who wouldn’t but the nice smelling stuff still seemed fine and getting the gift certificate wasn’t likely anyway and even if it was would make her feel really guilty but luckily someone had brought a bug zapper which, in spite of all odds, got stolen too but after she did score the candle etc. people, well, the women, felt sorry for her and no one stole it which made her feel only medium guilty and, when it was all over, someone proclaimed, “Only two people understood the white elephant concept—the ones who brought the zapper and the grapefruit,” so she was vindicated if a little bit guilty