“Oh, I make you uncomfortable,” Cath said. “That’s priceless.”
Their dad went back to work after a week. The next week he started jogging before work, and that’s how Cath knew he was off his meds. Exercise was his most effective self-medication—it’s what he always did when he was trying to take control.
She started coming downstairs every morning when she heard the coffeemaker beeping. To check on him, to see him off. “It’s way too cold to jog outside,” she tried to argue one morning.
Her dad handed her his coffee—decaf—while he laced up his shoes. “It feels good. Come with me.”
He could tell she was trying to look in his eyes, to take his mental temperature, so he took her chin and let her. “I’m fine,” he said gently. “Back on the horse, Cath.”
“What’s the horse?” she sighed, watching him pull on a South High hoodie. “Jogging? Working too much?”
“Living,” he said, a little too loud. “Life is the horse.”
Cath would make him breakfast while he ran—and after he ate and left for work, she’d fall back to sleep on the couch. After a few days of this, it already felt like a routine. Routines were good for her dad, but he needed help sticking to them.
Cath would usually wake up again when Wren came downstairs or came home.
This morning, Wren walked into the house and immediately headed into the kitchen. She came back into the living room with a cold cup of coffee, licking a fork. “Did you make omelettes?”
Cath rubbed her eyes and nodded. “We had leftovers from Los Portales, so I threw them in.” She sat up. “That’s decaf.”
“He’s drinking decaf? That’s good, right?”
“Make me an omelette, Cath. You know I suck at it.”
“What will you give me?” Cath asked.
Wren laughed. It’s what they used to say to each other. What will you give me? “What do you want?” Wren asked. “Do you have any chapters you need betaed?”
It was Cath’s turn to say something clever, but she didn’t know what to say. Because she knew that Wren didn’t mean it, about betaing her fic, and because it was pathetic how much Cath wished that she did. What if they spent the rest of Christmas break like that? Crowded around a laptop, writing the beginning of the end of Carry On, Simon together.
“Nah,” Cath said finally. “I’ve got a doctoral student in Rhode Island editing all my stuff. She’s a machine.” Cath stood up and headed for the kitchen. “I’ll make you an omelette; I think we’ve got some canned chili.”
Wren followed. She jumped up onto the counter next to the stove and watched Cath get the milk and eggs from the refrigerator. Cath could crack them one-handed.
Eggs were her thing. Breakfasts, really. She’d learned to make omelettes in junior high, watching YouTube videos. She could do poached eggs, too, and sunny side up. And scrambled, obviously.
Wren was better at dinners. She’d gone through a phase in junior high when everything she made started with French onion soup mix. Meat loaf. Beef Stroganoff. Onion burgers. “All we need is soup mix,” she’d announced. “We can throw all these other spices away.”
“You girls don’t have to cook,” their dad would say.
But it was either cook or hope that he remembered to pick up Happy Meals on the way home from work. (There was still a toy box upstairs packed with hundreds of plastic Happy Meal toys.) Besides, if Cath made breakfast and Wren made dinner, that was at least two meals their dad wouldn’t eat at a gas station.
“QuikTrip isn’t a gas station,” he’d say. “It’s an everything-you-really-need station. And their bathrooms are immaculate.”
Wren leaned over the pan and watched the eggs start to bubble. Cath pushed her back, away from the fire.
“This is the part I always mess up,” Wren said. “Either I burn it on the outside or it’s still raw in the middle.”
“You’re too impatient,” Cath said.
“No, I’m too hungry.” Wren picked up the can opener and spun it around her finger. “Do you think we should call Grandma?”
“Well, tomorrow’s Christmas Eve,” Cath said, “so we should probably call Grandma.”
“You know what I mean.…”
“He seems like he’s doing okay.”
“Yeah…” Wren cranked open the can of chili and handed it to Cath. “But he’s still fragile. Any little thing could throw him off. What’ll happen when we go back to school? When you’re not here to make breakfast? He needs somebody to look out for him.”
Cath watched the eggs. She was biding her time. “We still have to go shopping for Christmas dinner. Do you want turkey? Or we could do lasagna—in Grandma’s honor. Maybe lasagna tomorrow and turkey on Christmas—”
“I won’t be here tomorrow night.” Wren cleared her throat. “That’s when … Laura’s family celebrates Christmas.”
Cath nodded and folded the omelette in half.
“You could come, you know,” Wren said.
Cath snorted. When she glanced up again, Wren looked upset.
“What?” Cath said. “I’m not arguing with you. I assumed you were doing something with her this week.”
Wren clenched her jaw so tight, her cheeks pulsed. “I can’t believe you’re making me do this alone.”
Cath held up the spatula between them. “Making you? I’m not making you do anything. I can’t believe you’re even doing this when you know how much I hate it.”
Wren shoved off the counter, shaking her head. “Oh, you hate everything. You hate change. If I didn’t drag you along behind me, you’d never get anywhere.”
“Well, you’re not dragging me anywhere tomorrow,” Cath said, turning away from the stove. “Or anywhere, from now on. You are hereby released of all responsibility, re: dragging me along.”
Wren folded her arms and tilted her head. The Sanctimonious One. “That’s not what I meant, Cath. I meant … We should be doing this together.”
“Why this? You’re the one who keeps reminding me that we’re two separate people, that we don’t have to do all the same things all the time. So, fine. You can go have a relationship with the parent who abandoned us, and I’ll stay here and take care of the one who picked up the pieces.”
“Jesus Christ”—Wren threw her hands in the air, palms out—“could you stop being so melodramatic? For just five minutes? Please?”
“No.” Cath slashed the air with her spatula. “This isn’t melodrama. This is actual drama. She left us. In the most dramatic way possible. On September eleventh.”
“After September eleventh—”
“Details. She left us. She broke Dad’s heart and maybe his brain, and she left us.”
Wren’s voice dropped. “She feels terrible about it, Cath.”
“Good!” Cath shouted. “So do I!” She took a step closer to her sister. “I’m probably going to be crazy for the rest of my life, thanks to her. I’m going to keep making f**ked-up decisions and doing weird things that I don’t even realize are weird. People are going to feel sorry for me, and I won’t ever have any normal relationships—and it’s always going to be because I didn’t have a mother. Always. That’s the ultimate kind of broken. The kind of damage you never recover from. I hope she feels terrible. I hope she never forgives herself.”
“Don’t say that.” Wren’s face was red, and there were tears in her eyes. “I’m not broken.”
There weren’t any tears in Cath’s eyes. “Cracks in your foundation.” She shrugged.
“Do you think I absorbed all the impact? That when Mom left, it hit my side of the car? Fuck that, Wren. She left you, too.”
“But it didn’t break me. Nothing can break me unless I let it.”
“Do you think Dad let it? Do you think he chose to fall apart when she left?”
“Yes!” Wren was shouting now. “And I think he keeps choosing. I think you both do. You’d rather be broken than move on.”
That did it. Now they were both crying, both shouting. Nobody wins until nobody wins, Cath thought. She turned back to the stove; the eggs were starting to smoke. “Dad’s sick, Wren,” she said as calmly as she could manage. She scraped the omelette out of the pan and dropped it onto a plate. “And your omelette’s burnt. And I’d rather be broken than wasted.” She set the plate on the counter. “You can tell Laura to go f**k herself. Like, to infinity and beyond. She doesn’t get to move on with me. Ever.”
Cath walked away before Wren could. She went upstairs and worked on Carry On.
* * *
There was always a Simon Snow marathon on TV on Christmas Eve. Cath and Wren always watched it, and their dad always made microwave popcorn.
They’d gone to Jacobo’s the night before for popcorn and other Christmas supplies. “If they don’t have it at the supermercado,” their dad had said happily, “you don’t really need it.” That’s how they ended up making lasagna with spaghetti noodles, and buying tamales instead of a turkey.
With the movies on, it was easy for Cath not to talk to Wren about anything important—but hard not to talk about the movies themselves.
“Baz’s hair is sick,” Wren said during Simon Snow and the Selkies Four. All the actors had longer hair in this movie. Baz’s black hair was swept up into a slick pompadour that started at his knifepoint widow’s peak.
“I know,” Cath said, “Simon keeps trying to punch him just so he can touch it.”
“Right? The last time Simon swung at Baz, I thought he was gonna brush away an eyelash.”
“Make a wish,” Cath said in her best Simon voice, “you handsome bastard.”
Their dad watched Simon Snow and the Fifth Blade with them, with a notebook on his lap. “I’ve lived with you two for too long,” he said, sketching a big bowl of Gravioli. “I went to see the new X-Men movie with Kelly, and I was convinced the whole time that Professor X and Magneto were in love.”
“Well, obviously,” Wren said.
“Sometimes I think you’re obsessed with Basilton,” Agatha said onscreen, her eyes wide and concerned.
“He’s up to something,” Simon said. “I know it.”
“That girl is worse than Liza Minnelli,” their dad said.
An hour into the movie, just before Simon caught Baz rendezvousing with Agatha in the Veiled Forest, Wren got a text and got up from the couch. Cath decided to use the bathroom, just in case the doorbell was about to ring. Laura wouldn’t do that, right? She wouldn’t come to the door.
Cath stood in the bathroom near the door and heard her dad telling Wren to have a good time.
“I’ll tell Mom you said hi,” Wren said to him.
“That’s probably not necessary,” he said, cheerfully enough. Go, Dad, Cath thought.
After Wren was gone, neither of them talked about her.
They watched one more Simon movie and ate giant pieces of spaghetti-sagna, and her dad realized for the first time that they didn’t have a Christmas tree.
“How did we forget the tree?” he asked, looking at the spot by the window seat where they usually put it.
“There was a lot going on,” Cath said.
“Why couldn’t Santa get out of bed on Christmas?” her dad asked, like he was setting up a joke.
“I don’t know, why?”
“Because he’s North bi-Polar.”
“No,” Cath said, “because the bipolar bears were really bringing him down.”
“Because Rudolph’s nose just seemed too bright.”
“Because the chimneys make him Claus-trophobic.”
“Because—” Her dad laughed. “—the highs and lows were too much for him? On the sled, get it?”
“That’s terrible,” Cath said, laughing. Her dad’s eyes looked bright, but not too bright. She waited for him to go to bed before she went upstairs.
Wren still wasn’t home. Cath tried to write, but closed her laptop after fifteen minutes of staring at a blank screen. She crawled under her blankets and tried not to think about Wren, tried not to picture her in Laura’s new house, with Laura’s new family.
Cath tried not to think of anything at all.
When she cleared her head, she was surprised to find Levi there underneath all the clutter. Levi in gods’ country. Probably having the merriest Christmas of them all. Merry. That was Levi 365 days a year. (On leap years, 366. Levi probably loved leap years. Another day, another girl to kiss.)
It was a little easier to think about him now that Cath knew she’d never have him, that she’d probably never see him again.
She fell asleep thinking about his dirty-blond hair and his overabundant forehead and everything else that she wasn’t quite ready to forget.
* * *
“Since there isn’t a tree,” their dad said, “I put your presents under this photo of us standing next to a Christmas tree in 2005. Do you know that we don’t even have any houseplants? There’s nothing alive in this house but us.”
Cath looked down at the small heap of gifts and laughed. They were drinking eggnog and eating two-day-old pan dulce, sweet bread with powdery pink icing. The pan dulce came from Abel’s bakery. They’d stopped there after the supermercado. Cath had stayed in the car; she figured it wasn’t worth the awkwardness. It’d been months since she stopped returning Abel’s occasional texts, and at least a month since he’d stopped sending them.