A/N: Wow. I can't believe I'm done. Now I can focus on the other three stories I started, lmao. Sorry it took a bit longer than usual to post, but I kept avoiding getting it up here cause I didn't want to admit I was done. Or something sentimental like that. Thanks so much to all of you who have read and reviewed. And thanks SO SO MUCH to Kendall. She is incredible. Words can't explain how grateful I am to her for all the late nights of giggling and brainstorming.
The next month is a blur. I spend most of it thinking about seeing Claire again. With her husband. And the other half thinking about making excuses for ditching. I know, though, that Taylor won't let me run off.
The drive to Shermer on Christmas Eve goes much too fast for my liking. Claire still lives on the hill, not too far from the house she grew up in. Taylor's driving.
When we pull up in front of the house, there are already a few other cars parked on the street. One of them is the minivan from Harry's. Shit.
Taylor opens the trunk and pulls out the bag of gifts. I didn't buy any of them, but she put my name on the tags. I turned her loose with my credit card two weeks ago. I shudder to think of the bill I'll get next month.
As we approach the door I feel my stomach fill with stone. She doesn't bother to knock, just opens the door. I step into the foyer, and the tile on the floor makes me remember Claire's mother. I hope to god she's not here.
"Hi everyone!" Taylor shouts from the foyer.
"Taylor!" some random children shout from the living room. I follow behind silently. Taylor sets the bag down just in time to be tackled by two blonde girls. I recognize them from the birth announcement Brian sent. She picks the smaller one up and holds the hand of the other one, leaving the presents by the coat closet. I take my coat off.
The first one I see is Allison. She looks almost the same. Her hair's a little longer, and she doesn't have the black shit anymore. She hugs Taylor and kisses her on the cheek. "Merry Christmas, sweetie," she says.
Her dark eyes catch mine. She looks at me for a moment, and I look back. Her smile grows slowly. I smile back. I try not to. She hugs me, and I hug her quickly. "Hi, stranger."
"Hi," I say, patting her back.
She pulls away. "Long time, no see."
"Sorry," I mutter, then remind myself not to be sarcastic on Christmas. That's got to be a sin, right?
I step into the room and see the rest of them there. Andy's sitting on a couch near the tree, holding a drink in his hand. I nod in his direction. His facial expression is mixed, but he nods back. Brian stands and shakes my hand, then does that quick, back slapping guy hug. He says nothing, but he's doing his best to suppress that nerd smirk of his. Like he's just dying to say something about the 'Prodigal Son' or something.
"Hi, John." Sarah smiles. She stands up and hugs me. I bet she was in a sorority. There's a sleeping baby in a car seat on the floor next to Brian. Four boys are playing in the middle of the room. One of them is Brian's little toe-head from the picture. He's playing with a dark haired little boy. The older two are occupied with handheld videogames.
The only person I don't recognize is a balding man on the couch next to Andy. He's wearing a long sleeved, button down shirt and khaki pants. Barf me. This must be Billy Boy. I take a seat next to Taylor on the third, and last, couch. The two little blondes are fighting for her attention, showing off hair ribbons and Christmas dresses.
I hear high heels on the tile in the foyer. I turn to see Claire make her way into the living room with us. She's holding an infant against her shoulder. She's also wearing a cocktail dress. I quickly remind myself she's married. She looks a bit chubbier in the face than she did a few months ago. And her boobs are bigger. If they keep getting bigger every time I see her, I might have to keep in touch.
I turn to look at Taylor. She's watching me with a knowing smile. I look away. I see the rest of them are watching me, too. Cause that's going to help my nervousness. Fuckers.
Claire smiles when she sees me. "Hi, John," she says. I stand, and she kisses me on the cheek, then hugs me. She sits down next to Taylor. My eyes follow Claire, then move over to Allison. She's sitting on the floor next to Andy's legs. Close to the younger set of boys on the floor, but she's watching me. She looks at Claire momentarily, then back at me. Allison doesn't do anything without a reason. I know her well enough to know that.
I narrow my eyes and look at Claire. Her rounder face, her plumped breasts. My eyes move down to her stomach. When I look back at Allison again, she raises an eyebrow. I look at the floor. Shit.
"Merry Christmas, everyone," Claire says to break the silence. I half expect Tiny Tim to come hobbling in any moment.
"Does that mean we can open presents now?" the younger of the girls asks.
Andy is the loudest to laugh. Taylor stands up to get the presents from the entry way. I watch the rest of them watch her and remember how crazy they all were about her. She leaves her coats in there. The boys on the floor have abandoned their video games and start to pull presents out from under the tree.
I look around the rooms at the faces of my friends. I don't feel like I should be allowed to call them that anymore, but I do.