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Last Christmas

[]Table of Contents

Last Christmas

Copyright

Christmas Eve

Christmas Day

Finding North preview

Copyright © 2015 Allyson Gottlieb

All rights reserved

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it or win it in a giveaway, please delete and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of the author.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except in the case of a reviewer who may quote brief passages for review purposes.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to any actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Cover [*© *]Marisa-rose Shor of Cover Me Darling

Edited by Alyssa Capel

“Does anybody need anything else? More water? Silverware? A napkin?”

“Sit down, Kat.” Tyler’s eyes were warm with laughter as he gestured to the only empty chair at the table. “Eat this wonderful meal you’ve prepared.”

I couldn’t stop worrying that there was something I’d forgotten, but all of that flew right out of my head the second I took a bite of homemade macaroni and cheese. “Oh my God, this is so good.”

“Right?” Tyler was already halfway through his portion. Boy had a bottomless pit for a stomach. Thank goodness I’d made a massive casserole dish of the stuff.

It didn’t escape me that the two of us had claimed the seats at the head and foot of the table, the ones usually reserved for the mom and dad. But parents were in short supply around here, with both of our moms working round the clock, my dad dead, and Bill Vaughn having walked out on his family when his youngest daughter, Emily, was only four years old.

Tyler, who was fourteen at the time, had immediately stepped up to help his mom pay the bills, lying about his age and getting a job as a bag boy at a local grocery store. He’d kept that job all the way through high school and eventually became a cashier—while still making straight A’s, which amazed me.

I’d been answering phones at a dentist’s office since I was sixteen, as soon as someone would hire me, so I knew what it meant to grow up too quickly, but Tyler was something else entirely. He would have given the blood from his veins if it would help his family.

And now he just might have to…

Shaking my head as if to shake off the morbid thoughts, I took another bite of the delicious pasta and surveyed the room. The small Christmas tree in the corner was just the right size for the apartment, decorated with ornaments that were either handmade or salvaged from Goodwill, along with a string of colorful electric lights—a special treat for the holiday season, since electricity was so expensive nowadays. The only other light in the room came from several tall red candles, which smelled like cinnamon and gave the air a warm, homey feel. A slightly smashed gold tinsel garland was draped festively over the mantle along with five small red velvet stockings, one for each of the kids under eighteen.

The dinner table was a little too small to fit everyone comfortably, so it was a bit of a squeeze to make everyone’s plates, cups, and all of the serving dishes fit on the tabletop. I’d covered it with a red tablecloth, contrasting green paper napkins, and a big bowl in the center filled with glitter-sprinkled pinecones and bits of cotton made to look like snow—my best attempt at imitating the festive window displays that we all loved to look at in the nicer parts of town.

Little Emily had cheese on the corner of her mouth, and as I watched, her sister Olivia picked up a napkin and gently dabbed it off. Olivia’s twin brother, Alan, was prodding his broccoli like it might be radioactive, while Jamie was passing the mac and cheese dish to Tyler. There were at least three different conversations going on at once, and the sound of laughter and happy chatter warmed my heart.

The only person not joining in on the festivities was my sister, at the other end of the table. Her full plate of food looked untouched, and she was ignoring everyone around her, intently focused on making one of those bracelets that involved tying a bunch of knots with different colors of string.

I frowned. “Is something wrong with your food, Corinne?” I asked pointedly, raising my voice to be heard over the din.

“I’m not hungry.” She sniffed, not even looking up as she tied another knot in her bracelet.

“You really should try some of this mac and cheese,” Tyler said diplomatically, scooping up a big bite onto his fork. “It’s incredible.”

Corinne slammed her hand onto the table, causing the silverware to jump. “I don’t understand how you both can sit here and act like nothing’s changed when you’re leaving in three weeks.” She turned to face me, brown eyes bright with rage. “I know Tyler didn’t have a choice, but how could you? Who’s going to take care of us when you’re gone? Did you even think about the rest of us?”

I winced at the sharpness in her tone, obviously meant to elicit such a reaction.

I remembered learning about the history of the American draft system in school, and how it had changed over the years. It seemed crazy to think that the last time it had been implemented on this kind of scale was about a hundred years ago. In the grand scheme of things, that really wasn’t such a long time ago, and yet, those people had lived in times that were unimaginable to me.

Of course, the world had changed a lot since then—and the plague had narrowed the population to a fraction of what it used to be. I imagined that any kind of event that produced such a massive body count would be enough to change the country forever, even without the uprising-turned-civil war that followed twenty years later.

None of us at this table had very clear memories of a time when our country wasn’t at war with itself. The threat of being drafted hung over us like a dark cloud the closer we got to legal age. We all thought we’d dodged a bullet when Tyler’s name hadn’t come up in his first year of eligibility. Little did we know, it would only be a temporary reprieve.

They say desperate people do desperate things. Well, I’d never felt more desperate than the day Tyler got his orders to report to Virginia two weeks after New Year’s. It made me despairing and reckless enough to march down to our local recruitment office and sign up to go with him, not thinking about the ramifications until it was too late.

Torn, I looked across the table to Tyler, pleading with him to help me out. The two of us had talked about my decision many, many times, and though he’d had the same objections at first, I knew he could explain it in a better way than I ever could.

“Corinne, your sister isn’t doing this to hurt you—”

“Yes, she is!” Corinne got to her feet, pushing back her chair with a loud screech. “She’s leaving, on her own, just like your dad did. You all should be pissed at her too!” She stormed off in the direction of the bedrooms, leaving her half-finished bracelet attached to the table. Moments later, I heard the bang of a slammed door, and winced.

Immediately Jamie leaped up from his seat, eyes darting toward the slammed door. At sixteen, he had the same tall, lanky build as Tyler, but unlike his older brother, his golden-brown hair seemed to exist in a perpetual state of bed head. “I’ll go talk to her,” he said, looking at me sheepishly. “I know she doesn’t mean it. She just needs some time to cool off.”

When they were younger, Jamie and Corinne had been as inseparable as Tyler and I were, but over the last couple of years, they’d started drifting apart a little bit. Still, if anyone could get through to her, I knew it would be Jamie.

Thankfully, the rest of dinner was uneventful. When we were all done eating, Alan helped me clear the table while Tyler set up The Little Mermaid on the DVD player. It was Emily’s favorite, and another special treat for the holiday. After washing and drying the dishes, Alan and I made hot cocoa to bring out with the Christmas cookies we’d all made earlier that day: chocolate-chip, gingerbread men, and sugar cookies with colored frosting and sprinkles.

Halfway through the movie, Corinne came flouncing out into the main room, but she only scooped up her unfinished bracelet and stomped loudly across the hall to our apartment. Jamie appeared a moment later, looked at me and shrugged, then shoved a whole cookie into his mouth and joined the rest of his siblings on the carpet.

I cast my gaze toward the door, wondering if I should go after her, but ultimately decided it wasn’t likely to be worth my time and energy.

By the time Ariel and Prince Eric had lived happily ever after, Emily was nodding off on the ground, the excitement of Christmas Eve overtaking her. Tyler went to tuck her in while I slipped in another movie, some old spy flick with lots of action and explosions. Though they’d never admit it, I had a feeling some of the excitement was getting to the twins too, because barely halfway through the new movie, they’d both started to rub their eyes and fight back yawns. After the two of them had gone to bed, Jamie politely made excuses to leave the room, even though I could tell he wasn’t the least bit tired.

“It was sweet of him to give us some alone time,” Tyler said, echoing my thoughts as he turned off the TV.

“He’s a good kid.” I exhaled heavily.

“Hey.” He came up from behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist, dropping a kiss on the back of my neck. “So is Corinne. She’ll come around.”

My stomach roiled and I turned around to face him, not wanting to think about that now. “Do you have the stuff?”

Tyler faltered for a moment, then his eyes lit up. “Of course.” He went into the kitchen and came back with a big paper bag while I got the stockings down from the mantle, and the two of us sat cross-legged on the floor to fill them.

Our economic reality was such that no one expected more than one present under the tree, but it was still a tradition to fill stockings with candy and little trinkets. Buying these stocking stuffer treats used to be something our moms took care of, but now, like so many other things, it had fallen on Tyler and me to do.

The two of us had been setting aside bits of our paychecks for weeks to get things that were inexpensive but not junky. We had a solid system: each stocking got a handful of chocolate kisses and mini candy canes, and then a couple of non-food items that were personalized to each kid.

I picked up a pair of tiny pink and white knit mittens and put them in the stocking marked with Emily’s name along with a pastel-colored candy necklace, stickers, bubbles, and a pack of crayons. Meanwhile, Tyler was filling Jamie’s stocking with a leather wallet, a cool old watch, and what looked like a Swiss Army knife. Corinne got lipstick, nail polish, and a ton of new colored thread and beads to make jewelry.

It was Olivia and Alan—the ‘tweens’—who were the hardest to shop for. We’d ended up going with scented body spray, some colored pens, costume jewelry, and a flower key chain for Olivia. Alan got a small puzzle, a Rubik’s Cube, cool patterned socks, and a dog key chain.

“There was only enough cocoa left for one mug,” I said, coming back from the kitchen after the stockings had been rehung. “Should I make some more?”

Tyler met me halfway and took the mug from my hand, taking a long drink that left a little film of chocolate above his upper lip. “No need. We can share it, right?”

I grinned and kissed the chocolate off his lips.

He lay back across the couch and pulled me down on top of him so I was sitting between his legs, back to chest, completely wrapped up in him. We passed the mug between us and shared cocoa-flavored kisses until the hot chocolate was all gone. Lulled by the warmth, my eyelids were growing heavy, but you couldn’t have paid me to leave my boyfriend’s arms only to go back to my cold apartment, where my sister who was furious with me was likely still sulking.

Tyler’s tongue slid past my lips, taking what had been a relatively chaste kiss into something more heated, tongues dancing together at first before delving deeper, exploring, devouring. I shifted my body to get a better angle, because lying like this was killing my neck, and in the process felt something solid against my thigh, tenting the front of his jeans. Grinning, I moved until I was straddling him as best as I could on the narrow couch. He responded by slipping his fingers under the hem of my shirt, skimming them delicately over bare skin.

I pulled my bottom lip between my teeth to stifle a moan. “Your siblings are in the other room.”

In the flickering candlelight, his hazel eyes looked almost gold. “So?”

“It’s Christmas Eve,” I reminded him, unable to resist moving back in for another soft kiss but pulling back before he could deepen it. “If Emily hears too much noise out here, she might come out thinking she’ll get to see Santa. Imagine what she’ll get an eyeful of instead.”

He groaned, head falling back against the arm of the couch. “It’s like the universe doesn’t want me to get laid.”

I giggled, careful to keep my voice low for the reasons I’d just cited. “We could always go back to my place. No nosy little kids over there.”

He looked sorely tempted, then hesitated. “What about Corinne?”

“She’s old enough to know what people do when they’re in love.” I lowered myself down onto his chest more fully, eliciting a choked sort of sound from him in response, and started kissing a trail up his neck. “Besides, after that stunt she pulled at dinner, I don’t really care if she hears us.”

He was responding beautifully underneath me, and I knew I had him right where I wanted him. This hadn’t been anywhere near the front of my mind tonight, but now that he’d started things, I couldn’t stop thinking about how long it had been since we’d gotten some alone time.

My lips right by his ear, I added, “We can go in my mom’s room. She’s working the overnight shift, won’t be home till eight in the morning. Emily will be up before then anyway…”

Tyler groaned, his voice breathless when he said, “You want to have sex in your mom’s bed?”

I sat up a little bit so I could raise my eyebrows at him. “Who ever said anything about sex? Naughty boy…”

He laughed, and I swallowed up the sound with my lips. For a moment, everything seemed to be going according to plan, but then without warning, he gently pushed me off his lap and moved a little bit away from me, so we were both sitting up on the couch in a more traditional manner. I frowned at the loss of contact.

“You should make up with Corinne,” he said gently, holding up his hand when I opened my mouth to protest. “It’s Christmas. Pretty sure there’s a law against being angry with your family on Christmas.” He cracked a smile, trying to lighten the mood, but I was not having it.

My frown deepened. “Why do I have to make the first move? She’s the one being unreasonable, and she ruined dinner. I spent a lot of time today making it nice for everyone, and then she makes that big scene.”

“You sound like a parent.” Tyler chuckled, tugging me back to his side and tucking me under his arm. I smiled and snuggled up closer to him, resting my head on his chest as his fingers started absently playing with my hair. The stillness of the room and the warm, flickering light from the candles contributed to the romantic atmosphere, and even if it wasn’t exactly what I’d been wanting earlier, it was still nice to just be here with him.

“She’s just worried about you,” he said after a while. “We’re going into an active war zone. It’s not unreasonable for your family not to want you to go.”

“Well, it’s too late to back out now. I signed the papers and everything.” The words came out a little more forcefully than I’d intended, and Tyler’s fingers stilled in my hair, obviously upset.

“You know we’ve talked about this, and that I respect your decision, but can’t you even try to see things from her side? I know the medics won’t be in full combat, but even I still don’t like the thought of you going out there, ripe for the picking by those enemy soldiers.” He shuddered.

“What’s good enough for you is good enough for me.” I lifted my head for a moment to meet his lips in a slow, sweet kiss, then rested my forehead against his when we parted, keeping my eyes closed. “You’re my rock, Ty. I know they all look at us like parents, but I couldn’t do any of this without you. And I just…after what happened with my dad, I can’t lose you, too. I seriously would not survive it.” My throat tightened at the mere thought of losing another one of the people closest to me.

“Hey, hey, I get it.” Fingers under my chin tipped my head up to meet his gaze. “And Corinne will too, eventually. Just give her time. No matter what she says, she’s not going to want to send you off still pissed.” He went back to playing with my hair, and I sighed, falling back against his chest.

“She’s got a lot of you in her, you know,” he said contemplatively. “I think some of this is general growing pains. No one wants to think about how things are going to change, but they have to, it’s a part of life. We’ve been out of high school a year, and if not for the draft, we’d be out getting better paying jobs, working different hours, not being around as much. She and Jamie would have to step up sooner or later.”

I twisted my head to look at him over my shoulder. “Why are you so damn smart?”

“It’s a gift.” He kissed my forehead, then took advantage of my distraction to slip something cool and light around my neck. “Merry Christmas, Kat.”

The pendant settled neatly below the hollow of my collarbones. I pinched it between my fingers and held it up to examine it—a tiny gold tree in a circle, with lots of leaves branching out from the central trunk. “You really didn’t need to do this,” I said, even though I loved the necklace. “You should have spent the money on one of the kids.” With a December birthday, I usually encouraged family and friends not to bother with separate birthday and Christmas presents.

“You’re just as important to me as they are, so it was money well spent.” Another kiss, this time to the top of my head. “Don’t even try to talk me out of it. It’s a done deal.”

I sighed, sensing there was no point in pressing the argument further. “Thank you. It’s beautiful, and I love it.”

“See, now that’s what you should have said the first time.” He smiled, and it made me so happy that I just had to kiss him again.

We were still kissing when I heard the soft click of a door opening behind us. Gently, I squeezed Tyler’s shoulder, silently warning him we weren’t alone. To say we sprang apart would have been inaccurate—Tyler’s mom knew very well what we got up to behind closed doors—but we did separate and turn our heads toward the door.

“Don’t stop on my account,” Diana Vaughn said with a soft chuckle, dropping her bags to the floor. “I’ve got some cinnamon rolls for breakfast tomorrow.”

“Ooh, Emily’s going to love those.” Tyler immediately got up and went to help her with the bags, which probably contained food. “How was work?” he asked, giving her a kiss on the cheek before disappearing into the kitchen.

“Awful.” She brought her hands up to her forehead, thumbs rubbing her temples as if to stave off a headache. “The kind of people who aren’t home with their families on Christmas Eve are the kind of people you normally want to avoid at all costs.”

Diana, who’d never gotten past a high school education, worked in the kitchen at a local diner, occasionally pulling shifts as a waitress. Between what she brought home and Tyler’s discount at the grocery store, they just barely managed to feed five kids.

“There are some leftovers in the fridge, if you’re hungry,” I said as she took a seat in the old, ragged armchair.

“Oh, you’ve got to try Kat’s mac and cheese.” Tyler reappeared and hovered behind the couch, a huge smile on his face. “If you guys made it at the diner, I bet you’d have lines around the block.”

Diana smiled. “Thank you so much for taking care of dinner, sweetheart. I know neither of you girls believe in Santa anymore, but shouldn’t you be getting home to your family?”

“My mom’s working a double shift so she can have dinner with us tomorrow. Guess nurses and waitresses are both in high demand around Christmas.”

She sighed and shook her head. “Well, you’re welcome to stay the night, if you don’t mind joining Tyler on the sofa bed. Although you two may be awakened very early in the morning by a little girl looking to see what Santa gave her.” She chuckled, though there was little mirth in it. The clock on the mantle read well after midnight; I stared at her face, etched with far too many lines for a woman of her age, and wondered how tired she must be.

I stood up and came around the back of the couch to join Tyler. Without even looking at me, he slipped his hand into mine, our fingers intertwining.

“I think we’re going to sleep at my place, if you don’t mind,” I said, looking at Diana but leaning slightly against Tyler. “I promise, we’ll be back over early in the morning to do breakfast and presents, so you can sleep in.”

She gave a dismissive flick of her wrist. “Do whatever you want. You’ve more than earned it.” With a heavy sigh, she continued, tone turned reflective, “Your mom and I talk about it with each other all the time, but it’s true—we wouldn’t be able to keep the roofs over our heads if it weren’t for you two.”

Her words had undoubtedly been meant as a compliment, but instead they felt like the sharp stab of knives in my gut. Is Corinne right? Did I make the wrong choice? Am I a horrible person for leaving them?

Thankfully, Tyler seemed to sense my uneasiness, and squeezed my hand. “We’ll see you in the morning, Mom.”

Just like that, my anxiety vanished. Tyler was great at that—knowing what I needed before I even did.

No matter what was coming next, I knew we would get through it, the way we always had.

Together.

I was standing in front of the mirror fixing the cuffs on my cranberry-red button-down shirt when the mingled scents of sugar, butter, and cinnamon wafted past my nose. Unbidden, I was tugged back into the past—when the house always smelled like baked goods at the holiday season, and there was a familiar woman in the kitchen, making something delicious. I could almost hear her voice in my head now, and my throat grew tight.

“Who wants a Christmas cookie? Come and get them while they’re hot!”

Shaking my head as if to clear away the ghosts of memory, I finished with the last button and headed out to see who was cooking in my kitchen now. A smile tugged at the corner of my lips when I saw a slight female figure in pale pink pajamas standing in front of the sink, humming lightly as she did the dishes.

I leaned against the wall, waiting for her to notice me. “More cookies?”

She jumped at the sound of my voice and whirled around to face me, body contorting in a shudder, and I cursed myself internally for forgetting how easily she startled. “Oh my God,” she breathed out, barely audible, her shoulders shaking as she took several deep breaths.

I walked slowly toward her, hands held up in a defensive position. “I bet you’ve made enough baked goods to feed all of Las Vegas by now,” I added, in what I hoped was a light enough tone to set her nerves at ease.

“Baking relaxes me,” she said after a moment, tucking a piece of dark hair that had escaped its bun back behind her ear.

“Well, no more, okay?” I said, taking a seat at the counter. “If I eat all of this stuff, I won’t fit into my uniform, and then I’ll really get an earful.”

“From whom, Commander?” Helena teased as she leaned over the counter, eyes sparkling with mischief. “Aren’t you your own boss now?”

I scowled. “Don’t remind me,” I muttered under my breath. If only that were true.

Though I hadn’t wanted to serve in the army at first, it had been a relief to discover that my commanding officers weren’t going to give me any special treatment because of my last name. That was a big part of why I couldn’t wait to go back after New Year’s.

Of course, everything was going to be different this time around. Now I would be the one giving the orders. Goodbye, no special treatment—I only hoped I would be able to handle the job.

Thankfully, Helena had pivoted to take something out of the oven and didn’t comment on the change in my mood. I couldn’t hold back my groan when I saw the tray of golden-brown cookies in her hands. “What did you make this time?”

“Snickerdoodles,” she said proudly, batting my hand away when I tried to reach over the counter for one. “Uh-uh-uh! They have to cool first, or they’ll fall apart and you’ll burn your tongue.”

I made a face and she giggled, coming around the other side of the counter to sit next to me. “It won’t kill you to wait,” she said, giving me a quick once-over. “You look nice. Where are you going?”

“Meeting Oliver and Tanya at Arcadia.” I made a face. “I can’t imagine what kind of people go to a nightclub on Christmas.”

“So don’t go,” she said simply. “Stay here with me. I was thinking about making brownies later, too…”

“Didn’t I tell you no more baking?” I swatted her playfully on the shoulder.

“I don’t know why you go to those clubs when it’s always the same story,” she said, crossing one leg over the other. “You come home mopey and a little drunk, complaining about how much you hate it.”

“There’s nothing else to do around here, and my friends like it.” Without thinking, I added, “You could always come with me, you know.”

She went pale, and it only took me two seconds to realize how intensely I’d stepped in it.

Helena had a lot of issues; I’d known this about her from the day I first met her, crying in the bathroom during a physical fitness test for new recruits. After she told me what had happened to her was the only time I could remember wanting to hunt someone down and rip them limb from limb. Since I couldn’t do that, I’d tried to do the next best thing, which was to help her regain her confidence—to realize that she didn’t have to be a hermit for the rest of her life because of a scar on her face.

I’d deliberately made the offer for her to live here without any strings, but she insisted on earning her keep in some way, so she cooked and cleaned for me and generally made sure I didn’t fall apart when I was at home. Sometimes I wondered whether I wasn’t just enabling her to avoid reality, but what was the alternative—not to have helped her at all? No, that was unthinkable.

When I looked up again, the color had returned to her cheeks, and she was peering at me curiously. “What was it like, having Christmas with your family? Before your mom and sister…” As though realizing the invasiveness of the question, her cheeks flushed pink and she ducked her head. “You must miss them, especially around the holidays, but you almost never talk about them.”

“There’s not much to say,” I mumbled under my breath. As close as we’d grown these last couple of years, I still hadn’t felt comfortable talking to Helena about the gaping holes in my family tree. But there was a picture in the living room of the four of us—one of the only pictures of either of them I had left—and I couldn’t really blame her for being curious.

“It’s hard to imagine Alistair celebrating Christmas with little kids,” Helena added with a forced-sounding chuckle. “I mean, we all know he’s not winning any Father of the Year awards, so I feel like the holidays must have been just one big letdown.”

“Actually, he used to be pretty good with that kind of stuff,” I said without thinking. Once again, I found myself powerless against the tidal wave of oncoming memories, but this time, I found myself not really wanting to fight it.

“Any luck finding the bear yet?” My dad came back into the living room with a steaming cup of tea, smiling expectantly down at me.

[“No.” I crossed my arms over my chest and pouted. “Are you sure it’s there? I’ve looked _]everywhere![”_]

Every year since I was old enough to remember, we’d had this tradition involving the Christmas tree and a tiny ceramic bear ornament. One of my parents would hide the bear somewhere on the tree after the kids had gone to sleep on Christmas Eve, and then on Christmas morning, we both had to search for it. Whoever found it got a prize.

Of course, with seven years between us, it wasn’t too much of a competition anymore. Clarissa had given up “searching” after about five minutes, and was now curled up in our dad’s favorite armchair with one of the books she’d gotten as a present.

“It’s there, little man,” my mom insisted from the couch. “You’ve just got to look more closely.” She’d had to lie down shortly after we finished opening presents, though she’d tried to hide how exhausted she was. Lately, it didn’t take much to sap her energy. She’d stopped going out as much, and she slept a lot, too.

I’d heard my parents whispering about it at night when they thought I was asleep—how she was sick, and they weren’t sure if she would get better. But even pale and tired, I thought she was the prettiest woman in the world. From the way my dad looked at her as he handed her the tea, I knew he felt exactly the same.

Clarissa looked up from her book and caught my eye. “Are you sure you’ve looked everywhere?”

“Yes!” I insisted.

“Even under the tree?”

I wrinkled my nose. “Under[_ the tree? What?” But curiosity won out, and I got down on my back and wriggled underneath the lowest-hanging pine needles as far as I could go._]

It was tight and dark under there, with only the occasional shine from a sparkly ornament poking through the nest of needles, and I started to wonder if my sister was playing some kind of joke on me. But then I saw it—the red bow tied around the neck of the brown bear.

I emerged triumphant, probably with pine needles in my hair, but I didn’t care about that. “I found it! I found it!”

“Reynan? Reynan?”

Fingers snapped in front of my face and I blinked rapidly, the sound of my mom’s laughter still echoing in my ears as past and present collided in front of me. I struggled to shake it off, even while my thoughts were bouncing all over the place. Things like [I wonder where that bear ended up, _]and[ did we even put up a Christmas tree this year?_]

I looked down and realized that while I was zoning out, Helena had apparently gotten up to pour us each a glass of milk and make up a plate of the fresh snickerdoodles. In an attempt to avoid talking about my little trip down memory lane, I broke off a piece of a cookie and popped it into my mouth.

It was melt-in-your-mouth good, the perfect balance between chewy and soft, sweet without being overpowering and spicy with cinnamon. “This might be the best thing I’ve ever tasted,” I said with a moan, shoving the entire rest of the cookie into my mouth.

She beamed, weirdness—thankfully—forgiven and forgotten. “Oh, good.” After tasting one for herself, she sighed happily. “Mmm. That is good.”

I washed down my mouthful with a long drink of milk, then held out my glass toward her for a toast. “Merry Christmas, Helena.”

She smiled and clinked glasses with me. “Merry Christmas, Reynan.”

I polished off another cookie and the rest of my milk, then stole a glance at the time. “As much as I would love to stay and keep you company, I’m going to be late. Have a nice night.” I leaned in to give her a quick kiss on the cheek without thinking, then added, “And remember what I said—no more baking!”

Heading to my car, I paused for a moment in the foyer that separated my wing of the house from my father’s. In light of that blast from the past, it seemed wrong not to at least say good night and Merry Christmas, to try to pretend we were a normal family.

I’d only taken a few steps in that direction before I heard voices, low conversational tones that nonetheless echoed off the high ceilings. Though the sound of two voices should have been enough of a tip-off, I was still a bit taken aback when I rounded the corner and saw my father, clad in one of his typical dark suits, with a young girl all but hanging off his arm.

“Ah, Reynan!” he exclaimed when he saw me, making no move to introduce me to his young companion. He’d aged very well, but despite the heavy eye makeup that tried to make the girl look older, she was clearly much closer to my age than my father’s. “Going somewhere?”

“Meeting some friends at Arcadia.” I gave a nod of respect toward the girl, who was wearing a short red dress that left her arms and parts of her waist exposed, gold ribbons braided into her dark hair for what seemed to be a festive look. She was doing an admirable job of hiding her fear, but her eyes betrayed her.

A slight frown crossed his face, but it was gone in an instant. “You’re welcome to join Jasmine and me for a nightcap before you go,” he said, turning to leer at her for a moment. Something about watching the two of them together made me feel faintly sick.

But I knew it wasn’t my place to comment, or to try to save these girls from themselves. All I could do was take comfort in the fact that as morally gray as he could be at times, my father would never actually hurt a woman.

That, and refuse to take part in it.

“No thank you,” I said politely. “I’m already running late.” I turned on my heel and walked quickly away, though not quickly enough to avoid overhearing the low sounds of his laughter as he said something to Jasmine, and her answering high-pitched giggle.

This is why separate wings was such a great idea, I thought to myself, shutting the front door behind me with a little more force than necessary.

Now I couldn’t wait to get to the club—I was going to need copious amounts of alcohol to burn that image out of my head.

“Everybody in the house, make some noise!” The DJ, a skinny Asian kid in red suspenders over a white T-shirt with a Santa hat hanging from his head at an angle, egged on the already raucous crowd: “Are you people ready to party?”

“This is absurd,” I commented, looking out at the dance floor from my balcony seat in the VIP section. “Christmas is supposed to be about family and togetherness, but they’re all just using it as an excuse to party and get wasted.”

“Look who’s talking.” Tanya poked me in the arm, giggling. “Pot, this is kettle. You’re black.”

My cheeks burned. “It’s not the same,” I insisted, even as I failed to come up with reasons why. Instead, I downed the last of my drink, grimacing at the burn from the liquor. When I set the glass down, my movements seemed less coordinated than at the beginning of the night, a signal that I’d finally achieved a sufficient level of intoxication.

“Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas!” As though timed to the DJ’s words, red glitter rained down on the dance floor as the music morphed into a sped-up club remix of “Deck the Halls”. The crowd screamed and cheered. I shook my head, turning back to Tanya.

It was just the two of us now, since Oliver had gone off with a pretty blonde in a fur-trimmed dress about fifteen minutes ago. I didn’t expect to see him back any time soon, and I was starting to wonder when I could get away with leaving.

Maybe I’d sit here a little longer and sober up before trying to drive. That was probably a smart idea.

Tanya put her hand on my arm and I looked up. “You doing all right?” she asked. “I know this isn’t really your thing.”

I shook my head. “You guys wanted to come here, and I’m happy just spend time with you.” Under my breath, I added, “Anything’s better than staying at home.”

“What?” She tilted her head toward me like she hadn’t heard, but there was no way I was repeating that.

A brunette in one of Arcadia’s white waitress dresses teetered up to our table, holding something over our heads. “Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!” she cheered, her voice lilting with clear intoxication. Confused, I looked up to see that she was holding a sprig of mistletoe.

Tanya squirmed when she noticed it, fiddling with her fingers and refusing to look at me. “Oh, I, um…”

I looked at her as though seeing her for the first time all night. She was wearing a dark green dress that was covered in sequins, her reddish hair pulled up to show off her neck. Then, like a magnet, my gaze was drawn to her full lips—lips I hadn’t thought anything of earlier in the night, but suddenly wanted very much to kiss.

“Go on,” the waitress said, like the voice of the devil on my shoulder despite her angelic appearance.

So before I could think better of it, I leaned in, cupping the side of her face with my hand, and kissed her.

She gasped in surprise against my lips, and without much thought, I slid my tongue into her mouth. It was awkward and a little messy, and I mostly tasted alcohol, but it was also warm and wet and unexpectedly comforting.

It would be so easy to take her upstairs, I realized, and lose myself in her completely. She’d had almost as much to drink as I had, so she would be nice and pliable. Though she’d never fawned over me like most of the girls around here tended to, who would pass up the chance to sleep with Alistair Caverly’s son?

That last thought was what sent me crashing down to reality, and I jerked backward, shame immediately setting in.

The waitress was gone—probably off to find another couple to torment with her mistletoe—and I couldn’t look at Tanya. She was my friend, and I’d almost used her like some drunken fame-whore. How was she not running away in horror right now? I felt her hand on my arm, but couldn’t stand to face her.

“I…I’m sorry,” I said, nearly tripping over my own feet as I got up and stumbled away from the table.

I kept walking until I was out of the club entirely, back in the lobby. Compared to the pounding bass in Arcadia, the Cosmopolitan’s lobby seemed almost unnervingly silent and empty. Only a handful of people sat at the tables and the bars, and to me, that seemed even sadder than the people in the club. At least those people weren’t alone on Christmas.

Of course, it was better for me to be alone right now than the alternative.

“Give me a double shot of whiskey, neat. Top shelf,” I demanded, slumping down in a seat at one of the lobby bars. The bartender gave me the side-eye, then sighed and turned to fulfill the request.

When he handed me the glass, I stared into the amber liquid like it held the secrets to world peace. Don’t do it, I told myself, trying to talk myself down off the ledge. But the disgust and self-loathing rose up inside my chest, nearly suffocating me with their weight, until strong liquor seemed the only means left by which to drown them out.

I thought about Christmases past, when my family consisted of four smiling, happy people instead of two bitter, broken ones. Ever since first Mom and then Clarissa left us, things seemed to have gotten progressively worse. Oh, sure, some of this was probably the alcohol talking, but even tomorrow morning, when I woke up with a pounding headache, I would remember it.

“Merry fucking Christmas,” I said to no one in particular, raising my glass in a toast before downing the rest of the whiskey.

Wherever you two are, I wish I could join you.

New to the Compass series? Read on for chapter one of Finding North

“Up, Kat.” Jeremy nudged my shoulder with his knee. “Break’s over. Time to get going again.”

I groaned, rubbing my temples and keeping my eyes trained on the ground. “I’m tired…”

“We have to keep moving. You know that.” He gave me a sympathetic look, holding out his hand to help pull me to my feet.

“Do you have any more water?” I asked as I stood up from the large rock, reaching back to tighten my ponytail. “I drank all of mine.”

He sighed, pulling out a half-full bottle from his backpack. I murmured a soft “Thank you” before twisting off the cap and taking a long swallow.

“Nordby, Zova, stop dawdling!”

Jeremy shot me a glance as we both quickened our pace, dead leaves and sticks crunching under our feet. The trees we marched through were short and sparse, casting unusual shadow patterns in the piercing sunlight. My calves screamed at me for a moment when we started walking again, but slowly the pain in my leg muscles faded into a more manageable, steady ache. I still wasn’t used to all this exercise, and my body was having its revenge.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he said after a while, when we were no longer trailing behind the rest of the group. Jeremy had always looked out for me like an older brother, but in the last few weeks I’d noticed him hovering around me more than usual, like he thought I needed a safety net.

“What else was I going to do? I couldn’t sit around base anymore, where everything reminded me of him…” I tensed, hands curling into fists at my sides. “I had to do something,” I said finally.

“You’re a medic,” Jeremy said patiently. “You don’t have enough physical training. And you’re small—”

I shot him a glare that stopped him cold.

“It’s dangerous out here,” he finished instead. “I’m just worried about you.”

“So it’s okay for all of you to risk your lives, but not me? It was okay for Tyler to risk his life?” When I realized what I’d said, I inhaled sharply, my lungs tightening as though someone had knocked the wind out of me.

After a moment, Jeremy placed a hand on my shoulder. “He loved that you were strong. But he would have wanted you to be safe.”

I turned to look him in the eye, feeling a heaviness in my chest like there was a lead weight sitting on it. “We’re at war, Jer. No one’s safe.”

He shook his head sadly, then turned away and kept walking.

I sighed, uncurling my fists. My nails had left bright red half-moon-shaped grooves in my palms, but I didn’t feel them. I hadn’t felt a thing in almost three weeks, like loss had turned me numb, hollowed me out from the inside.

It was the inescapable reality of being a solider that you would have to see people you cared about die. I’d known what I was getting into, had weathered loss before, but this one was different. This death hurt like I’d lost a part of my soul.

I felt aimless, like someone had cut the strings tethering me to the earth—and was enjoying watching me struggle to find my balance again. Guilt, sorrow, and rage churned inside me in a bitter and potent combination, each emotion fighting for dominance, making me unstable and my moods unpredictable.

That was why I was here, sweating and aching under the relentless sun and putting up with Jeremy’s patronizing comments. The longer I sat around doing nothing, the worse I felt, so when I heard Commander Matthews was looking for a medic for his recon mission, I was the first to volunteer. I’d hoped that the danger and physical exertion would help get my mind off Tyler.

Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be working.

My thoughts slipped to my family. There was at least a two-hour time difference from here to Ohio, so Corinne was probably finishing her homework, or maybe starting dinner. She would have likely gone to the market on her way home, since we tried not to use our refrigerator during the week to save money on the electric bill. Both our moms were probably working late again, so she’d invite Tyler’s siblings over when it was time to eat.

I could almost picture it now, all of them huddled around the little table in the fading summer sunlight, smiles on their faces as they laughed and joked with each other. Zova and Vaughn families blended, like it had been seemingly since the beginning of time.

I wondered if they knew yet.

Probably not. News takes time to travel from the front. They might not find out for weeks yet. Weeks where he’ll be rotting in the cold, hard ground…

Tears pricked at the corners of my eyes, blurring my vision, and I harshly wiped them away, refusing to let anyone see me cry.

If I couldn’t sweat out my feelings, I would have to exorcise them in some other way.

The blade sliced through the air with a sound like the snap of a whip, embedding itself in the tree trunk with a sharp thwack.

“Hey, Evan,” I said, pulling the knife out of the tree and walking it back over to where he sat a good six feet away.

Celery-green eyes looked up at me in curiosity. “You need something, Kitty-Kat?”

I rolled my eyes. Evan Wilder was a goofball and a flirt, but he was a good guy through and through. I’d worried it would be awkward, being the only one without a Y chromosome in my unit, but my fears quickly evaporated once I got to know the guys. Now they were as much like family as my mother and sister.

“Actually yeah, I do.” I could feel Jeremy’s eyes on me across the clearing and studiously ignored him. “Can you teach me how to use that?”

The playful smile slid off of Evan’s face. “What do you want to be throwing knives for?” he asked, his expression guarded.

He tried to hide it, but I saw the way he looked at me—like I was a piece of fragile glass he worried might break. The same look all the guys had been giving me since Tyler’s death. I was so goddamn sick of it.

My hands began to tremble with the pent-up emotion, and I squeezed them into fists to hide it, keeping my voice light. “For self-defense. If I’m going to be out here, I want to be prepared.”

“But you have a weapon, don’t you?” He nodded to the handgun tucked into the holster of my belt. “I thought every medic learns basic weapons and self-defense. Besides, you’ve got all of us to protect you, Kitty-Kat.”

I huffed out a breath, feeling the uneasiness start to build in my blood. I needed some kind of release for these feelings—the anger and sorrow and guilt—before they ripped me apart.

I couldn’t fall to pieces in front of the guys. I just couldn’t.

“Please, Evan,” I pleaded, lowering my voice. “Show me what to do?”

Evan sighed. “Fine. I must be crazy for agreeing to this, but all right.”

I exhaled, my shoulders slumping with visible relief.

He got to his feet and steered me away from the others. Before he handed me the slim silver blade, he showed me how to carefully position my fingers in the right way around the handle. They were sweaty with anxiety, and I felt my grip slip slightly.

Evan noticed and called me out on it. “Not like that, or you’ll nick yourself when you let go. Like this.” His hand covered mine and moved them back in the right place. “Better. Okay. You did target shooting in basic, right?”

I nodded.

“Same idea. Fix your mind on the target, aim, and fire. You’ll want to take a step back to counterbalance the release. And keep your wrist absolutely stiff. Otherwise when you let go, you’ll be in a hell of a lot of pain.”

“Why do I get the feeling you’re giving me the briefest crash course ever?” I asked, preparing myself as best I could with the information he’d given me. The rest of the world seemed to fall away as I readied myself to throw the knife, the intensity of my focus blocking out everything but the sound of Evan’s voice.

“Because I really don’t think you’re in the right state of mind to be doing this.”

I glared at him, while secretly wondering if he was right.

“But you seem so determined to try it, so go on. Try and hit that.” He pointed to a tree some five feet away, the only one in the clearing with a somewhat fat trunk.

I rolled my eyes then snapped my wrist back and released the knife with barely a second’s pause, imagining the tree trunk was Alistair Caverly’s head. It flew through the air and bounced against the trunk before falling to the ground.

“You need more power if you want it to stick. But not bad. Try again.”

“I’ll show you more power,” I grumbled under my breath, heading over to pick up the knife. Evan’s chuckle died off abruptly, and the skin on the back of my neck started to prickle with a sense of uneasiness.

Behind me came the unmistakable click of a gun being cocked.

I froze.

“Drop the knife, little girl, and keep your hands where I can see them.” The voice was low, rough, and brooked no opposition.

Fuck…

I did as I was told, my heart hammering against my chest. Slowly, bringing my hands up to my head, I turned around to stare down the barrel of a gun. Not a little one like the one at my waist. This was a full-on machine gun, the kind that was bigger than my arm and could probably kill us all with one round.

Not good…

“Turn around and walk. And don’t even think of trying anything funny,” the man with the gun ordered. He was dressed in all black with a hood pulled over his head, like some kind of twisted Grim Reaper.

This was the first time I’d ever seen the enemy soldiers, but I still recognized them. It was impossible not to.

I tasted something sour in the back of my throat, vaguely recognizing it as fear. Jeremy was right—I shouldn’t have been on this mission.

I wasn’t ready to die.

The gunman led Evan and me back to the clearing where the others were gathered. More of the black-dressed men surrounded them, all holding weapons of the same caliber and technology. One man whose muscles nearly bulged out of his uniform stood in the center, presiding over a pile of our weapons.

“Oh look, a pair of lovebirds,” he remarked. “Thought you could sneak off for a little lover’s tryst and get away, did you?”

The man laughed cruelly. He seemed to be the enemy’s commander, though he wore the same black gear as the rest of them with no ornamentations. Another rifle was slung across his back in addition to the one he held in his hand.

He fixed his eyes on me in a way that made my skin crawl. “She’s a pretty little thing. Makes up for the rest of you. I wouldn’t mind taking her for a ride myself.”

“You take that back,” Evan growled. He lunged forward.

Bang!

A gunshot echoed through the dead woods and Evan fell face-first to the ground, blood dripping from a hole in the back of his head.

I let out a gasp without thinking, my eyes nearly bulging out of my head as I clasped a hand over my mouth. Every cell in my body was screaming at me to run, but I knew if I took so much as one step out of line, I would end up just like Evan.

Oh God, Evan…

Tears sprung to my eyes. One minute he was joking around, teaching me how to throw knives, and now he was dead.

This is war. People die. It happens. Pull yourself together.

“Anyone else care to join him?” There was a sinister smile on the man’s face as he cocked his gun, waving it through the air.

“Now, now, no need to get trigger-happy.”

Another man dressed in black pushed his way to the front. He was the only one of them not wearing a hood, but his hair was jet-black and his face turned away from me. Though he looked and sounded younger than the man I’d thought led the group, the enemy soldiers seemed to defer to him.

“What did I say earlier? No killing unless it’s in self defense.” His voice was calm yet firm as he addressed his men—and I was now sure that was what they were—turning to look at each of them in turn. “We won’t know until we’ve talked to them whether these soldiers will be useful to us.”

“I could find a use for the girl in my tent.”

I couldn’t tell which one of them said that, but the laughter and jeering catcalls that followed came from them all. Revulsion crashed over me with an intensity that made me want to vomit.

“Enough!”

If I’d had any doubts about his ability to command a group of soldiers, they were erased when I saw how quickly the laughter died off. His was a different kind of authority than that of the man who’d smiled while Evan died, but no less compelling.

He scrutinized our group, his cool stare seeming to assess us for all our worth. It wasn’t the same way the others looked at us, though, like they were itching to use us as target practice. His gaze seemed more…humane.

Finally, he turned in my direction, giving me a good look at his face—sharp and angular, and definitely younger than the rest of the enemy men. I felt a jolt like an electric shock sizzle up my spine as his blue eyes looked me over, flickering briefly with something unreadable.

“Take them back to the safe house and put them in the basement for interrogation,” he said, turning back to give the order to his men.

“Whatever you say, Commander Caverly.”

My eyes widened. Every member of the Restoration Alliance’s army knew that name.

Alistair Caverly, the man who started a civil war when the population could barely support a single army.

But he looks so young… How can that be him?

“Except for the girl.”

My heart stopped as he pointed his gun toward me. A million horrible things ran through my mind, bringing back the urge to vomit more strongly than before.

“Take her to my room.”

Finding North is available now


Last Christmas

Last Christmas, I gave you my heart… In three weeks, Katherine Zova and her boyfriend Tyler will be going off to fight in the civil war dividing the United States, but for now, they plan to make the most of their time with their family, and each other. Two thousand miles and a world away, Reynan Caverly struggles to get into the holiday spirit, drowning in regrets and enough alcohol to keep the ghosts of memory at bay. This seasonal short story serves as a prequel to Finding North, appropriate for newcomers and fans alike curious about what Christmas looks like in a post-apocalyptic future, or to celebrate the holidays with your favorite characters from the Compass series.

  • ISBN: 9781310739989
  • Author: Allyson Gottlieb
  • Published: 2015-11-26 16:40:09
  • Words: 9788
Last Christmas Last Christmas