I stood in front of my bed, staring at the clothes I’d pulled from my closet. “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” played from my phone, which I’d propped up on my dresser. I hummed with the tune as I started folding my shirts.
“Hey, Ava. How’s it going in here?” Mom poked her head through my open doorway.
I turned and shot her a smile. “Great. Just packing up.”
Mom glanced down at her watch and then back up to me. “Good. We need to leave in twenty minutes. It’s a four-hour drive to the cabin, and we want to beat the Stephensons there.” A determined expression passed over Mom’s face. “If we are going to win that vacation, we need to start this competition on the right foot.”
I rolled my eyes. The local radio station in Little Foot, Colorado, had decided to run a Christmas contest. Show them your best Christmas spirit, and you could win a trip to the Bahamas.
Mom and Dad decided to take that challenge a step further and include the Stephensons, their best friends/rivals. At least, I think they’re best friends. Some get-togethers I couldn’t really tell. Everything was a competition when our families were together.
Thanksgiving football? We had to win.
The annual Easter egg hunt? We had to find the most eggs.
It was truly ridiculous how much Mom and Dad cared about beating the family they claimed were their bosom buddies.
It was one of the things I hated most about going on vacation.
“Okay, Mom,” I said, moving my arms in slow motion, knowing it would send her anxiety into overdrive.
“Ava,” Mom said with a warning tone.
I sighed, noting the glare she was shooting in my direction. I know she’s my mom and is supposed to love me, but I may have been the reason they’d lost a few of their competitions. I was on the don’t ruin anything train right now. I was literally just along for the ride.
Not wanting to be completely useless to my family, I gave her a smile and said, “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ve got this.” I picked up my pace as I folded and shoved my jeans into my suitcase.
She nodded towards me and the sound of roughhousing could be heard from my ten-year-old twin brothers’ room. Even though trying to control my brothers was like trying to trap wind in a jar, I think my parents preferred them over me. They excelled in speed and agility. Both of which I sucked at.
Mom’s forehead furrowed, and she disappeared for a moment—followed by some yelling—before she popped her head back into my room. “Hey, forgot to tell you, but Jacob is back. He’ll be at the cabin.” She sucked in her breath as she studied me. “I hope you’re still okay joining the Stephenson team. We can’t ask Andrew to go over.”
Despite the fact that my parents were going to offer me over to the Stephenson clan—because after all, offering your worst player was a good tactical move—I really didn’t care. Not when my whole body was suddenly numb. Jacob was back? When? Did Andrew know?
My brother and his ex-best friend hadn’t spoken since The Incident. I glanced toward the hallway. Toward Andrew’s room. A rush of emotions flooded my system.
I forced a relaxed smile, even though my stomach felt tied into knots. “What?” I asked, wincing at the shrill pitch of my voice.
Thankfully, Mom was too busy glancing down the hallway as the ruckus grew louder. “I just wanted to warn you before we got there”—she leaned back out into the hall—“Aiden and Alex, knock it off!”
“Thanks for the warning, Mom.”
Mom glanced back at me. “Yeah. At least with the quality of eighteen-year-old boys, we’ve got the Stephensons beat.” Then she hesitated, and I waited for her to say that that was a little mean. Instead she said, “Just make sure you keep your distance. Remember what he did and how that could have ruined chances for Andrew. Boys like Jacob never change.”
I stared at her, a bit shocked that she would talk about Jacob like that. Sure, he wasn’t perfect. And robbing a gas station had definitely been a terrible decision on his part, but that was kind of rude.
I wanted to say something in Jacob’s defense, but Mom wasn’t listening anymore. She ducked out of my room, and moments later, I could hear her yelling at my brothers to clean up their room and to stop giving her grey hair.
I turned my attention back to my suitcase as I stared at my clothes. Her words rolled around in my mind. I was seeing Jacob today. Suddenly, my very well-loved and very worn sweatshirts looked horrible. There was no way Jacob could see me in these.
I closed my eyes for a moment as I let the memory of his face float through my mind. His dark hair and equally dark eyes stared back at me. He had been the resident bad boy at school. Always acting like he didn’t care, but I knew better.
“Hey, so did Mom tell you?” My older brother Andrew asked. Heat flushed my cheeks as I opened my eyes and glanced over at him.
“That Jacob’s coming?” I shrugged as I returned to packing. I didn’t want him to even remotely suspect that I was daydreaming about the friend that had deserted him.
Andrew nodded as he came over to my bed and flopped down. I could see the worry floating in his gaze. I felt bad for my brother. After Jacob and his no-good friends robbed a gas station last summer, his parents had packed him up and shipped him to Florida to spend the first semester there.
It had really affected Andrew to lose his best friend like that. And I didn’t blame him. Andrew had been at the scene of the crime. Jacob had dragged him into the gas station even though he’d known what his friends were planning on doing.
I don’t think Andrew ever forgave him. Even at Jacob’s hearing, Andrew had remained quiet. His kept his gaze down with concern etched in his expression. I’d never seen my brother so conflicted before.
I smiled at Andrew, hoping to bolster his spirits. “It’s okay. Besides, Mom said there’ll be lots of games for us to play so you can slaughter Jacob in all of them.”
Andrew glanced over at me, his blue eyes had turned stony. He pushed his blond hair from his face. I was eleven months younger than him, but we looked like twins.
He hesitated, but then he chuckled. “Yeah, you’re right.” He reached out and threw a ball of my socks into the air, catching them with one hand. “I knew I could always depend on you, Ava.”
I shrugged as I grabbed the sock ball as it fell to the floor. After I tucked it back into my suitcase, I waved toward my door. “That’s what sisters are for. Now, go. Pack. Mom’s on the hunt.” I eyed him.
He sighed and stood, wandering out of my room. “Geez, such a slave driver,” he said as he disappeared down the hall.
I let out my breath as I zipped up my suitcase and wheeled it over to the door. Andrew’s sentence rolled around in my mind.
I knew I could always depend on you.
Ugh. The guilt rose up in my chest.
If Andrew knew that I had a deep, irreversible crush on Jacob, he would never forgive me. What started as an innocent interest two years ago had now grown into this obnoxious obsession. I’d tried to stop liking him after everything that had gone down last summer. But my heart just wouldn’t let go of Jacob’s intoxicating half-smile and misunderstood demeanor.
And from the way my heart was pounding and my stomach was churning, our time apart hadn’t changed anything.
Desperate for a distraction, I walked into my bathroom and grabbed my makeup, hairdryer, and the rest of my toiletries.
After they were secured in my backpack, I grabbed the handle of my suitcase and made my way to the top of the stairs.
Aiden came running out of his room, yelling as he lifted his hands to catch the football that came whizzing from the same direction. I shook my head as he glanced over at me.
“Mom’s going to kill you,” I said as I started down the stairs.
If Aiden heard me, it didn’t stop him. He never cared. Instead, he threw the ball back to Alex and disappeared back into their room.
Once I was in the kitchen, I grabbed an apple from the nearby bowl and slipped onto a bar stool. I was ready to go, even if the rest of my family wasn’t. Besides, I needed to some time to figure out how I was going to get rid of the butterflies that were dive-bombing my stomach.
I was going to see Jacob tonight, and I was in no way ready for that.
* * *
“We’re here!” Dad called out in a singsong voice.
I glanced up from my book to see that Dad had pulled into the snow-cleared driveway and had turned off the car.
“Yes! We’re first,” Mom called out, high-fiving Dad.
I rolled my eyes. They were such dorks.
“I’ve gotta pee,” Alex said, pushing on my seat for me to move.
I bit my tongue as choice words rushed through my mind. “Hang on,” I said as I unbuckled my seatbelt and opened the side door.
In two seconds flat, Alex was out and peeing into the white snow next to the car.
“Alex! That’s gross. Mom,” I said, turning to stare at her.
She was too preoccupied with texting JoAnne, Jacob’s mom, to punish Alex. “It’s fine, honey. Besides, we haven’t unlocked the cabin door yet. What else is he going to do?”
I stared at her. Wow. This whole competition between us and the Stephensons was getting a little absurd. Mom was now overlooking misdemeanors in favor of winning.
“Ha!” she exclaimed as Dad pulled out our luggage and set it on the ground. “They’re still twenty minutes out.”
Dad laughed in a triumphant manner. “Tell them that we won and they owe us pizza as a reward.”
“Ooo, good idea,” Mom said as she began typing on her phone.
“Are you two serious?” I asked as I grabbed my luggage.
Dad glanced over at me. “What?”
“Your son is literally peeing his name into the snow, and all you care about is winning.” I waved toward Aiden who’d now joined Alex by the side of the car.
Dad glanced over and shrugged. “Your mom said it was fine, so it’s fine with me.”
I stared at him as I shouldered my backpack. What was happening to my parents? I shook my head. “I’m going inside.”
Dad handed the keys to me as I walked past him. Once inside, I turned on the lights.
It was a fully furnished cabin. My parents had paid for the deluxe package, which included all of the Christmas trimmings. I glanced at the ten-foot decorated tree that sat next to the fireplace. The ornaments glittered and the tinsel shimmered in the setting sun. Garland was wrapped around the banister that ran up to the second floor. Mistletoe hung over the opening to the kitchen.
“Wow, this is amazing,” Mom said as she stepped in behind me.
I glanced over at her. Ever since Dad got the promotion over Dirk Stephenson, they had no problem flashing money around. They had insisted that they pay for the cabin when they asked the Stephensons to join us this year.
When they first planned the trip, spending Christmas vacation with them seemed like a good idea. I mean, the Stephensons were nice. Besides Jacob, they had a daughter, Tracy, who was two years younger than me, and a seven-year-old adopted son, Max. Alex and Aiden loved Max, and they were always terrorizing me and Tracy. Things were simple if Jacob wasn’t involved. But now that he was coming, I wasn’t sure I liked any of this.
“You did a good job, Mom,” I said as I moved toward the stairs. “I’m guessing Tracy and I are sharing a room?”
Mom nodded. “Yep. Should be the last door down the hall.”
I nodded as I climbed the stairs, my suitcase banging on each step. I found the smallest room and walked inside. There was a single bunkbed, which was pushed up against the wall. I grabbed my luggage and began to unpack my clothes, slipping them into the rustic dresser.
We were staying here for the next five days, so I might as well get comfortable. After setting out my stuff on half of the dresser, I grabbed my pillow and shook out the blanket on the bottom bed. Tracy would probably appreciate the top bunk, plus, I was getting a bit too old to be climbing up and down the ladder to get into bed.
“They’re here!” Mom called out, her voice carrying through the open bedroom door.
My heart picked up speed as I went to the window and glanced down. The Stephensons were out of their van and walking up the driveway. I tried to keep my gaze from falling on Jacob, but it was like I was a homing pigeon. I couldn’t help but stare at him.
His hair was longer now. He pushed his hands through it as he listened to something his mom was saying. He nodded, and I couldn’t help but notice how tan he’d gotten in the six months he’d been gone.
He glanced up to my window, and heat rushed through my body as I collapsed to the floor, praying he hadn’t seen me.
I took a few deep breaths, hoping to still the embarrassment that had my head swimming. What the heck was I doing? What was wrong with me?
I needed to stop liking Jacob. Besides, what was I going to tell Andrew? He was my brother and my best friend. I needed to be loyal to him no matter how much my stomach lightened at the thought of seeing Jacob again.
“Ava! Andrew! Come down and says hi to the Stephensons. They graciously brought us dinner,” Mom called.
I sighed. This was going to be a long vacation. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could pretend to care who won their ridiculous holiday competition. And spending every minute of every day around Jacob was the last thing I needed to help me keep my resolve to stop liking him.
What a holly, jolly Christmas for me.