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Author's Note: Thanks especially to Ellen.

December 23, 2002
by Tara LJC O'Shea

Both times December 23rd, 2002 had rolled around for Neil Taggart, it had rained like a sonofabitch.

The night before at dinner, while Penny had refilled bottomless coffee cups and Neil tried hard not to notice the smiles she kept giving his dad, Sarah had told them all a funny story about the Workout Weatherman at KNBS. The place had been decked out for Christmas since Thanksgiving, and Kurt had already threatened the life of the Salvation Army Santa outside twice that week. It had felt good to laugh, even at a story that wasn't hugely funny. Something about how he'd started to think of Sarah as some sort of weather savant, since she always seemed to have her coat and umbrella only on those days when the sky just opened up and pissed down rain. She could hardly tell him it was because they'd lived it all before, and Sarah just had this weird memory trick where she could remember what day it had rained the first time.

She never said it, but Neil guessed it had something to do with trying to remember every single day of those last few months with her son Corey. It was like the elephant in the middle of the room that no one talked about, having already attended two funerals this time around they hadn't the first time. So instead, they made jokes about the Workout Weatherman over bowls of chili and cheeseburgers.

Neil only remembers the rain because he remembers the first December 23rd.

Since Marc had taken off, his dad had actually been letting him borrow the Mustang—something which had never happened before their entire world had been shook up by the Golden Boy turning out to be as much of a fuck-up as everybody seemed to assume only the younger Taggart boy was capable of being.

His mom hadn't stopped crying since she'd come home to find Neil sitting in the living room alone. She'd lost weight, between Marc taking off, and then Grandma's heart attack scare. There were circles under her eyes, and her fuzzy flannel bathrobe fit a little looser around her than it had a month before.

His dad hadn't believed it was possible, not until Ed Scrivens had come to the house, explained Marc had been washing out, had even been caught trying to buy the answers to tests. That winter, his dad was never around because Chuck Taggart's mantra was "maintain," and that meant burying himself in work at the centre to avoid remembering he even had a family, let alone that it was utterly falling apart.

That winter everyone had been so focussed on Marc that Neil had been pretty much ignored, which had been just fine by him.

December 23rd, take one, he and Holly had gone to the movies. They'd seen the new Bond movie in a second run theatre for a dollar each. The print had been scratched, and they'd shared a joint in the car before going in. The theatre had been only half full, mostly kids who talked through the whole thing and occasionally threw spitballs at the screen. They'd sat in the last row, inside the shadow of the exit door, and made out through most of it. He'd looked up when Halle Berry had walked up on the beach in that bikini, and Holly had elbowed him in the ribs. When her hand had ended up in his lap, he'd pretty much given her his undivided attention.

When they'd come outside, it had already been raining for a while, and instead of joining Kayli, Wade and Diaz at the junkyard like they usually did every other night, they'd parked at the kiddie park around the corner from her house. It had been deserted, and they'd curled up beneath his coat in the backseat underneath a big tree at one end of the parking lot.

She'd made fun of his farmer's tan, when he'd pulled of his long-sleeved t-shirt and balled it up behind his head as she'd straddled him. He'd almost come in his jeans before she'd even gotten her top off. She'd let him slip his hands under her shirt plenty of times, but he'd never actually seen her naked before. He didn't think he'd ever seen anything so beautiful in his life. She'd been self-conscious about the chicken pox scars on her side, from the summer between sixth and seventh grade. He'd been pretty much a total wreck about everything, but had tried to play it cool, which he was pretty sure she'd seen straight through.

It had been awkward, and brief, and afterwards she'd cried a little. She'd tried to pretend that it hadn't hurt, but he knew it had. They'd cleaned up, using McDonald's napkins from the glove compartment, and he'd been freaked out a little by the blood, but hadn't said anything. He'd tried to pretend it wasn't a big deal, but it had been a huge deal. Everything from that point on would be different, because they'd gone all the way.

A week or so later, just before school had started back up, he'd ended up going down on her, because he'd felt so bad that she hadn't come that first time. He'd never gone down on a girl before, and she'd never had a guy go down on her, so it had been a learning experience for both of them. He learned that she went fucking nuts when she did come—almost broke his nose the first time. He also learned that there wasn't anything in the world so beautiful as Holly, her dyed red hair all in her face, and her make-up smeared, and her cheeks pink from just what he could do with his fingers and tongue. Maybe some guys would have been all macho about wanting to make a girl come "the old-fashioned way" whatever the fuck that meant, but he figured that was bullshit. Watching her totally lose it just from his hand down her pants? That was just about the coolest thing he'd ever seen. Any guy who said otherwise was probably just an asshole. And the last thing he'd wanted to be, all of seventeen years old and trying like hell to "be a man" was an asshole.

As they lay there that night, the rain coming down in sheets and the puddles beneath the swings at the far end of the park just getting bigger and bigger, she'd read him the riot act, cloaking what he now—with the wisdom of a 22 year old—knew was fear with a false shell of toughness. She'd said that just because they'd had sex, that didn't mean she had to do it every time they went out. And if he so much as breathed a word of it to Wade, not only would he never get laid ever again, but he'd have to start looking for a new girlfriend because she wasn't going to put up with that locker room bullshit. He'd nodded, and promised, and said that if she told Skye, he wasn't adverse to a three-way, and he'd been laughing so hard he'd barely gotten his arms up in time to protect his face as she'd started pummelling him.

Then they'd just listened to the rain hitting the roof of the car for a while, before they'd gotten dressed and he'd driven her home, promising to meet her later that week so they could exchange Christmas presents.

The first time around, they'd been two kids in the backseat of a vintage Mustang, trying to pretend that they were all grown up.

As Neil sat in the park on his bike, watching the rain come down the second time around, he still felt like a goddam kid at twenty-two. Except this time, instead of being freaked out by Marc going AWOL, he was remembering how he'd come home late that night and caught shit from his mom because she'd smelled the pot on his clothes as he'd tried to sneak in the side door.

She'd lit into him right there in the kitchen, standing just where Marc had as he'd packed his duffel and told Neil he was bailing, with Neil's bike money in his pocket and a six-pack of dad's beer in the top of his bag. She'd stood there, and gone on and on about how Neil was a screw up, and all he was ever going to be was a screw-up unless he started acting like a man.

"Like Marc was that great of a 'man,' Mom?" he'd shouted, unable to keep the anger bottled up inside after two months of burying it deeper and deeper to try and keep it from surfacing at the wrong times.

"Like he was so fucking great that he cheated and he stole and he fucking took off, all because he was too much of a candy-ass to stand up and tell you he was fucking tired of trying to live up to your expectations?" he shouted, hating how shrill his voice was in his anger. Hating the fact that he couldn't stop even though he knew he was only saying it to be cruel. "Is that the kind of man you want me to be?"

He'd seen the slap coming, and just took it. Maybe he'd thought he deserved it. Maybe he just thought that if she was hitting him at least it was a gesture of some kind, instead of her walking past him like she never really saw him. Maybe he'd thought she'd get that look on her face afterwards, that "Oh my God, what have I done" look and they'd cry and hug and she'd make him fucking cocoa and he'd have a mom again for the first time since he was a kid.

Instead, she got that steely look. The look she usually only got when she was arguing with Dad, because you sometimes had to be one mean motherfucker to put up with Chuck Taggart and Paige wouldn't have made it this far if she hadn't been able to shout down his dad when she had to. And there was steel in her spine as he'd stood there, tears in his eyes and he'd fought so hard not to say he was sorry and not to reach up and touch his cheek which felt hot and sore.

He'd kept his hands at his side, and he'd just stared her down, Chuck Taggart's son even if they both forgot that these days, and she'd snarled that it was past his curfew and from now on, he'd be home every night by ten or she'd fucking kick his seventeen year-old ass out into the street if that was how little respect he showed his mother. And when his father got home, she'd be telling him the whole thing, and Neil wasn't too old to be turned over her knee if it came down to that.

She never once showed even a glimmer of acknowledgement that he'd been right. Never, not once. Nothing could tarnish her golden boy, and more than anything in the world, that had hurt. It had hurt more than having to tell her that day that Marc was gone for good, not just out hunting with the boys. It had hurt more than her fury when she'd found out he'd given Marc his bike savings to cheat on a physics exam, and he'd probably use that money to go to Canada to dodge the Air Force and his career was totally blown. It had hurt more than her looking at him and telling him to his face that he was a screw-up and that's all he was ever going to be.

The first time around, he stormed up to his room and buried his face in his pillow and cried like a little kid. Cried like he hadn't cried since he was nine years old and they'd pulled Isaac's body out of the water. He'd made a vow that night that he'd show her how wrong she'd been. He'd busted his ass and graduated early. He'd finished college on an accelerated schedule, joined the astronaut programme to show her once and for all that Marc hadn't been cut out for NASA but he'd been born for it. He'd sailed through the exams, made headlines as the youngest astronaut in NASA history, shown up Marc every way he'd known how. And it was a fucking wonder his back hadn't broken, from the weight of the chip on his shoulder. A weight he thought would grow lighter every time his mother told him she was proud of him. A weight that just seemed only to grow, with every unspoken "If only Marc..." that he couldn't help but imagine followed every "My son the astronaut" speech she'd grown so practised at giving he'd wondered if she even really remembered anymore what she'd said in the kitchen, two days before Christmas.

First time around, he and Holly had broken up after senior year, right before she'd gone off to Texas State in San Marcos because he'd been too busy with school to really spend much time with her. Too busy trying to step out of his big brother's shadow to pay attention to the girl who'd always believed in him. It had hurt, but not as much as he'd thought it would, and they'd stayed in touch via email for a while before they just drifted apart for good. He'd only see her once a year when she came home for Christmas, and then not at all once she'd met a guy and they'd gotten a place together in Austin. Before that last shuttle mission, Mrs Culverson had run into Paige at the grocery store and told her that Holly was engaged, and going to get married the following summer.

First time around, he'd just been a boy, trying like hell to pretend he was a man.

Second time around, Neil stood in the rain watching the puddles beneath the swings grow with every drop that fell from a steel-grey sky, trying not to think about how when he got home, his mother wouldn't be waiting for him in the kitchen next to a cold cup of coffee, December 23rd, 2002.