Part One: All Those Days Are Gone

Casey Macdonald stared at herself long and hard in the bathroom mirror. The arduous day was causing her mascara to run, and her lipstick had smeared off long ago before noon. It had been a terrible day at work. She lost the account she had been working on for months, and it was handed over to one of her colleagues.

"You're just not focusing on the client's needs," her boss had explained after he had summoned her into his office and not even gestured for her to sit down, "Take some time off. Take care of whatever it is that's got you anxious. Come back in the New Year and remind us why it is we hired you."

Turning the water on, she let it warm slightly before she bent down to splash a handful onto her face. Pulling the towel off of its rod, she dabbed her face. The harsh lights above made her look horrible. She scowled at herself before carefully wiping up the water that had splashed onto the counter around her sink. She methodically folded the towel back up and slipped it back onto the rod.

She kicked off her heels and fell onto her sofa. Glancing around her apartment, she noticed how empty it was. She thought she had everything, until now. Sure, there was this great apartment in Manhattan, miles away from everybody in Canada. It had a huge television, great art, and a wonderful view of the city. And yeah, there was her terrific job with flexible hours and a sympathetic boss. There were the amazing friends she had made ever since she came here.

But now, she felt as if she had nothing. There was something missing inside, and she couldn't figure out what it was. Ever since she left home four years ago, this feeling had slowly been growing. She flew home every few months, and was always there for major holidays. It was amazing to go back and see how much everybody was changing. Marti was about to go into junior high. Lizzie and Edwin were getting ready to be seniors in high school.

And Derek was about to get married.

She couldn't imagine how that had happened. The last she had heard from Nora and George was that he was working at some warehouse a few towns over, loading and unloading trucks all the time. They hadn't seen each other since she left. If the family flew out to see her, he never came. When she went home, she could only ever stay for a few nights at a time and he was always at his new place. On holidays, he was spending time with his new girlfriend's family, and each family was different every year.

No, Casey hadn't seen Derek Venturi in four years. She graduated from high school, moved to the States, and started college. Now, here she was in the seventh month of an amazing job in Manhattan. She frowned when she remembered just how it had been when she left.

Nora and George were tearful, hugging her over and over again and telling her to call every day. Lizzie had hugged her and asked her shyly if she could have the comforter off of her bed. Casey had smiled and told her yes. Edwin gave her the facts about Manhattan; the people, the places, the food, the job market. She was quite impressed with his little presentation, and gratefully thanked him for it. Marti just clutched her neck and said happily,

"Now you don't have to worry about babysitting me anymore!"

Casey managed a smile, but those words broke her heart. At that moment, when she was just about to leave, she would have babysat Marti every night for the rest of her life rather than get on the plane. But, she had made her choices, and she had convinced herself that they were the right ones.

Derek was there, too. The last time she had seen him. He stood with his hands shoved in his pockets, head down the whole time.

"Goodbye, Derek," Casey had said, sticking out her hand.

He regarded her hand carefully before finally relenting and sticking his hand out as well. They shook, and he said nothing. So, Casey bid them farewell, picked up her bag and started for the gate. Her family paused a moment before turning to leave. She stood in line nervously for several seconds, tapping her boarding pass on her open palm and humming to herself. She always hummed when she was anxious.

Feeling a hand on her arm, she turned around, startled.

It was Derek.

Before she knew what was happening, he pulled her in for a hug. Shocked, she couldn't think of what to do. Derek had never hugged her before. Not like this. Cautiously, she put her arms around his neck. Gently, he stroked her hair.

"I'm going to miss you," he said.

He said the words so quietly she almost didn't hear them. In fact, in that split second she analyzed those words a thousand times. She was so stunned; she couldn't believe that he had said it.

"I'm going to miss you, too," she replied dumbly.

He let go, pulling back to stare into her eyes. There was a look there that she had never seen before. Perhaps it had always been there and she had just never taken the time to notice it. For the last few years, she had done a pretty good job at ignoring Derek and everything about him.

But those eyes stared at her with a growing intensity. It was almost as if he were pleading with her. With his eyes, he was begging her not to leave. He had seemed so distant earlier, when everybody else was around. Actually, he had been quite distant from her since the moment she told everybody she was going to college in the States. He hadn't even fought with her those last few weeks.

And there it was. That flicker in his eyes that warned her he was about to kiss her. Time seemed to slow in that moment as he leaned in towards her. And she hadn't even realized until then that she had been waiting for this her whole life.

"Excuse me, miss?"

They both pulled back, unaware that there were actually other living, breathing human beings around. It took Casey a moment to realize that she was standing in line to get on a plane that would lead hundreds of miles away from here. From this moment.

From Derek.

She turned to see that there was a large gap between her and the gate, where everybody in front of her had already filed through. Embarrassed, she grabbed her bag from beside her feet and hurried up to hand the lady her ticket. The woman passed it under a flicker of red light, and smiled, handing it back.

"Derek, I-" Casey began.

But when she turned around, he was gone.

That was four years ago.

Glancing over at her answering message on the table next to the sofa, she gingerly pressed the play button and awaited that familiar message.

"Casey, it's Mom. We have some wonderful new. Derek's getting married! They haven't set a date yet, but Jennifer said yes last night. Just thought you'd like to know," her mother said, "We're looking forward to seeing you at Christmas. Derek will be here with Jennifer this year. Talk to you later."

The machine clicked off and she sighed. She hadn't even realized that Derek was getting serious with anybody named Jennifer. Her mother had left that message two weeks ago and she still hadn't returned her call.

Christmas was less than a week away. She needed to do her shopping, but lately she hadn't been interested in doing much of anything. Her clients? They could wait. Her friends? Didn't feel like seeing them.

But her family? How could she ever be indifferent to them? She couldn't. Standing, she went to her kitchen counter where her plane ticket was. She pulled it out of the envelope she had put it in, staring at it. Her flight was tomorrow.

There was no escaping it; the words were there on the ticket, hard and black.

She was going home.

Casey tried her best to pack quickly that night. Her flight left at eight the next morning, so she had to be at the airport no later than seven. There would be no time for last minute additions to her luggage. Picking through her closet, she pulled out a few sweaters and a couple of pairs of jeans. Deciding that her mother and George would probably throw a big Christmas party this year, what with Derek and his new fiancée Jennifer being there, she pulled out some more formal pieces.

She scrutinized the pant suit that she had bought recently. It was probably too professional. Hanging it neatly back up, she pulled out a blazer that she had worn to her job interview. Shaking her head, she decided that would be inappropriate as well. Then, she pulled out a skirt and blouse that she had been wearing when she scored her first account.

I wonder if Derek will like this, she thought to herself before she even had time to realize what it was she was thinking.

She shook her head. What did she care? But, she carefully tucked it away in her suitcase. After folding and packing everything neatly, she sat down at her desk and pulled out a sheet of paper. She was determined to figure out what she was going to get everybody for the holidays before she could get home and lose track of time.

"What to get…what to get…" she mumbled, tapping her pencil against the desk.

After struggling for a few moments with what the perfect gifts were, she realized that she had no idea. It wasn't so much that she couldn't concentrate, but more that she had lost touch with everybody lately. Especially now that she was out of school and at her first real job. She couldn't tell you what Lizzie liked now, or what Edwin thought was cool. Even getting Marti something would be a shot in the dark.

"This is ridiculous," Casey said, crumpling up the piece of paper and shoving it into the wastebasket beside the desk.

Glancing at her watch, she decided to finally call her mother. They weren't expecting her. Well, they were anticipating that she would come home for the holidays, but they probably didn't realize it would be this soon before. Usually, she scooted in on Christmas Eve and was gone on the 26th. Picking up the phone, she punched in that familiar number.

"Hello?" her mother asked, after it rang several times.

"Hey mom," she replied.

"Casey!" her mother exclaimed, "You didn't return my call! Did you get my message? Did you get the news about Derek?"

Casey swallowed the lump in her throat that had been steadily forming since the ringing in her ear began. Fiddling with the phone cord, she decided to just take a deep breath and relax.

"Yeah," she said, grinning as if her mother could see her, but to her, it just made her feel less fake, "Great news."

"Derek and Jennifer have been dating for five months. They're adorable, really," her mother gushed, "They're going to be staying with us over the holidays. It'll be just like it used to be."

Casey heard the nostalgia in her mother's voice. It made her wince. However, she couldn't imagine what it would be like living with her family again for the next three weeks. Her boss had told her to come back after the New Year, so she planned on staying in Canada as a retreat. But, now with Derek and his soon-to-be bride staying there as well, she wasn't so sure she would make it past Christmas.

"That's great," Casey replied, "But, um, I was just calling to let you know that I'll be there tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" her mother gasped, "So soon? I mean, not that I won't be ecstatic to see you. I haven't cleaned or bought any groceries or anything yet."

Casey smiled to herself, "I'm not a stranger, you know. I've seen the house filthy and foodless before."

Nora let out a little laugh, "I suppose that's true. It's just that, we'll all be so happy to see you, Lizzie especially. She misses you a lot, you know. You haven't been home in a while."

"I know," Casey said, "I've just been really busy."

"I'm not trying to make you feel guilty or anything," her mother quickly clarified, "Well, it doesn't matter now, does it? You're coming home tomorrow, and that's all that matters."

Casey heard the faint ringing of the doorbell in the background, and Nora yelled for George to go answer it. There was a long pause as her mother lost her concentration with conversation and started to speculate over who could be at the door.

"Derek!" Casey heard Marti's happy voice, and she grimaced slightly.

It should be Smerek, Casey thought bitterly.

"Oh, Derek's here," Nora said, "And he's brought Jennifer with him."

Casey felt her heart do a strange thing. She couldn't describe it, but she knew that it hurt. She tried to picture what Jennifer looked like; she was probably tall, blond, and perfect in every way. Jennifer probably laughed at Derek's stupid jokes and flipped her hair at all of the right times. She probably loved to go to hockey games and preferred to watch the movie instead of read the book. She probably let Derek win every argument they ever had.

She was probably everything that Casey was not.

"Who's that?" she heard Derek ask in the background.

"Casey," Nora replied.

Casey couldn't hear Derek say anything more. All she heard was Marti chattering to Derek about snow angels and hot cocoa and how many more days were left until Christmas and ham and being out of school and-

Marti's incessant ramblings were cut off when Nora finally spoke up again,

"I hate to let you go, since we haven't talked in forever. But, I'd better see why Derek's here. We'll have plenty of time to talk when you get here tomorrow, right?"

"Of course," Casey said, mechanically and routinely.

"I love you, Casey," her mother said sincerely.

"I love you, too, mom," Casey replied.

She hung up the phone, feeling that lingering dread inside of her that she always felt when she was about to do something she didn't want to do.