Call me harlot. Call me impulsive. Call me hungover.
No one ever has before, but someone absolutely should this morning. Last night was a disaster.
As quietly as I can, I slip out of the bottom bunk and tiptoe across the freezing floor to the stairs. My heart is beating so hard I wonder if it’s audible outside of my body. The last thing I want is to wake Theo and have to look him in the eye before my brain is warmed up and my thoughts are cohesive.
The second step from the bottom always creaks like something out of a haunted house; it’s been victimized by nearly three decades of us “kids” run-stomping our way up for meals and down for games and bed in the basement. I stretch to carefully put my foot on the one just above it, exhaling when I land with no sound. Not everyone is so lucky; that loose board has busted Theo sneaking in late—or early, depending on how you look at it—more times than I can count.
Once I’m in the kitchen, I worry less about stealth and go for speed. It’s still dark; the house is quiet, but Uncle Ricky will be up soon. This cabin is full of early risers. My window of opportunity to figure out how to fix this is narrowing quickly.
With a barrage of memories from last night rolling like a mortifying flip book through my head, I jog up the wide stairway to the second floor, ignore the mistletoe hanging above the landing, round the banister in my candy cane socks, sneak quietly down the hallway, and open the door to the narrower set of stairs leading to the attic. At the top, I nudge open Benny’s door.
“Benny,” I whisper into the chilly blackness. “Benny, wake up. It’s an emergency.”
A gravelly groan comes from across the room, and I warn him, “I’m turning on the light.”
“Yes.” I reach over, flicking the switch and illuminating the room. While we offspring have long been relegated to bunk beds in the basement, this attic is Benny’s bedroom every December, and I think it’s the best one in the house. It has pitched ceilings and a long stained-glass window at the far end that projects sunlight across the walls in brilliant stripes of blue, red, green, and orange. The narrow twin bed up here shares the space with the organized clutter of family heirlooms, boxes of decorations for various holidays, and a wardrobe full of Grandma and Grandpa Hollis’s old winter clothes, from back when buying a cabin in Park City wasn’t a laughable financial prospect for a high school principal from Salt Lake. Since none of the other families had girls when I was a kid, I would play dress-up all alone up here, or sometimes with Benny as my audience.
But now I don’t need an audience, I need a kind ear and a cold, hard shot of advice because I am on the verge of hysteria.
“Benny. Wake up.”
He pushes up onto an elbow and, with his other hand, wipes the sleep from his eyes. His Aussie accent comes out hoarse: “What time is it?”
I look at the phone I have gripped in my clammy palm. “Five thirty.”
He stares at me with squinty, incredulous eyes. “Is somebody dead?”
“Mentally bleeding, yes.” I step deeper into the room, wrap myself up in an old afghan, and sit in a wicker chair that faces the bed. “Help.”
At fifty-five years old, Benny still has the same fluffy sandy-brown hair he’s sported my entire life. It reaches just past his chin, wavy like it was permed for years and at some point decided to stay that way. I used to imagine he was a roadie for some aging eighties rock band, or an adventurer who led rich tourists to their doom out in the bush. The reality—he’s a Portland locksmith—is less exciting, but his jangle of turquoise bracelets and beaded necklaces at least lets me pretend.
Right now that hair is mostly a tangled halo of chaos around his head.
With each of the twelve other bodies in this house, I’ve got deep history, but Benny is special. He’s a college friend of my parents—all of the grown-ups in this house attended the University of Utah together, except Kyle, who married into the group—but Benny has always been more friend than parent figure. He’s from Melbourne, even-tempered and open-minded. Benny is the eternal bachelor, the wise adviser, and the one person in my life I know I can count on to give me perspective when my own thoughts are swerving out of control.
When I was a kid, I would save up my gossip until I saw him over the Fourth of July weekend or Christmas break, and then unload everything the moment I had him to myself. Benny has a way of listening and giving the simplest, most judgment-free advice without lecturing. I’m just hoping his level head can save me now.
“Okay.” He clears some of the gravel out of his throat with a cough and brushes a few wayward strands of hair out of his face. “Let’s have it.”
“Right. So.” Despite my panic and the ticking clock, I decide it’s best to ease him in gently to this conversation. “Theo, Miles, Andrew, and I were playing board games last night in the basement,” I start.
A low “Mm-hm” rumbles out of him. “A standard night.”
“Clue,” I stall, tugging my dark hair over my shoulder.
“Okay.” Benny, as ever, is blissfully patient.
“Miles fell asleep on the floor,” I say. My younger brother is seventeen and, like most teenagers, can sleep on a pointy rock. “Andrew went out to the Boathouse.”
This “Mm-hm” is a chuckle because Benny still finds it hilarious that Andrew Hollis—Theo’s older brother—finally put his foot down with his father and found a way out of the infantilizing bunk bed situation: he moved into the Boathouse for the duration of the Christmas holiday. The Boathouse is a small, drafty old building about twenty yards from the main cabin. What cracks me up is that the Boathouse isn’t anywhere near a body of water. It’s most frequently used as an extension of the backyard in the summer and most assuredly not set up for overnight guests to the Rocky Mountains in December.
And as much as I hated not seeing Andrew Hollis in the top bunk across the room, I honestly can’t blame him.
No one sleeping in the basement is actually a kid anymore. It’s been well established that Theo can (ahem) sleep anywhere, my brother, Miles, idolizes Theo and will go wherever Theo is, and I put up with it because my mother would murder me barehanded if I ever complained about the Hollis family’s abundant hospitality. But Andrew, nearly thirty years old, was apparently done placating the parents, and took a camping cot and sleeping bag and strolled his way out of the cabin our first night here.
“We’d all had a couple drinks by then,” I say, then amend, “Well, not Miles, obviously, but the rest of us.”
Benny’s brows lift.
“Two.” I grimace. “Eggnog.”
I wonder if Benny knows where this is going. I am a notoriously wussy drinker and Theo is a notoriously horny one. Though, to be fair, Theo is just notoriously horny.
“Theo and I went upstairs to grab some water.” I lick my lips and swallow, suddenly parched. “Um, and then we were like, ‘Let’s drunkenly go for a walk in the snow!’ but instead…” I hold my breath, strangling my words. “We made out in the mudroom.”
Benny goes still, and then turns his suddenly-wide-awake hazel eyes on me. “You’re talking about Andrew, right? You and Andrew?”
And there it is. With that gentle question, Benny has hit the nail on the head. “No,” I say finally. “Not Andrew. Theo.” That’s me: harlot.
With the benefit of sobriety and the jarring clarity of the morning after, last night’s brief, frantic scramble feels like a blur. Did I initiate things, or did Theo? All I know is that it was surprisingly clumsy. Not at all seductive: teeth clashing, some feverish moans and kisses. His hand basically latched onto my chest in a move that felt more breast-exam than passionate-embrace. That’s when I pushed him away, and, with a flailing apology, ducked under his arm and ran down to the basement.
I want to smother myself with Benny’s pillow. This is what I get for finally saying yes to Ricky Hollis’s boozy eggnog.
“Hold on.” Bending, Benny pulls a backpack up from the floor near the side of the bed and retrieves a long, thin one-hitter.
“Seriously, Benedict? It’s not even light out.”
“Listen, Mayhem, you’re telling me you made out with Theo Hollis last night. You don’t get to give me shit for taking a hit before I hear the rest of this.”
Fair enough. I sigh, closing my eyes and tilting my face to the ceiling, sending a silent wish to the universe to obliterate last night from existence. Unfortunately, when I open them again, I’m still here in the attic with Benny—who’s taking a deep inhale of weed before sunrise—and a bucketful of regret settling in my gut.
Benny exhales a skunky plume and sets the pipe back in the bag. “Okay,” he says, squinting over at me. “You and Theo.”
I blow my bangs out of my face. “Please don’t say it like that.”
He raises his eyebrows like, Well? “You know your mom and Lisa have been joking all these years… right?”
“Yeah. I know.”
“I mean, you’re a people-pleaser,” he says, studying me, “but this goes above and beyond.”
“I didn’t do it to make anyone happy!” I pause, considering. “I don’t think.”
It’s a long-standing joke that, since we were kids, our parents hoped Theo and I would someday end up together. Then we’d officially be family. And I suppose, on paper, we make sense. We were born exactly two weeks apart. We were baptized on the same day. We slept together in the bottom bunk until Theo was big enough to be trusted not to jump off the top. He cut my hair with kitchen scissors when we were four. I covered his face and arms with Band-Aids each time we were left alone together until our parents got smart and started hiding the Band-Aids. So that we could be excused from the table, I used to eat his green beans and he’d eat my cooked carrots.
But all of that is kid stuff, and we aren’t kids anymore. Theo is a nice guy, and I love him because we’re practically family and I sort of have to, but we’ve grown into such different people that sometimes it seems like the only things we have in common happened more than a decade ago.
More importantly (read: pathetically), I’ve never been into Theo, primarily because I’ve had a crazy, silent, soul-crushing crush on his older brother for what feels like my whole life. Andrew is kind, warm, gorgeous, and hilarious. He is playful, flirty, creative, and affectionate. He is also deeply principled and private, and I’m pretty sure there’s nothing that would turn him off a woman faster than knowing she made out with his younger, womanizing brother while under the influence of eggnog.
Benny, the only other person in this house who knows about my feelings for Andrew, watches me expectantly. “So, what happened?”
“We were tipsy. We ended up in the mudroom, the three of us: me and Theo and his tongue.” I shove the tip of my thumb into my mouth, biting it. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
“I’m trying to understand how this happened—this isn’t like you at all, Noodle.”
Defensiveness flares briefly but is almost immediately extinguished by self-loathing. Benny’s my Jiminy Cricket, and he’s right: that isn’t like me. “Maybe it was a subconscious shove: I need to get over this stupid Andrew thing.”
“You sure about that?” Benny asks gently.
Nope. “… Yes?” I’m twenty-six. Andrew is twenty-nine. Even I have to admit that if anything was ever going to happen between us, it would have happened by now.
“So you figured, why not Theo?” Benny asks, reading my thoughts.
“It wasn’t that calculated, okay? I mean, he’s not exactly hard to look at.”
“Are you attracted to him, though?” Benny scratches his stubbly chin. “That feels like an important question.”
“I mean, lots of women seem to be?”
He laughs. “That isn’t what I asked.”
“I guess I must have been last night, right?”
“And?” he asks, grimacing like he isn’t sure he wants to know.
“And…” I wrinkle my nose.
“Your expression is telling me it was terrible.”
I exhale, deflating. “So bad.” I pause. “He licked my face. Like, my entire face.” Benny’s wince deepens, and I point a finger at him. “You are sworn to secrecy.”
He holds up a hand. “Who would I tell? His parents? Yours?”
“Have I ruined everything?”
Benny gives me an amused smile. “You are not the first two people in history to have drunkenly made out. But maybe this was a catalyst in a way. The universe is telling you to move on, one way or another, where Andrew is concerned.”
I laugh because this feels genuinely impossible. How does one move on from a man so kind of heart and fine of ass? It’s not like I haven’t tried to get over Andrew for, oh, the past thirteen years. “Any idea how?”
“I don’t know, Noodle.”
“Do I pretend like nothing happened? Do I talk about it with Theo?”
“Definitely don’t ignore it,” Benny says, and as much as I was hoping to get permission to put my head in the sand, I know he’s right. Avoiding confrontation is the Jones family’s biggest vice. My parents could probably count on one hand the number of times they’ve maturely discussed their feelings with each other—which is probably what their divorce lawyer would tell you. “Go wake him up before the day gets rolling. Clear the air.”
He glances out the window, at the sky that is reluctantly brightening, and then back to me. Panic must be bleeding into my expression, because he puts a calming hand on mine. “I know it’s your nature to smooth out problems by avoiding confrontation, but it’s our last day here. You don’t want to leave with that lingering between you. Imagine coming back to that next Christmas.”
“You’re the most emotionally intuitive locksmith alive, you know.”
He laughs. “You’re deflecting.”
I nod, tucking my hands between my knees and staring down at the worn wood floor. “One more question.”
“Mm-hm?” His hum tells me he knows exactly what’s coming.
“Do I tell Andrew?”
He rebounds a question right back: “Why would Andrew need to know?”
I blink up to his face and catch the gentle sympathy there. Oof. He’s right. Andrew doesn’t need to know, because he wouldn’t care one way or another.